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Year of the Woman?

State Senate Democrats are betting on female candidates this year, but some question if all of them deserve their support

By Kathryn Geurin

New York State Senate Democrats have high hopes this year that 12 women candidates will win seats across the state. Three of those races are local, and at least one is not going their way. Canidate Susan Savage has ties to the Conservative Party and has run an off-kilter campaign derided by politicians on both sides of the aisle. The race has led some to question if Democrats are paying too much attention to their candidate’s gender while ignoring their candidate’s positions and standing in the community.

Asked at a rally in Hyde Park about the party’s blanket support for women candidates including Savage, Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), who headed up recruitment for the Senate Democrats, replied, “There is no litmus test to be a Democratic candidate for Senate in New York. They are each unique women.” Speaking later at the Rally, Krueger alluded to Metroland’s question: “Someone asked me if we’re just supporting any woman,” said Krueger, laughing. “We’re not picking these women up on street corners.”

The rally, held on Eleanor Roosevelt’s birthday, drew an eclectic crowd of women to Didi Barrett’s campaign headquarters for “an old fashioned Women’s Rally,” celebrating a century of progress for women’s rights and championing Barrett’s campaign for state Senate.

Across the street, the grounds of Springwood, the home Eleanor Roosevelt shared with her husband, could be seen rolling towards the historic fieldstone estate. A lineup of women public officials and community advocates invoked the legacy of women in American politics, reading speeches and sharing pivitol moments in women’s history from the likes of Sojourner Truth, Shirley Chilsolm and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

From a podium bearing the mantra “When Women Vote, Democrats Win,” Barrett’s daughter Annabel sang a version of Peggy Lee’s hit “I’m a Woman,” which she’d rewritten for Barrett’s Campaign.

There was much talk of sisterhood, diversity and collaboration—and of securing better legislative representation for New York’s women.

Women comprise 51 percent of the state’s population, but only 16 percent of the state Senate, a gap Democrats are hoping to cash in on this election.

Statewide, a slate of 12 women Democrats are running to unseat Republican senate incumbents—an unprecedented number.

This was no mistake on the Democrats’ part.

According to Austin Shafran, spokesman for the Senate Majority Conference, the Democrats actively recruited women candidates. “We’re working to expand the representation of women in the senate, with a large slate of women candidates who have the experience to take on tough issues like job creation and property tax relief,” he says. “It’s important that we elect more women legislators. . . . We need greater representation for our female population and we need better ideas to combat the issues.”

In the unlikely event that all 12 win their respective races, it would up the percentage of women in the state Senate to more than a third.

Shafran also points to a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center, which revealed that Americans percieve women to be more honest leaders, a view Democrats hope will help sway voters this election.

To streamline their efforts, six weeks ago, the New York State Democratic Senate Campaign Committee established 16% and Rising, a website dedicated to highlighting the slate of women candidates.

The site is a venue for unifying “efforts on the campaign trial, ongoing policy conversations, information about local volunteer opportunities,” says Shafran. “We’re trying to connect voters across the state with the women running to change Albany.”

On Oct. 18, the chair of the Schenectady County Legislature, Susan Savage, and 44th District incumbent Sen. Hugh Farley (R-Schenectady) went head to head in a debate at the Schenectady County Public library, one in a series of debates sponsored by the League of Women Voters. The library’s large McChesney Room was standing room only, and interested voters spilled into the vestibule and parking lot to hear the candidates speak on their ideas for the struggling 44th, which encompasses all of Schenectady, Fulton and Montgomery counties and western Saratoga County.

Farley, who will celebrate his 78th birthday next month, is running for his 18th term, a fact that engendered hearty laughs from the crowd when both candidates articulated their support for term limits.

The New York League of Conservation Voters has declared defeating Farley their top priority for the 2010 election, calling his record on environmental issues “appalling,” and launching a campaign of their own—including television and radio ads, mailings and direct voter contact—dubbed “F is for Farley.”

Many anticipated that the Democrats had a strong shot at snagging this long-held Republican district, but early polling by the Siena Research Institute had Farley leading by an 18-point margin over Savage, and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee shifted resources from Savage’s campaign earlier this month, although Savage says that she is still receiving the party’s full support.

Savage, who has a history of Conservative support in her district, initially attempted to secure the Conservative line as a write-in against Farley, and then to create a Change Albany Now! line, but ended up running on the Democratic ticket.

