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Tough choices in Assembly race

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Across the North Country--and throughout much of the U.S.--candidates in this election season are calling for more jobs and less taxes. While each candidate says he or she is uniquely qualified to stimulate the economy while lowering our tax burden, very few offer specifics on what public sector jobs and services they'd be willing to cut.

It's a sensitive issue in the North Country where so many paychecks--and so much of our economy--depend on taxes. This is certainly the case in the 122nd Assembly District, spanning all of Lewis and much of St Lawrence and Jefferson Counties.

The candidates in this race are among the few politicians who acknowledge their plans include cutting the positions relied on by many people across the region. As Jonathan Brown reports, this isn't the only thing making this a key race to watch.

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This is an open seat. Incumbent Republican Dede Scozzafava isn’t running for re-election. She is, however, campaigning for Democrat and Independence Party candidate Brian McGrath.

Both men vying for this Assembly seat say the North Country shaped their politics. McGrath grew up in Lowville, and got his law degree at SUNY Buffalo. He says, like so many of the region’s college grads, student loans forced him to look for work elsewhere:

"And had to move to try and find a job to pay off my debt and start my career. But I never really left the North Country. My heart’s always been here. My family’s been here five generations and the North Country’s really always has been and always will be my home."

Ken Blankenbush lives in the small town of Black River, near Fort Drum. He’s running on the Republican and Conservative lines. And he’s garnered an unexpected endorsement of his own from the local IBEW union chapter. He says his career in insurance and financial planning—and his time on the Jefferson County legislature—prepared him for the state Assembly:

"With the traditional values of the North Country, with raising my children and now my grandchildren in the North Country, that I have the North Country true value system that I could bring to Albany. I’ve lived it, I’ve stayed here and I’ve raised my family here."

Blankenbush says this district’s main highway—and main waterway—can become better economic engines, if businesses aren’t bogged down by spending requirements he calls “unfriendly:”

"You take a look at the Seaway and you take a look at the transportation on Route 81 that goes all the way from Canada all the way down through Pennsylvania. That should bring an interest in bringing jobs up here. But you’re not going to do that until you control the spending on utility rates, until you control the spending in health insurance. People are leaving the state because of that."

There is a catch here: the Democratic majority in the Assembly has shown little interest in controlling the kind of spending Blankenbush mentions. Amid all the poll results indicating a nationwide Republican surge in this year’s election, there’s no indication Democrats will lose control of the state Assembly.

And Blankenbush acknowledges this. But he says he has a long history of working across the aisle—something he insists will have to happen in Albany:

"The people want an Assembly that can talk to each other. That both the minority and the majority can get together and solve problems in the Assembly and we’d have to work across party lines. I believe that if the voters come out, this year and send that message to Albany, that that would have to be done, that people are going to demand that that be done."

Brian McGrath is also bullish on the North Country, but—in his first run for public office—he sees the role of Assemblyman a little differently:

"We need our Assemblyman to become the public advocate, the lobbyist and the champion of the North Country. And market the assets of the region and go out and reach out to businesses and say, ‘This is an area you should be attracted to. We have skilled workforce, we have hard-working people and we’re working to put infrastructure in place and reduce our tax burden to make this a place where you want to do business, you want to re-locate.’"

But it’s not just Albany. Both candidates say hard work and tough choices have to start back home within the district. McGrath says in his own Lewis County, 26,000 people are divided among 26 towns, each duplicating services—and expenses. He says local governments must consolidate—and, yes, cut payroll. But he says Albany can help people transition from public- to private-sector jobs:

"And the way you incentivize them to do that is say, ‘If you consolidate, if you start sharing resources, we’re not going to whack you in year one with dramatic cuts in your state-allocated funds. We’re going to keep you the same. We’re going to let you phase out.’"

Blankenbush says in his time on the Jefferson County legislature, he already cut nearly 50 government jobs through early retirements and attrition. Now, he says, it’s time for Albany to do the same:

"When Albany talks about cutting expenses and cutting jobs, they’re looking at it from the bottom up. What we should be doing is looking from the top down. So we have to look at the bureaucracy level down there, look at consolidating some of the agencies. That would certainly save us millions of dollars."

Austerity is at the center of both candidates’ plans for the 122nd district and the state. Both use words like “sacrifice” and “pain.”

So voters here have a tough choice to make on Election Day: how and where to cut jobs and services—and who should do the cutting.

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