Jobs, health care and education are on the ballot for the 55th State Senate District. While the issues are reminiscent of years past, 2020 has a sense of urgency, supporters of both candidates say.
In Monroe County, New York’s 55th Senate District covers the east side of the city of Rochester—the towns of Rush, Mendon, Pittsford, Perinton, Penfield, East Rochester and Irondequoit. In Ontario County, it includes Victor, East and West Bloomfield, Richmond, Bristol, South Bristol, Canadice and Naples.
The seat is currently held by Republican Rich Funke, who decided not to run for re-election after defeating Democratic challenger Jennifer Lunsford, 52 percent to 48 percent, two years ago.
Samra Brouk, a Democrat, and Republican Christopher Missick are vying for the opportunity to make sure the Finger Lakes region isn’t overlooked in Albany amid a polarized political climate and region battling COVID-19 and economic hardship.
An Army veteran and attorney, Missick is the owner of Villa Bellangelo Winery in Dundee. In his first run for office, he has attracted more than $195,000 in contributions from Jan. 1 to Oct. 15, the state Board of Elections database shows.
“From the beginning I haven’t run a firebrand campaign, I’m not necessarily that type,” Missick says. “I want common sense, real solutions, and that requires talking with people who maybe at first you don’t think you’ll agree with, but you can find some common ground and good policies.”
Missick hopes his approach to economic development through a state “infrastructure bank” will draw voters. As part of his Realigned Infrastructure Savings Enterprise plan, Missick proposes a public-private bank with a $3 billion bond act. Public funds would come by defunding the $425 million Hollywood tax credit. Grants and loans would target beleaguered urban and rural communities.
“I believe infrastructure is that basis line from which we can ensure our communities have the necessary tools to build new industries and attract old industries to come back,” says Missick, who envisions the bank as a bipartisan proposal.
His definition of modern infrastructure goes beyond roads and bridges. It includes water treatment, hardening of the electrical grid, affordable housing and broadband access. In addition to his focus on jobs and infrastructure, Missick is concerned about the outmigration of residents to other states.
He would like to reshore jobs and expand the state’s Buy American preferences. Missick points to the high unemployment rate and shuttered businesses amid the pandemic as a call to action.
“It is even more clear today than before in my mind that it is not the cold climate, it is the business climate” that hinders economic growth in our region, he says.
Missick’s ideas appeal to Sean Gibbons, a public-sector employee and a member of the Civil Service Employees Association. (CSEA has endorsed Brouk.)
“I’m a working-class, blue-collar guy who’s living out in Fairport and I’m barely making it after 30 years in public service,” Gibbons says. “I just felt he was bringing answers.”
Gibbons, who calls himself an old-school Republican, spoke with Brouk and Missick. He felt the Republican candidate was working toward “ways of making more money for people locally.” Gibbons didn’t think Brouk had a plan to boost incomes.
“He brought, I felt, the most to the area for the worker locally and gave a voice to the people of this area,” Gibbons says. “We have no voice with Joe Morelle Sr. not there anymore in the Assembly and a lot of working-class, middle-class people feel locally we don’t get a lot done around here and don’t get the monies that Buffalo gets and all the other areas.”
A voice in Albany
That is one of the reasons, however, why the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, Committee for a Strong Economy, decided in Brouk’s favor.
The Chamber’s PAC endorsed Brouk partly in the hope that a Democratic state senator would be able to influence Democrats in Albany, says Timothy Mason, chair of the Chamber’s PAC.
“At the end of the day we have to look at it and say who do we believe is going to best represent business and the needs of the Finger Lakes region, which are different from the needs of the downstate region,” Mason says.
While he says that Brouk is somewhat of an “unknown,” Mason found her to be a clear communicator with a desire to get educated about the needs of businesses and ways to support them. If Brouk wins, he says, she stands a chance to influence her downstate Democrat colleagues.
Brouk is one of four Democrats endorsed by the Chamber’s PAC this election cycle. In the state Senate races, the PAC also has backed Jeremy Cooney, who is running for Sen. Joe Robach’s seat in the 56th District. Like Funke, Robach opted to not seek re-election.
“They can say, ‘Look everything isn’t the same. What happens in New York City does not happen in Rochester, New York,’ and I think overall that is a huge issue that has been in existence for a long time,” Mason says. “Downstate dominates the legislation and we have to have people—Joe (Robach) and Rich (Funke) did a phenomenal job supporting our community. All things being equal, then, is there an opportunity for two Democrats in this area to help drive legislation that is good for the Finger Lakes region.”
He acknowledges that it wasn’t easy to make a decision on candidates without a political record. A nonprofit leader, Brouk has spent her career on initiatives related to education, the environment and senior services. That experience is a plus for some.