Asked in a phone interview whose interests she best represents, Savage said she is receiving support across party lines. “I think I best represent the people and families of the 44th District, their interests,” she says. “That’s what my goal is. It doesn’t matter what party you’re in.”

In early September, Savage’s campaign aired a television ad that was widely lambasted by voters, politicians and the media. Over panoramas of a flourishing strip of downtown Schenectady’s State Street, and a series of smiling white faces representing the people of the 33-percent minority city, the ad’s voiceover declared: “Not too far from Amsterdam and Saratoga Springs, a little miracle took place; it’s called Schenectady. Where not too long ago, despair hung around every corner until a local leader named Susan Savage began doing the impossible.”

The ad has been the target of derision since its release. Savage brought it up herself at the debate, turning Farley’s criticism of the ad onto him, for not fully appreciating the success of his district. Schenectady, while seemingly on the comeback trail, is still plagued by poverty and unemployment.

Farley and Savage are in a tug-of-war over credit for the success of the Metroplex, featured in the ad. Farley touts his role in the creation of the Metroplex Authority, for which he authored the legislation, while Savage says she reformed what she considers a flawed and inefficient program “by taking 32 competing, ineffective programs and creating one strong one, and expanding Metroplex focus to job creation.”

Both candidates are promoting their efforts in creating jobs for the struggling district. Savage cites her efforts to attract the General Electric Renewable Energy Headquarters and Battery Plant, and Farley says he was instrumental in bringing the New York State Department of Transportation building, the state lottery building state Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities to the area, as well as distribution centers for Target and Wal-Mart and manufacturing plants for Beech-Nut and Benjamin Moore.

Farley has raised questions about the fact that Savage’s husband, Steve Weingarten, is a partner in Weingarten, Reid and McNally, a prominent Albany lobbying firm. “We have a very serious problem with lobbyists,” says Farley. “They are insidious. I cannot even go out to dinner with a lobbyist under the state ethics law. And yet, she is married to one.”

Farley accused Savage of violating state legislative ethics law by failing to complete her ethics disclosure forms, but the forms are, in fact, on file, and disclose her husband’s position, as required, though not his clients.

Savage says she would support a law prohibiting lobbyists from lobbying members of their family, and assures her husband has never lobbied her in her 12 years in office.

“It is 2010, and I think that it is pretty sexist for Sen. Farley to focus on what my husband does,” says Savage. “Women and men in the same family are going to have careers. That’s not going to change because Sen. Farley wants things to go back to the way they were in 1976.”

Savage also brought up the generational gap in discussion of Farley’s position on same-sex marriage, an issue she believes has much less resistance from young people. “If you want to change inequality,” she says, “what you do is you change the laws to reflect that. I do support marriage equality. I believe it is the civil-rights issue of our generation.”

“When you talk about marriage equality, well, everybody’s in favor of equality. Nobody is in favor of discrimination,” says Farley, “But I support that marriage is between man and a woman.”

This week, Savage’s campaign sent members of the media a video clip from a GOP candidate forum held early this month by the New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a group dedicated to “influencing legislation and legislators for the Lord Jesus Christ,” In the clip, Farley calls same-sex marriage “abhorrent.”

“We stopped it,” he adds, ensuring, “If we take back the Senate we’re going to stop a lot of things.”

In the 43rd Senate district, Saratoga Springs Supervisor and Democratic Senate hopeful Joanne Yepsen took the podium at a Rally for Respect in Troy’s monument square earlier this month, organized by her campaign following Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino’s comment that homosexuality was not an “equally valid or successful option.”

Bundled against the cold and flanked by a carefully populated backdrop of supporters, pulled from the crowd by Yepsen’s campaign manager, the senate hopeful joined a lineup of public officials and private citizens to speak about the importance of respect and equality in our political discourse. “Embrace Diversity” read one colorful, bubble-lettered sign. Another, “Stop the Hate.”

The theme has been echoed by her opponent’s campaign as well—in their case, in response to what they consider a vicious campaign from Yepsen.

Yepsen has attacked Sen. Roy McDonald (R-Wilton), the former Saratoga County supervisor and New York state assemblyman who replaced long-time incumbent Joe Bruno (R-Bruswick) in the Senate, for his attendance record, accessibility and full-time employment as a vice president with M&T Bank—a job Yepsen claims results in a conflict of interest for McDonald, who, Yepsen points out, voted against two bills for foreclosure protections in the past year.

