Even before Democratic State Senator Ted O'Brien had a challenger, New York politicos knew his re-election battle would be tough; he's a freshman legislator in a competitive district, and Republicans were clear that they'd be gunning for the seat.
Then Republican Rich Funke entered the race, and it virtually guaranteed that the 55th Senate District would see one of the most competitive election battles in the state.
Feeding the furor is a larger battle between Democrats and Republicans for control of the Senate. The chamber is closely divided between 32 Democrats, 29 Republicans, and two vacant seats. But control of the body is shared between the five-member Independent Democratic Conference and the GOP — though the conference has said that it'll align with mainline Dems after the election.
The outcome of the O'Brien-Funke race is crucial in determining which party or coalition controls the Senate. One of the reasons why Democrats and Republicans see potential in the race is because of the district itself.
The 55th starts in Irondequoit and the eastern part of the city, and ends in Naples, Ontario County. It's a diverse district that includes factories and farms, and lumps in some of the poorest parts of the city with Monroe County's wealthiest suburbs. And while Democrats have an enrollment advantage, it's slight.
O'Brien won the seat in 2012 by defeating Republican Assembly member Sean Hanna, so Democrats know that he can win. And in Albany, O'Brien has held positions of some influence within his conference. Democratic leaders appointed him as the ranking minority member of the chamber's banking and environment committees.
Throughout his first term, O'Brien has made it a point to tackle important issues that affect all parts of his district. He pushed for reforms to the state's brownfield cleanup program, which would have emphasized redevelopment projects in poorer neighborhoods. (Ultimately, the Legislature extended the existing program through early 2017.) He also advocated for phasing out an unpopular energy tax, which was a critical issue for businesses.
O'Brien is committed to Upstate economic development, but is equally concerned with social justice, environmental issues, and reproductive rights. He's the best choice to represent the 55th District, and he deserves re-election.
In Funke, Republicans see a candidate with strong name recognition and a reputation as a trusted, impartial voice — cultivated through decades spent as a local news and sports anchor.
But it's not entirely clear where he stands on some issues, though he's taken generally conservative positions on reproductive rights and gun control. Funke has made few media appearances, and his campaign failed to set up an interview for this story, despite several requests.
O'Brien and Funke both say that New York's tax environment impedes economic development. But O'Brien has been particularly focused on Upstate manufacturing, which is important given the growth in high tech and advanced manufacturing operations in the Rochester area. He says that he's proud of his vote to support tax cuts for Upstate manufacturers.
"The fact that we've started to move the needle in the right direction I think is important," he says.
He also says that he wants more state resources devoted to work force development, which would help local companies find qualified workers and help local residents get jobs.
Funke has said little more than he wants to see property tax relief and the return of the STAR property tax rebate checks. In a YouTube video posted to his campaign site, Funke says that he supports more state funding for work force development. He also says that there should be more discussion about vocational education opportunities for students.
O'Brien has been a reliable advocate for a higher minimum wage. He voted for legislation, signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, that'll increase the wage to $9 an hour at the end of 2015. But he says that another increase is necessary, and he's aligned himself with a coalition pushing for a $10.10 an hour minimum wage. He says that he also wants legislation authorizing counties and cities to set their own minimum wages.
O'Brien also deserves credit for sticking his neck out on a few controversial issues; he was the only senator from the Rochester area to vote in favor of the SAFE Act. And he's stuck by that vote.
When Funke announced his candidacy in March, he said that parts of the SAFE Act are good, but that it was rammed through the Legislature. He said that he wants the law repealed —though that's unlikely that'll happen.
O'Brien successfully pushed for the State Education Department to release questions and answers from past Common Core-based standardized tests.
And when the state released a draft management plan for Hemlock-Canadice State Forest that alarmed the public and city officials, O'Brien intervened. The plan didn't expressly prohibit gas and oil drilling on the forest land or within the watersheds for Hemlock and Canadice lakes. O'Brien reached out to state environmental officials to discuss the plan and he began working with a state environmental group to develop legislation to add protections to the property. The state is still revising the plan and the legislation is on hold.
We haven't always agreed with O'Brien, however. We disapproved of his vote against the DREAM Act, which would have extended state financial aid for college to children of undocumented immigrants. And we disagreed with his opposition to Governor Andrew Cuomo's plan to allow inmates to take college degree programs.
O'Brien says that he was responding to constituent input and that the state should instead spend the money that would have gone to those proposals on increased aid to state colleges and for tuition assistance.
But O'Brien's positions have always been thoughtful and deliberate. And if nothing else, those two positions do show that he's not afraid to break with his party.
But the race for the 55th District is as much about overall control of the Senate as it is local representation. Supporting O'Brien is, in effect, supporting Democratic control of the Senate.
Democrats were last in charge in 2009 and 2010, and many New Yorkers rightly remember the experience as a disaster. Ineffectual leadership and power grabs by some members threw the Senate into chaos.
Republicans gleefully invoke those memories as they try to persuade New Yorkers to put them back in charge. But they conveniently omit their own role in the dysfunction, since Republican leaders were all too willing to align with the rogue Democrats, pretty much guaranteeing dysfunction.
We do have reservations about handing Senate control to the Democrats. In principal, we don't care to have one party in total control at any level of government. And no one wants a repeat of the turmoil of a few years ago.
But the Democratic conference has changed since the last time it was in power. Some of the problem Dems are no longer in office, for instance. And O'Brien points out that the conference now has a bigger Upstate voice: Democrats from Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Hudson Valley regions have been elected to the chamber during the intervening years.
At the top, Cuomo has made it clear that he's interested in cutting taxes. Many Democratic senators, O'Brien included, have aligned themselves with the governor on this issue.
And the fact is that key pieces of legislation won't advance as long as Republicans control which bills come to the floor. Some key fracking bills, including measures that would prohibit New York landfills from accepting out-of-state fracking wastes or restrict the ability of state water treatment plants to accept out-of-state fracking waste water will likely languish unless Democrats take control.
A minimum wage increase stands a better chance of passing with Democrats in charge of the Senate. And so does the full Women's Equality Act.
The 10-point Women's Equality Act has emerged as an issue in races across the state. Cuomo proposed the legislation, which tackles everything from wage discrimination to sex trafficking.
The Assembly passed the legislation, but the Senate only passed bills covering nine of the 10 points. Senate Republican leaders have refused to let the 10th point, which would put the abortion rights spelled out in Roe v. Wade into state law, come up for a vote.
Funke does not support the 10th point.
In ads, Funke repeatedly blames New York City politicians — one of his favorite targets — for holding up the nine non-controversial points. (In one mailer he says that equal pay for women would be his top priority in the Senate.)
But that's not quite how it's worked. O'Brien twice supported the nine points that came up for a vote in the Senate. Since the Senate and Assembly legislation haven't matched, however, the governor has had no bill to sign.
Whether that's the fault of Assembly Democratic leaders or Senate Republican leaders is a matter of perspective. Funke places the blame on the Democratic-led Assembly. But O'Brien reiterates his support for the nine points, as well as the abortion rights provision.
Anti-abortion groups as well as the Senate GOP's campaign arm say that the provision would allow women to have abortions almost up to birth for almost any reason, and would change who can perform abortions. Both claims are flat-out wrong, but that hasn't stopped Republicans from using them to attack O'Brien.
"If federal judiciary overturned Roe v. Wade and said it's a state's decision, we would not have the protections that women have now in New York under Roe v. Wade and the case law that flows from it," says O'Brien, who's been endorsed by reproductive rights groups and the National Organization for Women. "I think it's critically important for us to codify Roe v. Wade in New York law, and that's all that this does."