PAC-fueled ads take aim at Russell for standing with disgraced Assembly speaker
Two years ago, Democrat Addie Russell nearly lost her seat in the Assembly. She represents the 116th District along the St. Lawrence River, from Cape Vincent to Massena. Russell came back from a deficit on election night to win by just about 100 votes.
Now, Russell is fighting to save her political skin in a rematch with Republican challenger John Byrne. Republicans see a chance to pick up that seat by highlighting a new blemish on Russell’s record, her longstanding support for Sheldon Silver.
He’s the former Assembly speaker who was convicted of corruption. Silver’s face is plastered next to Russell’s on TV ads across the district. “Addie Russell voted to keep Sheldon Silver as speaker…when Silver was indicted; Russell remained his loyal defender….” intones a narrator in one of the commercials. These ads have set the tone for the race, which has gotten ugly.
Former Watertown mayor and conservative talk show host Jeff Graham knows what politics as usual look like in the 116th Assembly District. He was chatting about the state of this year's race when the mailman stopped in to make a delivery.
"Oh, look," Graham said, flipping through his stack of letters. "It's a John Byrne mailer." The flyer features a picture of Sheldon Silver’s face photoshopped right next to Russell’s. They almost look like they’re cuddling.
Graham said this campaign feels like a race to the bottom.
“The Byrne campaign is essentially to create a race between John Byrne and Sheldon Silver," Graham said. "The visage of Sheldon Silver with the grainy black and white photos sends a very strong message to the North Country.”
Graham reads that message as follows: Albany is corrupt, and Russell is part of the problem. She’s already served four terms in office.
Voters didn’t get this kind of deluge the last time Russell was defending her seat against Byrne, but this election cycle is different. That’s because just weeks after Russell’s 2014 victory, her Democratic leader — Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — was in handcuffs.
Silver was accused of using his private law practice as a cover for taking kickbacks. Silver had served in office for 20 years and was Gov. Andrew Cuomo's right-hand man. A lot of Democrats said they were confident that Silver would be cleared of these charges, but Russell went a step further. She spoke with North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann shortly after Silver’s arrest in January 2015:
Russell: "This may be an attempt to use the judiciary to influence policy, which wouldn’t be the first time that someone sought to get leverage on the legislature for policy, or for their own political reasons." Brian Mann: "Do I hear you correctly that you think that it’s plausible that the U.S. attorney is somehow bringing this criminal charge against the Assembly speaker for political reasons?" Russell: "I think that there certainly can be an element that there is a desire to make some changes in terms of outside income for legislators."
Silver was convicted of pocketing $5.3 million in illegal income in November 2015. But Russell didn’t disavow the former Assembly Speaker in public until this past May — after Silver was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Russell on the ropes
This week, John Byrne pounced on Russell’s loyalty to Silver during a debate on WPBS.
“We have someone in office right now who stuck up for a person who was taken away in handcuffs," Byrne said during the debate. "She said it was politically motivated. He was convicted.” Russell spent as much time on the defensive as she did promoting her record.
When Russell was asked if she regretted sticking by Sheldon Silver, she teared up during an interview, taking a deep breath before she answered.
"The whole issue has been really upsetting for everyone including myself, that someone who should have been holding themselves to a better standard didn’t," Russell said. "I don’t think I want to change myself in my beliefs that you should be innocent until proven guilty."
Russell doesn’t apologize for what she did. Instead, she said she’s been fighting to clean up Albany by banning outside income and taking away pensions from corrupt politicians like Silver. Russell said she’s not part of the problem in Albany.
“I believe I hold myself to a higher standard. But the other thing I think should be brought up is my opponent is the actually unethical cheat, [a] corrupt person.” Russell claims Byrne is misleading voters about his now-defunct plastics factory and other troubled business ventures.
The Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee has kicked in roughly $100,000 to help Russell make this point. Republicans have countered with an equal amount to tie Russell to Silver. Byrne has loaned his campaign nearly $15,000 since late August. But what may tip the scales is spending from an outside group — a super PAC called New Yorkers For Independent Action.
What money can — and can't — buy
New Yorkers for Independent Action has spent upwards of $1.5 million on negative ads across the state. According to financial disclosures, that includes big ad buys in Addie Russell’s district. The super PAC is targeting Democrats who oppose a tax credit for donations to private school education.
Russell said Byrne is benefiting from a piece of legislation that will help millionaires.
"My opponent is essentially supporting a money-laundering scheme for the rich to pad their private schools and then have the taxpayers award them with a tax credit back," Russell said.
Byrne has no official ties to the super PAC. These groups have to stay separate from individual campaigns by law. Still, it’s likely Byrne has gotten a boost from these outside attacks clogging airwaves and mailboxes across the district.
Back at his bar, political insider Jeff Graham said it's clear a lot of money has been spent on this race. But he's not sure it’s worth it. Graham said Republicans have no chance of gaining the majority in the Assembly.
“The argument that having 43 members of the minority instead of 42 of an 150-member body is tough to make," Graham said. "To say we need one more Republican assemblyman? It’s not going to make a difference.”
But it could make a difference for voters in the North Country. Russell is the last Democrat representing this region in Albany, and she’s been doing it for close to a decade. North Country Republicans think that’s long enough.
Lauren Rosenthal of NCPR contributed reporting.