“The environment is my No. 1 one concern right now and her plans for limiting climate change/ promoting sustainability really spoke to me,” says Jess Giordano, a Pittsford resident. “Also, like her mom, I am a teacher and clearly Samra knows the importance of an equitable education for all kids.”
Brouk believes the state has a responsibility to ensure an education for each child. Fulfilling the New York State Foundation Aid formula, expanding after-school programs, properly funding universal pre-K, and supporting early learning through quality child care is part of her approach.
“This will just be a start to her political career,” Giordano says. “She has the intelligence, personality, passion, experiences, integrity, poise, and eloquence to not only make New York State a better place to live, but also has the potential to shape our country’s future.”
Giordano, like Debora McDell-Hernandez, senior director of public and community affairs at Planned Parenthood of Central & Western New York, hosted a meet and greet for Brouk. For McDell-Hernandez, the candidate’s approach to health care is meaningful.
Brouk supports health care for all, regardless of pre-existing conditions or ability to pay, including full reproductive care for women, mental health care, and culturally responsive care for people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.
“The fact that she’s advocating for health access for all is very important to me, especially during this crazy time of a pandemic,” McDell-Hernandez says. “You can never underestimate the importance of good health care.”
Born in the city of Rochester, Brouk attended School No. 12 and later was a student in the Pittsford Central School District. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala after college. Her experience spans education and health care, and includes Umbrella, an organization that helps seniors continue living in their homes.
Brouk has a sizable edge over Missick in donations, with more than $297,000 in contributions for the Jan. 1 to Oct. 15 time period, according to the state Board of Elections database.
“Being a Democrat, a Working Families Democrat, for me in this race means making sure everyone is doing OK,” Brouk says. “We care about living wages as much as we care about fostering an environment where young people want to become entrepreneurs and where local business leaders want to help create and mentor that and invest locally in our own people. All of that is needed to help put our region on the right track.”
She wants to make sure the region remains an attractive environment for small and large businesses. Brouk would like to retain talent and invest in infrastructure and technology to attract new businesses.
Missick believes that his plan for economic renewal also considers health care, education and public safety. He says he supports law enforcement and understands the need for reform measures as well. Missick’s campaign has the support of the Finger Lakes Police Federation, Rochester Police Locust Club and the New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association among others.
“Economic development has that impact on public safety because poverty does lead to crime and if we’re putting our emphasis on creating jobs, increasing the sense of dignity that each person can have in our distressed communities, there’s less likelihood that they’ll pursue criminal activity because they’ll have hope,” he says.
A divisive time
Brouk and Missick are vying for public office at a time when political tensions are running high. Many voters are focused on the rancorous presidential election.
“Whenever I talk with anybody, I tell them that ‘This election is not about the White House, it’s about your house,’ and people understand that, but I have to admit that this is a very divisive time,” Missick says. “What I have consistently said is that I’m not going to talk about the presidential election because it is so divisive. The fact is, in a state that is in as grave circumstances we face, I have been to war and it’s almost war-like—it’s not war, but the situation is dire. We don’t need any additional divisiveness to be brought into a local campaign.”
Missick notes that staunch Trump Republicans and some old-school Democrats want President Donald Trump to win re-election while other Republicans and Democrats don’t.
Many voters’ eyes are on national politics for good reason, Brouk says, which comes up in her conversations with them.
“People are really frustrated and disillusioned with the current polarization and divisiveness that is being sowed. To be quite frank, a lot of it is being driven by the current president of the United States,” she says. “To not see that is to be willfully closing your eyes.”
Finding common ground is necessary to move forward. Brouk believes interacting with her extended family over the years—many of whom have been Republicans for most of their lives—was an exercise in productive conversations with people with different views.
Whoever wins the state Senate race, bringing attention to the Finger Lakes region will be a key part of the role.
“A lot of people (in Albany) haven’t been to Rochester,” Brouk observes. “Step one, bring them to Rochester. I’ve already brought one of the downstate senators up here.”
Historically, she says the region has not had state representation interested in creating relationships outside the area.
“You have to be willing to put in the work and to be honest, swallow your own ego and come at it with humility,” she says. “I think you have to have that when you go to be able to understand that you are but a vessel for the change that our community is seeking and you have to be able to represent them and to be able to actually deliver,” Brouk observes.
Says McDell-Hernandez: “I think (Brouk) is aware of that, that it’s not going to be a walk in the park.”
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.
(Editor’s note: This article has been updated to restate the campaign contribution figures. The numbers do not include any candidate loans or state political party spending on behalf of either candidate.)