October 22, 2021

New state legislators from region find their way around Albany

Photo provided by Sen. Peter Oberacker

Freshman Sen. Peter Oberacker (R-Maryland) talks on the phone at his office in Albany. Oberacker is settling in as a junior senator succeeding one of the Senate’s most senior members, Jim Seward.

It’s fair to say that being a freshman state legislator is a tad more complex than being, say, a high school freshman.

It’s not a matter of finding a locker, remembering the lock combination and etching the first semester’s schedule into one’s psyche.

There’s a staff to be hired. If legislative priorities are fairly straightforward — what wasn’t a campaign platform is often handed to the freshmen by their respective party conferences — they still must learn new roles and procedures for the committees they’ll be part of.

And there’s constituent service. A state legislator’s job isn’t simply to create legislation. It’s to represent their constituents’ needs to Albany, help them through state bureaucracy, and explain to their constituents how Albany works. One very senior legislator once said more than 80% of his office’s staff and labor was dedicated to helping constituents.

And in one day, the greater Cortland area lost decades of expertise accomplishing those tasks, as Sen. Jim Seward and Assembly members Barbara Lifton and Gary Finch all decided to retire rather than seek a new term.

Their successors — the greater Cortland area’s entire delegation to Albany — began work this month. Sen. Peter Oberacker (R-Maryland), Assembly Member Anna Kelles (D-Ithaca) and Assembly Member John Lemondes (R-Lafayette). They have to learn the Albany culture, even as they learn the finer elements of their own jobs.

Here’s how they do it:

SEN. PETER OBERACKER

For Sen. Peter Oberacker, walking around the state Capitol was like the first day of college.

“I felt kind of like a freshman in college,” he said. “I was walking around and I was kind of just in awe.”

Oberacker, spent Jan. 6 learning his way around the campus, finding his office and setting it up. Oberacker, who was a representative on the Otsego County Board of Representatives, said being familiar with how government works will help him adjust to his new role.

“I felt very comfortable there,” he said.

He’s also said he had an easier time adjusting because he retained Seward’s staff, many of whom spent years, even decades, serving Seward during his 34 years as a state senator.

“We were so fortunate to have this wonderful staff,” Oberacker said. “That put me very much at ease.”

But while Oberacker said he feels comfortable at the state capitol he will still have to build relationships with all the other senators to effectively communicate what his constituents want.

“I have to help them to understand what upstate New York, the 51st District is about,” he said. “We have some things that might seem odd to them and vice versa.”

He said he plans to work with everyone at the state, including reaching across the aisle to Democrats.

“As expeditiously and as personably as I can, I’ll get to know them and they’ll get to know me.”

Seward said he offered three key pieces of advice to Oberacker:

  • “Never forget your district and the needs and concerns of the people of the district are priority No. 1,” Seward said.
  • “There’s a time for politics during an election campaign,” Seward said, noting the day after election is a time for governing, so leave the politics aside.
  • Reaching across the aisle and standing up for what your district needs is especially important when you’re in the minority.

Oberacker said he plans to take that advice and will have Seward’s number should he need more. Oberacker said he’s excited to get to work and has two areas he’s looking to focus on: broadband and businesses.

“I, as a seated senator, do not have broadband at my house,” he said, noting it’s not a luxury but a necessity, especially during this time.

He said it’s a topic the state needs to get serious about and make sure to hold companies and people in charge of moving broadband forward to task.

He also wants to help businesses open back up.

“They’re hurting and we need to come back again with a plan,” he said. “We need to give them some light at the end of the tunnel. We need to put together a plan that instills hope and potentially rewards our businesses for staying.”

Oberacker also said he’s keeping all of Seward’s offices throughout the district, including one in Cortlandville, and does plan to visit every county in the district.

“You will at least see that, if not more,” he said.

ASSEMBLY MEMBER ANNA KELLES

Anna Kelles began preparing for the transition to her new job last spring, even though the election wasn’t until November and her oath of office just a couple of weeks ago.

Kelles, 46, said she began networking after winning a primary election in June.

