Taxes, guns, education, abortion laws, economic development: Pick an issue, and the outcome of this year's state Senate races will inevitably affect it.
At stake in the November 6 elections is the Senate's precarious power balance. Republicans and Democrats are basically fighting over who can win at least 32 seats, which would provide the edge in the 63-seat chamber.
Republicans currently control the Senate, but by the slimmest of margins, and only because conservative New York City Democrat Simcha Felder caucuses and votes with the GOP. Democrats control 31 seats already, and the often-fractious party has coalesced around flipping the chamber, which means winning enough seats to hold the majority without counting on Felder, who has no real opponent in his race.
In Monroe County, that power struggle is playing out in two key races, though they aren't ones statewide media often highlight:
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Republican Joe Robach has served in the State Senate for 16 years. He represents the 56th District.
Republican Joe Robach, who represents the 56th District and has served in the Senate for 16 years, faces a challenge from Democrat Jeremy Cooney, who served as chief of staff for Mayor Lovely Warren before moving on to a lobbying job and then a position with the state's economic development agency. The 56th District covers Brighton, Clarkson, Gates, Greece, Hamlin, Parma, and a chunk of the City of Rochester.
Republican Rich Funke, who has held the 55th District seat for four years, is up against Democrat Jen Lunsford, an attorney who's been involved in activism and community service. The 55th District stretches from the east side of Monroe County, including part of the City of Rochester, down to Naples.
Each candidate is running a sort of dual campaign. They're all trying to convince voters that individually, they're the best choice in their respective races. But each of the candidates have also been tasked with making the case that their party should control the Senate.
Cooney and Lunsford argue that a Senate controlled by Democrats would finally act on issues and bills long-ignored by Republican leaders. The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which is meant to protect transgender New Yorkers, would likely pass, they argue. The Assembly has passed it 10 times but the Senate hasn't voted on it once. The Reproductive Health Act, which reforms and modernizes New York's abortion laws, would finally get a vote, as would a comprehensive climate change and energy bill, they say.
They promise gun law reforms, including a ban on bump stocks. And they say a Democratic-led Senate is more likely to move on health care reform; whether the members focus on a single-payer program or simply aim for universal care is an open question.
Lunsford and Cooney both support legalizing marijuana and say a Democratic Senate is more likely to act on that issue. And generally, a Democratic Senate would act as a further firewall between New Yorkers and potentially harmful policies from Washington, they say.
But Funke and Robach raise the spectre of a New York City-centered Democratic conference that will drown Upstate in new taxes while starving it of aid and investment. Republicans, they says, will focus on reining in state spending.
The GOP "serves as the last line of defense to Governor Cuomo's tax and spend philosophy," Funke said during a press conference in Fairport with Republican gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro. (Funke's campaign didn't respond to interview requests.)
Robach, during a recent interview, argued that when the Democrats briefly had control of the Senate in 2009-10, they raised taxes and fees while failing to act on any part of the party's social agenda. For example, marriage equality passed while Republicans controlled the Senate. The Senate's GOP leadership allowed the legislation to the floor, but few in the party voted for it; Robach was a "no" vote and Funke wasn't in office at the time.
Robach has proven particularly difficult for Democrats to defeat. He says politics aren't important to him, and he focuses on building relationships with the communities he represents. He's a ubiquitous presence in his district and very well known.
"I think Rochester – I haven't lived anywhere else – definitely likes relationship politics more than party or title politics," Robach says.
He touts the amount of state investment he's helped direct to his district and the Rochester area, for projects including the Genesee Brewery expansion, the Rochester Public Market expansion, and the various phases of the city school district's building modernization program.
He also champions the idea of initiative and referendum, which would allow citizens to collect signatures to get issues on the ballot. That, he says, would be the ideal way to approach subjects such as marijuana legalization.
Robach says he's "happy to look at" GENDA, but believes the state is already administratively offering the protections spelled out in the bill.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Democrat Jeremy Cooney is challenging sitting Republican Joe Robach for the 56th District seat in the State Senate.
