We're quickly approaching the most important time of the year - and it has nothing to do with baseball. It's the season for a different game, politics, and Saugertiesians not only will cast votes on November 2 for a presidential contender, but also must choose the assemblyman for 127th district, which includes Schoharie County, parts of Chenango, Columbia, Greene and Otsego counties and now, part of Saugerties. Currently Saugerties Republican Daniel Hooker fills the position, but Schoharie County Democrat Kevin Neary is challenging.
Republican incumbent Daniel Hooker is back for round two after winning the 127th assembly district seat two years ago against Democrat Dixie Lou Baldrey of the Greene County town of Lexington and Conservative Ed Barber of the Greene County town of New Baltimore. In gearing up for the 2004 race, Hooker reflected on the past, looking through his original campaign literature to see whether he had accomplished his goals.
"When I found it I breathed a sigh of relief," Hooker said. "I'd done what I said I would. I ... reduced property taxes. I have co-sponsored legislation for full state takeover for Medicaid - that alone will have impact. I championed a move to use income tax rather than property tax save our schools. I voted against the state budget two years in a row, because both years had dramatically higher taxes, higher fees, more borrowing and growth that dramatically exceeded inflation."
Hooker said he has and will continue to advocate for legislation that would "reform government in 19 different ways," including mandatory member presence at votes instead of empty-seat votes.
"I've helped hundreds of people in the district," claimed Hooker. "I promoted economic development and vigorously championed the Empire Zone for three of seven counties."
Hooker also said he worked to support fire departments, law enforcement agencies and fought for "the concerns of farmers and other small-business owners."
"Two of the most credible lobbies in Albany are the New York Farm Bureau and the National Federation of Independent Businesses [NFIB]," Hooker said, as he pointed out: "out of 212 legislators I got the highest score, tied for first with 92 out of 100" points for satisfaction from the NFIB.
Hooker attended the Virginia Military Institute from 1982 to 1984 before transferring to Cornell University in Ithaca, from which he graduated in 1986 with a bachelor of science degree in communications. Hooker financed his education with a NROTC scholarship from the U.S. Marine Corps, and received a commission as an officer upon graduation. He is currently pursuing a master of business administration degree from the College of St. Rose in Albany.
A major in the Marine Corps Reserve, during Operation Iraqi Freedom Hooker was mobilized to active duty and ran the Reserve Center on Washington Avenue in Albany. In September 2003, he completed his active duty with the Marine Corps and returned to reserve status.
In the assembly, Hooker is a member of the assembly's agriculture, small business and tourism, and arts and sports development committees and is a ranking member of the veterans' affairs committee. He is a member of the assembly minority task force on meeting the needs of manufacturers in New York and on the task force for agriculture. Hooker is also a member of the armed forces legislative caucus and the state legislative sportsmen's caucus. Additionally, Hooker belongs to the American-Irish Legislators Society and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Hooker said he focused on reform during his first term. "The New York state assembly is a mess and it's best known for inefficient, late budgets," Hooker said. "No institute is inherently bad, but if a leader lacks vision, then the institute can decay."
Hooker is referring to assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan. During assembly votes, Hooker claimed, "most Democrats are not present. Everyone should be present, with a roll call and a voice vote," Hooker said. "Do voters vigorously oppose corruption like I do, or will we send Silver back for another term? I hate to say that so much rests on one vote - but it does."
Hooker also felt his vote against the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), a statewide $2.2 billion capital plan that proposed to bring increased funds to less financially endowed New York schools, was part of his job to "fight for our interests against the interests of New York City," even though a substantial amount of funding would have been distributed statewide, including to many rural communities.
Further detailing his views on education, Hooker said, "Our children and our school taxpayers would be much better off if tenure was done away with and teachers were paid for performance for results. What made us the greatest economy on earth was competition and a financial incentive to excel - our teachers don't have that. We are already number one in the nation, we have plenty of money going to our schools; we just need to make our teachers excel. We need a more efficient model, make it a little more like a business."
With his military background a weighty influence, Hooker has been active in creating legislation for service men and women. This year, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs proposed the National CARE Plan, which would close three New York state veterans' hospitals and severely cut funding. Hooker said he feels a "certain obligation to speak up for that constituency that's done so much to keep the wolf away from the door for so many years."
Hooker and the armed forces legislative caucus are "working to try to keep them open," he said of the veterans' hospitals in upstate New York. "It's difficult though, because it's a national issue.
"When I got to the assembly I was very surprised how few veterans are presently serving in the legislature," Hooker said. "I was sobered by the fact that only four out of 150 are combat vets, and I'm one of them. There are only two military reservists, and I'm one of them."
