They came from far and wide, but mostly from Newburgh, to tell Mayor Judy Kennedy what was on their minds and in their hearts. “I want to thank Judy,” said Mary Elin Korchinsky, “for turning our world upside down.”
Korchinsky attended a reception, along with scores of friends and colleagues, held in the mayor’s honor at the Fullerton Mansion on Sunday. “I was thinking how really blessed we all are,” said Judy Johnson. “Think about where the city was when she landed here.”
Johnson recalled when she first met Kennedy about a decade ago. “I was driving on Grand Street one day and I saw this woman in her front yard,” Johnson said. “I jumped out of the car and said, ‘You bought that beautiful house?’”
At the time, Kennedy was renovating a house that her son had bought and later sold to her. Johnson and Kennedy became fast friends. “I thought, I’ll introduce the poor dear to some people,” said Johnson, speaking about a Newburgh Preservation Association fundraiser. “I introduced her to one person and never saw her again,” Johnson teased.
The city was reeling from major tax-rate hikes following the bungling of the city courthouse project. “People were furious and into this hopeless situation, she stepped into the void and she had a message,” said Mark Carnes.
“We’re not going to keep fighting and attacking and keep ripping each other apart,” he said, paraphrasing Kennedy. “That was her first message.” The next message was equally important, he said. “’It’s not what I’m going do, it’s what you’re going to do and I’m going to help you do it,’” said Carnes, again citing the mayor. “She brought us together and said… fix the problems.”
“It’s about us and what she has taught us,” he said. “That we have to work together to do great things.”
A long way from Idaho
Kennedy, who was frail from her year-and-a-half-long battle with cancer, addressed the gathered guests. “I don’t know if there are words in my heart or in my head to thank you enough for all the prayers that have gone out, for all of you that have been supporting me,” she said, recounting friends doing dishes, cleaning her house and shoveling her driveway during her illness.
“What I’m really saying is those are the kind of people that are in Newburgh,” she asserted. “Those are the kind of people that change a city, because there is heart here. There is connectedness… I’ve lived in a lot of places, you just don’t see that everywhere.”
Kennedy was born in Pocatello, Idaho, located along the Oregon Trail. According to her professional biography, Kennedy’s family struggled financially when she was child. She cared for her three younger brothers while her parents worked. From this she learned early lessons in “managerial responsibility,” her biography reads. “She’s an Idaho potato!” shouted Terri Vargas in one humorous moment that evening.
As the mother of four boys, she was a homemaker for many years. Kennedy owned her own bakery and eventually put herself through college to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration. She went on to work for the City of Fort Collins, Colorado, as a manager and consultant for Hewlett Packard, and as an IT director for the Albertson’s supermarket chain. She also worked as a life coach, studying under celebrity self-help expert Tony Robbins.
When Kennedy arrived in Newburgh, the homestead-tax rate had been raised by more than 70 percent. “She said, ‘I’ll have none of this,’” Johnson remembered. Fired up, Kennedy ran to become mayor. She won handily in the 2011 general election.
“After getting into City Hall, I realized integrity was one of the biggest things we had to work on,” Kennedy said. “In the last six years, we’ve uncovered and changed and done a lot of things.”
Pushing ahead, inch by inch
Former city Councilwoman Genie Abrams rattled off a laundry list of accomplishments during Kennedy’s second term. Judge Loren Williams was appointed, City Manager Michael Ciaravino was hired and a new zoning code was adopted, Abrams said.
City police began wearing body cameras, ShotSpotter technology was secured and the city quickly saw a decrease in shootings. Procedures were put in place to manage garbage-covered properties and a new city comptroller smoothly took over after the former was charged with larceny.
Under Kennedy’s leadership, the Newburgh City Council established $500 first-offense fines for littering, dumping and urination, Abrams said. “We brought the Illuminated Festival to Newburgh,” she added, and Mill and William streets were paved, alongside a future “paving plan free of politics,” she said.
Abrams continued. “We saved millions of gallons of water per day,” by plugging dozens of leaks in the city water system, she said. “We made it illegal for new stores to sell tobacco products near school buildings. We’ve put scores of buildings back on the tax rolls, saving tax payers millions.”
“We discovered PFOS in our water,” Abrams said, speaking of the chemical perfluorooctane sulfonate, found throughout the city’s drinking watershed and reservoir at Washington Lake. The city and state quickly addressed the problem, once it was discovered, by switching to Catskill Aqueduct water and installing a new filtration system at the city water treatment plant, “at no expense to the city,” Abrams pointed out.
Other accomplishments include the city skatepark at Delano-Hitch Park, Tyrone Crabb Park, People’s Park at the Newburgh Waterfront, a seven-year contract for city police, offering city minutes and agendas in Spanish and a $175,000 settlement with McGoey, Hauser and Edsall, the engineering firm involved in the costly city courthouse debacle.
“We successfully headed off a woodchuck attack at Washington Lake,” Abrams threw in for good measure, describing an effort to stop woodchucks from destroying a dam at the lake.
The way forward
I really want to thank you for dealing with a lot of (crap),” Stuart Sachs said to Kennedy. “You’ve shouldered an awful lot. You maintained vision, you’ve maintained hope and you maintained an excitement about the City of Newburgh, which has served us all so well.”
Many speeches that evening centered on the city’s renaissance and the hope that Kennedy inspired that helped drive it. “Newburgh has turned the corner,” said Omari Shakur. “We’re getting ready to go up. How do we do that? We go up together.”
Shakur recalled running for mayor against Kennedy in 2015. “We lost the primary,” he said, referring to his and Kennedy’s loss in the Democratic primary that year. “Somebody said, ‘What are you going do with your 250 votes?’ I said, ‘I’m going to stay home
.’” But, Shakur said he was inspired by Kennedy’s spirit. “We sat down and we said, ‘We’re going to fight,’” he said, speaking about his decision to support Kennedy’s campaign as the Independence Party candidate for mayor. “That’s what she did.”
Kennedy won the race, with help from Shakur and other supporters like Councilwoman Karen Mejia. “The one thing that I’ve learned from Judy is don’t take no for an answer,” said Mejia. “From government, the first answer should not be no, but ‘How can we?’ I think that is how the city has been able to move forward.”
Though they sometimes disagreed, Michelle Bosch told Kennedy, “I’ve garnered so much respect for your fight and your sense of humor and your belief in what is right… you brought that back to a place that was losing it quickly,” Bosch said to the mayor.
Kennedy took it all in while seated in a large chair next to her son Kyle Kennedy, who, she said, carried a “huge” load during her illness, turning down work offers to care for her. “Thank you, Kyle,” she said. Applause followed.
“This city is at a tipping point,” she said, returning to the topic of Newburgh. “One thing that I started out working for was to change perceptions in the City of Newburgh and do that by working with the press instead of against it, and drive the story instead… Yes, we’ve got a way to go. Yes, we’re not there yet. And, yes, we’re on the way. That’s the message.”
Kennedy spoke directly to the assembled audience. “No matter what happens here with my health, you all have a ball to carry,” she said. “And, I count on you to carry it all the way to the top.”
By SHANTAL RILEY