Candidates with Vassar Ties Win Important Seats in Local Elections

Six years ago, in the wake of the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, Professor of History Rebecca Edwards joined a movement spawned by tens of thousands of American women and became a more active participant in politics. While teaching at Vassar full time, Edwards ran a successful campaign for a seat in the Dutchess County Legislature in the fall of 2017 and served two two-year terms, the second as minority leader.

This year, Edwards kicked her commitment up a notch. After 28 years in the classroom, she’ll be leaving Vassar—at least temporarily—for a new full-time job after defeating incumbent Jay Baisley in a closely contested race for Poughkeepsie Town Supervisor. Her 77-vote victory was officially certified on December 7, and she’ll assume her new post on January 1.

A person with salt-and-pepper hair wearing glasses and a purple winter jacket standing outdoors, smiling..
Professor of History Rebecca Edwards (standing in front of Poughkeepsie Town Hall) will begin her new job as Town Supervisor on January 1.
Photo by Grace Adams Ward ’24.

Edwards was one of five successful candidates for local office with Vassar ties. Alums Brennan Kearney ’96 and Chris Drago ’98, former Vassar administrator Lisa Kaul, and Lisa Paoloni, a member of Vassar’s Advancement staff, all won seats in the county Legislature. Kearney and Paoloni won re-election, while Drago and Kaul were successful in their first ventures into elective politics.

Edwards said launching her new career in public service was bittersweet. “Obviously, I’ll always feel a connection to the College—it’s been my life for 28 years—but I’m excited to get started in this new role,” she said.

Edwards said “hectic” was the best way to describe running a campaign while teaching full time during the Fall Semester, adding that she made a conscious effort to separate her two commitments. “I didn’t talk about the campaign in any of my classes,” she said, “because I felt it was important to keep my political activity entirely separate from my duties at Vassar.”

Edwards, a Democrat, said she was grateful for the election of a majority of fellow Democrats on the Town Board, which “should help us get things done.” But she noted that she had already met with several key Republican officials to pave the way for a smooth transition as the town’s chief executive.

As she ticked off some of her goals for her first year in office, Edwards said she planned on tapping some valuable resources that Vassar and the other two colleges within the town’s boundaries, Marist and Dutchess Community College, possess. “There is plenty of talent at all of these colleges that can help the town address many of the issues we need to address—mental health and environmental challenges and promoting the arts. There are ways the town can tap all this expertise.”

A person with medium length dark blonde straight hair wearing a white collared shirt facing the camera smiling.
Brennan Kearney ’96

Like Edwards, Kearney said she decided to get more involved in local politics following the 2016 presidential election. “I’m one of those women who was spurred to action by Trump’s election,” she said. She ran a successful campaign for a seat on the Rhinebeck Town Board, and when a county legislator representing Rhinebeck left office in the middle of his term in the spring of 2019 Kearney was appointed to fill his seat. She kept her seat after winning an election that fall and was re-elected in 2021 and again this fall.

Kearney, a Democrat in a legislature controlled by Republicans, said one of her principal responsibilities is to keep her constituents informed about the decisions that are being made that affect them most. “As local media continues to shrink, it’s important for residents to hear both sides of an issue,” she said, “and that begins with informing them about the budget process. A lot of people in my district are fortunate financially, but they elect me to look after everybody in the county.”

A person with long dark hair, brown skin, wearing glasses broadly smiling.
Former Vassar OCEL Director Lisa Kaul

Kaul, who was Vassar’s Director of the Office of Community-Engaged Learning from 2017 to 2021, said she too believes that keeping her constituents informed about the workings of government is a top priority. “What I heard from a lot of people when I knocked on their doors was how much they appreciated I was willing to show up and talk to them—it made a big difference,” she said. “A lot of them told me they wanted some new voices [in local government].” Kaul said the issues voters talked most about were getting priced out of the housing market, affordable child care, and the need for a better public transportation system.

A person in a blue collared shirt and jeans facing the camera, smiling.
Chris Drago ’98

Kaul said she had experienced several poignant moments during her campaign. As she recalled, “One day I was leaving an apartment complex after going door to door, and a woman came running toward me and gave me a bottle of water. The woman said, ‘I see you’re working hard.’ That just blew my mind. People are incredibly kind.”

Drago, a Democrat whose district includes parts of five communities in the northeast corner of the county, defeated the Republican Chairman of the Legislature, Gregg Pulver. Drago said his message during the campaign centered on the lack of government services in that rural portion of the county, and what he considered unwise fiscal decisions by the Republican majority in the Legislature. “I think the voters just thought it was time for a change,” Drago said. “I talked about the $25 million the county spent on improvements to the minor league baseball stadium, including luxury boxes." He said voters were also concerned about waste management issues and the need for more affordable housing.

A studio portrait of a person with long brown hair facing the camera.
Lisa Paoloni, Vassar Advancement Office

Paoloni, whose district includes the Town of Wappinger, just south of Poughkeepsie, is starting her third term on the Legislature. She serves as Vice-Chair of the Government Services and Administration Committee, which oversees the adoption process for all local laws as well as the County Code of Ethics and the County Charter.

She said one of her main projects was the siting of Dutchess Community College’s aviation maintenance program at the county-owned Hudson Valley Regional Airport. “A skill and educational gap were identified in the blue-collar trades, specifically in the Tri-State area with four major international airport hubs,” Paoloni said, “and we moved to fill that void.

“Serving the residents of Dutchess has been extremely rewarding,” she said. “I really enjoy the broad scope of programs and services we are involved in.”

December 15, 2023