Formerly of Sharon Springs and now newly settled in Saugerties, Hooker and his wife Tara are expecting their first child this month. In addition to enjoying fatherhood, Hooker's plans for the future are to continue to move forward on the issues he focused on in his recent term.
"I want to continue to work for genuine reform. Our legislature in general and the assembly in particular is a very dysfunctional and inefficient place," Hooker said. "I want to keep doing what I'm doing, which is looking out for taxpayers and all the citizens, trying to help small business owners, volunteer firefighters and farmers and trying to get our state budget on time; lower taxes, less fees, smaller government, less borrowing."
Hooker continued to outline the qualities that he says separates him from other legislators. "Most people in my business consult the political weathervane and I never do. I always go back to my moral compass: Free enterprise, limited government, individual liberty and traditional American values."
Hooker also plans to focus on gun control and the Second Amendment. "I was the legislator of the year for the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association and I am the primary defender of the Second Amendment in the New York state assembly," he said. "I thoroughly understand firearms and their potential for good and the ways in which they can be abused, but I don't believe in the knee-jerk reaction restricting law-abiding citizens' access to a firearm."
First-time Democratic assembly candidate Kevin Neary says he decided to run in the 2004 election because he "realized it's time maybe for someone who actually understands what it's like from a local level" to join the ranks in Albany.
Currently serving his fourth term as mayor of Richmondville in Schoharie County, Neary feels that his experiences in this role, as a former member of the Cobleskill-Richmondville school board and as a former member and past president of the Richmondville school board and as the chief of operations for the State Emergency Management Office (SEMO) have more than prepared him to take on the assembly.
"People have said to me that Albany is broken," Neary said. "I'm going to Albany because with all my background and dealing with local issues I believe that I can make a difference."
"As town councilperson, as mayor, I've seen what happens when we have late budgets and don't provide adequate funding," Neary said. "One of my big issues is school funding. We know education is a priority, that's one thing I've heard consistently throughout this district. If education is a priority then we need to fund it as though it were a priority. I believe that we have to give local land-based tax payers some kind of relief."
"The state needs to advocate for what's due us from the federal government from No Child Left Behind," he continued. "The budget has been late 20 years in a row; I've had to deal with that for 14 years being on the school board. No Child Left Behind imposes mandates, yet the federal government hasn't funded that program they make the schools follow."
While he served as the chief of operations at SEMO, Neary was responsible for directing the five regional offices and their respective staff. He was also in charge of New York state's operations center. After 35 years with SEMO, Neary recently retired.
Neary also served as a state liaison/operation officer for more than 20 presidential disaster declarations throughout New York state. In his current position as mayor of Richmondville, he was recently appointed to the New York State Conference of Mayors legislation committee, where he serves as co-chair of the public health and environmental committee. Neary is also an active member of the Schoharie County Chamber of Commerce economic development board.
Neary has been married to his wife Melodie for 28 years. She is a middle-school teacher at Jefferson Central School. The couple has three children: Eamonn, Brendan and Meghan.
Should he be elected, Neary said he will concentrate on "building a bipartisan effort. I'll work with people on both sides of the aisle to address the issues and concerns of all the people throughout the 127th assembly district.
"I've traveled most of this district and the one thing I've consistently heard from people is, number one, they're upset about the late budget and all the partisan politics now being played in Albany," Neary said. "They want to see somebody in there that is going to address their concerns, not someone like Dan Hooker, who has his own agenda."
The "three main issues" Neary wants to concentrate on are: "quality education, the rising cost of health care and stable economic growth.
"The school board must pass the budget at the same time in May every year; it must be written in understandable language - why doesn't Albany do the same?" Neary said. "In 2003 when we were putting together our school budget we didn't know what our operating budget would be because it didn't pass until July."
Neary said he is "concerned" with Hooker's voting record when it comes to education. "The governor vetoed the budget and the senate and assembly overrode it, but what did Mr. Hooker do? He voted no," Neary said. "By voting no he did two things, either [schools] will have to cut programs or increase property taxes. I can't think of why he wouldn't want to increase school aid."
The Democratic candidate is interested in a "state takeover of Medicaid funding. I believe that it has to be phased in over a period of time. I know that finding revenues will be a challenge, but I believe we can find it. New York state is one of the few states that passes on its cost of Medicaid to the local property taxpayer. I'd like to see that changed."
Neary also said he will concentrate on "sustainable" economic growth. "Schoharie, Greene and Delaware counties do not have Empire Zones," he said. "We need to reform the entire Empire Zone. There are 20-25 percent of Empire Zones that are working effectively in New York state; we should take a look at why they are working effectively. We need to take a look and see what we can do to reform legislation.
"The other part of that is we need those Empire Zones [in Schoharie, Greene and Delaware counties]. It's not fair to those counties to not be included; those counties that don't have it need to compete with those that do."