Editor's Note: Read our previous interview with Robert Kesten here.
SOMERS, N.Y. – For eight months, it appeared to be a two-man race for 40th New York State Senate District, as Democratic challenger Robert Kesten announced in September that he would challenge two-term incumbent Sen. Terrence Murphy.
That was until Peter Harckham, a fellow Democrat from South Salem, announced his candidacy in mid-May. Harckham was a county legislator for 12 years. He stepped down in 2015 to join Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, serving as assistant director of the Office of Community Renewal. Harckham just finished a nearly two-year stint with the New York Thruway Authority, for which he was director of intergovernmental affairs for the New NY Bridge Project (the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge). He also ran for New York State Assembly in 2010.
Harckham recently sat down with The Katonah-Lewisboro Times to talk about his candidacy. Some of his answers have been edited for space considerations.
The primary election will be held Tuesday, Sept. 13.
Let’s start by telling me why you entered the race when you did. What brought you into the race?
This race is not new to me. I’ve been asked twice in the past to run by the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee], which is the political arm of the Democratic majority in the senate. It just wasn’t a good time in my life. My daughters were still home before they went off to school. I wanted to be around.
Fast forward a couple of months, I’d left the governor’s office and was about to go work for [Westchester County Executive] George Latimer and my phone started ringing with folks saying, “Would you reconsider and get in the race?” Because they felt they weren’t getting traction here on the ground in a winnable way. That’s nothing against Robert [Kesten]. He’s worked hard, he’s bright, he’s sincere, he’s a great guy. I’ve known him for years. But, it’s about winning.
I just, like everybody else, am annoyed and disgusted by what’s going on. You’ve got folks from Washington who are climate change deniers who are cutting clean air and clean water regulations. Harvard did a study recently that said 80,000 more people per decade will die if the Trump air regulation cuts go into effect. So, these have real implications. This is just not ideology. People will die. Ideologues keep chipping away at the Affordable Care Act, so premiums here in New York are going up 24 percent on average and people are losing coverage.
Republicans in the senate have abdicated their right to lead. They couldn’t even pass administerial business this term. They could not pass local tax warrants, red light cameras, just basic stuff, let alone things like the Red Flag Bill, the Child Victims Act, Women’s Reproductive Health Act. There are so many important pieces of regulation that they did not even act on, let alone pass. Bring it to the floor. Have a vote. You don’t have to agree with it, but have a vote. They shouldn’t have been paid for this term. They really did nothing this term.
Your opponent has liked to label you as the “establishment” candidate hand-picked by the governor. What do you say to that type of accusation?
You know, it’s funny because on the one hand he brags that he has all the political committee endorsements, and yet I’m somehow the establishment candidate. Actually, for the first time in my career, I feel like a bit of an outlier. When I was in the county legislature, I always had the full support of my committees. [This time] it’s not because these committees don’t support me, it’s just that was when there was one candidate in the race, they made their endorsement. And that’s fine. We didn’t ask anyone to change. We wanted to respect the process. But, some have come our way: Somers came our way, Mount Kisco came our way, Pound Ridge switched their endorsement and came our way, Cortlandt rescinded their endorsement and is remaining neutral, yet almost all of their district leaders carried for us.
But, it’s really not so much about a schism in the Democratic Party. We’re all unified. Our values are unified. It’s really just a conversation about who the messenger is going to be. If “establishment” means having experience and having credentials and having a record to run on, then that’s who I am. I entered this race as a four-term county legislator, I was majority leader for two terms, I’ve got a progressive record of accomplishment, people know how I conduct myself in office, and that’s the basis of my campaign in seeking the Democratic nod.
Whoever wins will go on to face [Terrence] Murphy. His campaign has tried to drive the wedge [between you and Kesten].
And they won’t, because what they have to say is meaningless to the Democrats. It’s meaningless. There is no wedge. Robert and I are old friends. We pledged to support each other, no matter who wins. The nonsense that comes out of Murphy’s campaign, he should be embarrassed [by] the stuff that comes out of his office as a sitting state senator. It’s just embarrassing for his constituents.
Why do you believe you’re the best candidate to challenge him in a November election?
Well, I have experience in tough elections like this. When I first ran for the county Board of Legislators, it was a long-held Republican seat that nobody thought could become a Democratic seat. We flipped it and we turned it blue and we held it for four terms, and that was during the height of the Tea Party. So, we didn’t have a Blue Wave behind us. We did it through hard work and focusing on our constituents, regardless of party. You represent everybody in your district, and that’s how we accomplished that.
