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Southern Tier Election Race Could Shape Future of N.Y. Senate

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

New York’s political world is focused on a race in the Southern Tier that could help determine the future of the State Senate.

The Deputy Majority Leader of the State Senate, Tom Libous, was convicted of lying to the FBI over obtaining a politically connected job for his son, and had to resign his seat in late July. The Binghamton-based Senate district seat has been held by Republicans for the past one hundred years, and has included the former Senate Leader, Warren Anderson.

But the GOP hold on the Senate is teetering, and Republicans now have the majority in that chamber only because one Democrat meets with them in their conference. The former Senate leader, Dean Skelos, remains in the Senate but faces a trial on corruption charges in the fall. If convicted, he’d also be forced to resign.

The former county executive of Broome County, and close Cuomo ally, Barbara Fiala is hoping to win the seat for the Democrats.

“I believe I can, with your help, win this district,” she declared to an enthusiastic crowd on July 30.

Fiala, who is 71, was Cuomo’s Motor Vehicles Commissioner until she stepped down late last year. Even before she announced her candidacy, the Governor was already talking her up, and saying he’d endorse her.

“She is a really quality person of high integrity,” said Cuomo. “She is the kind of person who should be welcomed in state government.”

It might not seem unusual for a Democratic Governor to back a Democratic candidate for the State Senate. But Cuomo has had a close relationship with Republicans in the Senate, so much so that he’s been criticized by the left in his own party for not doing enough to help Democrats get elected to the Senate.

The newly chosen Deputy Majority Leader of the Senate, John DeFrancisco of Syracuse, said he thinks Cuomo is responding to anger from his party’s base, as well as sinking poll numbers among Democrats.

“The people on the left are mad at him for his inaction in the past,” said DeFrancisco. “I think this is a perfect opportunity for him to jump out and be noticed, that he’s going to be backing the Democratic candidate.”

But Senator DeFrancisco said while he likes and respects Fiala, her positions on key issues, like Cuomo’s gun control act, which she’s been for, and hydrofracking, which she’s against, may put her at odds with many in the district who resent the gun laws and wanted the natural gas drilling to help the stumbling economy. And he said the governor’s support could backfire.

“An endorsement that strong may work in the opposite direction,” De Francisco said.

Republicans have nominated a well-regarded deputy sheriff of Broome County, Fred Akshar, as their candidate in the race, perhaps with an eye to the longevity enjoyed by past holders of the seat. Warren Anderson held it for 35 years; Libous for 27. The new GOP candidate is 36 years old.

“The 52nd district needs a fresh face, fresh ideas, somebody with energy and passion,” Akshar said at his announcement on Monday. “And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins admits that winning the Southern Tier Senate seat will be an uphill battle, but she said it can be done, mainly on the strength of the Democratic candidate

“It is going to be tough race,” she said. “It is a heavily Republican district.”

But Cousins said Fiala is an “excellent” candidate who understands the Southern Tier and its needs. 

Cousins said she’s glad Cuomo is stepping in to influence the race, and hopes he will provide needed support through the state Democratic Party, which Cuomo controls

Republicans are also highly motivated to win. DeFrancisco points out that if the GOP loses the former Libous seat, it will no longer have a true numerical majority in the Senate. He said “one illness, one situation” could put the Republicans’ control of the Senate in jeopardy.

There’s no official date set yet for the election, but it’s expected to be on this year’s day for local elections, Nov. 3.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.
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