According to Kris Thompson, McDonald’s campaign manager, “She’s comparing apples to oranges. This is a part-time legislature. He has a special-needs family that he needs to provide for. I don’t think anyone would deny him an opportunity to earn a living.”

A mailer, released earlier this month by the Yepsen campaign, charged McDonald as “Missing,” ranking in the bottom 10 of senators for his attendance record and having spoken “barely 700 words on the Senate floor in almost 2 years.” The mailers were quickly fact-checked by numerous media outlets and revealed to be inaccurate.

“She’s admitted to that,” says Thompson, “but failed to withdraw the piece or offer an apology. She wants to engage the senator on inaccuracies and mistruths. We want to talk about the issues that are relevant to the people who live in New York state, specifically upstate New York.”

Yepsen is eager to talk about the issues, however, and did so over coffee in Troy. “The foundation of good government is good fiscal management, and that is what I do for a living,” says Yepsen, who, after 17 years in the Skidmore College development office started a consulting business, working with regional nonprofits and small businesses. “I analyze and evaluate how they can be fiscally stronger by spending less money and bringing in more revenue. For the state, the number-one problem I’ll be tackling is getting the fiscal house in order and representing my constituents in that process.”

She promises, if elected, to create a citizen-action group, drawing representatives from every community in the district to facilitate communication with her office, and to make her public calendar, legislative proposals, income and funding requests available online—a move toward transparency she has appreciated from U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. “I have been the accessible county supervisor,” she says, “and I will be the accessible senator.”

Yepsen also has proposed the formation of a multilevel governmental forum that would bring together representatives from the local, state and federal levels on a quarterly basis to collaborate on issues like economic and waterfront development, as well as the creation of an upstate, bipartisan caucus, “regardless of party, regardless of gender,” she says, “to be a strong voice for upstate interests.”

“Coming into the state level from the county,” says Yepsen, “my allegiance will not be with just shifting the costs from the state to the county. All that ends up doing is falling on the taxpayers’ backs. We need to stop spending money we don’t have and maximize federal funding.”

Asked about McDonald’s ability to represent the interests of women in the 43rd district, Thompson stated, “Certainly he’s working for women for children and for families in upstate New York,” and cited, in particular, McDonald’s work preserving open space and his record as an advocate for families dealing with autism.

The senator’s two grandsons suffer from autism; McDonald created the Saratoga County Autism Council, has held numerous community forums with families dealing with autism and sponsored legislation to raise autism awareness among first-responders.

That kind of personal investment in the legislative process is exactly why Yepsen believes it is important women be better represented in state government. “We can be a stronger voice for women and familes,” she says. “We are women, and we are mothers. And we’ll be more in tune with women’s concerns.”

In the 41st District, Didi Barrett, a lifelong Democrat, has criticized her opponent, Sen. Steve Saland (R-Poughkeepsie), for “voting in lockstep with his party 98 percent of the time,” and says that independent thinking from legislators is vital in the representation of the district, which includes all of Columbia County and a portion of Dutchess County.

The district has been a Republican stronghold for a century; Franklin Roosevelt was the last Democrat voted into the state Senate, and he failed to carry the district in the presidential election. But the enrollment of Democratic voters has been steadily increasing. They gained a slight majority in the district prior to the 2008 presidential election.

“It’s not as conservative of a district as it was 100 years ago, or even 30 years ago when the incumbent was elected,” says Barrett, who is proud to bring new ideas to the table.

“New York has been a progressive bellwether,” she said to the room of supporters at the women’s rally, “but we don’t see that anymore. We truly need to get back to being that. We are the Empire State and we want to regain that respect in the world and in the country. And we can.”

Her speech at her campaign rally garnered enthusiastic cheers from the modest crowd, but the roadsides leading to her campaign headquarters were peppered with Saland signs. When running against a 20-year incumbent, says Barrett, name recognition is the biggest hurdle to overcome.

The only candidate in the three races without experience in public office, Barrett is a longtime community leader and founder of numerous nonprofit organizations, including the Dutchess Girls Collaborative, an alliance of programs and providers that address the needs of young women. Barrett is a former journalist who wrote for The New York Times, and has served on the boards of various committees.

“I have a track record,” she says, “of bringing private money and public money together and looking for outside-the-box solutions to launch and sustain organizations.”

“In terms of job creation,” says Barrett, “I really do believe that we do have an opportunity to take advantage of and support economic engines that really make the most of the best of our region. I see those as the agriculture economy, cultural tourism, renewable energy and nanotechnology.”

