A revised political calendar creates a quicker pace for a State Senate race

Chris Jacobs is a candidate for Congress in NY27. There will be a Republican primary for that seat in June 2020 with two other candidates already declared. Incumbent Chris Collins is still a possible contestant. It will be multi-million dollar affair.

In the meantime Jacobs is still a member of the State Senate, representing the 60th District. There is still more than 60 percent of Jacobs’s two-year term remaining before a new senator arrives in Albany in January 2021. One of the other contenders in NY27 is Senator Robert Ortt, who would also give up his current office if he runs for Congress.

The present version of the district was originally created in 2012 by the Republican-controlled State Senate for Senator Mark Grisanti, one of eight politicians who have held that seat in one geographic form or another over the past 20 years. Previous incumbents include Anthony Nanula, Al Coppola, Byron Brown, Marc Coppola, Antoine Thompson, Grisanti, Marc Panepinto, and for the past two terms, Chris Jacobs. Considering how many state legislative seats are often held by the same person for decades, this Senate District’s history is very strange.

It is almost as if the district is the Bermuda Triangle of legislative seats, where incumbents struggle to hold on, or in some cases, to move on. Geographically the district should take some sort of prize in the Gerrymandering Hall of Fame. The district starts in the Tonawandas, includes Grand Island, literally threads through a narrow strip of land in the City of Buffalo along Lake Erie, and then eventually settles in Hamburg, Orchard Park, Evans and Brant. The former Senator Grisanti lived in Buffalo, hence the thread.

This past Saturday State Assemblyman Sean Ryan announced his candidacy for the seat, a move that surprised some folks because the election is not until November 2020. Upon reflection, however, announcing now makes political sense.

With the newly created political calendar in New York State, petitions for offices on the November 2020 ballot will hit the streets next February, less than five months from now. A whole lot of things go into the preparations for a campaign. The petitioning process is the official starting line, and the dates for that activity are a hard deadline for a campaign.

As an incumbent member of the Assembly whose present district partly overlaps the Senate district, Ryan starts off with established contacts, a knowledge of the area, and voter familiarity, all of which are important advantages. What comes next is the fundraising.

Ryan has hired someone to run the money gathering operation, which is not so unusual. Senator Tim Kennedy has had a fundraiser working for him for many years.

Ryan starts out with $267,444 to spend (as of July 15), consisting of money in his Assembly and Senate campaign treasuries combined. It’s the upper limit of what might be needed that is eye-catching. Ryan told the Buffalo News “contested Senate races have become super-expensive; some have cost $3 million. You have to have a solid base of donors and supporters.” How contested this Senate race might become is not clear at this time.

Ryan could have a primary. Buffalo Delaware District Councilman Joel Feroleto is taking a look at a run. That would be an uphill battle given Ryan’s Assembly incumbency, his political cash on hand, and the support of many party politico heavy hitters.

There could be a Republican candidate in the district, but with enrollment overwhelmingly Democratic (88,234 Ds to 50,985 Rs) it is not likely that a serious Republican will emerge over the next five months before petitioning starts. The beleaguered Republicans in the State Senate would be of less help financially than they have been in the past, given their minority status in that House.

Overlaying all this is the possibility that in 2020, for the first time, there could be a program for public financing of elections for state legislative seats. The Campaign Public Financing Commission is at work on creating a system to operate such a program. The idea behind public financing is to take “big money” out of politics by encouraging small contributions that are then matched with taxpayers’ money.

New York City has had a public financing program in place for several years. While the proponents argue that such a process makes politics fairer, it might also be said that it can also make it weirder.

In the February 2019 special election for Public Advocate, a figurehead job in New York City, 15 candidates ran. Eleven received public financing. The total vote in that race was 427,355 (out of 5,180,155 eligible voters) for a turnout of just 8.2 percent. Public financing facilitated the large number of candidates with the easy availability of money. Public spending amounted to $7,178,120 in that election. Does that make sense?

The questions here, in September 2019, with a primary election eight months away and public financing still an unknown option, is will races such as the one in the 60th Senate District draw out fringe candidates who might not otherwise run? How does Ryan’s reasonably large campaign treasury factor into the possibility of public financing? How does a potential candidate for this or any other seat assess the unknown prospects of public financing? And as a candidate notes that Senate races sometimes cost in the millions of dollars, how high is the sky?