State Sen. Rachel May and Onondaga County legislator Julie Abbott on the Campbell Conversations
State Sen. Rachel May (D-Syracuse) is running to represent the newly redrawn 48th Senate district. She's being challenged this year by Republican Julie Abbott, who currently serves on the Onondaga County Legislature. This week, Grant Reeher speaks with both candidates ahead of this year's misterm elections.
Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guests today are the two major party candidates for state Senate in New York's newly redrawn 48 Senate district, which most closely resembles the current 53rd district, in that it will still contain the city of Syracuse. The incumbent is Democrat Rachel May, who has represented the 53rd district. And her Republican challenger is Julie Abbott who is currently serving as a Skaneateles based legislator in the Onondaga County Legislature. The 48th district will contain the city of Syracuse, and the southern and western portions of Onondaga County, all of Cayuga county, including the city of Auburn. Now, this is a debate of sorts, perhaps more of a shared conversation, emphasizing contrast. I'll ask the questions and I'll moderate and I'll make sure that each candidate has a chance to make their points. I've asked both candidates to be brief, given that we only have a half hour. And as always, I wish we had more time. So, State Senator May, Legislator Abbott, welcome to the program. Thanks for making the time to do this.
Rachel May: Thank you. Grant.
Julie Abbott: Thank you.
GR: So, Legislator Abbott, I will I will start with you. And again, if you could please be very brief on this, but briefly make the case for not returning Senator May to the state Senate.
JA: So what I would say is first and foremost, we have an affordability problem in New York State and can consistently, Senator May has voted yes on the largest state budgets in New York history. It has grown $27.5 billion in the last two years alone. We are stewards of taxpayer dollars. We are grocery shoppers, we're going to the gas pump and people need relief. As an Onondaga County legislator who serves on Ways and Means, we had our final session yesterday and we're sending it forward. And what you're going to see under my leadership in Onondaga County is yet another tax cut to the right, okay. We've done it consistently here since 2014, and that's what people need. We lead the nation in the mass exodus of people. And it's not because of the snow. It's because we are shoving people out, because it's not affordable here. People don't feel safe. It's one of the most sad things I hear when I walk the streets. It's not just the cities, it's out in rural as well. We don't attract business. We have to actually change our laws. And it's like pushing a boulder uphill from my standpoint is a local municipal leader to try and lure businesses here, we hear it all the time. And people are downtrodden, we need to be investing, investing in mental health care, real solutions. And that's kind of where I'm at. I want my children and grandchildren to be able to stay here if they want to. And I hate hearing it. That people are leaving. I care. I love where we live and I intend to go down there and be a strong voice for upstate New York.
GR: Okay, thank you. Senator May, and we're going to return to some of those issues that you brought up there, but Senator May briefly make the case for your reelection.
RM: Okay, I am very proud of the work that I've done in four years in the legislature. I was part of flipping the Senate into Democratic hands, which meant we were able to stand up for voting rights. New York had the worst election laws in the country when I took office and now has some of the best. We stood up for reproductive rights. We passed the most advanced and aggressive climate law in the whole country. And here in the regional area, I've really been able to deliver both in terms of a lot of infrastructure funding, which is part of why the county is able to cut taxes. We also have delivered, I just was able to tour this week the old Central Tech High School, which is going to be a countywide school of STEM and the arts. It's going to be a magnificent facility that's going to really transform education here in Onondaga County, and it's happening because I've got the money in the budget for that. This, now that I'm chair of the Aging Committee I've also worked really hard on long term care. And tomorrow, home care workers are going to get a very significant raise in their minimum wage, which we hope will bring more people into that field and enable many, many more New Yorkers to stay home age with dignity at home. So I am really proud of the work that I've done. I want to keep working on fresh water protection on fighting child poverty, and on making sure that Syracuse gets what it needs in terms of the jobs and the share of the investment that is coming to this area.
