Maureen Cunningham, who serves as the executive director of the Hudson River Watershed Alliance, speaks during the organization’s 2016 Watershed Conference at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. (Paul Miller photo)
“I think this is the year of women,” said Bethlehem Town Board candidate Maureen Cunningham. “We may not see it in our federal government, but I see it in the individual groups who are organizing. I think there is a movement going on now among women and I feel like maybe I’m a part of it. I’m one of the women who is motivated to run for office, in part because of what is going on elsewhere.”
Cunningham, who belongs to a large Bethlehem family with a history of political and social service, submitted her name to run for the seat on the town board last year, before Donald Trump was elected president. However, as she sat in an Albany coffee shop the day after protesters violently clashed with white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., she said that things she’s been witnessing at the federal level since he took office have redoubled her determination to make a difference where she can.
“I’m devastated by what happened yesterday,” she said with evident passion. “It makes me mad and it makes me sad and it makes me want to do something.”
Cunningham describes herself as a “problem-solver.” The 46-year-old mother of two has a bachelor’s degree in International Studies from The American University and a master’s degree in Environmental Management from Yale. She spent several years in the D.C. area, where she worked on international conservation efforts and national political campaigns, before returning to Delmar to raise her family.
While this is the first time she has ever run for elected office, Cunningham, who is a trained facilitator, has experience serving on a number of local committees and boards and helping to resolve a variety of local concerns. She has served on the town’s Bike and Pedestrian Committee and the Open Space Working Group, and is currently a member of the Local Waterfront Revitalization Advisory Group and the Conservation Easement Review Board. She has also served on the Friends of Five Rivers Board of Directors since 2011 and has led several PTA initiatives at Hamagrael Elementary School, including launching its Walk to School and Bike to School events.
She said it’s become a joke that she’s the person to call whenever a seat opens up on a town committee, but that she has gained extensive experience listening, identifying solutions and building consensus.
Cunningham also works closely with a board in her position as Executive Director at the Hudson River Watershed Alliance, a job for which she was recommended by current Board member and candidate for Town Supervisor David VanLuven. The two have worked together in the past, as both have backgrounds in environmental conservation.
Prior to joining the Hudson River Watershed Alliance in late 2013, Cunningham did consulting work focused on community
development, biodiversity conservation and natural resource management issues. In D.C., she worked for the international conservation organization Rare, managing social marketing, public use planning and community-based ecotourism programs in various countries, first as director of its World Heritage Partnership and then as director of Rare Radio.
Her conservation background, however, is not the only thing she intends to bring to the table if she wins the town board seat.
While she believes that open space planning is important, she said that it’s also important to balance those desires with the concerns of private landowners. “I’m hearing that there’s a lot of fear of what the town’s going to do,” she said, “and I think that’s a problem. No one should feel fearful. I think that means we need to work harder.
“I think we can be better communicators,” she continued. “We could have better communication between the town departments and between the town and its residents. One of the first things you learn as a facilitator is that you can’t talk over people, you have to listen to what they say. I think that’s one of my strengths.”
“We may need to think outside of the box,” Cunningham said of open spaces planning. Touting the town’s conservation easement exemption program, which gives property tax breaks to large landowners who commit to leaving their land undeveloped, she said it is important to find ways to provide economic incentives to property owners. “I think we need to find more things like that,” she said, noting that, currently, conservation alternatives are rare. “It won’t solve all the problems, but it’s an innovative tool that we’ve created and I think we need to look for more things like that.”
A strong proponent of strategic planning, one thing Cunningham said she would like to consider is revisiting the town’s comprehensive plan, which was developed in 2005. “I think Bethlehem, right now, needs to figure out where we want to be in the future,” she said. “I just read the comprehensive plan from 2005 a couple of days ago, and they were talking about where we wanted to be in the year 2020… it seemed so far away then, but here we are at the end of 2017. I think we need to have a clear vision where we want to be in another 15 years.”
For her part, Cunningham said she really doesn’t envision the town changing dramatically. “I have a lot of friends here who are newcomers, with very diverse backgrounds, but there are also these really old families that have been here for generations. And, I think we need to build on what we have here already — that diversity and that history. I don’t see us wanting to change and become something else.”
Cunningham said she would like to build on the strengths that she already sees in Bethlehem. The Hudson Helderberg Rail Trail, the local history, the farmers’ markets, the town’s unique hamlets and neighborhoods and the myriad outdoor opportunities are all things she cited as positive aspects of the town she would like to see continued, expanded and improved.
Balancing those things with ongoing economic development, she said, is one of the biggest issues facing Bethlehem — and something she looks forward to helping to resolve.
“I don’t want to be one of those people that’s just posting on Facebook and complaining,” she said. “I want to get in there and roll up my sleeves and actually solve the problem.”
At the end of the day, Cunningham
said, Bethlehem’s greatest strength is its residents.
“I think we have a really great community,” she said. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t love Bethlehem. The people who live here are open-minded and passionate about our town, the school district is phenomenal and it’s a great place to raise kids.”
Cunningham smiled as she said that she often tells residents who ask her how they can become more involved in their community to join the town’s Bike and Pedestrian Committee, which she called “the town’s best secret.” It’s a satisfying feeling to be a part of solving problems and seeing where those solutions lead, she said, “Especially now, with everything that’s going on in our federal government and elsewhere.” Her work on that committee resulted in the popular Hamagrael Bike and Walk to School day events, as well as the construction of the sidewalk on which she walked her dog that very morning.
“That’s what I love,” Cunningham said, “seeing a need and going out and fixing it. I think that there are a lot of people in Bethlehem who are the same way and who really want to fix things.”