In the spring of 2009, after an upset defeat in a special election for the 20th Congressional District, many political observers assumed that Republican Assemblyman Jim Tedisco would end his career of public service.
Two years later, after being re-elected to the Assembly with about 65 percent of the vote and making news this past spring for his call to end the automatic printing of legislation, he proudly notes that he is still serving the people of Saratoga and Schenectady counties at the state level.
“In all deference to the man who won [in 2009], I’m still here and he’s not,” said Tedisco, 61.
Scott Murphy, who narrowly won the special congressional election, only to be defeated by Republican Chris Gibson in the regular election in 2010 and returning to the private sector, did not respond to a request for comment.
“I wasn’t happy that I lost that congressional race. You’re never happy when you lose, but I enjoy waking up and knowing I’m going to be able to go and fight the battles I’ve fought over the years,” he said last week in a district office on Jay Street in Schenectady. “When it doesn’t feel that way when I wake up in the morning some day, then it’s time for me to leave.”
Tedisco was first elected to the state Assembly in 1982, when he was a young Schenectady City Council member. At the time, he says, he was still only known for playing basketball at Bishop Gibbons High School and Union College. He succeeded the retiring Clark Wemple, who was stepping down after 17 years of service. Next year will be his 30th year in the state Assembly.
Political observers began to write Tedisco’s political obituary after he lost the congressional race because he would be returning to the Assembly without the title of minority leader, which he had held for four years. He gave up that position when absentee ballots were being counted to determine whether he or Murphy had won the congressional seat. Tedisco is on record saying he gave up the leadership role to plan what he thought would be his transition into the congressional seat.
Returning to the Assembly without the leadership role, Tedisco was no longer a statewide figure with an institutional bully pulpit. The dozen additional staffers and big office in Albany were gone and the extra helping of pork projects were no longer his to deliver to his constituents.
Schenectady County Democratic Chairman Brian Quail said he thought Tedisco would quit after the defeat, based on a long string of politicians retiring after leaving a leadership post. “I was surprised,” he said. “It was interesting to see it unfold the way that it did.”
Assemblyman George Amedore, R-Rotterdam, whose initial Assembly campaign in 2007 was overseen by then-Minority Leader Tedisco, said he never had any doubt Tedisco would come back. “I never gave it any thought that he wouldn’t return,” said Amedore.
He added that until the race came down to absentee ballots no one had expected Tedisco to return because it was widely believed he would win the Congressional race.
Tedisco said his belief that each legislator already has the tools to be a leader made it easy for him to return to the Assembly without the big title.
“A leader and being a good public servant isn’t a designation. A leader is based on the character, content, quality and the innovativeness of their ideas and solutions to solve problems,” Tedisco said. “Nothing changed in my mind. I was still a leader, even though I didn’t have that designation.”
He argued that even in New York, where the political structure is very top-heavy and “three men in a room” usually dictates the legislative agenda, a good idea can set the course of action. Tedisco still carries a press clipping from 26 years ago that he cites as evidence of this philosophy, because it documents his ability as a then third-year minority Assemblyman to grab the attention of Gov. Mario Cuomo. In that case, it wasn’t the governor and the two majority party legislative leaders who made the statewide disbursement of missing children’s photographs a major issue.
Good ideas are still recognized, he said, it just takes a little more to get one noticed. “In terms of exposure, you may get more exposure [as the leader] … but I never had a problem getting exposure,” Tedisco said.
This was clear during the recent legislative session when media events and press releases were crafted by him to promote his bill that would end the automatic printing of thousands of bills each year.
“Yeah, I stood on top of tons of paperwork. I piled paperwork on my desk. I debated the Ways and Means [Committee chair],” said Tedisco, who would disagree that any of his antics were over the top in promoting his paperless bill.
Amedore sits right next to Tedisco on the chamber floor and is used to his colleague’s style. “When Jimmy gets on an issue that he believes in he works hard for that cause,” Amedore said. “Some of the tactics, the quirkiness … may not be my approach.”