GR: So, Senator May, I'll stick with you here and I wanted to ask you this anyway, but the legislator brought it up. New York is, it is a fact that New York is perennially at the top for tax burden and spending among the 50 states. And this year I believe it's set another record for state spending. And the state has lost three congressional seats over the past two censuses as it has lost population relative to the rest of the country. So, do the Democrats in the state legislature your party do they have some sort of active plan for trying to bend the curve or perhaps even reversing the curve, because it doesn't seem to have done that in recent years.
RM: We are working on quality of life issues and sometimes that costs money. The money, for example, for home care that we got in the budget, I think is going to make it a lot easier for people to stay in this state as they age. A lot of people move away after retirement, and this will make it easier for people to do that. Some of these things require investment. I mean, what we're seeing is in the states that don't invest in their energy grid or in their infrastructure, that when they have a crisis like we're seeing in Florida, that things fall apart really, really fast. Whereas in New York, we have many more protections for people a lot of people and even businesses come here because we have the educated workforce, we have the infrastructure. We have a lot of what people need. And I think we're seeing that shift more and more. And we definitely are making more investments in in the fund mentors that enable the businesses to come here.
GR: Legislator Abbott, I wanted to ask you a question on this topic. And again, you brought it up right at the outset. So you're obviously you said you wanted to cut taxes. You're obviously, I would assume also in favor of trying to either bender reverse this spending curve at the state. So that's going to involve cutting in some way that you have to cut the budget to cut it. So it's not the case that that waste, fraud and abuse are going to move the dial that much. The research on that would suggest that so, so what actual programs are you going to be willing to cut back on at the state level that won't hurt that quality of life that the that the senator was alluding to.
JA: So Grant, I'm sorry, I believe that the senator and all of these people who are voting with New York City are completely out of touch with the people in Central New York. I'll give you an example. So we talk about our Farm Fair Wage Act and being able to, you know, the overtime threshold going up, come out and talk to my farmers, okay. Doing this, there was a Cornell study that shows we are going to lose our AG industry. They cannot compete if they're going to have to pay these wages. Come talk to my migrant workers out here. I represent five counties, it's very rural, okay? And they on top of, the migrant workers they come here and they want to work the growing season is only so long, okay? And then on top of it, when you have waste, you can't just dump, for example, milk. When you're not producing, and you aren’t moving and shaking during the season when, you can't just dump it because we represent watersheds. Nutrients go into the watershed that contain and harm our drinking water sources. And we have a giant one that serves the city of Syracuse and Skaneateles Lake. We don't want to have to filter that. So on top of this, when you hear the outcry from the AG community all over New York State, they're not going to be able to compete with other states. Farming is a commodity based, they have to compete on the market. You're going to put these people out of business. They're already going to automation. There is a farm in Spafford that is already buying robots because they see the writing on the wall, with what Albany and Rachel May are doing right now. Kathy Hochul just came out and said, well, don't worry, because we're in a political season Grant, don't worry, we're going to do this and we will help supplement you farmers in terms of paying this. Who is the we? That's you and me and our tax payers. This mindset has to stop. It's adding and adding without ever stopping and listening to people, and that's why we are in this crisis.
GR: I want to give Senator May a chance to respond to that, but I have a follow up question for you first, if I could.
GR: That is the, on the budget, when you look at where the money goes, one of the really big, you could almost say it's the budget monster for the state of New York is Medicaid.
GR: …Our Medicaid program is extremely expensive. Would you be willing to do any kind of serious cutting into that program?
JA: You know what the problem is? Because I served on Health and Human Services throughout the pandemic. I swear, two weeks before we went into the shutdown, I had Sarah Merrick, who was our chair of social services, our head, I'm not chair excuse me she heads the department, she came in and was sounding the alarm. And what happens is it's another unfunded mandate. We are required as municipalities, Onondaga County, these are the levels of people you need to service and need to do. And that is fantastic. But then they walk away. We have no way, our hands are tied, we have no way to garner revenue for that, yet we're required to do it. Another unfunded mandate. And I'll give you another…
GR: …But let me let me interrupt you on that. So I want to make sure, what kinds of things could we cut in the Medicaid program to make it less expensive? Would we cover fewer services? Would we try to take certain groups of people out of the coverage? I mean, what would you do?
