How do you measure fortitude? It is a unique human attribute in that we all possess some measure of it, yet many of us rarely utilize this internal strength to its fullest potential. Even more poignant is the distinct imbalance between those who must retain fortitude in order to simply move forward in their lives. Hollywood films often portray the lives of single, working women as something romantic, or at least conceptually captivating. Female characters’ scripted lives often yield results that please the audience, but rarely tackle the endless minutiae that have helped build the centuries-old barriers for women in America.
A symbol of modest fortitude
But it is that kind of reality that makes the real lives of women like New York State Senator Sue Serino that much more endearing – and more important for those that find themselves constantly having to show fortitude in the face of life’s obstacles. Serino began her path toward leadership through hard work at the age of 15 and has yet to slow down. Sue began as a waitress in a small, local restaurant, before working her way up to become a manager. After the birth of her son Anthony, she opened her first successful business as a childcare provider. Recognizing the value in home ownership, Sue took on the real estate industry during the mid-1990s. She began working in 1996 and opened her own office in the City of Poughkeepsie shortly thereafter. In 2003, she moved her office to Hyde Park to accommodate her growing team of 26 sales associates. It wasn’t long before Serino would encounter the difficulties of being a small business owner in the Northeast. High taxes and bureaucracy drove Serino into local government, hoping to make a difference in her local communities.
Sue was elected to the Hyde Park Town Board in 2010 and then to the Dutchess County Legislature in 2011. As a county legislator, she became a vocal advocate for taxpayers and consistently resisted efforts to raise taxes and fees at the local level. Today, as a member of the New York State Senate, representing the 41st District, Serino has become a symbol for the modest fortitude that outstrips storytelling. The kind of courage that understands barriers to progress still exist, but know they are bound to be broken.
Talk about your time growing up in Dutchess County. Did your experiences inform your decision to run for election locally?
I was someone who never paid attention to politics. It was not until I bought a historic building in my local area for my real estate business and we wanted to renovate it and really fix it up, but I was met with continuous red tape at every turn. I knew that if I was experiencing that, other small business owners were too. I figured the only way to make a difference would be to get involved, so I ran for the Town Board to give other local small business owners a voice in the process.
When I ran for State Senate, I always say I came wearing my small business hat, which helps when we are negotiating and considering how policies will impact our communities, but also my mom hat. There was a time in my life when I was a single mom working two and three jobs, living paycheck-to-paycheck to make ends meet and I never forget what that feels like, and I make sure my colleagues in Albany are thinking about New Yorkers who go through these challenges whenever we are making decisions. I always say that Albany lives in a bubble, and I think what sets me apart is my determination not to get sucked into that bubble – to remain grounded in our community and to ensure that our neighbors are heard and their needs met.
You’ve worked in more than a few professions starting at a young age and including being an entrepreneur yourself. Do you believe that further engages you with small business owners in the Hudson Valley? How do you feel small businesses can overcome the current economic obstacles?
Absolutely. From a small in-home childcare business I started decades ago so that I could also care for my own son, to a deli in Poughkeepsie, an ice cream truck, and now my real estate brokerage, I have always had that drive to be involved in small business. Our community is home to so many unique small businesses, and they are really the lifeblood of the Hudson Valley and what makes this such a special place to live.
I’ve relied on my small business background quite a bit when negotiating legislation and budgets in Albany, but never was it more important than during the COVID-19 pandemic. I understood the challenges our businesses faced because I know how hard it is to keep the doors open in the best of times, let alone with new challenges brought on by a pandemic and state mandates. One thing about small business owners is we are resilient. We want to not only survive the pandemic, but thrive.
Last year, I launched a ‘Small Business Bounce Back Tour’ where I traveled to small businesses across the community talking with employers and employees about what they felt was needed to rebuild in the wake of the pandemic. I heard complaints across the board about staffing shortages, high taxes and costs, and government red tape. Our small businesses have gone above and beyond to keep our community safe and healthy during the pandemic, but now it’s time for the state to step up and do what it can to provide much needed relief. That starts by reducing costs, preventing them from being hit with high unemployment insurance rates as a result of state-mandated shutdowns, cutting red tape, and keeping the pandemic policies in place that worked – like unique outdoor dining options and others. It is not easy, but we have overcome challenges in the past and together we will rebuild not only our community, but our state.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, how can leaders help to rebuild communities by promoting innovation?
