“It isn’t sufficient just to want; you’ve got to ask yourself what you are going to do to get it.” These words, from Franklin D. Roosevelt, could well be the mantra for Red Hook’s own Karen Smythe, the Democratic candidate who is vying for the State Senate seat once held by FDR himself.
What’s Smythe doing to get it? She’s making a second run for the 41st district spot, after failing at her first attempt two years ago, when she lost by a mere 688 votes of the 102,934 cast. Her opponent, conservative Republican Sue Serino, has for six years held the seat that comprises most of Dutchess County and parts of Putnam.
Smythe says she never planned to run for office. But the 2014 Hobby Lobby case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of for-profit companies with religious objections to deny their employees health coverage for contraception, lit what Smyth calls the pilot light of her political oven.
“I thought, ‘Why in 2014 are we talking about contraception?’ ” Smythe told me. “I really became concerned that women’s rights were going backwards. With Trump’s election, that re-upped my concern. I decided to channel my anger and frustration into something useful, where I could make a difference.”
The timing also seemed right. “Maybe I wasn’t ready before that,” she adds. “Running for office is not for the faint of heart. I simply never saw myself as a politician.” But she notes, “The more I’m digging in and becoming knowledgeable, the more I see the capacity to make a significant difference in this region that I have come to love so much.”
The mother of a son, 27, and daughter, 24, the Vassar-educated Smythe is now retired from business, as is her husband, Neville, who was most recently the interim chief executive of the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley, which helps wealthy individuals locate philanthropic opportunities. But for five years until 2012, Smythe was a respected female CEO in what would once have been called a man’s world, running C.B. Strain & Son of Poughkeepsie, the mechanical contracting company started in the 1940s by her grandfather and great-grandfather. The job, she says, grounded her in the importance of ensuring her employees earned a living wage, had affordable health care, and benefitted from a collaborative team environment.
While occupied with the demands of her role, no opportunity for consensus or coalition-building escaped her attention, and she forged tight bonds with the unionized employees on whom her business relied. Indeed, among the first endorsements she received in 2018 were two from unions with which she closely worked at Strain, Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 21 and Sheet Metal Workers Local 38. This year, some 13 union organizations have endorsed her.
THIS YEAR v. 2018
Some important procedural factors in this year’s contest play to Smythe’s advantage in her effort to earn one of New York’s 63 State Senate seats. Nine days of early in-person voting will be available this year; there was no such option in 2018. Absentee ballots also are available for the first time without a medical excuse or explanation.
Smythe’s chances in 2018 also were adversely affected by the gubernatorial race, when Republican Marc Molinaro, the popular and powerful county executive of Dutchess County, ran against incumbent Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Molinaro was a well-known name in Dutchess politics, and Republican voters, Smythe acknowledges, weren’t likely to cross over to the Democratic column to support a candidate whose name was not yet familiar.
This year’s election also has an especially galvanizing force: the anti-Trump sentiment that polls predict will draw record opposition turnout. Smythe makes no bones of her hope to ride Biden’s coattails in a district of roughly 325,000 citizens that has more registered Democratic voters (36.9 percent) than Republicans (28.0 percent). There are, however, 26.6 percent who declare no party preference, and they may be the voters who decide Smythe’s race.
This is also a district that Hillary Clinton won by 1 percent in 2016. “If Biden does better than that, that will certainly help the voting for my race,” Smythe notes. New York’s 41st Senate district comprises all of Dutchess County, with the exception of the towns of Pawling and Beekman, as well as the Putnam County towns of Kent, Philipstown and Putnam Valley.
But while Smythe hopes that Biden’s popularity helps down-ballot races, she is not relying on others to carry her across the finish line. She has a strong message herself and believes the citizens of her Hudson Valley district deserve a choice that better reflects their values and priorities. She is convinced that her strong support for working people, for access to affordable healthcare, for women’s reproductive rights, for responsible gun control, and for economic development will resonate with voters. The two-year position pays an annual salary of $110,000 and has no term limits.