JA: What I would do is instead of jamming down people's throats, things like the Wage Act that's going to damage an entire industry, and then we're going to subsidize that with tax dollars, you could take that money and put it and supplement to the counties. If you're going to require these things, then you have to put some money where your mouth is. We're administering programs. We have a workforce problem and so, you know, it's everything is related, Grant. You know, it's all related in terms of how and what you're doing. You can't just keep adding these things and saying because it's a political season that, oh, don't worry farmers, we’ll take care of you. That money comes from somewhere. And so I think the problem is a mindset problem. This is not your money, politicians, this is the people's money. And that's where I look. Can I give you one more example?
GR: Quickly, because I want to I want to give Senator May a chance.
JA: You know what, go ahead, I could I could give you unfunded mandate example after example where the seat I sit on on the leg. But you go, I know you wanted us to be brief, sorry about that.
GR: No, I appreciate it. Senator May, so two things - one, as I know you want to talk about the agriculture farmer issue. And secondly, any thoughts about this issue of the size of the Medicaid budget and what could be done there, but go ahead.
RM: Sure. Yeah. So on the farm bill, here's the thing. I mean, it is true that migrant workers want to make a lot of money, but that doesn't mean they want to work 80-90 hours a week in work that is dangerous. Often they're working with heavy machinery that I have witnessed. People who have been injured in that kind of machinery. It is really important to make sure that all of our workers are given safe working conditions and paid for their labor. I don't think it's fair to say that farm workers who can work 80-9- hours a week for a minimum wage and everybody else gets overtime after a certain point. So we're standing up for workers here and for labor, and I stand up for labor every chance I get. So the workaround was that we will compensate the farmers for that overtime that they have to pay because we know they don't get to set their own prices, they don't get to manage the economy within which they operate. So this enables the farmers to keep doing their jobs and putting food on our table and the workers to have a reasonable work life.
GR: Is there is a time limit on that on that program?
RM: Say it again.
GR: Is there a time limit on that assistance program?
RM: There is not.
GR: Okay, all right.
RM: So, yes, it's taxpayer dollars, but the alternative would be more expensive food. So, you know, there are a lot of tradeoffs there. I do believe that with Medicaid, I mean, we spend a huge amount of time and money doing patches on our broken health care system. You and I have talked about this before. There are far more efficient ways to manage a health care system. But we have for now, because we don't have an efficient single payer system, we have to do patches on the system. And we're constantly fighting with the federal rulemaking that doesn't allow us, for example, to negotiate drug prices. Now, Democrats have made a big change in that at the federal level. And I think we're going to start seeing some of those medical costs coming down. But for now, we have a system that we have to pay for. I have been at the forefront of trying to shift that, the burden off of the counties. I think it's wrong that we do that in New York State, but that's been part of the larger overhaul of our, how we fund health care in this state that I and many of my colleagues have been pushing for that frankly, Republicans just push back against at every step of the way. So for now, we're stuck with the counties paying for Medicaid.
GR: I'm Grant Reader and my guests are State Senator Rachel May and Onondaga County legislator Julie Abbott. They're the two major party candidates for state Senate and the newly redrawn 48th district. Senator May is the Democrat, legislator Abbott is the Republican. So legislator Abbott, if you're elected, I think it's likely to be the case that you'll still be facing supermajorities of Democrats in the legislature. And the odds are you know, you know we don't know yet, but the odds are, Democratic Governor too. So what's your strategy for effectively representing this district's interest from such a distinctly minority position in the state government?
