This article was written by Michael J. Fitzgerald as his weekly column in the Finger Lakes Times (Geneva). It was published on Friday, March 11.
Forget Donald Trump.
That’s like telling someone, “Don’t think about elephants.”
My apologies for injecting what’s-his-name into your reading.
But honestly, for the moment, forget the GOP presidential candidates and their deafening, often-rude histrionics. Let go of the more pedestrian, issues-based rhetoric of Democrats seeking that party’s presidential nomination.
Forget these shiny sideshows.
Instead, give your attention to two important state political races in which incumbents are facing well-qualified, determined challengers.
GOP Congressman Tom Reed is squaring off against Democrat John Plumb, a decorated U.S. Navy veteran from Chautauqua County. Plumb has solid credentials, including being director for defense policy and strategy at the White House National Security Council, a job he left to run for Congress.
NY State Sen. Tom O’Mara is battling Leslie Danks-Burke, a Tompkins County attorney with solid political, legal and environmental credentials.
These two races haven’t yet generated much ink or broadcast media time, but the names of the two incumbent Toms have been popping up all over their respective districts faster than springtime weeds.
When Plumb and Danks-Burke launched their campaigns, the Toms starting ramping up town hall meetings, initiating a flurry of high-profile business visits and glomming onto any event likely to draw media attention.
This kind of electioneering gives incumbents public relations and name recognition that challengers can only envy from the sidelines.
In 2014, Reed coasted to reelection, defeating Tompkins County Legislature Chair Martha Robertson by a 22 percent margin.
But in the prior congressional election in 2012, Reed had a close electoral call. A very polished, well-organized Democratic challenger named Nate Shinagawa came within 4 points of unseating Reed. Shinagawa reportedly was moving up quickly in the polls in the final campaign weeks. Had the election been held a few weeks later, he might be representing the 23rd Congressional District instead of the former Corning mayor.
An analysis of the voting from that Shinagawa-Reed congressional contest suggests the O’Mara vs. Danks-Burke state senate race will be, well, a real race.
It’s the kind of number-crunching, political crystal ball gazing that election geeks love to debate endlessly.
But to put it simply, voters in the five counties that make up the sprawling 58th NY State Senate District voted more heavily for Shinagawa than Reed in 2012 — even though GOP-registered voters hold a huge advantage in the district.
How did O’Mara do in his State Senate race in 2012?
He ran unopposed.
What about the 2014 election?
He ran unopposed — again.
Exactly why Democrats — or anyone else — haven’t put up a candidate against O’Mara in the last two state senate contests is murky.
But this year it’s game on.
O’Mara faces a challenger who is articulate, well connected politically and who has demonstrated she can raise monies for her campaign.
By late January, Danks-Burke had raised more than $172,000, with $163,000 from individual donors.
Between now and November, let’s hope for a civil campaign in these Finger Lakes political contests, compared to what we are witnessing nationally.
So far, the only snarky political salvo came from O’Mara when he learned of the challenge by Leslie Danks-Burke.
“ … The last thing we need in Albany is another liberal Democrat beholden to (New York City) based leadership stifling our upstate economy,” he told a reporter.
That’s nearly as vague as the hyperventilated talk tossed around by Donald Trump.
But with luck, Finger Lakes residents will be able to ask plenty of clarifying questions of the two incumbent Toms — and their challengers — at debates, forums, and through the media.
The election isn’t until November. That leaves plenty of time to get answers.