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The Hot Seat?

Incumbent Senator Neil Breslin and challenger Shawn Morse fight bitterly for the 44th Senate District seat

by Erin Pihlaja on September 7, 2012


Senator Neil Breslin and Shawn Morse debate the issues at Russell Sage college on Tuesday night. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

Politics tends to be an arena suited for the aggressive, and the race between New York state Sen. Neil Breslin (D-Albany) and Shawn Morse, a Cohoes firefighter and Albany County legislative chairman, has been one of most contentious in the Capital Region this year.

Morse has asserted that Breslin has held the 46th Senate District seat for too long and has grown out of touch with the issues that everyday people face. “I’ve seen it as a firefighter when we lost jobs and had to do more with less,” Morse said. “I’ve seen it as a taxpayer and as a county legislator faced with a county ready to go belly up. I’ve seen the failures of the Senate not doing what needs to be done to make sure that local government functions as a solvent government.”

“It’s a challenge to make sure you’re on a team to pass progressive legislation to help people,” said Breslin, who has served for 16 years. “When I feel it’s no longer a challenge, I’ll step down.” But come primary day, Sept. 13, Breslin may be unseated by Morse, as the senator for the newly redrawn 44th Senate District. The old 46th was Albany County, and the new district encompasses the cities of Albany, Troy, Rensselaer, and Cohoes, as well as the towns of Bethlehem and Colonie.

The changed district likely will impact the election. Breslin, raised in a working-class neighborhood in Albany, has a wide support base within the city. Morse, raised in a Cohoes housing project, has called on his community roots on the east side of the Hudson River.

Shawn Morse answers questions from the local news after the debate. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“At first I was upset, the Constitution says to try to give vitality to counties,” Breslin said of the district change. “I was the only senator in the state who represented one county exclusively, but it’s been exciting meeting new people. I have had a lot of support coming up to speed on issues.”

Both men agree on many of the same issues, including marriage equality, a raise in the state minimum wage, and the importance of labor unions. During a debate between the two men at Russell Sage College on Tuesday night, they both agreed that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is “plastic.” Beyond that, it’s clear that the men have plenty of grudge-inducing material on one another.

Breslin’s camp has questioned the character of Morse, and hired an investigator to research his background. Morse said that he had released all of his records in 2004 when he ran for the Albany County Legislature. Some of his past infractions include an arrest for a physical altercation in 1989 and an arrest for driving while intoxicated that he said happened 15 or 16 years ago. At Tuesday’s debate, Breslin said, “Character counts. Our campaign had heard lots of rumors, no one should go forward with rumors.” Breslin admitted that their camp had a researcher who checked Morse’s records, but denied that an investigator was hired to follow Morse or his family.


Senator Neil Breslin addresses local reporters after Tuesday's debate. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

Morse answered back, “Character is getting back up after you’ve made the mistakes—live, learn and pass it on to others. Maybe he’s concerned that I’m winning the race and [thinks], ‘I’ve got to figure out a way to discredit him and his family.’”

Morse, who has the support of the self-described Independent Democratic Caucus—who separated themselves from their fellow senate Democrats and has worked closely with the Republican Senate majority—has been vocal in his attacks on Breslin’s effectiveness. “Neil Breslin was in the majority and they had a chance to get minimum wage passed,” he said. “They did absolutely nothing but talk about it. Sixteen years later, we’re still talking about it.”

“I don’t think you have to battle as a progressive to get your way,” said Breslin. “I’m respected by my peers and community.” He noted that he co-sponsored the Marriage Equality Act and is proud of his work with insurance companies. “The total of the amount we spend on various insurance is enormous,” he said. “I look at insurance companies–that they have to provide a product but at a fair equitable price that consumers can afford. It has to be equitable.”

“He’s been in office too long making friends and protecting special interests,” Morse said.

Breslin draws on his tenure in office as a good thing. “There are 62 senators, and to bring them all together has been an art form,” he said. “I think we’ve done remarkably well under those circumstances.”

But Morse maintained that it hasn’t been enough. “We need somebody in the state government who is not afraid to yell, scream, or get scratched in order to get things done,” he said. “I can work with Republicans, independents, and conservatives without giving up my values as a Democrat.”

“Never underestimate my gentleness,” said Breslin. “I don’t have to give you a mean look or punch you in the mouth to be tough.”