The Sun interviewed Leslie Danks Burke as well. Read that story here.
To incumbent State Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-N.Y.), Leslie Danks Burke’s threat to his seat is nothing less than a threat to the values of the 58th Senate District.
O’Mara described his political ideology, on a spectrum from moderate to conservative, as “one-third to halfway to conservative.” Although, when it comes to taxpayers’ dollars, he clarified he is “very conservative,” that government involvement should be limited to “things in society that likely wouldn’t otherwise get done.”
The Sun checked in with O’Mara as he heads into his sixth election for State Senate, and his second against Danks Burke, who lost to him in 2016 by an over nine-point margin. The 58th district, which is among New York’s geographically largest and most rural, covers parts of Tompkins County, including all of Ithaca.
For O’Mara, the difference between him and Danks Burke is not simply one of a generalized political philosophy. Rather, it’s an approach to government that he best sees fit for the Southern Tier.
“She’s running to join with the extreme downstate faction of the Democratic party,” O’Mara said of his opponent.
There is no denying that O’Mara knows his district. He speaks of the Southern Tier with a tone of certitude and immediacy, as though he enters debates and fields phone calls while standing on Main Street in Elmira. It’s the tone of someone who knows the region from so many perspectives: that of an elementary school student, a county attorney, a father and a state senator.
O’Mara was born in Horseheads, New York, and graduated from Horseheads High School, less than 30 miles from Ithaca. Even though he left New York for Washington, D.C. to attend college at the Catholic University of America, he hardly severed a connection to his home state.
While a student, he worked full time for the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, an agency in the Department of Transportation that handles shipping through the Great Lakes. After graduating from college, O’Mara moved to Syracuse for law school, and later returned to the Southern Tier as Chemung County District Attorney.
O’Mara’s roots in the region go deeper than his own upbringing. His father, attorney and lobbyist John O’Mara, was a powerful force in state policy under the governorship of former Republican Gov. George Pataki in the late 1990s and early 2000s. John had his hand in shaping state policy, from criminal justice and environmental regulations to campaign finance and tax law, according to a 2005 report in The New York Times.
John chaired the state Public Service Commission and a state committee for nominating judges, and is now counsel for the largest law firm in Upstate New York, Barclay Damon LLP, where Tom is a salaried partner. State financial records show that Tom netted as much as $150,000 a year in salary from the firm, whose clients include players in the fracking, pipeline, power generation and waste disposal businesses.
On energy services, O’Mara has remained mostly against government regulation. High-volume fracking was permanently banned by state law in April 2020, an update to the previous 2015 ban enacted through the Department of Environmental Conservation, which could have been more easily overturned by future administrations.
Yet, O’Mara said he still supports fracking and natural gas exploration, believing that “natural gas, over the last decade or two, has helped decrease greenhouse and natural gas emissions that we had from dirtier energy producing plants.”
Albany’s fracking prohibition has long been highly contentious in the Southern Tier, much of which is potentially shale-rich. In 2015, over a dozen towns threatened to secede from the state to join Pennsylvania — which allows fracking — arguing that they were deprived of a significant opportunity to bolster their stagnant economies.
While emissions from natural gas are believed by many to be less harmful to the climate than emissions from coal, this is contested. Research shows that fracking can have far-reaching effects on the environment by polluting water and destroying natural habitats.
His support for deregulating the industry goes beyond energy production. As former chairman of the State Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee, O’Mara voted against a ban on importing unregulated fracking waste products to the state, which has led to the shipment of hazardous materials — such as drill cuttings, waste water and contaminated tarps — into New York from Pennsylvania, according to the National Resources Defense Council.
These imports have halted since August 2020, when Cuomo signed into a law a bill that closed the loophole in the 2015 fracking ban that allowed these unregulated shipments. O’Mara voted against the bill to close the loophole.
Even so, O’Mara expressed support for making greater investments in renewable energy.
“Just because I’ve been supportive of natural gas exploration doesn’t mean that I have not been supportive of renewables,” O’Mara said. The senator lauded Cuomo’s climate goals, and said that more work needs to be done toward making renewable energy methods viable.
