KINGSTON – The sign on the door to Terry Bernardo's office says "Chairman," and the first woman to hold the post gave considerable thought to the title she would use.
"I've been chairman of many things," she said, "and I think it's a unisex term."
Small decisions like that have helped define Bernardo's role as head of the Ulster County Legislature, and give insight into what makes the chairman tick. Ultimately, she views herself as someone who is good at organizing systems and people, skills that she believes would allow her to excel at anything from county executive to housewife.
Bernardo says her first foray into politics came in the sixth grade when a new gym teacher planned on canceling a popular student-teacher softball game.
"I had looked forward to that game all my life and a teaching assistant suggested I start a petition," she recalled. "I did, we got to play the game, and they made me team captain."
After that, political action took a sideline for decades as she graduated college, obtained an MBA, and worked in the hotel industry around the country. The closest she came to politics during those years was when the Sheraton in New York City helped host the Democratic National Convention... which she found underwhelming.
"Employees in hotels don't know who these people are, and they don't care," she said.
Not until she met John Bonacic at Skate Time 209, the roller rink she owns with her husband Len, did politics come up again.
"I couldn't have told you I was registered as a Republican — when you're working in Manhattan, all you do is work — but he and Sue Cummings knew, and they asked me to run for county legislature," she recalled.
When she ran the first time, her husband was supportive, but not involved. Bernardo lost that race, in 2007, but succeeded in 2009.
"Len did not want to be involved in politics — that wasn't his thing," she said.
Since then, Len Bernardo took on Mike Hein for Ulster County Executive when that position was created, and became county chairman for the Independence Party, to which he has belonged since shortly after its formation.
Chairman Bernardo notes that she is known for working with people in different parties, most notably New Paltz Town Supervisor Susan Zimet; but she doesn't know if that's bipartisanship or simply cooperation. "One person's bipartisanship is another person's traitor," she said. "I think some people just get along better than others."
She decries the "hyperpartisan" behavior of some legislators, singling out minority leader David Donaldson in particular.
"He's all about politics, and he's nasty," she said. "The way to see if someone is bipartisan is in their rules. The New York State Senate shut down the minority for a long time, and the Assembly still does."
Ulster County gives its minority a voice in governing, Bernardo said.
While she isn't seeking the office of County Executive for herself, "A lot of people have that aspiration for me. I don't know if that's really what they want, though... the executive administers the county, but if he sees a problem, he has to ask the legislature to fix it. From here, I can do that."
However, Bernardo added that she does have concerns about how Mike Hein is handling the executive position's responsibilities.
"A lot of our community board members have come to me with frustrations," she said.
The community advisory board, which according to the charter should have input into the budget — particularly mental health — felt shut out by the process, which concerns her. Other boards have had people leave citing strained relations or overly burdensome ethics requirements.
If nothing else, Bernardo feels that she should have more experience before even considering the top county job. She has been a legislator for three years.
"I only ran for chairman because my opponent goaded me," she explained, noting how her fellow Rochester resident, and former councilwoman Manuela Mihailescu "said that if I won I would run for chairman, and she said it so many times that I decided, 'Fine, if I win I will run.'"
She calls the position, "a bigger tool in my tool box. From here, I can get things done."
Among the things she'd like to see are better alignment of town and county budgets.
"The towns have to have a preliminary budget by the last week of September, but we don't need one until the first week of October," Bernardo noted. "With the tax cap, that means that if we don't come through as expected, a town could be in violation of the cap."
To make things run more smoothly, she would like to see legislative terms that last four years, like town council members, rather than two. She'd also like to see the chairman get elected every term instead of every year.
"To have that election every year is such a distraction," she said.
Bernardo's first year involved massive staff turnover — the legislative clerk died, the deputy went on maternity leave, and another person was terminated. It was chaotic, but it also removed what she calls "we've-always-done-it-that-way" thinking. On the political side, she has instituted strict adherence to Robert's Rules of Order, including a protocol for use of her gavel.
"I was mocked for that, but it's made meetings run more smoothly," she said.
Bernardo admits that she doesn't easily escape politics at home.
"Some husbands and wives hunt together, or play tennis, but our hobby is politics," she explained. "Sometimes, though, I will ask someone to call my husband and tell him what happened in the meeting, just so I don't have to go over it again when I get home."