The candidates running for the state Senate seat in the 56th District both want residents to get their fair share. But they bring different viewpoints and experiences to the race.
Democratic candidate Jeremy Cooney believes voters are concerned about health care, including mental health; education; and the economy, especially small businesses. GOP hopeful David Michael Barry also promises to make it easier for small-business owners and lists public safety as a top priority along with education.
The 56th District lies in Monroe County, spanning the towns of Brighton, Clarkson, Gates, Greece, Hamlin and Parma to parts of the city of Rochester including Charlotte, Maplewood and University of Rochester. Sen. Joseph Robach, who has served for more than two decades, is not seeking re-election.
Cooney wants to join the Democratic majority in the state Senate and collaborate with Albany lawmakers so that the 56thDistrict has a voice in the state capital. This is his second bid for the seat. He ran against Robach in 2018, losing by an 11-point margin.
“We are coming with a fresh head and a positive outlook,” he says of Democratic candidates as a group. “I think the biggest enemy of Rochester, New York, is our nostalgia. We constantly look backwards.”
The Rochester Beacon’s attempts to speak with Barry did not result in an interview.
The 2018 five-year U.S. Census estimates show the 56th District had 287,834 residents. Democrats account for 43 percentof registered voters, roughly 26 percent are Republicans and the remaining are unaffiliated or registered with minor parties.
In a debate with Cooney on Oct. 20, Barry said the region is in a fight for survival. He commended Robach’s work for the district despite being in the Republican minority in the state Senate. Robach has endorsed Barry’s candidacy.
“I know it might not be fashionable to say, ‘upstate vs. downstate,’ but it’s exactly what it is,” Barry said during the debate. “We are in a fight for survival and a fight for budget dollars, especially as we pay for Covid and all the changes that have been brought our way.”
Solving problems with rules around the COVID-19 pandemic ranks at the top of issues on Barry’s campaign website. He hopes to ease the burden of the pandemic without raising taxes or taking dollars away from law enforcement, first responders and school districts.
As he debated Cooney, he spoke of how seniors were impacted by “bad decisions made by downstate legislators” and pointed to businesses that have closed or must comply with strict mandates.
“I’m in a family of small-business owners, I see first-hand the oppression of unnecessary mandates,” said Barry, who does not support another lockdown.
Both he and Cooney would like small businesses to reopen. Cooney favors a regional approach for the Finger Lakes.
“This one-size-fits-all for New York just doesn’t work,” he said on Oct. 20.
The call to public service
Both candidates hoping to fill Robach’s seat call Rochester home. A native of Greece, Barry is a town councilman representing Greece’s 1st Ward. He has been a public-school teacher and executive director of the Rochester-Monroe County Youth Bureau. Barry’s campaign raised more than $32,600 in contributions in the Jan. 1 to Oct. 23 time period, according to the state Board of Elections database.
Barry will put the needs of the 56th District ahead of party differences, Robach says.
“He is someone who will put constituents ahead of self-promotion, which I think is a very, very important necessity in today’s elected officials. People are going to seek that balance at the state level,” he says. “He is somebody who has been a teacher, a coach, a mentor, worked with the Youth Bureau, is very involved in the faith community and a lot of other things besides just politics. And I’d just say gently that separates him very clearly from the other selection in this race.”
Born in an Indian orphanage, Cooney was adopted by a single mother and grew up in the city’s South Wedge neighborhood. If he wins the election, Cooney says he would be the only state senator in nearly 50 years who has graduated from the Rochester City School District. An attorney, Cooney has worked for late Rep. Louise Slaughter, two New York governors and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren.
“It seems like in Jeremy Cooney Rochester would have the prospect of an energetic, politically savvy, thoroughly committed public servant,” says Mark Gearan, former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges and director of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School. “And at a time when there is such cynicism, here we have a dynamic young man who is putting himself before the public in service.
“He knows Albany, he understands government and the intersection of policy and politics and external pieces of it and communications. He is well-prepared for this.”
Cooney’s experience in the public sector appealed to members of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee, the Committee for a Strong Economy. Cooney is one of four Democrats endorsed by the PAC.
“We liked the fact that he seemed to already know a lot of the players around the community, so that will help him work together. … I think that’s a critical component, working with the county, working with the city and certainly working with the chamber,” says Tim Mason, chair of the chamber’s PAC.
“He seemed to have a good grasp of that. He is a very good communicator, he talked about this support for the region and how important this region was to him personally. And you got to trust that he would act as our advocate in Albany.”
Cooney’s wife, Diane Lu, says his run for office stems from caring for his mother, who had a terminal diagnosis.
“I think what resonates with voters is that he is empathetic, and he listens,” says Lu, a surgeon and associate professor of clinical urology at University of Rochester Medical Center.
Cooney has an enormous advantage over his opponent in campaign contributions. He raised more than $480,000 during the Jan. 1 to Oct. 23 period, data from the state Board of Elections show. Former presidential candidate and Schenectady native Andrew Yang has supported Cooney by appearing at a virtual fundraising event. His organization, Humanity Forward, has endorsed the local candidate.
On health care and education
Health care is an important issue for Cooney. Campaigning in the district, he has heard stories of the inability to afford a co-pay, high prescription costs and limited access to care. Though the area has leading health care facilities with the University of Rochester and Rochester Regional Health, it doesn’t make a difference if people can’t access them, Cooney said in the debate.
