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State Sen. Dave Valesky and challenger Rachel May debate on the Campbell Conversations

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State Sen. Dave Valesky (D-Oneida), right, and his Democratic challenger Rachel May, during their only debate ahead of the Sept. 13 primary

Across the country, Democratic Party primaries have generated a lot of attention, enthusiasm and some surprising results. Primaries in New York have figured in this trend. This week, host Grant Reeher moderates a debate between the two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in central New York's 53rd state Senate district, incumbent Sen. Dave Valesky and challenger Rachel May. 

Note: Audio of the broadcast version of the debate is below. An additional 10 minutes of content that did not make it into the broadcast version can be found below the debate transcript. 

Editor's note: An earlier version of this transcript mentioned state Sen. Liz Krueger as having been involved in a corruption case. It was state Sen. Carl Krueger. We have fixed the error.

Debate Transcript:

Reeher: So, let me start with a couple questions that explore a particular issue. A lot of this particular election, but also other Senate primaries in New York state, have been about the IDC, the Independent Democratic Conference. It’s no longer active, but it is something that Sen. Valesky was a founding member of, and so, I want to explore that. Ms. May, I’ll start with you. Could you just explain, briefly and specifically, how you think the senator’s participation in that conference hurt the representation of the 53rd District?

May: Sure. Thanks for that question. So, the IDC was formed in 2011. There were reasons for it at the time, but it also was, essentially, a way to undermine the ability of Democrats to have a working majority in the Senate. And in 2013 in particular, when voters sent a true majority of Democrats to the Senate, the IDC chose to put Dean Skelos in charge of the Senate, and as a result, a lot of legislation that I think could have been passed at that time—real, important Democratic priorities like election reform, like criminal justice reform, like updating the Reproductive Health Act, like many different Democratic priorities—just never even came up for a vote in the Senate because whoever was the Senate majority leader got to decide who would be the chairs of all the committees, and the committee chairs make those decisions. So, the result was that a lot of really important legislation just never even got to the floor of the Senate even though it was passing in the assembly over and over again. And I think this hurts the people of the 53rd District because we really need a functioning legislature that can carry out the priorities of the voters of the state. And, especially, I would say, when I’m going door to door, people are very upset about our election system and how broken it is, and that’s one that would’ve been easy to change if we’d had a Democratic majority leader.

Reeher: So, Sen. Valesky, obviously, I’m wanting to give you an opportunity to respond to that. Before I do, let me just add, today—we’re talking on Wednesday morning—the New York Times came out with an editorial endorsing three of the downstate challengers to former IDC incumbent senators, and the paper had some pretty sharp criticism for the IDC. I just want to read one brief thing here. The editorial writers say, “Over seven years, eight senators elected as Democrats gave their support to Republican leadership in return for committee assignments or other perks. They call themselves the Independent Democratic Conference, or IDC. Their self-serving acquiescence to Republican control of the Senate ensured inaction on election and criminal justice reforms and overhaul of rent laws and a funding stream for the New York City subways.” Now, you and I have talked about this before when we’ve spoken individually, and you’ve claimed that your membership in that conference actually helped you to better represent the district at that time and, actually, advance some progressive issues that would not have had the same kind of hearing. Could you explain that and also whatever you want to make in terms of a response to what Ms. May has said?

Valesky: Sure, absolutely. And again, thanks for having us on the program today.

Reeher: Sure.