This has to be one of our top priorities. The pandemic exposed so many gaps in our economy, from supply chain issues, to healthcare challenges, elder care and childcare challenges, and so many more. New York should be a leader in incentivizing innovation, cutting red tape to allow for creative growth and rethinking the future of our communities. Small businesses know how to innovate, how to be flexible and how to adapt to the needs of the day. Now is the time for the state to step back and make it as efficient as possible for businesses, entrepreneurs, and students moving into various industries to innovate.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for those at both ends of the age spectrum to afford to live in the greater Hudson Valley. Are there ways to ease the financial burdens on young homeowners, those in search of their first home and seniors hoping to live comfortably?
As a mom, and as a “grandma wannabe,” my top priority is making our community a place where young people can afford to start their lives and our seniors can afford to stay and enjoy their golden years in the homes they know and love. We have to start by incentivizing the development of affordable housing, renewing first time homebuyer programs that have proven incredibly successful in the past in helping young people get into their first homes, and we have to hold the line on property taxes across the board, but especially for our seniors who live on a fixed income.
It is also important that we bolster services that empower our seniors to stay safely in their homes, by investing in home care staff, home delivered meal programs, transportation options and more.
For our young people, we also have to ensure that the jobs they are looking for are available here in our community. We are home to fantastic higher education institutions, and skilled trades programs, but too often we lose these students after they complete their studies. We need to bolster partnerships between local businesses and education programs to help incentivize the next generation to plant their roots here in our community.
You’ve taken up the mantle of combating Lyme disease in our area. How are you working on expanding outreach, education and prevention for the public?
I’m always talking ticks! Almost everyone in the Hudson Valley knows someone who has had Lyme or tick-borne diseases. What once was a Hudson Valley and Long Island-centric problem is making its way across the state and the number of confirmed cases of Lyme Disease are on the rise. That is why it is critically important to include funding in the state budget to help combat its spread and why I push for that every single year.
In addition, I have successfully passed legislation that raises awareness among school-aged children by making educational materials available to New York’s elementary schools. Each year, I host an educational event for the community, as well as a Lyme Disease Awareness event at the Capitol, and I continuously work with my Lyme Disease Advisory Board to develop unique ways to help spread awareness to keep New Yorkers tick-free. Awareness is the key to prevention, and with New Yorkers taking to our parks and trails in record numbers, it is critically important that we continue to do whatever we can to help residents understand the steps they can take to prevent a run in with ticks.
Healthcare is a broad issue affecting people of varying ages, is it possible to make access to health care easier without increasing expenses?
Absolutely it is. Driving down healthcare costs must be a top priority, as it is an issue we hear about from far too many New Yorkers. We can start by cutting New York’s taxes and fees that drive up the cost of healthcare across the board, as well as the administrative waste. We also need to crack down on fraud and abuse that costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year. No one should have to make the decision between paying for something they need and seeking healthcare.
New York’s red tape and over taxation impacts this area tremendously and needs to be scaled back so that New Yorkers can access high quality, affordable care whenever they need it.
What do you see for the future of the Hudson Valley? Can bipartisanship still exist in today’s political climate?
I have never asked anyone their party affiliation. As a representative, for me, it’s always about the people we serve, not about the “R” or the “D.”
Bipartisanship is essential to democracy and we have to start by bringing back kindness and respect. That may sound very basic, but it is needed in order to work productively and move our community and our state forward, we have to start there. While we may not always agree on policy, I have fantastic relationships with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and as a result, we have made a real difference for our communities.
The Hudson Valley has a bright future ahead if we set politics aside and continue to work together to create affordability and opportunity here in our area. That is what I am committed to doing, and I know that together we can make New York a place people want to live again, instead of one they want to leave.
To learn more about Sue Serino, please visit www.nysenate.gov/senators/sue-