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Upstate Democrats say the tide is turning in their favor

Payne Horning
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) embraces the crowd at the annual convention of the New York State Rural Democratic Conference after delivering a speech about the 2017 and 2018 elections.

Democrats in upstate New York say they may be down from the losses they suffered in the 2016 election, but not out. Party officials hope the pushback to the Republican administration in Washington, D.C., will sweep local Democrats to victory later this year. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) recently rallied an enthusiastic crowd of Democrats in downtown Syracuse who were looking for inspiration and guidance after a tough election cycle. Gillibrand offered hope, saying the political climate today is reminiscent of 2006 when she and enough Democrats were elected to take control of Congress.

"This movement, this moment right now is unique," Gillibrand said. "It’s unique in our history. I have never seen the grassroots be more powerful or important in changing social outcomes. I can't tell you how inspiring it was for me to be part of that women's march - it was the most inspiring moment of my political life."

Gillibrand was addressing the annual convention of the New York State Rural Democratic Conference, which represents and supports Democrats in 47 upstate counties. Conference Vice Chair Judith Hunter says while President Donald Trump won most of the state's rural counties, the Democrats down ballot did not fare as poorly.

"The Democratic district attorney in my county won won by 6,000 votes. Now in my small county, that’s a landslide," Hunter said. "So it’s not like Democrats were rejected everywhere and at all levels."

But Hunter says upstate Democrats are benefiting from the energy and interest that's fueling activism and marches throughout the country, like the women's marches and Indivisible grassroots groups. They hope to capture that enthusiasm for the local elections this fall. 

Oneida County Democratic Party Chair Bill Thickstun is running advertisements looking for potential Democratic candidates to run for the county's board of legislators.

"Fifteen of the seats are in republican hands. Eight of them are held by Democrats. So, we would only need to flip four seats to take control of the county legislature," Thickstun said. 

Unifying a fractured Democratic base and mobilizing them to the polls in an off-year is a tough challenge, especially considering that Democrats have come up short in recent special elections in Georgia and Kansas.

Still, Irene Stein, chair of the conference, is optimistic. Her organization has been enriched by many new members who are disturbed with Trump. Stein said Democrats are using that interest to build their ranks from the local level up and are incorporating the lessons they learned last year.   

"We’re going to tell people what we stand for," Stein said. "That message did not get out adequately in the last election. People were too confident that Trump’s irresponsible messages would work against him. They did not. He won, we were wrong. We should have made it much more clear who the Democratic Party is and what we stand for. We stand for needs of working men and women." 

Gillibrand told the conference that hitting that economic message and addressing the problems at the root of the issue will help them connect with rural voters in upstate New York, where the economic recovery has lagged behind other parts of the country. 

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.