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Image: NYS Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR)
Image: NYS Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR)

New electoral districts make strangers out of candidates

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Newly-drawn New York State electoral districts are taking candidates far from their home bases and into strange territory.

One extreme example of this is the 118th Assembly district, which now includes parts of five counties, stretching from southern Herkimer up to northern St. Lawrence County. Marc Butler holds the seat and is running again as a Republican; Democrat Joe Chilelli is the challenger.

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Joe Chilelli wouldn’t always have been able to tell you who his state assemblyman was. “I didn’t care,” Chilelli says, “and to that degree I understand a lot of people in that position, because I’ve been in that position.”

But a few years ago a local issue did catch his interest, he got involved, and now, he’s challenging Marc Butler in this year’s election.

Marc Butler’s been an assemblyman since 1995. He’s lived in Herkimer County his whole life. Before local politics he worked in corporate communications, and before that he was a newspaper reporter. In the last election, he ran unchallenged. 

Joe Chilelli was born in Italy, spent his adult life on Long Island, and moved to Herkimer County 13 years ago. He imports and sells antique furniture, and he’s also a real estate agent.

Both men are centered in Herkimer County. But a newly drawn district means both are sailing uncharted waters this election year—it’s 150 miles from either candidate’s home to some of the communities in St. Lawrence County he’d be representing. Chilleli says a big chunk of his campaign time is spent in his car. He says that he had never been to St. Lawrence County or Hamilton County before he started running for election in June. “This is why it was very important to me to come up,” Chilelli says, “to try and get a sense of what the issues are, what people’s concerns are.”

Butler, on the other hand, says he’s got more ground already covered. He’s a SUNY Potsdam grad, and at one point in his 17 years of being an assemblyman, parts of Hamilton and Fulton County were in his district. Butler says he has to hope that in some of those areas, he might have some name recognition. “I’m really trying to reach out into the newer areas.” he says. “My strategy has kind of been to work from the outer edges back into the middle.”

But both candidates say they’ve been learning the new terrain as they go, and both agree they’ll be learning well past being elected. Chilelli says he’s gone to every community in the district at least once. He says he feels bad that he still won’t get to meet every voter in the district. “I figured since I announced in June, I would have to reach three to 400 people a day to hit everybody.” 

Butler says that while the issues facing voters in St. Lawrence County or Hamilton County may be different from those in his home county, he’s still qualified to represent them in Albany. “Even though it’s a very far flung district, it’s largely rural, largely conservative, and in that way I think there is a cohesiveness to it.”

Both candidates identify as socially conservative. They agree gay marriage should be illegal, they both talk a lot about letting business thrive and keeping taxes low, about supporting logging in the Adirondacks, and about raising milk prices, though they aren’t quite sure how to do that. 

Chellili says he would have liked to get on the conservative ticket but couldn’t because he decided to run late. He hopes that “people don’t just look at the D.” He says he’s not really comfortable being called a member of any party. He says for him the letter next to a candidate’s name on the ballot is just a symbol, and that an assemblyman’s role is to talk to people, that politics only works if everyone’s voices really get heard, and that the first thing he would do is allow for citizens to call a public referendum on any issue that concerns them.

Butler has a different view of what an assemblyman’s role is. At a "meet the candidates" night at the ranger school in Wanakena two weeks ago, Butler said that when it comes to voting in Albany, an assemblyman chooses between two buttons: he can push yes, or he can push no. “And ultimately, it’s what you believe, what you’re committed to, that drives those decisions,” Butler says. “And if you just wait for a focus group to make a recommendation or get a group together and ask them how they feel, well that’s warm and fuzzy, but you’re not being a legislator, why are you even there?”

In this last week before election, both candidates plan to make their last visits to the farthest reaches of the district.

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