JA: It is literally the best question ever. I swear to you, I've been asked to run before, and I just said, oh I don't want to go to Albany and spin my wheels. I love what I'm doing here, I can bring real results. Because don't forget, I was appointed, Ryan McMahon appointed me. I didn't jump into politics, and the only reason I ran, and I told him this, is if I like it and I can bring results and it's not just politics, I will do it. And that's exactly what I've done. When I look at issues that are critical and vital to our area, as our watersheds, our water quality. We have all of these lakes in this new district, it's already what I'm doing. I chair environmental protection for the county. With our farms and AG’s, we've got a ton of rural. I also look at Syracuse and Auburn and where I, you know, I went to SU and I am passionate. I was on my school board, I am passionate about education and helping get people and children opportunities and out of generational poverty. So I look at these things and I think this is totally my wheelhouse I've done it and I continue to do it. I chair environmental protection currently, I chaired Health and Human Services throughout the pandemic. We have to put money towards mental health care, we're doing it in our county budget. Yet again, we are providing millions of dollars for mental health care clinics inside our school districts. You know, that should, state ed is the one who should be properly funding schools. We see it loud and clear and don't care. We came up with the money and figured it out. And to me, kids are where it's at. I think that I'm perfectly situated to go down there and reach across the aisle. I do it here all the time. I'm the one that the Dems come to. And you can ask my colleagues if they want something carried. I have written letters on the school board for the STEAM school. It is a phenomenal venture. Your zip code shouldn't determine your success in life. Education should be equal, and that is where it starts. I was proud to be on the legislature when we approved and set what we needed to do to get the STEAM school going. And I'm excited to be able to work across the aisle on these types of issues.
GR: Okay great, thank you. Senator May, I have a different kind of question for you. One of the Democratic talking points in New York this election cycle, and it's from the governor on down, is abortion rights. But the Dobbs decision doesn't affect abortion access in the state of New York. New York remains one of the most liberal and access-friendly states on this issue in the country. So why has this been such a point of emphasis for Democrats in this race?
RM: Well, let me first say both in response to what Julie just said, but also to your question, that it's because I'm in the majority in the New York State Senate and because Democrats have the majority that we have been able to do some of these things. I was able to get that funding for the STEAM school. I would not have been able to if I were in the minority. So, Republicans held control of the Senate for about 70 years before I was part of changing that and had blocked the Reproductive Health Act, the Comprehensive Contraceptive Coverage Act, all kinds of things that would have made New York a leader on protecting women and reproductive rights. And we changed that when I came into office. So it does matter a lot who is in the majority and what the majority does. We did pass the Equal Rights Amendment this summer, but it has to pass again and then be ratified by the voters and that would put it in our Constitution of the state that you can't discriminate on the basis of pregnancy or pregnancy outcomes. That is a very big deal and that will not happen under Republican leadership. But also we are seeing Lindsey Graham leading the way and trying to enact a nationwide ban on abortion, which would affect New Yorkers as it would affect people everywhere else. So we need to be fighting this fight. We need to keep fighting for our democracy as well, which is under threat at the national level. But New York, as I said, had the worst election laws because Republicans made it that way. We have changed that. But we have to be vigilant and we have to keep fighting that fight.
GR: And Legislator Abbott, on the on the issue of abortion in New York State, if you came in, would you take a similar position to what the candidate, Lee Zeldin, has said that, you know, I'd just leave this alone at the at the at the state level? Or is that what you would do or for?