Valesky: As you might guess, I certainly disagree with much of what you just quoted from the New York Times and also some of the comments made by my opponent. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. One of the most significant pieces of misinformation is that I somehow supported, voted for, Dean Skalos to be the leader of the Senate—absolutely not true. I didn’t; no member of the Independent Democratic Conference had, at any point in time, voted for Dean Skalos or any other Republican to lead the Senate. I think that’s important to note. I also think it’s important to stress that we never caucused with the Republicans. We caucused on our own, as a group first of four and ultimately of eight Democratic senators. At that point in time, there were two Democratic conferences, and I was a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, as you indicate. The other thing I think that’s important to clarify is that the majority as it exists today, the Republican majority, is a majority as a result of a Brooklyn Democrat—Sen. Simcha Felder. It has nothing to do with an organization that no longer exists—the Independent Democratic Conference. So, I’m choosing to focus on the future and moving forward, but [because of] the fact that you choose to start with this particular question, it definitely is worth repeating that we have had a number of progressive victories that Republican senates, in my opinion, would never have agreed to in a previous construct, whether it’s a $15 minimum wage that we were able to enact, a paid family leave program that’s the best in the nation, bar none. And we continue to work on ways to expand on that program. Marriage equality, which, in many ways, I think, could be considered the civil rights issue of our time, called into question whether those types of issues and those bills would ever have seen the light of day in a Republican-controlled Senate without an Independent Democratic Conference pushing those issues. In terms of issues that have not yet been resolved, it takes 32 votes to approve anything in the Senate, from the most inconsequential piece of legislation to the most significant piece of legislation—the Reproductive Health Act, which I support, does not have 32 supporters to the bill, period. So, we have tried to bring that bill to the floor. It failed. The DREAM Act—a significant piece of legislation—was defeated on the floor of the Senate. Why? Because there were not 32 votes to pass that bill.

Reeher: OK, let me follow up with you, and then, we’ll get Ms. May’s response to that and what you have to say to this because part of what is in that editorial and what has been a huge issue in the state for a number of years—and again, the IDC has been, at least asserted to be, a factor in all this—is the question of corruption in Albany. And certainly, that’s been a theme, Ms. May, of your campaign, that the legislative system is corrupt on multiple levels. Senator, how do you see the legislative system in Albany at present? I mean, where are the problems in this system, and how bad are they actually?

Valesky: Well, we continue to make strides in improving the system, as you indicate, in Albany. We’ve passed ethics reform. We have to do much more in terms of campaign finance reform, in particular, voter reform. I do just want to point out and take you back—while you refer to this issue—back to the beginning of the Independent Democratic Conference, formed out of several corruption cases from the former Democratic majority almost a decade ago now—Sen. [Malcom] Smith, Sen. [John] Sampson, Sen. [Carl] Krueger and others. We, at that point in time, were known as the most dysfunctional legislature in the entire nation. And I and a handful of my Democratic colleagues said, “There’s got to be a better way. The status quo is just not working.” And we formed that organization. It’s resulted in progressive achievements. It’s resulted in on-time budgets. It’s resulted in a legislature restraining what, prior to that point, had been out-of-control state spending—two, three times the rate of inflation—so it’s a government that’s working again, and it’s a government that used to be known for dysfunction. It no longer is.

Reeher: Ms. May, how do you see the record on corruption and missed opportunities or things that need to be done?

May: OK, I disagree that it’s a government that’s working again. Corruption is a serious problem in Albany. Albany is really broken, and people are losing faith in it. And we really need to do something about that. We have the IDC, you can play semantics about it was not caucusing with the Republicans. It was definitely making sure Republicans had the power, and in doing that, in return for a lot of perks—a lot of bonuses that were ethically questionable [like] access to Republican donors, the Republicans didn’t run against IDC members, so they were able to rack up big campaign war chests—those kinds of things start to smack of pay-to-play. And eventually, I think you see corruption swirling around the IDC with lots of questions about illegal campaign contributions to this independence party fund, and that sort of thing. So, the appearance of corruption is every bit as important to people as actual corruption, but I think there’s both of those things going on with the IDC. I think, even more though, it’s the cynicism, saying, “Oh well, we didn’t caucus with them, and so, you can’t accuse us of empowering the Republicans” when, in fact, if voters chose a Democratic majority and the IDC made sure that they were not in power, then that’s immaterial, whether you were caucusing with them or not. I think you have to be honest. So, my opponent can say he supports the New York Health Act, but he has been very instrumental in making sure that the leadership of the Senate would never bring it up. And so, people are upset about that. When I go door to door, people are angry that he does one thing and says another.

