Productive Progressive Change You Can Make
The following piece is based on a phone interview with Shaun Francis, a Democratic candidate for New York State Senate District 43.
A palpable enthusiasm for the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders has proved to be fairly ubiquitous on the Skidmore campus. However, given the unlikely odds of his triumph in the Democratic nomination process, the students whose hearts have been captured by the Vermont senator can channel their progressive values in a more impactful way—at the state level.
The New York State Legislature has long been known for its pervasive culture of corruption, with the 2015 convictions of former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver serving as just two recent developments that are representative of larger trends. Democratic candidate Shaun Francis of Wilton hopes to combat Albany corruption with a vision for reform.
Francis is vying for the New York State Senate seat for District 43—a district that encompasses the Skidmore campus. During his years as a professional baseball umpire, he grew increasingly involved in the labor movement, becoming acutely aware of the impact government has at every level on working people. In deliberating a 2016 campaign for state office against Republican incumbent Kathleen Marchione, the decision was fairly simple for Francis. “I looked to my state representative and saw somebody who didn’t represent me or my values," he shared.
Challenging an incumbent politician can be a formidable task at the state, local, and national levels alike. Those who hold office have the undeniable advantages of fundraising networks, staff, and name recognition. Consequently, many political hopefuls decline to run against incumbents, opting to wait for an open seat to pursue. For Francis, the calculus was different. “If my thought was to sit and wait for an open seat, then I would by running for my own self-interest. I’m running to make effective change in the state legislature," he said.
Despite this outlook, Francis is well aware of obstacles he faces in challenging Marchione. After defeating incumbent Roy McDonald in the nearly too-close-to-call Republican primary in September 2012, Marchione triumphed over her Democratic opponent Robin Andrews just months later in the general election by a 47-36% margin. That margin of victory only increased in 2014, allowing her to be re-elected with 62% of the vote against Democratic opponent Brian Howard. "These past results do put things into perspective,” said Francis, as voters in the district have often awarded the Senate seat he seeks to Republicans. “But the last two elections are fairly misleading in terms of evaluating my potential to win in 2016," he added.
Francis has learned from the campaigns of his Democratic predecessors in District 43 over the past couple of years. The divisive September 2012 Republican primary in the district served as a quasi referendum on Republican incumbent Roy McDonald’s vote in favor of legalizing same sex marriage in New York. A resulting high profile primary between McDonald and Marchione granted the latter candidate plenty of free media coverage. Marchione's Democratic opponent had little chance to generate similar levels of name recognition in time for the November general election to follow. Two years later, 2014 represented a fairly good time to run as a Republican throughout the country. That year, New York Democrats did not recruit a candidate to challenge Marchione for her seat until June or July, making it difficult for their ultimate pick to raise enough money to be viable.
In contrast, Francis has been campaigning in some capacity for the last year or so. He also believes that running for the New York State Senate as a Democrat in a presidential election year will benefit his candidacy. Non-Presidential election years result in lower voter turnout for the less romanticized state and local races. A spot on a presidential ballot, however, allows candidates for these offices to generate more visibility. The composition of the electorate in presidential years tends to favor Democratic contenders as well.
A Reason for Hope Among Progressives
Touting a message of reform, Francis is used to questions concerning the short-term attainability of measures to combat long-standing Albany corruption. But he was quick to point out that the partisan breakdown of the state legislature makes the prospect of change entirely possible.
In recent years, an Assembly controlled by Democrats has passed campaign finance reform legislation to address the problem of big money in politics, but a Senate with a slight Republican majority has blocked such efforts from becoming law. According to Francis, upcoming special elections in the state—and his own election to follow—could shift the balance of power, granting Democrats the edge in the Senate. This scenario would make it likely for the state legislature, with the support of Governor Cuomo, to pass legislation that would allow for a system of publicly financed state elections.
Despite the tendency to disengage from politics among disillusioned young people who feel their voices are not represented at the national level, opportunities exist in state and local contexts to impact politics and policy in a meaningful way. Even if Bernie Sanders were to become the Democratic nominee and to subsequently be elected president, he would inevitably face hostile reception to his ideas from the Republicans in Congress. Contrastingly, progressive change is far more tenable at the state level.
“If you like what Bernie is saying about addressing student loan debt, realize that we can do that in New York,” Francis suggested to students. As he sees it, with a state government unified under Democrats, New York could even pass legislation to make community college free for residents. Such a move would place pressure on private higher education institutions such as Skidmore to lower tuition rates.
Furthermore, success at the state level in instigating progressive policies could eventually trigger change at the national level. As state legislatures passed and governors signed marriage equality bills into law over the years, as Francis pointed out, momentum for change from the bottom up ensued, culminating in a Supreme Court victory for advocates of same sex marriage in June 2015.
Even so, progressive candidates will, of course, not always win the state races they enter. Despite the traction she gained, anti-corruption candidate Zephyr Teachout lost to Governor Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Mirroring trends at the national level show that regardless of the momentum he has achieved, Bernie Sanders will likely be defeated in the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination process by Hillary Clinton.
Acknowledging these recent outcomes, Francis was quick to point out that electoral victory is not the only desirable end in campaigns; shifting political narratives can be just as important. After being challenged by candidates who ran to the left of them, Cuomo and Clinton each embraced progressive causes. “Win or lose, you’re making incremental change," said Francis.
Such change is only possible, he concluded, if the public continues to tune in and participate in politics—not only at the national level, but at the state and local level where citizens truly have the power to shape the policies that most directly affect them.
To learn more about the 2016 candidates running in New York Senate District 43, visit:
Photo by Elena Veatch '16