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Onondaga County Democrats Mount "Flip The Leg" Campaign Aimed At Adding To Their Ranks On Legislature

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Scott Willis
/
WAER News
Most of the county legislature's six member democratic caucus gathers for a recent Ways and Means Committee meeting. In front are Floor Leader Linda Ervin, and legislators Chris Ryan and Peggy Chase. Legislators Mary Kuhn and Vernon Williams, Jr. are in the next row. GOP lawmakers Ken Bush and John McBride chat in the background.

Onondaga County voters in traditionally republican legislative districts may have received a knock on the door from democratic candidates trying to challenge the status quo.  It’s part of a concerted effort by the democratic party to change the balance of power on the legislature called Flip the Leg.  WAER News takes a deep dive into why democrats are mounting such a strong challenge, and some of the history behind county governance.

Onondaga County government has long been dominated by republicans. There have been only four county executives since the position was created nearly 60 years ago, all of them republican.

The GOP has also dominated the legislature since it was formed in 1968. But there have been rare exceptions: Democrats began gaining steam in 1974 when they claimed 10 of the-then 24 seat body. By 1976 the legislature was split 50-50. Then, in 1978, they gained the majority.

Democrats dominated other offices, too. Lee Alexander was elected to a third term as Syracuse mayor, and Hugh Carey became governor. James Hanley was in Congress, and Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

But the bottom fell out for democrats in 1980 after the energy crisis, inflation, and recession pushed out President Carter and ushered in President Ronald Reagan. The republican wave was felt on the county legislature, where the GOP regained its grip, and hasn’t lost it since. And that’s what Flip the leg aims to change, more than 40 years later. Democratic floor leader Linda Ervin hopes to add to her six member caucus.

"There was a very concerted effort to find candidates who actually wanted to run. This is the first time since I've been down here that we found candidates for every district, and they're working to try to get down here."

Ervin arrived 12 years ago, and says the spirit of bipartisanship has ebbed and flowed.

"There were people who would listen and vote with us, sometimes. Then we went down to just four of us. They had a true supermajority over there. It was very difficult to have anyone listen and want to vote with us. Then it became behind-the-scenes talking with people, making our ideas their ideas, so we could get it through, that kind of thing. Now that we're back up to six, we thought we'd have more opportunity to do some things. But it's worse now than it was before."

Ervin is running unopposed for her seat, and is not actively part of the Flip the Leg campaign. But Joe Driscoll is, as founding organizer. He acknowledges county legislature seats traditionally aren’t given much consideration by voters.

"We never seem to pay attention much to what's going on with county government, or not as much scrutiny or attention goes to county politics as it does to city politics."

Driscoll, who’s also a city councilor, says the imbalance of power on the legislature doesn’t reflect party enrollment.

"The county has 30,000 more democrats than republicans, yet historically, democrats have been outnumbered 2 to 1. A lot of that has to do with gerrymandering. A lot of it has to do with the fact that democrats don't traditionally turn out in off years, whereas republicans are paying more attention to what's going on in local politics."

He says there’s a lot on the line: The county’s health and social services departments have seen deep cuts in the last decade, despite democrats futile attempts to maintain or expand funding and staff. And, the county will soon be redrawing district lines based on new census data. Linda Ervin says the process is too partisan, despite democrats’ efforts to make it more independent. She says Legislator Chris Ryan tried his best.

"He worked on it tirelessly, talked with folks on the other side of the aisle about it. We thought we had some understanding. We just wanted to make it a more independent look at how we do these things than it has been in the past. The city went to a system that was really good, and we thought the county should do something similar. He thought he had the votes. And then, no, he did not."

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Scott Willis
Democrat Chris Ryan makes a point during the legislature's May session as Vernon Williams, Jr. and Peggy Chase look on.

The GOP just recently rushed through measures to start the reapportionment process, even though the county charter gives the commission until March. Democrats claim the move is a not so subtle attempt to redraw district lines before a new legislature is seated in January.

In another example, Ervin says republicans cut short debate over body cameras for sheriffs patrol deputies.

"Clearly, we're in favor of body cams. But they went to the media first. My people got down here, and had some questions they wanted to ask, and they weren't getting any real answers. They said they didn't want to vote until we have answers. They wanted to know are there enough body cams, is there enough money to do what needed to be done, how soon can we have them. They just wanted some time to ask the questions, and no time was given. Here we sit today, and I don't think we have the body cams yet. "

They don't. The vote was May 4th. A request for proposals wasn’t sent out until three months later. Sheriff's Sgt. John Seeber says in an email to WAER that an initial presentation with the vendor is scheduled for October 19th. That’s more than 5 months after the issue first arose.

Republican Party leaders say the legislature and county executive are doing a great job. Onondaga County Chair Benedict Doran says she’s not concerned about the Flip the Leg campaign.

"It's a gimmick that they're using to draw attention to what they're doing. At the end of the day, republicans have a strong slate of candidates this year. Most of our candidates are incumbents that have a strong track record. Onondaga County has been very well-managed."

She says their candidates are running strong, organized campaigns.

"They always are known to work very hard, and they're working very hard doing their door-to-door, executing their plans. They always do, and I don't think they're doing anything differently than they normally would. They always work hard and don't take voters for granted."

Flip the Leg organizer Joe Driscoll says they might have a lot of first-time candidates, and some are having a harder time getting footing. But he insists they’re not placeholders.

"Everybody was put up there to try and present a challenge on all fronts. We really wanted to show that we're serious about this, and about changing the culture of the county. It's far from a gimmick. Even if we don't flip any seats, even if we lose seats, to be present and engaging in the conversation, bringing the issues, to me, this is what politics is about."