After months of schisms among members of the Cortland County Legislature, three Republican legislators left the GOP on Wednesday in favor of no party affiliation.
Legislators Joe Nauseef of Cortlandville, Linda Jones of Homer and Kelly Preston of Homer arrived about 8 a.m. to the county Board of Elections office to sign the paperwork to formally switch their party.
“I did not take my oath of office to protect the political interests of any party,” Jones said in a statement. “My mission has always been to address the challenges this county faces and to listen to each and every resident. I have regretfully found that both the Republican and Democratic parties, even at the local level, seem to be consumed with party lines, winning elections and control. This has caused us to have a broken political system that I can no longer tolerate.”
Republican Party Committee Chairwoman Connie White declined to comment on the switch.
“While I am very disappointed to hear of legislators leaving the Republican Party of the Legislature, it will not change the mission of our Cortland County Legislature,” said Legislature Chairman Paul Heider (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton). “There is no legislator in Cortland County treated differently, no matter the party affiliation they have.”
Heider also said the top goal of getting people vaccinated against COVID-19 won’t change just because party affiliations have.
“This party change will not affect that,” he said.
The Republicans who once held a 9-8 majority over Democrats on the legislature, now have six members, leading to an 8-6-3 balance of power, Democrats over Republicans over the three unaffiliated legislators.
Democratic conference leader Beau Harbin (D-Cortland) was surprised by the move.
“That’s news to me,” he said, but added the Democratic caucus remains strong.
“We’re very focused on the individuals and residents of this county,” he said, noting the party will continue to work with every legislator.
He also said he does not plan to lead any charge to replace Heider as chairman of the Legislature, noting the chairmanship is a two-year term.
“To my mind, changing party affiliation doesn’t change the vote we already had,” he said.
He said if people wanted to revisit their votes that’s something the legislators would need to debate.
“I’m not prepared to lead that charge right now,” he said. “I think Paul is working diligently for the county.”
The three legislators planned to switch to the Independence Party, but were told when they arrived at the county Board of Elections office that the Independence Party was no longer an option because the Independence Party was no longer going to be included on ballots. Nauseef said he was surprised they couldn’t change to the party, noting he had reached out via Facebook to the Independence Party recently.
The switch shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, Jones said, reiterating the same statement she made in July: the Legislature is fractured.
“Basically, what started it all was back in March with the TransPro vote,” Jones said Monday.
In March, Jones, Nauseef and Preston were the only three Republicans to vote against hiring the Florida-based company the county wanted to use to help it find ways to save money.
“After that time, things became very hard as I had many things thrown in my direction to try and stop me from doing my job as effectively as I desired,” Nauseef said in a prepared statement. “The Republican chair of the legislature became angry at me for not ‘supporting’ and not voting for the hiring of TransPro.”
Nauseef said he was threatened with ethics charges and removed from his committees and reinstated only after people questioned his removal.
“Months later, an ethics complaint did come through and was unanimously declared by the Ethics Board that I had done nothing unethical or illegal in my transparency and communication to my constituents,” he said.
But for the three of them, the final straw came during December’s legislature meeting over a resolution to hire a new coroner. The three said they were pressured to vote for the Republican candidate. Nauseef said he even got a call from White urging him to vote the party line.
After they decided not to vote for the Republican candidate, they said they received an email from White questioning their reasoning for their vote.
“This isn’t a war between me and Connie White, I’m just sick of being treated badly by the party,” Jones said.
Jones said the three of them have been caucusing on their own since March. Jones said that the three of them were asked to come back and did but left the caucus again after one meeting because they were reprimanded for going against the party again.
“We get admonished every time we don’t vote the way they want us to,” Jones said.
Preston said in a statement she doesn’t want to belong to a caucus and be “pressured into a vote.”
Preston said the three of them still believe in what the Independence Party stands for, even if they are no longer considered a party affiliation in New York.
“The Independence Party practices a non-partisan democracy,” Preston said. “I hope that other members of the county Legislature consider removing themselves from political caucuses and commit to working for the people in this county, not a political party.”