O’Mara suggested that energy storage for wind and solar energy needs more research and funding. Although he would not say whether he would sponsor any legislation along these lines, O’Mara promised to support any proposal that sought to boost the renewable energy industry.
The main target, however, of O’Mara’s anti-regulation politics is New York’s taxes on businesses. Protecting small businesses from steep taxes is one of his priorities.
O’Mara supports the reduction of franchise taxes that went into effect in 2017 through the state budget. But this legislation didn’t go far enough, O’Mara said, as it failed to cover “pass-through” entities, corporate structures in which the business owner, not the business entity itself, pays the franchise taxes.
Manufacturing, according to the senator, is the “lifeblood” of the Southern Tier. His focus on reducing taxes for businesses is founded on the notion that more money for employers means more, better-paid employees.
As he put: “the more money there is in businesses, the more people they hire. The more people they hire, the more they can produce, and the more the economy is generated off of that.”
But after months of a slowed economy, revenue is, of course, in short supply for New York, which passed a $177 billion budget on April 1, 2020. As O’Mara sees it, the shortage of revenue is only an exaggerated version of what the state typically experiences.
“This state doesn’t have a spending problem,” O’Mara said of the state’s massive annual budget, which ranks as the nation’s second highest behind California. “We have a revenue problem.”
O’Mara described his approach to making up this revenue as “all of the above” — a strategy that includes spending cuts, appeals for federal aid and perhaps certain tax increases. But O’Mara’s passion for reducing the tax burden on businesses is matched with reluctance on the increasing taxes on the wealthy, citing concern of “capital flight” — the idea that if New York raises the tax rate for the wealthy, then the wealthy will migrate to other states, depriving the state of their tax dollars.
While some academic research disputes the veracity of capital flight, O’Mara said that it may be situation of “death by 1000 blows” — that, although the wealthy typically do not leave the state in meaningful numbers as a result of increased taxes, you never know when they will say it’s the final straw.
His main concern, in trying to mitigate the pandemic-induced financial deficit, is that federal aid should make up revenue losses that derive specifically from the pandemic. He cautioned against asking for federal aid that is aimed at mitigating problems caused by “the poor financial planning and spending habits of the state government.”
O’Mara is also a staunch opponent of the New York Health Act, a proposed statewide single payer program, on the grounds that it would cost the state nearly $200 billion. In their Oct. 1 debate, Danks Burke, who supports the bill, disagreed saying that the New York Health Act would reduce costs on working families and business by avoiding expensive private insurance plans.
His support for reduced spending is not categorical: like his opponent, O’Mara opposes any defunding of the police. O’Mara characterized the current funding of law enforcement as “bare bones” in comparison to previous years.
O’Mara, the highest ranking Republican on the State Senate judiciary committee, is quick to clarify that he supports reforms — for instance, recruiting more diverse police applicants so that officers better reflect their district’s demographics — and he believes that many instances of police brutality are attributable to racial discrimination. O’Mara supports racial sensitivity training for police officers, and said that instances of civilian death at the hand of police officers should be dealt with “harshly.”
He suggested trying to increase the frequency of interaction between police and communities in non-combative capacities, in order to make the public more comfortable with the presence of police. That way, “when somebody sees a police officer, they aren’t just doing their enforcement,” O’Mara said.
“If they could be out and about and interrelated better particularly with younger people in the community there would be a better feeling about the police,” he said.
O’Mara was the only Republican in the senate to vote in favor of granting the New York State Attorney General the power of disciplinary review of significant complaints against police officers.
Alongside concern about Danks Burke’s values as reflected in her policies, O’Mara accused her of lying about her background — saying that Danks Burke has said that she grew up on a farm — in order to appeal to the constituents of the district. However, Danks Burke says on her website that her parents moved to work on their farm full time only after she left for college. For O’Mara, a victory for Danks Burke would mean a step further into the kind of excessive spending that he believes to be characteristic of New York’s government, but uncharacteristic of the values of the people in his district.