But Cooney and other Democrats are also quick to point out that Robach voted against the SAFE Act and that he opposes the Reproductive Health Act. (Robach says the bill allows a broader range of providers to perform abortions, and expands the circumstances under which a women can have late-term abortions, neither of which he approves of.)
Cooney says that, if elected, he'll prioritize jobs, health care, and schools. During a phone conversation after this article published, Cooney said that believes that the New York Health Act is a step in the right direction and that he would vote for it, though he's concerned about the potential burden it puts on small- and medium-sized employers. During an interview in late September he said he wouldn't vote for the bill in its current form.
He wants lawmakers to discuss other ways to make sure everyone – children especially – has access to health care, whether it's a revamped single-payer approach or some other way.
Cooney, a School of the Arts graduate, believes he and other local members of the Senate need to lead discussions about improving the Rochester school district. And the focus can't just be about funding, but also needs to center on new ideas for improving student and district performance, he says. He also wants to see greater emphasis statewide on career and technical education.
Cooney says the state's economic development programs, which center too much on providing incentives to companies under the belief that they'll create jobs, don't always work. He believes the state needs to invest more of its resources in worker talent and young people. And he proposes a program that would include first-time homebuyer assistance along with student loan forgiveness via tax incentives to attract skilled young professionals to Upstate cities. The worker pool would, in turn, attract business, he says.
Cooney says he's been working with the young-professional movement for 15 years, and that much of its emphasis is on attracting and retaining young people, as well as quality of life issues. He also makes the point that most of his friends have school-age kids, which gives him a different perspective than many in the Senate.
"If we elect people who are in that generation, we can craft policy that better meets the needs of families today," Cooney says.
During the Molinaro press conference, Funke said the single most important issue facing New York "is our high tax structure." People love visiting the state and living here, he said, but they don't want to move or stay here because of taxes. And bringing jobs here "won't mean a lick" if people can't afford their taxes, he said.
- PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
- Republican Rich Funke is seeking a third time representing the 55th District in the State Senate.
Funke touts the amount of economic development and workforce development funding he's directed to the district and region. On his campaign website, he also says he's pushed for more school funding and has sponsored bills to reform teacher evaluations and the school receivership process.
He's sponsored or co-sponsored several bills to repeal the SAFE Act and worked to ensure that the state budget hasn't contained any funding for the act, his website says.
Lunsford says that one of the reasons she's running is because she wants to help flip the Senate to a Democratic majority. She says people don't realize how conservative Funke is, and points out that he was one of 19 senators who voted against a Republican-sponsored bill that would have prohibited people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from possessing a gun.
She contrasts her support for the Reproductive Health Act and the Comprehensive Contraceptive Coverage Act with Funke's opposition to them. She says she's very concerned that the Supreme Court could make decisions that erode reproductive rights and health care.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Democrat Jen Lunsford is challenging sitting Republican Rich Funke for the 55th District seat in the State Senate.
She also says that as a working parent and an attorney who assists people dealing with health and disability issues, she brings a perspective that's lacking in Albany.
She wants the state to work with private sector employers to find solutions for increasingly expensive child care, which would help parents remain in the workforce. And she believes that state needs to invest not just in schools but also in the support systems around them so that children are prepared to learn when they walk into school each morning, she says.
Lunsford supports the New York Health Act, which she believes will create more effective and efficient health coverage, will ensure that people have insurance regardless of ability to pay, and may even free people to do things such as start businesses without fear of not having coverage. She does, however, see some issues that need to be worked out or clarified, such as the bill's potential to impact certain programs for that help disabled people stay in their homes.
"We have to start investing in people," Lunsford says. "No one bats an eye when we invest in defense, when we invest in economic development, but we need to invest in humans. Because when you invest in people they are empowered to grow our economy."
This article has been updated to expand on Jeremy Cooney's position on the New York Health Act.