“I’m a really big believer in mobile health care delivery—whether it’s (a) school-based health clinic for kids so that parents don’t have to take time off of work to get their kids there, whether it is a mobile van like I know Trillium Health has; they go into the community they set up, they give flu shots, they do sports physicals etc.,” he says. “That’s really interesting to me. So, how do we invest in those type of service deliveries?”
Access to mental health care is essential as well, Cooney says. The city is grappling with a crisis.
“The way I think we can solve that issue is that we have more culturally competent mental health professionals and what I mean by that is mental health professionals who are familiar with the populations of city residents, whether it is African Americans, Latino or resettled refugees” such as those from Nepal and Somalia who have moved into the Maplewood Park neighborhood, Cooney says. “So, who are these professionals who are based in the neighborhood that have linguistic and also cultural competencies to deal with the trauma that unfortunately these families are going through?”
The problem isn’t isolated in the city, he says. Opioid troubles in Hilton, he says, stem from depression and unemployment. Equal access to mental health services in the city and the suburbs is necessary, Cooney says.
At the debate, Barry agreed with Cooney that providing necessary health care is costly.
“We can find a common ground that this is a burden on all of us, and we can accept pre-existing conditions and we can work with each other and we can honor each other’s health care needs for their families,” he said, alluding to traditional party differences on the issue. “That’s the way we should attack this. We are all family members and we are all hit by something at one point or another and have these common-sense solutions to it.”
Barry would like to work with the Legislature and health care professionals to address maternal mortality rates and restore parental choice over vaccinations. Last week, he went door to door in the district with Take Action ROC, an advocacy group that supports parents’ rights to make medical, religious and educational decisions for their children without governmental interference.
“You have to love Mike. He’s affable, energetic, pragmatic, and quite the innovative leader,” writes Susan Gee in a Facebook post on Take Action’s recent effort with Barry’s campaign.
Protecting youth also is part of Barry’s campaign. If he wins, he plans to seek more funding for programs like the Safe Harbour Program, an effort to combat sex trafficking.
On the education front, Barry and Cooney both tout their connections to public school education. Cooney wants to ensure urban and suburban school districts get equal treatment, pointing to underfunded schools resulting in higher taxes for suburbanites.
“Everyone loves Brighton schools,” he observes. “They’re great, but you pay for them because you pay a lot in property taxes. If the state just met its obligation, what they’ve agreed to, based on the formula of what they have to fund schools, if they paid the Brighton School District what they owed them, then there wouldn’t be as high school taxes.”
Cooney would like to serve on the Senate’s education committee, if he wins the race. He also would like to examine services available to help support curriculum, schooling and transportation to schools.
In the city, students are allowed free bus access if they live more than 1.5 miles from a school structure.
“We know that a lot of parents are choosing to send their kids to the other side of the city, wherever they live, whether it’s northeast sending them to the southwest and vice-versa, because it’s too dangerous for their kids to walk,” says Cooney, who walked to school himself. “They’re going to (be) hit up by drugs, get involved with gang activity, so (parents would) rather send their kids to the other side of the city so that they can get bus access.”
He’d like to change the policy so that school districts can get reimbursed for transporting children under the 1.5-mile limit.
Barry agrees on funding equity. He also plans to work to make sure schools are safe, with a package that includes a school resource officer program. (The city of Rochester did away with school resource officers after the protests against Daniel Prude’s death.)
Though he agrees with Cooney on a collaborative effort toward reimagining public safety, Barry wants to make sure law enforcement has the resources it needs. He is against the bail reform law—he would like it repealed. New York’s bail reform eliminated cash bail for nonviolent felonies. However, a backlash tightened the law, allowing for more judicial discretion for dangerous individuals.
“We now have a justice system that allows violent criminals, domestic violence abusers, and killers to roam the streets and have no fear of repercussions for their actions. This is an insult to victims of violence, their families and to every person that actually upholds the law,” his campaign’s website states.
Cooney recognizes that the criminal justice system needs reform and believes needless arrests should stop and protections against oppressive policing and judicial sentencing need to be expanded.
Another much-needed change, both candidates say, is making New York more friendly toward small business.
“We need to recognize how many overly burdensome regulations we put on small business,” Cooney said at the debate. “This is an opportunity for us to do better, especially as we compete with other states for talent.”
During the lockdown, Cooney’s team helped raise money to support food and beverage service workers impacted by the coronavirus crisis. Efforts like that offer Cooney an opportunity to directly hear concerns in the community, Lu says.
While debating Cooney, Barry said it is important to let employers know they are wanted: “We want you to provide jobs. We don’t want to be like the crazy AOCs down in New York City that want to keep businesses from coming in.”
In an election year dominated by national politics—including the presidential race, control of Congress and the Supreme Court nomination to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat—Cooney is stressing a key message: the importance of standing up for the rights of New Yorkers and the citizens of Monroe County.
“We’re Upstate New York, we’re not Pennsylvania or Florida or Ohio. We’re not going to swing the presidential election, but what we can do is we can elect representatives at the state and local level to make sure that our values are being represented in the community that we live,” he says.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.