At the time, Tommy Zurhellen didn’t know that a 2,900-mile walk across the country would lay the seeds for his first political campaign.
It was 2019 when the man who now seeks to become the first Democratic Dutchess County executive in 32 years walked from Portland, Oregon to Poughkeepsie, seeking to shine a spotlight on, and raise money for, veterans issues ranging from homelessness to suicide.
“I became really frustrated because there were so many veterans who needed help, and we just didn’t have the resources and nobody else seemed to want to help,” Zurhellen said in an interview with The Daily Catch last week. “So, I did something really drastic, and I walked across the country.”
The 53-year-old U.S. Navy veteran planned no overnight accommodations for this ambitious sojourn, which drew national media attention and raised $70,000 for the Vet2Vet program run by Mental Health America of Dutchess County and Hudson River Housing.
After returning home from his adventure, Zurhellen founded VetZero, a nonprofit dedicated both to helping raise awareness of the issues veterans face when they return from war and to securing housing and transportation for them. The 131-day journey also served as the inspiration for his memoir, The Low Road: Walking the Walk for Veterans (Epigraph Books, 2021).
Now, Zurhellen, a Poughkeepsie resident and associate professor of English at Marist College, is running as the Democratic candidate for Dutchess County Executive. On Nov. 7, he will face off against Republican Sue Serino, a longtime state senator for the 41st district who lost her reelection bid to Michelle Hinchey (D-41) last November.
The two are vying to fill the seat vacated by Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-19), who led Dutchess County for 12 years before winning election to Congress last November. Former Deputy County Executive William F.X. O’Neil, also a Republican, is serving out the balance of Molinaro’s term but will not seek election to a full term in office. Molinaro has endorsed Serino in the race for his successor.
While both are expected to make veteran’s issues core to their campaigns, Zurhellen plans to draw a contrast with Serino, a longtime politician, by campaigning in part on his biography as a political newcomer and a decorated Navy veteran. Over the course of six years in the early 1990s, Zurhellen served two deployments in the Persian Gulf as a nuclear electrician. He is single.
“I think we are going to pull some people in who just want a change,” he said. “It’s been 31 years since we have had a Democrat as executive, and we have never had a veteran.”
Zurhellen, who has never run for office, will not face a Democratic primary. He was nominated at the Dutchess County Democratic Committee’s convention on Feb. 23. The campaign’s first kickoff event is set for April 8 in Poughkeepsie.
Zurhellen said he feels the same sense of urgency and frustration that pushed him to walk the country four years ago. “That walk was born out of frustration,” he said. “After I got back –and I’ve been working so hard not just for veterans but for our homeless – I have regained that sense of frustration, and I know a lot of other people have, too.”
Focus on Housing Issues
Zurhellen has made tackling the local affordable housing crisis the central pillar of his nascent campaign.
Dutchess County continues to face an acute housing crunch impacting homeowners and renters alike, from Red Hook and Rhinebeck to Poughkeepsie. The depth of the problem was laid bare in the 2022 Dutchess County Housing Needs Assessment, a 60-page report that highlights a record housing shortage across the country. The report found that the biggest issue facing prospective homebuyers and renters is that there simply are not enough homes for residents across the county (read our coverage).
“This is my number one priority, not just for veterans but also for seniors and those on a fixed income who are being evicted,” Zurhellen said.
If elected, he said he plans to implement a county-wide housing voucher program to help seniors struggling to pay rent to remain in their homes. The program would be a supplement to an existing federal housing voucher system operated under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which requires participants to pay 30 percent of their gross annual income towards rent, the benchmark HUD uses to define housing as “affordable.” The vouchers cover the remaining rent cost, up to a limit based on HUD’s fair market rent estimates for the area where the voucher holder lives, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
For example, if a voucher holder earned $30,000 a year and lived in an apartment that cost $24,000 per year, he would be asked to foot $9,000 – 30 percent of $30,000 – of the rent expense. The voucher would cover the $15,000 balance.