Among Smythe’s positions:
REPRODUCTIVE FREEDOM: Smythe wants to ensure that Planned Parenthood funding is retained at strong levels in New York State, and that the right to abortion is also protected at the state level as a backstop to any future action the Supreme Court may take to curtail the freedoms afforded by Roe v. Wade. Serino opposed the State Reproductive Health Act of 2019, which codified Roe into state law. Smythe supports the new law. Her campaign has been endorsed by Planned Parenthood, EMILY’s List and the National Institute of Reproductive Health.
GUN RIGHTS: Smythe supports increasing gun safety and reducing gun violence. A bill to allow teachers to carry guns in school was supported by Serino but was ultimately defeated. Smythe says she would have voted against arming teachers. Another bill, to tighten gun safety storage laws in domestic spaces, was passed over Serino’s opposition. Another bill to extend the length of time to complete criminal background checks was rejected by Serino; Smythe says she would have supported it. Serino also voted against taking guns away from criminals convicted of domestic abuse, a position Smythe finds intolerable. Smythe has been endorsed by several advocates of responsible gun control, among them Moms Demand Action. “I believe in common-sense gun control measures that prioritize public safety,” she says. “Certain individuals can pose a threat to themselves or others. Our kids, communities, and law enforcement officials are all safer when we ensure that guns stay out of their hands.”
CLIMATE CHANGE: Smythe wants to ensure that the recovery from the Covid pandemic is translated into support in the 41st district for green energy solutions and jobs. She is an ardent supporter of the Climate Leadership Community Protection Act, an ambitious law passed in 2019 to put New York State on a path to achieve a carbon-free electricity system by 2040 and an 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A resident of the Village of Red Hook, which has no sewer system, Smythe also is concerned about clean water and talks passionately about the clean-water initiatives needed for Poughkeepsie, which has antiquated mains and side sewers. Noting the district’s inclusion of farms, urban centers and open space, she contends: “We should be leading the way in terms of how to best generate energy with renewables.”
BROADBAND ACCESS: Among the deficits made painfully obvious during the Covid pandemic are the spots throughout the district that lack broadband access. Given the demands of homeschooling, telemedicine, and work-from-home protocols, Smythe says affordable broadband is now a necessity. Several swaths of Smythe’s hometown of Red Hook lack broadband, an issue that also is being addressed by the Red Hook Public Library.
RACIAL JUSTICE: Smythe has participated in many marches and rallies for racial justice this year. With more people awakening to the fact that America has never fully recognized Black Americans’ basic human rights, Smythe believes it’s long past time to address racism in the nation’s criminal justice, education, housing and financial systems. “There are a number of inequities baked into our systems,” she says, “but they’ve been there for so long we no longer recognize them. The movement that has sprung up in the wake of George Floyd’s murder was just the beginning of a long-overdue conversation about race in this country. From the disproportionate number of Black men in our prisons to redlining to schools and banking institutions that favor white Americans, we as a society must be willing to examine these systems and ask ourselves some tough questions in order to move forward.”
A COVID CAMPAIGN
In a Covid world, the Serino-Smythe race is being waged with text messages, phone calls and Zoom meetings. Smythe hosted a virtual conversation about food and agriculture with former New York Times food writer Mark Bittman, and her campaign, managed by Julie Shiroishi, enlisted singer-songwriter Dar Williams to participate in virtual performances. Both celebrities live in the district.
The race is believed to be the only one in the state that pits woman against woman for the Senate. The significance of this is not lost on Smythe. “It’s important to look at someone’s actions, not just listen to words,” she says, a veiled reference to her opponent. “Not all women support the needs and advance the rights of their fellow women. I look forward to the opportunity to work toward advancing the rights of women so that we and other marginalized people can enjoy the full opportunities offered by this great country. 2018 didn’t feel like a loss. It was unfinished business. This year I’m running to finish the job.”
1) Karen Smythe, courtesy of Karen Smythe For NY Senate
2) Smythe in her role as CEO at the family business, courtesy of Karen Smythe For NY Senate
3) Wikipedia summary of voter registration for State Senate District 41