The influential role of New York’s upstate rural Democrats was on display Friday night, with all the state’s top elected officials putting in appearances before the Democratic Rural Conference of New York State.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo praised the conference during a reception at the Saratoga Hilton, and U.S. senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer talked to the group about what can be done to boost agriculture.
“To be an upstate Democrat, you have to really believe,” Cuomo said in a campaign-style speech that was often interrupted by applause. “You have to be passionate about it.”
Hundreds of upstate Democrats are in Saratoga Springs through Saturday for their 17th annual convention, which brings the party faithful from generally conservative rural counties together to discuss common concerns and learn campaign skills.
Cuomo said the system he established of steering economic development funding through regional counsels has benefited all parts of the state, but especially upstate.
“We’re taking the agriculture industry to a level it’s never been to before,” Cuomo told them. “The wine industry, the beer industry.”
Gillibrand announced that she is proposing new federal legislation that would promote direct farmer-to-consumer agricultural sales.
“By investing in local and regional agriculture, we are investing in healthy economies and healthy communities,” said Gillibrand, who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee. “This legislation would promote sustainable agriculture, expand access to credits and markets for Capital Region and New York farmers, and increase access to local affordable fresh produce for our communities.”
Schumer told The Daily Gazette he’s also thinking about the needs of the rural economy: providing crop insurance for specialty products like apples in a new federal farm bill, and making sure a new immigration bill includes provisions that allow dairy farmers to keep foreign laborers year-round — a change from the current law, which limits agricultural workers to only a few months’ stay.
“The way it used to work, they only came in on a seasonal basis,” Schumer said. “You don’t milk cows on a seasonal basis. … Our Farm Bureau loves it, and it would be great for dairy farmers.”
Cuomo also used his speech to outline his administration’s recent accomplishments and current goals. He drew loud applause when he called his controversial gun control law “common-sense gun control.”
Joanne Yepsen, a county supervisor from Saratoga Springs and a candidate for mayor this fall, said she was pleased the conference is being held in the city, and she was happy with Cuomo’s remarks.
“I’m excited he’s taking on the rights of women, and the potential to give finances back to taxpayers,” she said. “There’s still a lot of families struggling, even here in Saratoga.”
R. Donald Ackerman, deputy clerk of the Schenectady County Legislature and a former county legislator, said the conference is about learning and encouragement for rural Democrats.
“What it does for local Democrats in small rural counties that don’t have much success electorally, they get encouragement from people like Sen. Schumer and Congressman [Paul] Tonko,” he said.
Ackerman said Schenectady County, where Democrats have made gains in recent years, is a good example of what’s being achieved by the party across upstate. “It’s just been a really dramatic change in the last 10 years,” he said.
Cuomo concluded his remarks with an unapologetic defense of the role of government as a way to improve people’s lives.
“To us as Democrats, core to our beliefs is we believe in the concept of government, we believe it can work because we believe government is a vehicle of progress,” he said, to wild applause. “In community there is strength, and government is the vehicle to achieve it.”
The convention concludes Saturday, after hearing at breakfast from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and holding workshops on grass-roots organizing.