Across the country, mainstream Congressional Democrats are being challenged in primaries by more progressive, grassroots-supported candidates. It's also happening in state and local races. This week, Grant Reeher talks with Rachel May, who is challenging central New York state Senator Dave Valesky (D-Oneida) in a primary this September.
Note: This conversation was recorded June 5, one day after the Oneida County Democratic Committee endorsed May in her race with Sen. Valesky.
Reeher: We are talking, as it happens, on the day after the Oneida County Democrats endorsed you, and the Onondaga and Madison County Democratic committees endorsed Sen. Valesky. But typically, the pattern in these kinds of situations is the incumbent usually gets all of those Democratic committee endorsements. So, what happened in Oneida County?
May: I’m very proud of this endorsement because this is a committee that is pretty independent. They spent a lot of time interviewing both of us and they asked really good questions. They’re extremely active and they are frustrated, as Democrats, that our state senator has been going to Albany for the last seven years to undermine the Democratic leadership. And so, they were really willing to go out on a limb. It’s hard for a Democratic committee to endorse someone other than an incumbent, and they took that step boldly. And I am extremely proud of it.
Reeher: Your campaign initially focused on, when you first announced, Sen. Valesky’s participation in the Independent Democratic Conference, the IDC…Since your campaign’s start, the IDC has dissolved, and its members now have rejoined the mainline Democratic conference. So now that the IDC is dissolved, how does that affect your message about challenging the Democratic incumbent?
May: I’m very proud of the fact that the IDC has dissolved because it was the result of a year of really intensive organizing by myself and a lot of other people in this district and across the state. So, I consider that a victory, but I also have to say that the IDC is a symptom and not the disease. And the disease, to my mind, is cynicism. I think even what got Donald Trump elected was this message that people have been hearing for years, that “It doesn’t matter if I vote; it doesn’t matter who I vote for…The government is not looking out for my interests”…The IDC, by coming into the district and telling the voters that, “We are good Democrats. We’re progressive Democrats. We’re doing this to advance a progressive agenda” and at the same time, going to Albany and making sure that those progressive bills never even come up for a vote because the leadership was given over to the Republicans, that fed that kind of cynicism, I think. And then, this decision in April to suddenly turn on a dime and say, “All of the things we’ve been saying about how important the IDC has been, how valuable it’s been, we’re throwing that all out the window and we’re rejoining the Democrats.” They didn’t do it because they had a change of heart. They did it because they were afraid of our primary challenges. And they, I think, didn’t want to have to defend their record to the voters. So, I kind of saw that as an even more cynical move, not redressing the cynicism, but doubling down on the cynicism and adding a kind of dose of cowardness to it, too. And I just feel that what we do not need right now, at a time when our democracy is under threat nationally and not working very well in Albany…is more cynicism. We need people who really will do what they say, say what they mean, make promises to the voters and then follow through on them, and help people believe in our government again.
Reeher: Give me a couple of the most important examples of progressive issues that were never really taken up because of the IDC working with the Republicans.
May: It’s hard to know where to start; there are so many of them. But, let’s start with our election laws. We have some of the worst election laws in New York state and in the whole country. We make it harder for people to vote, harder for them to register to vote, and we make it easier for people to sway politicians with large donations than just about any state in the country. These are pretty easy things to fix. Early voting is done in 37 states, including a lot of very red states, and New York has not been able to pass early voting. So, for example, you mentioned that our primary is going to be on a Thursday. Nobody has voted on a Thursday before, and if we had early voting and they could have a week or 10 days ahead of time to vote, it would probably assure a much larger turnout in that primary. So, here’s an example of voter suppression and legislation that should be easy to pass, and it has passed in a bipartisan way in other states because it’s good for the voters. But, by handing over power to the Republicans to make all the decisions about what comes up on agenda—what comes up for a vote in a committee and therefore, what makes it to the floor of the Senate—the IDC has allowed the Republicans to block even simple legislation like that. And then, you can go down the list, whether it’s reproductive rights, whether it is criminal justice reform [or] whether it is a lot of important measures to do with healthcare. They’re just too numerous to number.
