Getting elected in the 46th Senate District took a lot of driving.
In pursuit of the Democratic nomination, Cecilia Tkaczyk spent the late spring and summer traveling across the five-county district, which stretches from St. Johnsville in Montgomery County down past the city of Kingston in Ulster County. After easily winning a three-way primary, she got back on the road to take on then-Assemblyman George Amedore, R-Rotterdam.
“I put a lot of miles on my car,” Tkaczyk said in a phone interview Saturday. “It was a long, grueling campaign.”
The driving paid off Friday, when a two-month legal battle ended with her having an insurmountable lead of 18 votes, with a single ballot from Montgomery County still in legal limbo.
It all started last April for this school board member, wife, mother, former nonprofit executive, former state Senate staffer and farmer. She is a resident of Duanesburg, which had just been drawn into a new Senate district added to the chamber by Republicans as a way to hold their narrow majority.
Tkaczyk was wary of the district’s political direction, as Amedore appeared to be cruising into the seat.
“I decided they needed people like me in the Senate,” she said, explaining her decision was largely driven by her experience on the Duanesburg Central School District Board of Education. From that position, she had witnessed firsthand the way rural and small city school districts are allocated state aid. That formula needed to be changed, Tkaczyk said, because it isn’t fair.
This is an issue Tkaczyk has spoken out on before, one time joining thousands of schoolchildren rallying at the Egg in Albany. It became one of the main causes during her campaign, and now that her victory has been secured, it will be one of her priorities, especially with Gov. Andrew Cuomo set to unveil his state budget Tuesday.
She is hoping to tweak the education aid formula so schools without a strong local tax base aren’t stretched so thin.
“It’s about being fair to everyone,” Tkaczyk said.
To bring about that fairness, she also wants to see an increase in the available pool of state aid. This is required, she said, to meet the changing needs in education.
Campaign finance reform will also be a large blip on Tkaczyk’s radar for the first year of her term.
This issue helped catapult her into the limelight right before Election Day.
In the middle of October, she was trailing Amedore in the polls and in fundraising, as the race appeared to be the lock that Senate Republicans had hoped for. Two weeks before Election Day, though, two coalitions announced they would begin advertising campaigns for Tkaczyk because of her position on campaign finance reform.
More than $500,000 was spent on these ads, which flooded television screens in the final days of the campaign and established a narrative for voters that Tkaczyk wanted fair elections and implying Amedore did not. It’s not clear whether this message resonated with voters, helped stir up her liberal base or just spread name recognition, but Tkaczyk and advocates of campaign finance reform are reading her victory as a win for a new way of financing elections.
The proposal she is backing is a system of publicly financed elections.
“It’s really difficult to run for office if you don’t have a lot of money,” she said of the current system, which can give a huge fundraising advantage to incumbents.
A statewide system of publicly financed elections could cost between $40 million and $70 million, she said, far lower than what was suggested in some of Amedore’s advertisements from the waning days of the campaign. The estimates from Amedore’s campaign were based on proposed legislation.
Despite even “exaggerated” costs, Tkaczyk said the current system of elections doesn’t work.
“It’s costing the state more not to have a publicly financed campaign system,” she said.
Based on Cuomo’s announced support for this cause, she is hopeful the measure will come up for a vote and not in a watered-down version.
The fear of a watered-down campaign finance system stems from the fact that the Senate is controlled by a coalition largely driven by Republicans, typically opposed to public financing of elections. They control the chamber despite Tkaczyk’s win giving the Democrats 33 of the Senate’s 63 seats. Republicans have been able to hold on to power because of deals with six renegade Democrats, who she hopes will come back to their party and help produce more liberal legislation.
Tkaczyk is also looking forward to supporting Cuomo’s push for a legislative package of female-oriented issues, including equal pay and reproductive rights. During her campaign, Tkaczyk routinely touted her support for these issues, which she used to contrast herself with Amedore.
Because of her background in farming — she has a flock of sheep — and the makeup of the 46th Senate District, her first pick for a committee assignment is agriculture, followed by education and then economic development.
Casino gambling is now a major issue for Tkaczyk because her district stretches into the Catskills, where it is expected a non-Indian casino will be placed if a constitutional amendment is approved. She said the state needs to ensure any new casinos create high-paying jobs, but acknowledged non-Indian casinos would be a significant way to create jobs.
How she would vote on a constitutional amendment, if the locations for casinos were not outlined, was not something she could specify.
It is expected that Tkaczyk will take office this week.