TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Perhaps the most intriguing election race happening locally this year is for the New York State Senate 58th District seat, where incumbent Republican O’Mara is seeking his sixth term in the face of a challenge from Democratic and Working Families Party candidate Leslie Danks Burke.

O’Mara has served in the State Senate since being elected in 2010; before that, he was the State Assembly representative for Chemung and Schuyler Counties and a portion of Tioga County. He has been reelected five times to the position, most recently defeating grassroots candidate Amanda Kirchgessner in the 2018 contest. Danks Burke, a lawyer by trade, is similarly a familiar face in local politics. She ran unsuccessfully to unseat O’Mara in 2016, losing by about nine percentage points in the final vote. In 2012, she sought the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House of Representatives seat representing New York’s 23rd Congressional District, but was defeated by Nate Shinagawa. Shinagawa went on to lose to incumbent Republican Tom Reed.

This time around, Danks Burke said she views jobs and infrastructure investment as the most pressing needs overall for the district. In her vision, property taxes should be cut across the board, in turn using that money to fix healthcare in the state. By doing that, she believes the state could alleviate burdensome healthcare costs on small businesses, indirectly providing the type of jobs investment that she said would improve worker’s lives and create a healthier economy.

In that same vein, Danks Burke’s first act if elected, she said, would be to introduce a bill that would cut property taxes in half by removing the Medicaid mandate (New York is one of the only places that requires property taxes to go towards paying for Medicaid instead of sending that money to the state’s general fund). She said

“If everyone in Albany is talking about doing something, and they’re not getting it done, that’s the kind of thing where someone new can come in, introduce a bill, and say ‘Let’s take this on,’” she said. “By cutting that property tax burden all across upstate New York, we inject millions of dollars into our local economies that can be turned into jobs, turned into infrastructure investment, turned into education investment. It would be a lifeline to upstate New York to cut those property taxes.”

While she said the statewide response to the coronavirus pandemic has been decent, she couched that comment by saying that work should have been done beforehand that would have lessened the impact of such a public health occurrence.

“These are solvable problems, we know what to do we just don’t have leadership setting the course for us,” Danks Burke said. “This is a crisis that we knew was coming at some point in our future, and yet we didn’t create any of the preparation that we needed. We don’t have supply chains to our rural hospitals, we don’t have rural broadband access so that people confined in their homes can still participate in the economy. We don’t have food security nailed down so that children who get their food at schools can still be fed when the schools aren’t open.”

While the virus has certainly dominated the public conscience for the last several months, it has been rivaled by the hotly debated topic of police reform, much of which has played out in tandem with the discussion of racism and its pervasive impacts on daily life for the communities it affects. Danks Burke said she does not support defunding the police, while acknowledging that systemic racism is real and necessary to address. Alternatively, Danks Burke said she would rather support narrowing the scope of police agencies, meaning there would be less expectations on police to respond to mental health crises or the like. She said this could be accomplished by giving municipalities more resources from the state to fund the agencies that are more well-equipped and trained to respond to those types of situations.

Like Danks Burke, O’Mara said one of his paramount concerns is jobs and career investment. Manufacturing, he said, should be incentivized and has the potential to be the “engine” that drives the state’s economy forward. Ensuring that the manufacturing environment is fostered and maintained, he said, is crucial to keeping jobs in the region and enabling manufacturing businesses to make their jobs as attractive as possible.

He said his endorsements from statewide small business organizations show that he has had success during his time in office and that he has the faith of the small business community. He also touched upon the property tax issue, also saying that taxes play a large role in hurting businesses in New York.

“Our property taxes still stifle businesses and homeowners in our region across upstate New York, so it’s critical that we continue to work on those things,” O’Mara said. “This work will never be done, but I’m emboldened to continue to work it. With Democrat majorities in both houses of the state legislature now, a Republican presence is more important than ever. A one-party system will not bode well for New York State as a whole in the long-term.”

O’Mara emphasized the latter portion of that sentiment, calling the current Democratic leadership of the state “extreme and many times radical” and touted himself as the “strong Republican voice” that would be able to push back on it. He pointed to the controversial bail reform legislation that took effect at the beginning of the year as an example. He went on to condemn the direction Democrats are taking the state, reiterating a common refrain that the state’s controlling party wants to institute socialism.

“College tuition to illegal immigrants, driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, the New York Health Act that my opponent supports, is a step towards socialism and bankrupting our state,” O’Mara argued.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com