Reclaim New York, a self-described nonpartisan good government group with conservative connections, has been increasingly active in local government advocacy throughout the state. It's now involved in the fight over a controversial Utica project that may have political implications.
The group fighting the new Mohawk Valley Health System (MVHS) hospital say it's not the project they oppose, but the location. The proposed 25 acre facility would require knocking down historical buildings and existing businesses in downtown Utica. MVHS' board of directors decided on downtown after conducting a study of potential sites. Utica resident and former Republican Common Council candidate Jim Zecca recently posted on Reclaim New York's website about that study, asking for it to be made public.
"What are they hiding," Zecca asks. "I just don’t understand why the hospital organization is not sharing this information. They’re using $300 million of public money. Therefore, I would think this would all be an open book."
MVHS has declined to release the study. Zecca says that lack of transparency is one of the reasons Reclaim reached out to him.
He says he doesn't care that Reclaim is financially backed by conservatives - and was in part founded by President Donald Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon - because they're helping citizens get involved in local government. One of the founders of the No Hospital Downtown group Jim Brock agrees.
"We have the spectrum of people from the far right, far left and everything in between," Brock said. "Would we turn away support from Reclaim? The answer is no, of course not. Reclaim seems some issues with this hospital situation that fit within their mission, which is the abuse by government. You want to come on board and help us fight the hospital going downtown? You're more than welcome to join the battle."
But not everyone sees it as nonpartisan. No Hospital Downtown recently used a Reclaim strategy of filing public records requests to obtain emails from Oneida County officials, including Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (D-Utica). It revealed a concerted effort to locate the hospital downtown for urban development.
Utica College government professor Luke Perry says some are seizing on the revelations to target Brindisi's bid to unseat Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-New Hartford).
"It’s become a proxy political battle because it tends to be people on the conservative side of the spectrum who don’t want the hospital and they also are looking to use this in a way that politically damages Brindisi," Perry said.