Reeher: Well, let me interject and ask you, thinking about now with the way the system works, what specific reforms would you be pushing for in the Senate to change the way it functions presently?

May: OK, so we need an independent ethics body. JCOPE is dependent on the governor, and I think it needs to be truly independent. We need ethics reconfiguration within the Senate as well. So, my opponent sits on the ethics committee, but when one of the members of his conference was accused of sexual misconduct last winter, within an hour, he was saying that he supported him, which I think if you’re on the ethics committee, you ought to be keeping an open mind, and you ought to be willing to have hearings and wait before you say how you stand on something. So, ethics, both in terms of money corruption—we definitely need serious campaign finance reform, and I would go with public financing of campaigns, but we also need an independent ethics body that can really take on these cases and adjudicate them in ways that people see as fair and impartial and also rapid. It shouldn’t take years to hear some of these cases; they should be decided quickly.

Reeher: Senator, I know you want to respond to that, but we’ll have to do it after the break. You’re listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I’m Grant Reeher. We’ll continue the conversation after a short break.

Reeher: Welcome back to the Campbell Conversations. I’m Grant Reeher, and I’m talking with two candidates for the Democratic nomination for state senator in New York’s 53rd District: the incumbent senator, Dave Valesky, and challenger, Rachel May. Senator, before the break, Ms. May had set forward not only some, in terms of corruption, criticisms of the IDC, but then also what she thinks the changes need to be. If I could ask you to respond in two ways: one, to those criticisms, first of all, and then, secondly, in terms of the kinds of reforms that she’s advocating for, do you agree? Do you see different things that we need?

Valesky: Well, there’s a lot to respond to from her previous response. I can’t go through each point and identify each item, that frankly, in this world of alternative facts that were dealing with, that’s what they are. But I’ll certainly highlight one of them again because it’s not semantics. A caucus is a very clear definition. A caucus is a group, in this case, of senators, who gather with each other to debate and develop proposals, and the Independent Democratic Conference, beginning at four, ending at eight, caucused with each other. There was no caucusing with Republicans. That’s not a semantic issue; that’s a fact. Another fact, again: we never, at any time, supported a Republican to lead the state senate. That’s a fact. Senate Republican majority is made a majority today by Sen. Simcha Felder, as I indicated earlier, providing that 32nd vote. That’s a fact. At one point in time, I was a member of the ethics committee. I am no longer a member of the ethics committee, so again, what we’re seeing here is, time and again, facts that are no longer or a situation which no longer exists in the state senate. My focus, Grant, is positive development of proposals moving forward that help central New Yorkers. When it comes to ethics and oversight, I just want to certainly single out a very important piece of legislation. Economic development, I think, is one of the most critical issues that we continue to face. Job development, skills training, I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of organizations in town, [like] Jubilee Homes to create a job-to-work program to provide young, minority youth with additional skills training. The Manufacturers Association created an apprentice program to be able to replace jobs where there’s an aging workforce in the manufacturing sector in central New York. That’s what I’m anxious to continue to do, as it relates to the overall economic development program in the state, the Senate, with my strong support, approved legislation, that’s pending in the assembly, to return oversight of all of the contracting of all state agencies to the comptroller’s office so that we can assure taxpayers in the state of New York that their taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely. So, there’s a lot to do in terms of reform of the system. I’ve always been a part of reform movements and efforts, and I’m certainly going to continue that going forward.

Reeher: What about this argument that there needs to be more independence and more enforcement power with JCOPE and to set that up differently and to restructure that? And that’s something that Ms. May mentioned. What are your views on that?

Valesky: I think it’s time to take another look at that, that that structure is only a couple of years old. I think it was an improvement over what previously existed, but again, with reform, it’s a work in progress. So, we need to make something better that was created a few years ago, and I certainly agree and believe that that’s an important issue to tackle.

Reeher: OK, so I do want to now put the IDC behind us and, Ms. May, return to you. Let’s just look at the current set of policy issues and positions of the two of you. What are the most significant current policy differences that you would identify between you and Sen. Valesky, and are there recent, specific, significant votes that the senator has taken where you would have voted differently if you had been holding that seat?