He said Tedisco’s strategy doesn’t always work, but said that “being in the minority you have to draw attention … and he has some great ideas.”
Because of the political realities in the Democrat-dominated Assembly, Tedisco’s printing bill was not advanced. Instead a similar bill from a Democrat, which had been introduced repeatedly without action, was eventually signed into law. “A bill that was languishing,” he said, “all of a sudden came out and got passed.”
Schenectady County Democratic Chair Quail argues that this is an example of Tedisco taking credit for an idea that wasn’t his. Quail acknowledged the disadvantage of being in the minority, saying, “the reality is he can’t advance legislation,” yet still feels Tedisco has not been an effective legislator.
In 2011, none of Tedisco’s bills were signed by the governor. This is not unusual: The current minority leader got only two bills signed by the governor and about 90 Assembly members have gotten one or no bills passed into law in 2011. Tedisco had four pieces of Senate companion legislation passed and had a Democratic bill that was promoted at his Animal Advocacy day signed by the governor.
“If you’re really stuck on that pride of authorship you’re going to hurt your constituents and you’re going to hurt your causes,” explained Tedisco, who expressed some annoyance that members of the majority often co-opt ideas from the minority.
Not so humble
This idea of a humble public servant, just trying to advance what’s best for his constituents, hasn’t always jibed with the perception of Tedisco. He acknowledges that his critics have suggested he always strived to higher office and says people have joked that he wanted to be president since he was 5.
“Since I was 5 years old I wanted to be a professional basketball player,” Tedisco said. “I didn’t want to be a congressman, an assemblyman or a city councilman.”
Yet when the 20th Congressional District became vacant after Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to the U.S. Senate, Tedisco sought the Republican nomination to succeed her. He said there were calls from state and national Republican operatives urging him to run, but his decision to enter the race was based on a self-test he began administering on the Schenectady City Council in 1978.
“I always decided in my mind once I got into public service that I wanted to be at the level where I served the most people at the highest level of excellence. At one point it was the city council, at one point it was the Assembly and then I thought I could make a real difference at the federal level,” he said. “If it wasn’t for a half a percentage point, maybe I would have.”
Looking back on the two-month race with Murphy, who he refers to as “my opponent” or “the man who won,” Tedisco feels like he was a victim of President Barack Obama’s popularity. He said, “I think 90 percent of it was that.”
One of the major issues in the race was the president’s stimulus package, which Tedisco eventually opposed late in the campaign. “People wanted to see that change and hope … but in that district the constituents saw change and hope in that stimulus,” Tedisco lamented.
“What my opponent did was put Barack Obama’s head on his shoulders,” he said about Murphy’s victory. That tactic hurt Murphy in the 2010 election, Tedisco said, because the national sentiment had shifted. Murphy, he said, “still had Obama’s head on his shoulders and … couldn’t get it off.”
Tedisco also blames his loss on the condensed campaign in 2009, which made it hard for him to have one-on-one interactions with voters. Personal politics is a strength of his and he admits he didn’t come across as well as he could have because of the mass media campaign. “I couldn’t get to all those doorsteps. I didn’t have enough time,” he said.
Democrat Quail agreed, characterizing Tedisco as a natural political salesman. “He is probably the best retail politician in the county of Schenectady … and probably the Capital District” Quail said. “I say that with respect.”
Tedisco says he has no regrets about running and feels his Assembly constituents were happy to have him back.
Saratoga County Republican Chairman Jasper Nolan said Tedisco likes to be involved and that made him a valuable asset to the district when he was the minority leader and after. “He never gave up that commitment to the people he represented,” Nolan said.
He added that Tedisco remains an important player in the Republican Party and gets things done.
There has been speculation that Tedisco has had his eyes on the state Senate seat held by Republican Hugh Farley and Tedisco wouldn’t put those rumors to rest. He said the congressional loss helped prepare him for his next electoral challenge.
“I don’t have any plans in the future,” said Tedisco, who said he thinks he is in the right place at the State Assembly.
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Categories: Schenectady County