The problem, Zurhellen said, is that many of the homes for rent in Dutchess County ask a price above HUD’s fair market rent, meaning federal housing vouchers won’t cover the difference.
“My plan is to create a supplemental county voucher system to help us get there,” he said. The proposal, he maintained, would not increase the annual county budget and would rely in part on money drawn from the new Dutchess County Housing Trust Fund, which was created in 2022 and contains roughly $12 million, according to the county website.
Zurhellen also wants the county to encourage the construction of more affordable housing units through tax breaks and zoning amendments. In particular, he said, local municipalities need to build more workforce housing, housing designed for residents who may not be eligible for affordable housing programs but whose work is essential to a community and for which nearby housing is often essential. “If we are going to bring new jobs to the county, we will need workforce housing,” Zurhellen said.
But other obstacles to building more housing remain. In some towns where workforce housing developments have been proposed, they’ve been met with pushback from local residents. For example, in the town of Rhinebeck, a proposal to build an 80-unit workforce housing development has sparked a heated town-wide debate over the past six months (read our coverage).
Other times, said Zurhellen, antiquated zoning laws in small municipalities across the county prevent workforce housing projects from getting off the ground. “The reason why we aren’t putting up affordable housing is because these old zoning laws won’t allow us to do so in places in Poughkeepsie, Beacon and Dover,” he said. He wants the county to offer tax incentives to municipalities who make what he called “modest” adjustments to their zoning code to allow for new affordable and workforce housing construction. He added, “We aren’t asking communities to take on too much.”
Zurhellen said he’s encouraged by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s ambitious proposal to build 800,000 new homes across the state over the next decade. Hochul’s program would offer municipalities tax incentives to amend their zoning codes to allow for the construction of mixed and affordable housing units, including in repurposed strip malls and office parks. “We can do this at the county level, too,” said Zurhellen.
On the issue of housing, Zurhellen offered a gentle critique of Molinaro’s stewardship. “I like Marc,” he said, “But I don’t think Marc had to deal with the housing crisis full-on.” In particular, he faulted Molinaro and the Republican-majority county legislature for siting a $3-million homeless shelter at 276 Oakley St. in the heart of Poughkeepsie’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
“I think the current leadership fumbled on our county homeless shelter,” he said. “I would have listened to the people saying that this site wasn’t viable.” In early March, Republicans scrapped the proposal, citing pushback from residents and a lawsuit against the project.
As for Red Hook and Rhinebeck, rural parts of Northern Dutchess sometimes get overlooked by county leaders in favor of Poughkeepsie, said Zurhellen. “I want to make the northern part of the county feel more included,” he said.
That starts with transportation. Zurhellen contends the county’s passenger bus system, which operates just one route through Red Hook and Rhinebeck south to Poughkeepsie, is failing to meet the needs of rural travelers. “This bus system needs to work for everyone because our northern neighbors never seem to benefit from county transportation,” he said, referring to complaints he has heard from residents.
Zurhellen also hopes to create more jobs in Northern Dutchess. “After people graduate high school, what’s keeping them here? Nothing right now,” he lamented. A 2023 study from United Van Lines ranked the state third in the nation in the category of most people who have migrated away. He hopes the county can create more tech jobs as well as jobs at family farms, which increasingly rely on young staff to operate their growing Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs (read our coverage).
Food insecurity and increasing county services for veterans, including affordable housing, will also be key tenets of his platform.
The Dutchess County executive is granted broad administrative powers. Not only does the executive appoint nearly all administrative department heads, including those in Dutchess’s finance, law, public works, and social services departments, but the executive also writes the county’s annual budget, thereby setting county taxes.
The executive holds veto power over proposed legislation in the county legislature, where Republicans currently hold a 17-to-8 majority. A veto by the executive can be overruled by a two-thirds majority vote in the legislature, which must also vote to approve the executive’s administrative nominees and adopt the annual budget.