JA: First of all, the question you just asked Senator May wasn't directly answered, so I'd like to point out that in my conservative primary, because I am socially moderate, okay? That's why they primaried me, I'm not conservative enough. I'm fiscally conservative, but I believe that women have rights, I don't care who you love. So one of the things was, a super PAC was created by the union that supports and endorses Rachel and they attacked me for being pro-choice. So the reason this is out there in the state where it's indoctrinated, nothing's happening here, okay? Ladies, you have rights here. So the reason it's happening is because they see that there are certain seats that can be lost and this is one of them. So I was attacked for being pro-choice and anyway, what I would do is, no, I'm not going to go try to repeal, you know, abortion. I'm not pro-abortion. I am pro female. I feel a woman and circumstances, nothing's black and white and you have every right. And I feel like there's, within a certain timeframe, I don't believe in a full term abortion, but I can tell you, I don't think there's anything more conservative than that, wanting the government to tell women what we can and can't do with our bodies. The Women's Reproductive Health Care Act, there it takes it just way too extreme. One thing that really bothers me about it, as a mother of five boys, you can't drive until you're 16. You can't vote until you're 18, and you can't drink until you're 21. But you could be 12 and menstruate and get pregnant and get an abortion without your parent ever knowing. What concerns me about that is there could be incest, there could be a crime, and there could be something happening with that child that a parent has a right to know about. So in typical, you know, downstate Albany fashion, it is so far left the center. And that to me is always concerning. I am a moderate. I am in the middle. And I think that's where people want to go. They're sick of the far right and far left. And I think we need to figure out a way to stop being so divisive, work together, and that's what I intend to do.
GR: Okay, Senator May, the legislator said one specific thing that I that I have to follow up with you about, because the Democrats at the congressional level have funded and it's been a big story, some pretty far right candidates in the primaries against more moderate Republicans under the hope that they the less electable in the general election Republican will be chosen. She said that you started a PAC that went after her.
RM: I had nothing to do with that. It was absolutely, I had zero to do with that and I would not have encouraged it or supported it if I had known.
JA: Okay, wait, your staffer…
GR: …Hold on, hold on. So do you also disavow this at the national level in terms of you don't support that strategy for the Democrats? This has been quite controversial, I just want to…
RM: I think it's bad strategy and also unnecessary because Republicans have been absolutely happy to go vote for the most extreme candidates they can possibly find without our help doing that.
GR: Okay, and legislator Abbott I do have another question I want to ask both of you. So please be very quick in your final response on this.
JA: Okay, CWA, I was a member of that as a news Channel 9 employee. CWA made a $30,000 super PAC the Thursday before the conservative primary dropped the Conservative Party voting guide, they endorse Rachel May. They drop this, I'm a pro-abortion liberal is what they did, and so that is untrue. You may have not been behind it that's politics 101 have somebody else do it. Your paid staffer Nodesia Hernandez, I have a screenshot of it, was on the Onondaga County Conservative Party Facebook page encouraging voters to use an election loophole which would have, which allowed people to switch parties just for the for the primary and then switch back. So, Grant, this is happening here, it’s happening to me.
GR: Okay, if I if I could squeeze in the final question here. It's kind of a lightning round now at this point. But Legislator Abbott, are you supporting Lee Zeldin for Governor?
JA: I am.
GR: You are, okay. And Senator May I know you're supporting Governor Hochul. Can you in one or two words just tell me what your biggest concern with her leadership so far is because no one's perfect.
RM: No one's perfect. But she has stood up for upstate New York, which I think is really important, and she really listens to, she supports women she supports, we can talk with her in the legislature, which was not true of the previous governor. So, you know, I think we need more oversight of some of her spending decisions. But in general, I think she is a good governor for this state and certainly, unlike Lee Zeldin, she supports free and fair elections and women's rights to choose.
GR: Okay, and we got about literally 15 seconds left. Can you just say something about the staffer that legislator Abbott invoked as far as this PAC goes?
RM: That is such an unfair accusation, Nodesia…
JA: I have the screenshot. I can send it to you Rachel.
RM: She has a not for profit that helps people learn about voting laws. She sent that to every party, not just to conservatives. It was in no way targeted or in any way intended to influence this particular race.
GR: Okay, well, we'll have we'll have to leave it there. I'm sure there's more that both of you want to say about that. But that was State Senator Rachel May and Onondaga County legislator Julie Abbott. I want to remind everyone that Election Day is November 8th. Senator, legislator Abbott, thanks so much to both of you for making the time to be here.
JA: Appreciate you Grant. Thank you, thanks, Senator.
RM: Yeah, thank you, Julie. Thanks Grant.
GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the Public Interest.