Schoharie County

State senator retires this week after 34 years in 51st district

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State Sen. James L. Seward, R-Oneonta, will retire from politics Dec. 31 after having served his constituents across the nine counties encompassed in the 51st Senate District for the past 34 years. During that time he helped homeowners save money through the creation of the STAR program, assisted business owners with electricity costs, and repeatedly helped constituents with innumerable needs.

Though Seward was first officially elected to the New York State Senate in 1986, he had an inkling from a very early age that he might someday work in politics. In elementary and middle schools, Seward was continually interested in current events taking place in the community, country and world.

“Thinking back,” he said, “I had some great public school teachers that really cultivated that interest. And the rest is history.”

While in high school, Seward became involved in local election campaigns, getting to know a number of the area’s political figures. While he continued his education at Hartwick College in Oneonta, the Vietnam War raged on, with people across the country demonstrating in the streets of various towns and cities.

Seward said that upon seeing the United States, and world, in chaos, his primary thought was, “It’s one thing to demonstrate in the streets to express yourself and your opinions, but I thought to really make changes and have an impact on what decisions are made by government, that you need to have a real seat at the table.”

Political involvement, he realized, “was the most direct way to have an impact on what happens in your community, state and country.”

“That’s the path I decided to take,” Seward said. “I chose to work from the inside.”

Across three-plus decades and 17 terms in the NYS Senate, Seward continually worked to positively impact his constituents, and across that time, never took his responsibilities for granted or became disillusioned with his post.

As senator, he said, “You’re dealing with such a variety of issues and all different types of people and their concerns. You don’t get bored. It’s not monotonous, because no two days are alike.”

Seward mentioned that for over two decades, he sat next to Senator Hugh Farley in the Senate Chamber. Farley became his friend and mentor. The two had countless conversations over the years. “I learned a lot from Senator Farley,” Seward said, who has remained close to Farley since his retirement in 2016. “He’s a special, special guy.”

Though Seward’s achievements are many, he noted that there are several from his political career he’s especially proud of.

The first, on the legislative front, happened within Seward’s first 12 years on the Senate, when he was named Chair of the Energy and Telecommunications Committee. In his initial years as senator, he authored the Tower for Jobs bill, a measure that provided a 30 to 40 percent break on electricity costs for employers, which was particularly important for the manufacturing industry.

Said Seward of the bill, “It has helped create and retain jobs in our area.”

In the late 1990’s Seward was heavily involved with the creation of the STAR program, which provides homeowners and senior citizens a break on school property taxes. “Over my time in the senate, the number one complaint I got over the years has been high property taxes,” Seward said, noting that constituents particular had a hard time paying the school tax bill.

The STAR program saves homeowners about three billion dollars a year, with the state making up the difference for school districts, providing significant savings for senior citizens and people with lower incomes.

Once STAR was enacted, Seward received many positive letters and comments stating that the tax break allowed individuals to remain in their homes. “It’s really heartwarming to receive letters like that, so I knew we had done a good thing,” in developing the STAR program, Seward said.

He said he will cherish the chance he had “to help individual constituents with their problems,” whether on a state, government or personal level. Making peoples’ lives easier was a “particularly satisfying,” part of the job, he said.

Seward recalled being contacted by constituents over the past three-decades who were in a tough spot, explaining that their respective health insurance providers refused to pay for cancer treatments. Seward would call the insurance providers with a request to reconsider, which they sometimes did, leading to situations wherein individuals approached Seward to say, “Senator, you saved my life.”

“It’s very satisfying,” he commented, “to have had that kind of impact on someone’s life.”

While Seward has enjoyed his time in the state senate, the past 34 years have provided many challenges, notable ones a result of initial spread of COVID-19.

With Seward serving a sprawling district that borders Ithaca and Auburn counties on the west end and Albany and Schenectady counties on the eastern side, the job generally demands busy days and nights spent at various events.

While the cancellation of those events in 2020 facilitated a new way of operating, the Coronavirus also presented a personal challenge when Seward and his wife tested positive for COVID-19 in March. While she was able to remain home throughout her illness, Seward was hospitalized at Albany Medical Center for 19 days, including three days spent in the Intensive Care Unit on a ventilator.

“Things didn’t look good, but I did rally,” he said, adding that, “It’s been a long recovery period,” which was complicated by the fact that Seward was simultaneously receiving chemotherapy for a cancer diagnosis.

“Going through that personally and taking a number of weeks and months to recover fully has obviously impacted me,” Seward commented, appreciatively noting that he luckily “responded very well” to treatments and “is feeling great right now.”

While Seward’s cancer diagnosis facilitated his decision not to run for an 18th term in the NYS Senate, which he announced in January, he had no idea that he wouldn’t have the entirety of his final year to properly say goodbye to constituents and peers, as he was hoping to do “a farewell tour,” that suddenly became impossible.

Nonetheless, Seward has responded positively to the forced situation, stating, “I work from home and I’ve been busy every day.” The phone keeps ringing and people still have concerns to express, he said, explaining that with his offices now open, his staff has also remained quite busy.

With Seward officially retired at the end of the week, he hopes the upcoming downtime will allow him the opportunity “to smell the roses a bit and slow down and spend some quality time with my wife and the rest of my family.”

When Seward was first elected, he had a young family, his kids being two and eight. His kids are now 36 and 42, with families of their own. With two granddaughters in the area, Seward said that even in political retirement, he’s not walking away from his commitment and dedication to the people of the area, he said: “I’m not going anywhere.

“I am open for other ways to be of service to help out our region and help move our area forward,” he said.

Seward issued some advice to those considering a career in politics. The number one thing to remember, he commented, is that “you have to like people and enjoy working with all different kinds of people and get satisfaction from helping people.”

“You’re serving the public,” he said, “and it’s important to keep that in mind. Stay true to that.”

Seward said he always considered constituent support a “sacred trust,” and to those citizens, he said “I will always be appreciative of the support and confidence in me that they provided over all these years.

“I’m very grateful to the people of the district for affording me the opportunity to represent them in the state senate,” especially in the region where he was born, raised and educated. “I consider it an honor of a lifetime.”

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