“There is no standard process,” she said. “It’s different with every legislator.”

She connected with the staff of the Democratic majority and groups.

“You start to meet people and network with people and build relationships based on shared interests,’ Kelles said. “These are not only my needs and interests. These are interests and needs of the districts.” Kelles represents the 125th District, which includes all of Tompkins County and Cortland, Cortlandville, Virgil, Harford and Lapeer in Cortland County.

Kelles said she has hired a full-time communications manager, chief of staff and district office director, and a part-time legislative director.

The freshman lawmaker said she persuaded the Assembly majority leader to grant her a second district office, which will be in Cortland County. Kelles said she plans to announce the location next month.

“I advocated for a second satellite office in Cortland,” she said. “I thought it was important to spend more time in Cortland, learning about Cortland’s needs.”

She also plans a town hall style meeting online next week, bringing together experts on the coronavirus pandemic and the vaccines, which began distribution last month. Details will be released soon after they are complete, Kelles said.

She said she will bring together her background as an epidemiologist and educator to help her constituents through a trying time as the coronavirus vaccine distribution accelerates. She has invited a researcher of infectious diseases, a nurse with experience in COVID-19 response and vaccine delivery. Kelles said she wants to clear up common misconceptions.

“I want to translate the science to English,” she said.

Kelles has been chosen to serve on five Assembly committees: Corrections, environmental conservation, economic development, agriculture and local government.

Freshmen legislators were asked to submit a list of the 10 committees on which they would like to serve, ranked on order of preference. Four of the five committees to which Kelles was assigned were on her list.

Kelles said she was particularly interested in prioritizing agriculture issues on the environmental committee.

She has been asked to take a leadership role in pressing for adoption of legislation that would create a law to make permanent an executive order that for the first time made absentee ballot applications available online and allowed absentee ballots to be mailed through election day. Previous to the change enacted last year, ballots had to be mailed by the day before the election.

Kelles was also assigned to lead the effort to enact one of six bills in the Invest in Our New York Act. It would reverse the effects of a 2016 federal tax cut on corporations, which lowered their tax liability to 21% from 35%. The state would assess a tax for the difference between the old and new federal tax levels and collect the tax for itself.

“We need to address the profound, growing economic inequity in our state,” Kelles said.

ASSEMBLY MEMBER JOHN LEMONDES

Like any new job in 2021, John Lemondes must learn new names, new protocols and have lots of Zoom meetings. As the Assembly member for the 126th District which covers parts of Cortland, Cayuga, Onondaga and Chenango counties — he isn’t bothered by all the new things he must learn about the job. As he sees it, it’s a continuation to his career of serving the country, which included 27 years in the Army.

“It’s an honor and a privilege and I will recognize it as such,” he said. Like his time in the Army, being a member of the Assembly means you’re never off duty, Lemondes said.

His daily work consists of reviewing legislation, speaking with constituents and discussing issues he wants to address.

These include:

  • Lowering taxes.
  • Making New York state more business friendly to stop the outmigration of people
  • Amending bail reform.
  • Passing legislation to address the opioid epidemic.
  • Supporting law enforcement.
  • Supporting agriculture.
  • Supporting COVID relief.

While being in the minority as a Republican, Lemondes said he is willing to work with anyone to get legislation passed on these topics.

This, he credits, goes back to his time in the Army, where one had to be competent working with everyone.

“I am approaching this from an open-hand, open-eyed, open-eared perspective,” he said.

With the budget season coming up, Lemondes is learning how the process works from staff inside the Assembly.

Moreso, he hopes the budget can provide COVID relief and some of the agenda items he’s working on, but to do so in a fiscally sound manner.

“My hope is that we all share the same goal of fiscal soundness and that we chart a path that gets us there in the shortest time possible,” he said.

As his term continues, he hopes he can help make politics in New York more fiscally responsible and limit the executive power Gov. Andrew Cuomo has.

“I hope above all else to work together to solve this state’s problems,” he said.

Staff reporters S.N. Briere and Colin Spencer, and City Editor Kevin Conlon contributed to this report.