Assembly puzzle may confound voters - Redistricting means some residents will have unfamiliar names on ballot

Observer-Dispatch (Utica, NY) - Monday, July 30, 2012
Author: Elizabeth Cooper,
The fall elections are on the horizon, and voters might be scratching their heads over whom to vote for in the area's state Assembly races. 

Earlier this year, the redistricting process threw Oneida County residents a curveball by dividing the county into five Assembly districts. 

For the past decade, there had been three districts, with two carrying the bulk of the 235, 000-strong population. The new districts will go into effect in January. 

The changes mean residents of 14 of Oneida County's 26 towns will have unfamiliar names on their ballots. 

"Initially, at least, it will be confusing as to who is where," said Joshua Simons, a research associate at SUNY New Paltz, who has focused on redistricting. "You don't know what district you are in and don't know who is on the ballot." 

The shakeup can be linked directly to the dismantling of the 115th District, which now is represented by Republican Claudia Tenney. 

Tenney's hometown of New Hartford will be in the new 101st District, which stretches like a string bean south to Orange County. She is running in a Republican primary against that county's Brian Maher, who is mayor of Walden. Democrat Dan Carter will be on the ballot in November. 

The 115th District has 16 Oneida County towns, but the newly drawn 101st district she's hoping to win has only two. 

Today, the county is represented by Tenney; Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, whose 116th District includes Utica, Rome, Floyd, Marcy and Whitestown; and Bill Magee, D-Nelson, who has Vernon, Augusta, Bridgewater, Marshall and Sangerfield, along with the city of Sherrill. 

On Jan. 1, in addition to the new 101st District, the county will be divided as follows: 

· Ken Blankenbush, R-Black River, who is running unopposed, will step into the newly created 117th District, which includes Ava, Annsville, Florence, Camden, Vienna, Verona, Westmoreland and Kirkland. Blankenbush has been visiting Oneida County regularly to learn more about local issues. 

· Brindisi's district will remain the same in Oneida County, but will pick up the Herkimer County town of Frankfort. He also is running unopposed. 

· Magee's portion of Oneida County will remain the same. He is challenged by Republican Levi Spires of Cazenovia. 

· Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Newport, will run against Democrat Joe Chilelli to represent the new 118th District, which includes six Oneida County towns - Boonville, Lee, Western, Steuben, Trenton and Deerfield - in addition to others from Herkimer County. 

Incumbents scramble. 

Major district changes also can mean incumbents have to scramble to convince a new group of constituents to vote for them. 

"It's basically going back to Square One," Butler said of his new campaign territory. "You have to get your credentials out there and begin showing up at events." 

All six of the Oneida County towns he's now hoping to represent have spent the last 10 years in Tenney's 115th District. 

Butler said some residents he's spoken to are not even aware of the redistricting process. 

"It's difficult for people unless they really pay attention," he said. 

Simons said when voters don't know much about either candidate it's more likely they will vote along party lines. 

"For people who are the average voter things become obscured," he said. "And at the Assembly level there isn't necessarily lots of information available about all the candidates." 

Newcomers benefit. 

Maher, Tenney's opponent in the primary, said the fact that the district he's running for is largely new for Tenney creates an "even playing ground" in a political climate where incumbents often benefit because of their name recognition. 

"It's going to be the candidate who hustles and gets out and meets the most people face to face," he said. "To me, it's a great opportunity and exciting. It's all positive." 

Tenney, however, said because the new 101st District contains towns in Herkimer and Otsego counties that are in the same media market as Oneida County, she has some name recognition in those areas already. 

She's still going door to door, however. "I just have been putting in 1, 200 to 1, 500 miles a week on my car," she said. 

Magee's district isn't changing much - he's losing one town in Otsego County but gaining another, and he said his 22 years in the Assembly give him a strong edge against Spires. 

"There's more to be done and I want the opportunity to do it," he said. 

Spires said he is using his professional experience in Internet marketing to gear up an effective social media campaign. 

"I'm using social media and new forms to communicate with voters, and I'm hoping they respond," he said. 

The self-described conservative said he also has been going door to door in the district's 37 towns. 

Simons said that whatever the difficulties of voting and campaigning in new districts, having five representatives in the Assembly could prove beneficial. 

"It could be an opportunity for whoever is elected to work as a unified block," he said. "It could be a very good thing for the (county) to have five people working for economic prosperity rather than three."