But, we also know how to [appeal] to the non-aligned voters. Democrats will come out, Republicans will come out, but my old legislative district is a microcosm of the senate district. It’s about a third, a third, a third. Slightly more Democratic, but had leaned Republican in terms of the elections. So, these elections swing with the non-aligned voters.
In talking to Democrats, Democrats tend to want to do things because they feel it’s the right moral thing to do. But, the independent voters, yeah, they have a conscience, but they also are very concerned about their pocketbooks and their taxes.
You touched on the Blue Wave. Do you believe that’s a real thing?
What’s interesting is that [former house speaker] John Boehner said the other day that there is no longer a Republican Party, there is just the Party of Trump. So, while the right wing has solidified their support, it’s a smaller core. So, there are people who are up for grabs.
We’ve been talking in this race about fighting for Hudson Valley values versus Donald Trump’s values. You know, the Hudson Valley used to be home to quite a range of views, from Rockefeller Republicans all the way to liberal Democrats and everything in between, and not this hardcore intolerant xenophobic right-wing conservatism that we see in Washington and is now being adopted in Albany. So, what we’re saying to all voters is: Join with us, you’ll have a voice with us, and you will be a part of the conversation and not simply subject to this kind of intolerant right-wing mentality.
Throughout this interview, you’ve mentioned a lot of ideals and programs. What exactly, should you be elected to Albany, is at the top of your agenda? What is 1-2-3? What are the things you want to get done right away?
There are things we need to do quickly: The Child Victims Act. It’s appalling that the senate Republicans took no action on this. That someone who is abused as a child by someone they trusted cannot have their day in court to face their abuser and the institutions that enabled that person, to me, it’s just immoral. So, I think that’s got to be No. 1.
No. 2 is the Red Flag Bill. Common sense gun safety in no way infringes upon anybody’s Second Amendment rights. What it simply says is that if somebody is perceived to be a threat to themselves or others, someone in their world, either a teacher, a therapist, a parent, a police officer, can petition a judge, temporarily, and operative word is temporarily, remove the firearms from that individual until that situation is stabilized.
I think the Women’s Reproductive Health Care Act, especially in light of what’s happening with the Supreme Court and the real serious threat to Roe v. Wade, we have to codify Roe v. Wade in New York State law and we finally need to take New York abortion family planning laws out of the criminal code and put them in the health code.
Let’s talk about some items that might hit close to home: We had a lot of storms this year and people are very frustrated about NYSEG and Con Ed. Do you think anything should be done and what can be done?
Absolutely. And this nonsense goes back 10 years after Irene, Sandy, the Halloween nor’easter, and NYSEG refuses to learn the lessons of each storm. Immediately after the storm, put a make-safe crew with each town highway department so we can at least get the roads open. Tag the lines as safe so we can at least get the roads open. Put a dedicated rep with each town, someone with authority, so they can work with the town on their priorities. Keep a list of every town’s critical infrastructure, whether it’s senior housing, whether it’s nursing homes, whether it’s a sewage treatment plant. We did this for them 10 years ago, and every storm they act like this is new.
Finally, we need to force them to build a resilient grid. These storms are not going away. We just had tornadoes with a winter storm warning. This is the new normal and they need to build a resilient grid with hardened poles, whether they’re concrete or reinforced wood, that’s what the rest of the country’s doing. Make the wires higher, heavier in gauge so they don’t snap as easy. The sub-stations need to be fortified and raised off of flood plains.
So, they really need to be forced to do this. Because every time after a storm, NYSEG will say, “But this was such a bad storm. We had to rebuild our whole system.” Yet, they rebuild it with the same antiquated technology that they’ve had for the last 50 years. And it’s simply because NYSEG is foreign-owned, they don’t want to make the investment here. All they want to do is take our money. So, I think if the Public Service Commission is not going to force them to invest in this grid, I think the legislature must.
You mentioned a lot of issues, all of which are important, but one issue that seems to rile a lot of people up is the name of [the new Tappan Zee Bridge]. Where do you stand on that?
You know, that was decided by the legislature. I think some people had issue with the process. It’s kind of symbolic of how the legislature does all their business. This middle of the night, omnibus kind of package, as opposed to let’s have public hearings, let’s have a straight up or down vote, and you don’t see nearly enough of that.
When I was in the county legislature, we were required by charter to have a public hearing. The public was welcome at our committee meetings and we always had a tradition, even if we felt we were going to pass something, if people came to public hearing and spoke out against it, we would then recommit it back to committee for at least one cycle to take into account those comments. Sometimes, they were incorporated, sometimes they weren’t, depending on what the comments were. But, at least the public knew they had input. And I don’t think the senate has any of that to the degree that they should.