Reeher: If you were elected, what are the most important policy changes that you’d focus on in Albany? Where would you spend most of your time?
May: Election reform is a big one, but the issue that got me excited about running for office is the New York Health Act, which I found out about when I was organizing last year against the efforts to roll back Obamacare. I was at a rally, and a doctor was speaking, and the first thing he said was that among the things that Republicans were trying to bring back was lifetime caps on insurance. I ran into the problem with lifetime caps on insurance—which meant, in the bad old days, insurance companies could just cut you off when they had spent a certain amount of money on you, no matter how sick you were—when I was 30 years old. My husband was dying of cancer, and he said to me one day that his greatest fear was that he was going to outlive his insurance and leave me with the debt, which meant he was less afraid of dying than of living under our health insurance system. And that is not a conversation that anyone should have with a loved one, especially a young person. He was 32 at the time. So, when that doctor said that to me, that made me feel like I got to do more than just show up at rallies and write letters to my congressman. But then, he said something else. He started talking about the New York Health Act, which is a bill to provide health insurance for all New Yorkers, comprehensive insurance that would also save the state tens of billions of dollars in healthcare costs, and it would transform our system of employment. It would make it easier for employers to hire entry-level workers. It would make it easier for people to leave a job they didn’t like and start their own business or go back to school or raise a family. It would address a lot of really terrible distortions that are in our system right now. And so, I realized that I didn’t have to just fight against what the Republicans were trying to do at the national level; I could fight for something. So, the New York Health Act is a big one for me, and I think it has a good chance of passing. But, as we saw with Obamacare, when you change something big and systemic like that that affects people’s lives, there’s a lot of opposition to that and there’s a lot of need to be out there really advocating for it and explaining to people why this matters and listening to their concerns and figuring out how to address them. And even though my opponent has said that he supports that bill, he is not someone who goes out and advocates like that. People have been telling me they’re glad to see somebody with a passion for these issues and who’s willing to articulate the complexities but also make clear to them why this is important. So, that is a major issue for me.
Reeher: Is there anything about Sen. Valesky’s relations with constituents in the 53rd District or his constituent service that you would take issue with or that you would do differently if you were elected?
May: I have been surprised, as I have been going around the district and talking to people, that there are a lot of areas in the district where people feel that he does not show up and he doesn’t really listen to their concerns. So, I would hope to be able to do a better job than that…I’ve been hearing it enough to feel that maybe after 14 years, he’s kind of taking his voters for granted, and that certainly is not what I would be doing.
Reeher: On the educational funding scheme, there’s different ways to attack that…What about the funding from the state to the cities? That’s been a perennial issue with the court case on this and then the question whether that court case is really being followed and how much effort is going into really putting it through. The governor has taken some criticism on that. What would you like to see there?
May: Year after year, we have seen the city of Syracuse schools underfunded, and lots of our rural schools as well, not getting the funding the courts indicate that they should get in order to address some inequities in funding. I’m aware that the formula is old now. The formula needs to be updated. We need to really look comprehensively at where the money is going. Apparently, the state gives money to school districts, and the school districts are not reporting about how they’re actually using that money, so I think that’s important—to have that full information. But, state money ought to be targeted, too, making sure that every child has access to excellent public education. And that is not how the formula has been interpreted at the state level. So, Syracuse has been underfunded, sometimes up to $40 million a year in what it should be getting and what it’s not getting. So, that kind of disparity—and I know in other cities, it’s even more—we need to address that. Even at a time when there are budget shortfalls in state, I think education is so critical that we need to find the money for our children.
Reeher: How would you assess the performance of Gov. Andrew Cuomo?
May: Gov. Cuomo has a lot of things to brag about. I think the fracking ban is a good thing that he’s done. I think he is right to crow about a number of things like paid family leave and that sort of thing. I think we could have done a lot more if we would’ve had a Democratic leadership in the Senate. And I believe that his credentials as a progressive could be a lot stronger.