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Darrel Aubertine makes his case at a senior health fair he sponsored in Fulton.
Darrel Aubertine makes his case at a senior health fair he sponsored in Fulton.

Aubertine leans on experience, rural roots

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The 48th State Senate district is shaping up to be one of the most closely watched races in New York State on Election Day. Republican Patty Ritchie's effort to unseat Democratic Senator Darrel Aubertine could tip the balance of power in the Senate back to the GOP.

State campaign committees of both parties have spent more than a million dollars in the 48th just since October 1st. Most of that money went to TV ads.
Darrel Aubertine is seeking his second full term in the Senate after several years in the Assembly. He's the legislature's only farmer. And he's running as a bipartisan lawmaker who lives rural issues and knows how to get things done. David Sommerstein has this profile.

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Incumbency’s a powerful tool.  Democrat Darrel Aubertine’s wielding it often this campaign season.  He distributed state grants for hospice in Jefferson County and for catholic charities in Ogdensburg this fall. 

In Oswego County, he organized a senior citizens’ health fair.

[sound up]

Seniors peruse the information tables, each holding blue plastic bags with the name Senator Darrel Aubertine printed on them.

Obviously, he’s put this little fair on, brought it to Oswego County.

Ellen Shatreau of Phoenix, New York is a Republican.  But she says she’ll vote for Aubertine the Democrat.

He seems to really care about the people in our community.

Aubertine himself works the room in a blazer and powder blue shirt unbuttoned at the neck.  He comes across as disarming and charming, more farmer than politician.  Another Republican, Eleanor Spicer of Pulaski, says she likes that.

Well, he sounds sincere and he doesn’t just go on and on and run the other people down.  He said he wants to learn what the people want from him.

Aubertine says health care, jobs, and transportation are on seniors’ minds here.  He says he helped directing millions of dollars in state and federal funds towards renovating Lee Memorial Hospital in Fulton - which was closed by a state panel before he became Senator - into a medical clinic.

Rather than let the whole issue fade to black and Fulton be faced with yet another empty hulk of a building, we were able to make sure that, to the extent we can, that health care services are still available.

This is the case Aubertine is making for re-election.  That in a state capitol divided by political strife and strapped for cash, experience matters.

Speaking at SUNY Canton, Aubertine said over eight years in Albany, he’s built relationships that allow him to broker deals to the benefit of the 48th district.

Being able to pick up the phone and talk to the comptroller, talk to the attorney general, talk to the governor, talk to leadership in both houses, talk to my former colleagues, there’s real value in that, and I think it would be a travesty at this point in time to cast that kind of value aside for politics.

But incumbency cuts both ways.  And with anger at Albany at an all-time high, playing the insider is a potentially perilous strategy.  Watertown mayor Jeff Graham says voters may tie Aubertine to soaring deficits, the three month late state budget, and power battles in the Senate.

I think he’s carrying a big albatross with this whole New York City, Pedro Espada, Hiram Montserrate, the whole coup that happened, and granted, the Republicans were complicit in that too, but I don’t think anybody’s pointed that out to anybody up here, so he’s really swimming against a tide.

Republican challenger Patty Ritchie, has been hammering away at Aubertine’s connection to downstate Democrats and the state’s troubled fiscal picture, like in this new TV ad…

AD: When the economy was struggling, Senator Aubertine raised your taxes, I won’t.  He raised spending.  I won’t.  He voted 99% of the time with corrupt New York City politicians.  I won’t. [fade]

Aubertine’s repeated on the campaign trail that he actually voted against Pedro Espada in last year’s Senate coup.  And he says the legislature managed to close a 9 billion dollar deficit without borrowing money or shuttering key North Country institutions.

When the Governor proposed to close parks and prisons and sweep the snowmobile trail fund, we rejected that.  General fund spending this year actually went down.   Was it a pretty process?  No.  But nevertheless, I think that the budget that we were able to come up with at the end of the day was a much better budget than the Governor had proposed originally.

Aubertine flexed his political muscle this year to help save Ogdensburg’s prison and keep state parks open.  As chairman of the Senate Agriculture committee, he almost single-handedly killed a farm labor bill that would have forced farmers to pay overtime and health benefits to workers.  And most recently, he got the DEC to table a plan to regulate outdoor wood boilers.

SUNY Potsdam politics professor Jack McGuire says those victories are powerful to voters.

And so he may have inoculated himself against this kind of anti-incumbent fervor.

Joe Gray is a Republican strategist in St. Lawrence County and Massena town supervisor.  He calls Aubertine “the Teflon” politician and says he’ll be tough to beat.

He does his job.  People know him.  They like him and not a lot sticks to him.

The only independent poll in the race showed Aubertine and Ritchie in a virtual dead heat.  That’s not where an incumbent wants to be heading into the final stretch.  But for a Democrat lugging Albany’s dysfunction and swimming against a Republican tide nationwide, it may be the best Aubertine can expect.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m David Sommerstein in Fulton.

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