Senate's 53rd District Race Features Newcomer Sam Rodgers Challenging One-term Incumbent Rachel May
The races for president and congress might be grabbing the most attention this election season, but Central New Yorkers also have a number of other choices to make on the state level. WAER News has been spotlighting some of those races in recent weeks.
Today, we profile the 53rd senate district where a political newcomer is trying to unseat a one term incumbent.
Republican Sam Rodgers announced his intentions back in January, hoping to get in front of as many voters as possible in a diverse district that includes much of Syracuse and other parts of Onondaga County, and all of Madison County.
"We thought that would give us a really good opportunity to be in a very competitive race. Obviously, in the middle of March, that got torpedoed."
But like every other candidate, he pivoted. Rodgers says being new to the process might give him a small advantage.
"Part of why I'm running is a new, fresh perspective. I'm someone who's younger, running on my ability to learn and make adjustments. As I look at our government, our businesses, and our region, we need people who can learn quickly and adjust, especially with COVID."
The former Syracuse football captain turned lawyer appears to be combining the tried and true knocking on doors and traveling the sprawling district with posting quick videos to social media to reach voters.
"...I talked to a nice gentlemen he told me something I hadn't heard yet. He said, 'Sam, thanks for coming by, but I actually already voted.' It's September 30th, and people are voting already. This election cycle is different than any that has happened before..."
While the pandemic has changed campaigning and voting, incumbent Democrat Rachel May says many of the issues have stayed the same. She noted inequalities in fresh food access during this virtual meeting.
"...Farmers had their supply chains set up in ways to package milk to ship to an institution like a college that was cooking in very large quantities, and had to shift and package it so it could be sold at retail and people stuck at home. We noticed a lot of shortages..."
She's also been championing better access broadband.
"This is something I've been working on since I came into office. It was an issue before; now, it's something people get as something that's important. I feel like there are a lot of issues that have been there all along that have been highlighted by the pandemic. In fact, the problems are bigger, but my job is slightly easier because people understand. I don't have to constantly be explaining to them that this is important."
May says broadband access is just as much an issue in the city as it is in rural areas, and has become essential as families work…and children learn…remotely. That includes lawmakers, who haven’t been in Albany much during the pandemic. May says, though, they have been busy.
"We're doing a ton of constituent services because this is a moment where people need government to come through for them at the personal level, gettting unemployment benefits, or getting PPE for their business."
But challenger Sam Rodgers says May and others could have clearly done more during the earliest days of the pandemic, despite the legislature agreeing to a state of emergency that ceded nearly all decisions to Governor Andrew Cuomo. Rodgers says May missed a critical opportunity to challenge the governor on his order requiring nursing homes to accept patients regardless of their COVID-19 status.
"My opponent said nothing about that policy. Part of that is because they went home and weren't part of these decisions. But the other part is...you're the chair of the senate aging committee. You have to say something. I understand that the governor is a Democrat, and it's the same party. But you have to say, 'this is illogical. Let's talk about this. Let's collaborate. Where can you make this policy better.'"
The policy has been widely criticized for being a factor in at least 6,600 deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Meanwhile, state and local governments are facing rivers of red ink from the pandemic’s economic impact. May says they’re awaiting the governor’s revised budget, and stand ready to make adjustments. She worries most about the safety net agencies that the state is supposed to support.
"They had contracts with the state. They had expectations from the state. And the state isn't paying. I'm very concerned about the non profits and their ability to keep doing the important work they're doing."
It’s clear the state will have to make cuts to fill an estimated $15 billion budget gap, and Rodgers has some ideas…from doing away with public campaign financing, to eliminating pensions for state lawmakers. Voters in the 53rd senate district are deciding whether to give Sam Rodgers a chance…or stay with Rachel May for a second term.