Interview with Rachel May, Primary Challenger to Sen. Valesky (53rd NY) By Luke Perry
I recently interviewed Rachel May, the challenger to State Senator David Valesky in the Democratic Primary for NY-53, which includes Madison County and parts of Onondaga and Oneida Counties, spanning from Syracuse to Clinton and Canastota to Earlville.
May earned a B.A. at Princeton, an M.A. from Oxford, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Slavic languages and literature. May worked as a tenured Professor of Russian at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minnesota until 2001, when she moved to Syracuse, where her husband was a philosophy professor at LeMoyne College. May earned a Master’s degree in environmental communications at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and became the Director of the Office the Environment and Society at Syracuse University, her current position.
There are two main reasons May is challenging Senator Valesky: to pass legislation stalled in the Senate and to strengthen democracy and fight cynicism.
Senator Valesky “says he believes in the same issues I care about,” May explained, “but makes sure they don’t come up for a vote.” May believes the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) is the reason, a group of eight Democratic Senators who conference with the Republicans, giving them a ruling majority. May said she probably wouldn’t be running if Valesky weren’t a member.
May acknowledges that Valesky has “done a good job securing state resources for the district,” yet “talks to a lot of people who oppose him being on the IDC.” May believes that “government should not be transactional.” Citizens need to “hold democracy to a higher standard” and pass legislation supported by Democrats. If good policy is being passed, May contends “these earmarks are not and should not be focal.”
When asked about bipartisanship, May believes “this includes parties working together.” The IDC “cedes power to Republicans who don’t share power,” evident in how every Senate committee is majority GOP. “Capitulating is not bipartisanship,” May explained, “the IDC has to go and ask for crumbs.”
When asked about compromise, May replied “of course you have to compromise, especially in the Senate, where there is more parity and horse trading than in the Assembly, but compromise is a red herring where the IDC is concerned.” The IDC is only allowed to pass one or two issues through a “gentlemen’s agreement, rather than honest bipartisanship.”
May’s top policy priority is passing the New York Health Act. May stated this was a “trigger” that helped propel her to run as she worked to defend Obamacare from being repealed. The issue has personal roots for May as she explains in the “Why I’m Running” portion of her campaign website.
Good governance is a second major focus for May. This includes election reform to create greater transparency and less monetary influence in politics. “In New York,” May explains, “it is kind of easy to buy influence.” Elected officials “should be responsive to voters not donors.” May is not taking LLC contributions, instead seeking small and medium donations from people far and wide, who mostly reside in the district.
When asked about Senator Valesky and good governance, May contends “he hasn’t been absent,” “answers questions” and is “open and available.” The “IDC is fundamentally an issue about campaign finance” and “cutting corners in being responsive to voters.”
A third major focus for May is human and civil rights, including immigration rights, LGBT rights, and reproductive rights. May contends the Attorney General is “doing a really good job” but “codifying these thing is important” with legislation such as the Dream Act and the Reproductive Health Act. May believes it is “shameful” the Reproductive Health Act has not been enacted despite widespread support.
This emphasis on human and civil rights fits with May’s advocacy for progressive policies through which “government seeks to protect the most vulnerable.” The dominant focus is “the health and wellbeing of future generations.” This includes big issues, like protecting the environment, as well as localized issues, such as school funding.
When asked about cost, May stated that while some of these reforms are costly, they are “good policy that would save the state money over time.” May believes it is time to “rethink the way we do things” to ensure “good stewardship of state resources.” The Health Act, for instance, “could have a huge economic impact, creating opportunities for developing jobs.” Sustainability, for instance, “prompts long term as well as short term considerations.”
May looks forward to meeting constituents and interviewing with Democratic Party committees in the months ahead. Her efforts will involve a “massive field campaign” with lots of communication, “the more personal connection the better.” The campaign wants to talk to twice the amount of people they expect to vote.
May recently visited with constituents in Clinton and surrounding towns, including Sarah Reeske, co-leader of Indivisible Mohawk Valley. Ms. Reeske stated:
May seeks to emphasize her community involvement, particularly in seeking to overcome “Ivory Tower” mischaracterizations she “doesn’t identify with.” “People who work in sustainability,” May explains, “often reference the world that is left to their children.” This is important to May as a professional and a mother.
“In the Trump era,” May contends, a key question is “what kind of legacy are passing on? Children are most critical. The defense of democracy is necessary to defend future generations.” May wants the next generation to have “a reasonable chance, not just living, but to live productive and meaningful lives.”
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College.