In 2023, the Dutchess County Executive will earn $157,424.
Campaign and TikTok
Zurhellen knows his campaign faces a steep climb.
On paper, Dutchess County might look to be fertile terrain for a Democratic candidate. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 23,000 voters, out of just over 216,000 total registered voters, according to the New York State Board of Elections. But the 60,484 voters who are not registered with either major party have historically favored Republicans. And, since the office of Dutchess County Executive was established by charter in 1967, the county has only once been led by a Democrat, when Lucille Pattison held that position from 1979 to 1991, according to the county’s historical archives.
In Sue Serino, Zurhellen said he faces a formidable opponent. The 61-year-old realtor and former state senator from Hyde Park was first elected to the New York State Senate in 2015 by ousting incumbent Democrat Terry Gibson to represent the 41st district, and then beat back two challenges from Karen Smythe, the current mayor of Red Hook.
Zurhellen and Serino have also worked together in the past on veterans issues, which Serino made the focus of her years in the State Legislature. Calling her a personal friend, Zurhellen acknowledged, “We definitely have a big challenge ahead.”
The race, still in its infancy, has flown largely under the radar. In off-the-record conversations, several political experts and observers told The Daily Catch they were not following the race closely yet. Others said that Serino likely enjoys a slight advantage in the race, largely thanks to higher name recognition among county voters. She has also swiftly consolidated support among local Republican leadership, from Molinaro to the Republican chairman of the Dutchess County Legislature, Gregg Pulver (R-Pine Plains). In January, Pulver, who scrapped his own plans to run for county executive after Serino announced her campaign, told The Daily Catch that Serino would be “an outstanding candidate.”
Meanwhile, local Democratic leaders in Red Hook and Rhinebeck hailed Zurhellen’s entrance into the race. “Tommy brings a fresh face and look to this position… he relates to people,” Rhinebeck Village Mayor Gary Bassett, a Democrat, told The Daily Catch this week. Bassett said he intends to campaign for Zurhellen this fall.
Sarah Imboden, chair of the Red Hook Democratic Committee, which endorsed Zurhellen in March, concurred. She said members of the 16-member committee, which includes Red Hook Town Supervisor Robert McKeon, are “excited to campaign on his (Zurhellen’s) behalf and energize Dutchess County voters for the entire Democratic slate, come November.” McKeon did not return a request for comment on whether he plans to campaign for Zurhellen.
In addition to his stint in the Navy, the other experience informing his campaign, Zurhellen said, is his nearly two decades as a college administrator and professor at Marist. “That has given me a sense of leadership,” he said. “As a teacher, that’s the first thing you learn: to listen.” Zurhellen, who holds both an MA in English and an MFA in fiction writing, is the author of the award-winning Messiah Trilogy of novels that reimagine the life of Jesus in modern-day North Dakota (2011), the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin (2012), and Armageddon, Texas (2014), all from Atticus Books.
The campaign is staffing up quickly. Already, Zurhellen has hired a campaign manager, digital manager, a volunteer coordinator, and a finance manager, nearly the number of staff utilized on congressional campaigns. (Because the campaigns are in such an early stage, information on fundraising to date is not yet publicly available).
Several prominent local and state organizations, including Planned Parenthood, the Working Families Party, and the Latino Democrats of Dutchess County have endorsed Zurhellen in the race.
His campaign aims to aggressively persuade and turn out young voters, with plans for Zurhellen to visit local college campuses in the summer and fall. “Young voters respond to different forms of media, so campaign signs and flyers won’t work,” he said. As part of its youth outreach, Zurhellen’s team is preparing what he calls a “robust” social media strategy to reach first-time voters, including plans to produce a series of campaign TikTok videos. “We are working on a social media strategy that, frankly, our opponent probably won’t have,” said Zurhellen. “People think we have a chance to win,” he added. “So we have to hit the ground running.”