Saland, a lawyer who came to the seat after 10 years in the state Assembly, touts his work to expand the Empire Zone designation to include southern Dutchess County, his securing of $21.5 million in grants for job training and economic development, and providing training for more then 3,500 regional employees and more than 100 companies.

According to Barrett, the state’s system for funding schools is broken, and needs to be completely reexamined. While Saland has been chairman of the Education Committee, she says, property taxes increased 47 percent, a burden, she says, that is causing home and business owners to leave the area. “And look at where we are right now. Two schools in Poughkeepsie have closed. Teachers are being let go all over the district. Kids are not graduating. This is not a system that’s working. . . . We need to find a better way, a different way to fund our schools.”

Saland claims that he secured nearly $28 million in grants for local schools and libraries, to ease the burden on taxpayers, and that he rejects any bills that pose unfunded mandates on school systems. Saland sponsored the School Accountability Law, which mandates fiduciary training for school boards and enhances the auditing of districts.

“We need to stave the bloodletting,” says Barrett, “by coming up with short-term property tax relief.” Barrett supports a property tax circuit breaker instead of a tax cap, which would reduce the tax liability for households whose property taxes claim a large portion of their income.

A longtime activist for women’s rights, Barrett says, “I think having more women in the state Senate and having a person who has a history of activism for women’s concerns and reproductive rights is going to be a voice that hasn’t really been heard strongly.”

Saland did not return calls for comment, but did tell Metroland he believes “the race is about issues, not about gender,” and said, if he were a betting man, he would bet on himself.

All three Democratic candidates have stated their full support of the Marriage Equality Act, and have been endorsed by pro-abortion-rights organizations, including the influential Emily’s List, and environmental advocacy groups.

Democrats have highlighted the Republican incumbents’ conservative stances on marriage equality and reproductive rights.

But in the face of major fiscal crisis, for many voters, social and environmental concerns have taken a backseat to job creation and tax reform.

“Pocketbook issues and health issues are certainly the priority,” says Yepsen. “But I don’t want to see women’s rights or anybody’s civil rights to go back in time. It would be a serious backwards step if people are elected into office who do not support equal rights, civil rights, women’s health rights. We have gained momentum. We need to move these forward and implement them.”

“They are really not women’s issues,” says Barrett. “They are people’s issues. When you talk about education and health care and all the things that mothers care about and women care about, those issues impact everyone in this district.”

According to Sen. Krueger, “The other issues haven’t fallen off the table. They do matter hugely. They get talked about after jobs and the economy, but they are certainly still influencing voters.”

The call for change—in a year when voters are outraged with state government in the wake of the Senate coup, the fiscal crisis and one of the latest budgets in state history—permeates the campaigns of Democrats and Republicans alike.

Republicans blame the problems on an imbalance of power since the Democrats won control of the Senate in 2008. “It’s outrageous,” says Farley. “One party controls all facets of state government, and that party has neglected upstate interests.”

The system of checks-and-balances built into a three-branch government fails, Republicans claim, under one-party control.

Democrats, on the other hand, are blaming the dysfunction on longtime incumbency and Republican complicity in the Senate coup.

“If we want to change Albany,” says Savage, “we need to change the people we send to Albany.”

It’s a pitch echoed, nearly verbatim, by all three Democratic challengers.

“A lot of people express their frustrations and their disappointments by not turning out at the polls, says Barrett. “But if you don’t vote for who you want to see in office, you have to put up with someone else’s choices.”

According to Krueger, who repeats the mantra, “When women vote, Democrats win,” the better the voter turnout in general, the better the election cycle will be for Democrats. “The fact is, there are just more of us than them,” she says.

That may be true statewide, but in local races where Republican voters outnumber Democrats, simply getting people to the polls will not be enough to secure Democratic victory.

These races could likely be decided by the key unaffiliated voters, or “blanks.”

“We know that we need women’s votes, and we need the independent vote,” says Yepsen, who considers 16% and Rising a valuable tool for getting that message out. “It is a mechanism,” she says, “to alert the public to where we are now and where we need to go.”

As for the chances the state Senate will welcome 12 new women senators into its chambers?

“I never believed that all 12 could win,” says Krueger, “and I don’t have a crystal ball; I’ve learned that predicting outcomes this close to an election is not that useful. But I am confident that we will have more women in the state Senate in the new session in 2011.”

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