May: Right, so there was one key vote at the end of this legislative session: public school teachers very badly wanted to decouple their teacher evaluations from student tests scores. And there was a opportunity to do that. It passed in the assembly. When the bill came up in the Senate, my opponent voted to add in something like $350 million for charter schools, which was a deal-breaker for the assembly, so the bill didn’t pass. So, public school teachers were out, unable to get what they wanted, and he went on record being a big supporter of charter schools, which are big donors to his campaign and to the IDC. Sorry, but I have to keep mentioning the IDC. So, I see that as a betrayal of the public-school teachers and of our public schools in general because charter school funding enriches hedge funds while also drawing money away from the public schools.

Reeher: So, senator, do you want to explain that vote and how you see that policy issue?

Valesky: Sure, I’d be happy to, and that’s an important issue. And I know very well the issues that public school teachers face. Both of my parents are retired public school teachers, so I’ve been in a family of teachers all my life.

Reeher: Did they give you a hard time about the vote?

Valesky: No, they did not, actually. And why not? Because that bill, which was the only bill that the Senate put on the floor at the end of the legislative session, included what I thought was the number one priority of teachers. I hear from teachers all of the time the pressures that they are feeling. It’s an extremely difficult job. The issue of using test scores as part of teacher evaluation, that’s the number one priority of teachers that have met with me over the years. The bill that came up—the only bill that came up at the end of the session—included that decoupling of test scores with teacher evaluations. I’m confident that, when we return to Albany in session, we’ll get an agreement between the two houses of the legislature, get that bill to the governor for his consideration just as soon as possible. But when you’re in a legislature, you don’t have the opportunity to pick and choose. You have a bill that’s on the floor of the Senate. You vote up or down; you can’t vote “yes” on parts you might like and “no” on parts you might not like. That was a piece of legislation that accomplished a very significant goal, and again, I’m hopeful that, when we return to Albany, we’ll be able to resolve that issue.

Reeher: Let’s stay with schools, and I’m going to ask a question about another issue. It’s been a source of conflict between Cynthia Nixon and Gov. Cuomo, and that’s the issue of raising taxes to increase overall funding for schools. She’s for that. He’s against it, basically to boil it down. Ms. May, where are you on that issue in terms of the funding of schools and the need for additional taxes to get there?

May: I definitely feel that our schools are not getting the full funding that they need, certainly the funding that was adjudicated as important to them back over a decade ago in the Alliance for Quality Education case. We’re billions of dollars short of what our schools deserve, and in addition to that, I think we also need to put more money into very early childhood education, both universal pre-K, but also even earlier childcare kinds of education issues. So, I think you get the best return on investment by putting public dollars into education, and the earlier, the better. The younger the kids, the higher the return is on the investment. And you got a very low return on investment from allowing the kind of huge disparity income inequality that we have in the state. So, I have no problem with advocating for small increases in the higher rates both on income taxes, but also I think financial transactions tax that would reign in a little bit of the runaway profits on wall street that are drawn away from main street.

Reeher: Can you give me an idea of the scale of the increase that you would be in favor of?

May: Of the financial transactions tax?

Reeher: And both. How much are looking to [change]?

May: I’ve been reading it doesn’t take much. It could be .03, .04 percent tax, something pretty small, that would really yield billions of dollars in revenue and really not hurt any individual.

Reeher: And as far as income taxes go, because I want to get some specifics here, what type of raise in the marginal rates would you be looking to see?

May: Well, right now, we have a rate, I believe, that goes up to somewhere around $200,000, and then, there’s a higher rate up to $2 million or something like that. I think you could graduate that in between so that you’re raising more revenue, and once you get up to $500,000 or a million dollars, you could increase it by a percentage point or something like that. I don’t have exact numbers.

Reeher: OK. Sen. Valesky, funding of the schools and increasing taxes to do it.

