This is an opinion piece written by former NYS Senate Candidate Leslie Danks Burke, a Democrat who lost the election to Republican incumbent Tom O’Mara in November. To submit an opinion piece or community announcement, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Losing a hard-fought election isn’t easy, but I have much to be grateful for. I thank the 17,500 residents of Tompkins County who cast their ballot for me to Senator for New York’s 58th district last month.
You’re in good company with 51,500 people across the five-county district who stood together to support my focus on Jobs, Farms, and Schools.
I’ve spent the last few weeks with my husband and daughters, enjoying Thanksgiving with extended family, and personally reaching out to many of the hundreds of supporters who worked so hard in my campaign. When folks ask for advice, I tell them the same thing that I tell myselfevery morning. Yes, this loss hurts, and it’s ok to be sad. But we’ve got work to do, and there’s a lot of hope out there.
We have the tremendous asset of an engaged electorate. Having received the gift of so many people’s confidence in me, I can give back by helping the deep network built through my campaign serve as a continuing resource for citizen engagement.
Here’s some of the lay of the land.
Across the 58 th Senate district, 32% of voters are Democrats, 38% Republicans, and 20% independent or with a third party. My campaign garnered 45% of the vote district-wide, a stronger performance than nearly any of New York’s 20 Democratic challengers to sitting Republican incumbents, even those who ran in Democrat-majority districts.
Yet even the best loss is still a loss, and voters across New York State returned the same incumbents to office, regardless of party.
Legislative seats in New York are largely safe districts. Democrats are protected downstate and Republicans upstate. We’re so used to incumbency advantage that it’s hard to parse out where corruption might lie.
Surely it’s ok that an incumbent gets more media attention simply by being in the job. We wouldn’t want to shut down journalists’ review of our elected leaders. We also want our elected officials to communicate directly with voters, which is why our tax dollars pay for representatives to send franked mail to constituents.
My opponent, Sen. Tom O’Mara, spent $400 mailing updates to us a year ago, and $110,000 sending mail to us in the six months before this election. As his constituent, I’m more bothered that he scarcely talked to us at all before he found himself in a race, than that he suddenly spent 275 times as much in tax dollars when election season rolled around.
Our leaders do a better job when we’re watching, and we watch during election season. That’s why it matters that people run even if they don’t win. Even though I lost, the issues I talked about haven’t gone away.
If we keep on paying attention after the excitement is over, the real value of a strong campaign is that those issues are now on the discussion table.
What are those issues? I hammered at taxes that are absurdly high because, unlike every other state in the country, New York pays for Medicaid through regressive property taxes. This inflates our taxes in Tompkins County by over a third, lines corporate pockets, and hurts the very people Medicaid is supposed to help.
I was one of the only candidates to stand against a pay raise for legislators, who allow themselves to earn a second paycheck from lobby firms, like Senator O’Mara does. Now that the election is over, the Legislature is pushing to vote themselves a 47% raise – still without banning this conflict.
I pointed out that Albany breaks a promise to us each year by collecting billions in taxes for the express purpose of fixing upstate roads and infrastructure, yet sending that money to NYC instead. This snazzy deal partners downstate Dems with upstate Republicans and hoodwinks us into another year of potholes.
I talked nonstop about how the pay-to- play corruption that is politics as usual in Albany, siphons money away from regular folks. Forty-five percent of voters stood with me to demand change. Tompkins County’s 3.7% unemployment rate makes us an envied island of prosperity in the Southern Tier, but our prosperity does not embrace all residents.
More than one in ten Tompkins residents rely on Medicaid, and those numbers skyrocket just outside Tompkins borders. If the Trump-Ryan government succeeds in gutting Medicaid, our local property taxes will explode.
Thousands of workers commute daily into Tompkins County, bolstering our businesses, but they can’t afford to live here and don’t have access to reliable rural transportation. Neglecting that influx to the Tompkins economy creates thousands of potential punctures to the economic balloon. Climate change is disrupting long-established weather patterns and last summer’s devastating drought hit hard at local farmers and our bottom line.
Put bluntly, it’s not just altruistic to care what happens beyond our immediate borders, it’s good economic sense. And I am honored and proud that 78% of the Tompkins folks who voted in the 58th district race, crossed that bridge with me.
You’re part of an active and engaged citizenry that can successfully meet these challenges.
Speak up loudly. It’s even more important with the election is behind us. Attend local town board and county legislature meetings, and venture out to town halls when Senator O’Mara or Congressman Reed sponsors them nearby. Write a letter to the local newspaper, and support local media by subscribing. Join your local political committee and help make it the responsiveorganization you want to see.
I’m laser-focused on the hundreds of local races around our region that will be up in 2017. These off-year elections are usually won by unopposed Republican incumbents; come travel around with me in my ongoing work to build rural action from the grassroots. Take the leap and run for local office yourself.
Listen closely to those who think differently from you, it’s incredible what you might learn. Let’s get to work.
Featured photo by Ed Dittenhoefer.