Like you, I feel completely drained when it comes to the national election. After three debates, hundreds of articles, hours and hours of television commentary for and against each candidate, as well as intensive research and my personal interactions, I possess more than a rudimentary knowledge of the candidates, the issues and the stakes in what will prove to be a momentous election. But what about the races further down the ballot? Do we possess the requisite amount of knowledge about those candidates to make an informed decision? To shed some light on important races that perhaps have been overshadowed by Trump vs. Clinton, I wrote last week about the state Senate race (Sen. Terrence Murphy vs. Ali Boak). I would like to focus this week on who will replace outgoing Assemblyman Steve Katz in the 94th Assembly District (Brian Higbie vs. Kevin Bryne).
To prepare for this column, I attended the recent debate at the Mahopac Library and found it quite illuminating. To put this contest in perspective, no Democrat has been elected to this seat in 134 years. Even in this volatile political year, it’s hard to believe that such an overwhelming trend will be overturned. Even so, this is a democracy and we need choices, and that is exactly what these two excellent candidates provide us with.
At the debate, Republican candidate Kevin Byrne spoke with confidence, eloquence and self-assurance well beyond his years (31). He has been involved with the Republican Party his entire adult life and reflected proudly about his party affiliation. By contrast, Democratic candidate Brian Higbie unflinchingly claimed that he is not strongly affiliated with any political party and had this to say about his opponent’s experience: “My opponent is a decent young man. At 31 years old, his short career includes working for two Republican politicians and being an officer in the Republican Party. The party machine chose him, and groomed him and has heavily funded him. He wants your vote to further his political career. And he can’t wait to get to Albany. I think we have all seen enough to know that career politicians are focused on their career in politics. If he is elected, he will go with many strings attached.”
I found Mr. Higbie’s claim that he is not strongly affiliated with any political party startling, especially in light of the fact that he was running under the Democratic Party banner. So in a phone interview after the debate I asked him to elaborate and this is what he had to say: “I am on the ballot quite unconventionally. I’m the guy who stepped up when no one else would. I am not here because anyone put me here and I am not funded or assisted by any party. I stepped up because we have real issues and my opponent has all the wrong priorities and none of the right solutions. I am on the ballot because I have lived these problems.”
During the opening statements, I was struck by Mr. Byrne’s explanation of what provoked him to run for the Assembly. Since he was 18, he has been an active Republican, having worked for both Republican Congresswomen Sue Kelly and Nan Hayworth. He later served as secretary and then vice chair of the Putnam County Republican Committee. Hence it would seem logical that his next step would be a run for office. Yet the Republican candidate said that it was his attendance at his high school reunion that motivated him to run. After talking to his high school buddies he came to the realization that most had relocated elsewhere. Faced with the reality that “we are losing an entire generation to the high taxes and corrupt government in Albany,” Mr. Byrne decided at that moment to throw his hat in the ring. Presumably his main focus will be to make our district more affordable, especially for young people just out of school.
In spite of Mr. Byrne’s assertions, his opponent, Brian Higbie countered that he, not Byrne, is better equipped to lower taxes: “I am a small business owner with a 14-year career in law helping homeowners and business owners to lower their property taxes.” I asked Mr. Higbie to comment on Mr. Bryne’s impassioned lament that our community is losing an entire generation due to high taxes and he said the following: “The issue was raised by my opponent that we have high taxes and many of our young people are moving away…the highest tax we pay as New Yorkers is the school tax. So we pay to educate our youth, and we encourage them to go to college, but we don’t have any colleges for them to go to. In the entirety of the very large 94th Assembly District, we have no colleges or universities. So we are forcing our young people to move away. We pay to educate them and then we send them away. If we want our youth to stay, if we want to actually benefit as a community for the investment we have made in educating these youths, then we need to have a college or university here…With my background in economics and taxation and my career in law and property taxes, I am the candidate best qualified by far to pursue solutions for improving the economy and reducing taxes.”
Looking at the debate and his website, it is fair to note that Mr. Byrne’s well-articulated positions are what you would expect from a traditional Republican candidate. For example, he is an advocate for restoring ethics and integrity in Albany, protecting and enhancing the Second Amendment, supporting the “right to life,” stronger enforcement of immigration laws and a comprehensive energy plan, which includes atomic energy. Aside from his dedication to cleaning up Albany, as you might expect, Mr. Higbie respectfully disagrees with all of Mr. Byrne’s positions.
Toward the end of the debate, the Democratic candidate made one final intriguing appeal. It went something like this: Even though the district has always sent a Republican to the Assembly, “The reality is that I am the only candidate than can get anything done for this district…in a Democratic-controlled Assembly, Republicans that have been elected time and time again have come up empty…And this is not an indictment of Republicans. This is the reality of our system…I will fight in the budget process and can bring more state funding home for our schools, and thereby lower our property tax bills. Our current assemblyman has served three terms and he passed one bill: to rename a bridge. Our district has real needs and real problems. We can’t afford to send someone to go advance their career. We need to send someone who can get things done.”
In the end, the quality of our democracy depends on our ability to exercise our precious right to vote in an intelligent and prudent manner. These wonderful down-ballot candidates deserve our attention and consideration. Please vote.