Valesky: Well, I have supported budgets over the years that have resulted in record increases in state support for public schools, whether it be the City of Syracuse Public School District, one of the high-needs districts in the state, whether it be support for suburban schools, and rural schools as well are struggling in many ways. One of the things I was able to do recently was not part of the budget process, but working as part of the central New York delegation in the Senate and the assembly. We were able to approve legislation, the governor just signed it, removing a $20 million penalty on the North Syracuse Central School District. If that North Syracuse school district penalty had been allowed to continue, it literally would’ve bankrupted that school district, so I’m proud of my support and my record in support of education. As far as taxes go, we are already one of the highest tax states in the nation, and we have made great progress, Grant, over the last several years. We have enacted the largest middle class income tax cut in several decades. In fact, I think the rate has not been at this level, this low, since the 1950s. We are an over-taxed state. We have over-taxed constituents here in central New York and all across the state, so I think the focus, as it has been, should continue to be on containing state spending. I mentioned earlier in the program, there was a time when legislatures would spend two, three times the rate of inflation. That has not happened; those days are over. We are not spending any more than we take in. That’s called responsible budgeting, and I’m pleased that I’ve been able to participate in getting this state back on a fiscal track, which, by the way, has the highest bond ratings that we’ve had in many, many years.

Reeher: So, what would be the problem, then, of increasing the income tax rate, say for, as Ms. May suggested, someone making $500,000 or a family making $500,000? What’s the problem with increasing that by a few percentage points?

Valesky: I am happy to take a look, as I always have year after year at any proposal that yields additional revenue for public education, but, at the same time, being very, very careful when we look at taxes. We have a situation, Grant, in our state, where people are leaving the state. They’re not coming to New York; they’re leaving New York. Why? One of the most significant reasons why is because of our high tax rates, so that’s something that, again, we’d look at within the context of a budget to bring in a balanced budget. But the focus should be on spending restraint as opposed to new taxes.

Reeher: We only have about a minute and half for the broadcast part of this. I’ve been reading recently about the Roman Colosseum, so I want to ask the two of you a thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down question. But another issue that has been looming over all of these races in the state is, of course, the governor, Andrew Cuomo, and the New York Times and the endorsement that I referred to before of the downstate challengers to the IDC incumbents also took the governor to task pretty harshly. So, Ms. May, where are you on the governor? Working with the governor’s going to be a big part of your job, should you win. Thumbs up or thumbs down on the job he’s doing? What’s his approval rating for you?

May: I’m both thumbs up and thumbs down.

Reeher: Can’t do that at the colosseum.

May: I feel like his top-down management style is probably not the best. I think the legislature needs to be more independent and be able to really push him. I appreciate that his primary opponent has pushed him to be more progressive and to take a more progressive stance, so I think he clearly needs pressure. And so, we need both. So, I guess, on that, average, thumbs down.

Reeher: And on the corruption?

May: Certainly on corruption and the pay-to-play and the backroom deals. We’ve got to change all of that in Albany.

Reeher: And a couple seconds, senator.

Valesky: A couple seconds?

Reeher: Sorry.

Valesky: Well, not only can you not do thumbs up and down at the colosseum; you can’t do it on the floor of the Senate, either. It’s up or down when you’re voting on important legislation. I support the governor. I have supported the governor for seven and a half years. We’ve worked together as partners to improve the upstate economy and on so many other issues. The governor makes a point, whenever he’s in upstate, and he’s absolutely right: the focus of much of the political power is in downstate. We need strong upstate representation to make sure upstate gets its fair share. That’s what I’ve been able to do as a state senator.

Reeher: We’ll have to leave it there for the broadcast, but we’ll continue this conversation online, and you’ll be able to find that on the Campbell Conversations’ webpage at wrvo.org. Those were the two candidates for the Democratic nomination for state senator in New York’s 53rd District: incumbent Sen. Dave Valesky and challenger Rachel May. The primary election is Thursday, Sept. 13. Again, thanks so much to the two of you for taking the time to talk with me.

Valesky: Thank you, Grant.

May: Thank you.

Web Extra

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.