Daniel Ra / Sun Staff Photographer

Leslie Danks Burke participates in a women's issue panel at Cornell in 2019.

October 5, 2020

Old Foes, New Circumstances: Leslie Danks Burke Vies for N.Y. State Senate

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The Sun interviewed State Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-N.Y.) as well. Read that story here.

In the race for New York’s 58th State Senate District, old opponents face off once again — this time during an apocalyptic election cycle.

Leslie Danks Burke, the Democratic nominee for one of New York State’s largest geographic legislative districts, is running against Republican incumbent Tom O’Mara (R-N.Y.) for the second time, after challenging him for the seat in 2016.

Danks Burke, a lawyer who champions herself on education reform, won 45 percent of the vote for the seat in 2016, in a district where only 33 percent of registered voters identify as Democrats. After performing well in a year where Democrats underwhelmed nationwide, Danks Burke said she is running again to reverse the “40 years of neglect from Albany” toward the Finger Lakes region.

The “movement” Danks Burke created in 2016, where she said “armies of people went door- to-door” for her, was forced to pivot in the face of the pandemic. Danks Burke, who has never held elected office, credits her team for rolling out a digital campaign early in February, holding regular phone banks, enhancing her social media presence and hosting socially-distanced outdoor events.

The campaign was even forced to get creative: One event they hosted was a drive-in movie night featuring a parody Broadway show called “Albany Bound: The Musical.”  

In a typical campaign season, a candidate would “wear out three pairs of sneakers walking up and down the sidewalks,” she said. This year presented a “whole different level of expenditure … you spend $50,000 on digital advertising.”

Danks Burke said increasing her online presence allows her to reach more voters. In a region with Republican and Democrat strongholds like Steuben and Tompkins counties, respectively, Danks Burke said her message stays the same regardless of voter partisanship.

“We want to know our government is doing its job, we want to know that we have an occupation that makes enough to pay the bills,” she said. “We want our kids to be in schools that are teaching them something and that aren’t falling apart at the seams with broken pipes and broken infrastructure, and at the end of the day, you want to go home and have a beer.”

To prepare for the debate with O’Mara, Danks Burke rewatched the recordings of their debates from four years ago.

“The promises of O’Mara in 2016 are the same [in 2020],” Danks Burke said. “In this global pandemic, we’re still arguing over the same problems.”

Danks Burke sees those problems emanate from the top of the New York State government, slamming Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) leadership while also respecting his management of the state’s COVID-19 response.

“The governor is part of the problem across the entire state of New York,” she said. According to Danks Burke, the problem is a decades-long dereliction of duty in protecting the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions.

The candidate also denounced the governor’s mandate that called for nursing homes to accept the readmission of virus-positive patients from hospitals in March. She suggested that years before the virus hit American shores, health care protocols in nursing homes were evidently lacking. Danks Burke blamed healthcare corporations for funneling large amounts of money into politicians’ coffers to get lax nursing home standards rolled back.

The pandemic, Danks Burke said, has exacerbated a lot of the pre-existing power disparities in the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier. She expressed contempt for high taxes, yet continuously underfunded and failing schools upstate. “K-12 education struggles mightily,” she said.

“Our educational institutions were suddenly asked to become not just educators, not just food suppliers to children who are food insecure, not just mental health care providers, but also pandemic managers,” she said. “Yet, [they were] not funded that way. We did not prepare.”

Danks Burke, who considers herself a disciple of what she called the “Franklin Roosevelt School of Democrats,” hopes to usher a progressive agenda akin to the FDR’s New Deal reforms.

“The Democrats did it once before by building a coalition of working class voters, labor unions, civil rights activists, women’s equality supporters, and I think we can do it again,” she said.

While she did not support one particular candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Danks Burke, who founded a women’s advocacy organization across 14 rural upstate counties, and launched Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes Action, was quick to express her support for the historic number of women candidates running for office.

“If you couldn’t find a woman to vote for, then you just didn’t want to support a woman,” she said. “There was a woman for every single type of Democrat out there.”

The candidate is eager to advance to the New York State Legislature to institute her broad platforms on social justice, education, infrastructure, environmental protections and job growth.

Danks Burke said the New York State’s repeal of civil rights law Section 50-a, which shielded disciplinary records of police officers from the public, did not nearly go far enough.

“Our rules do not follow the principle that all are created equal. Black people are killed by the police 3.5 more times than white people,” she said. “We need to take a look at rules across the board. Two small bills passed by the N.Y. State Legislature are not going to solve a problem 244 years in the making.”

The candidate said the first bill she plans to introduce is to fix the state’s property tax structure to cut Medicaid costs down for the people that are the least able to afford it. Danks Burke lamented that local businesses get crushed by exorbitant taxes and healthcare costs.

Danks Burke proposes a 50 percent cut to property taxes, forcing the state to handle Medicaid the same way every other state handles Medicaid — by paying for all of it at the state level.

New York has uniquely financed Medicaid for over 50 years, requiring New York City and the 57 other counties to pay more for Medicaid than all other local governments in the nation combined, according to the 2011 Citizens Budget Commission report. The framework put in place a half century ago continues to charge local governments more than $7 billion annually, placing a disproportionate burden upon the most vulnerable local districts.

Danks Burke has repeatedly called out O’Mara for continuing to serve as a consultant for the law firm Barclay Damon, LLP while also holding public office. In New York, state legislators are considered part-time employees and can seek private employment through this loophole. State financial records showed that O’Mara, who sits on the Environmental Conservation Committee, netted as much as $150,000 a year in salary annually from Barclay Damon, LLP.

Barclays Damon, the largest law firm in upstate New York, serves as legal counsel for various fracking, waste disposal and drilling interests, including conglomerates like Honeywell.

“I have one interest that I’m working for: that is the people of the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes,” Danks Burke said.