Unopposed: 1/3 of NY lawmakers have no opponent

ALBANY (USA TODAY Network) -- All 213 seats in the state Legislature are on the ballot Tuesday, but about a third have already been decided.
 
Sixty-nine candidates are running unopposed for the Senate or Assembly, according to state Board of Elections records. Another 18 have no major-party opponent, facing only third-party candidates who rarely have a path to victory.
 
Good-government advocates say the lack of competition takes the choice away from voters, stifling the democratic process at a time when many already have a negative view of government.
 
But state lawmakers say many factors can lead to a non-contested race, with limited resources and a party enrollment edge in a particular district chief among them. And other states -- including Rhode Island and North  Carolina -- have similar rates of unopposed legislators.
 
Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the state League of Women Voters, said non-contested races are "awful for a representative democracy."
 
"There's no exchange of ideas, there's no influx of new blood," Bartoletti said. "So you get gridlock and the status quo."
 
Of the 69 unopposed races, 15 are in the 63-seat Senate, where Democrats and Republicans are battling for control of the tightly split chamber.
 
That includes Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers; Sen. Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, Niagara County; and Sen. Rich Funke, R-Penfield, Monroe County, whose Democratic challenger was tossed off the ballot amid a residency challenge.
 
Another seven Senate races feature one major-party candidate facing a third-party opponent.
 
On the Assembly side, 54 races are uncontested, while 11 others have only one major-party candidate.
Democratic candidates running unopposed largely hail from cities across the state, including heavily blue New York City.
 
Unopposed Republicans, meanwhile, are generally found in more rural districts upstate, with some exceptions -- including on Staten Island, the city's most conservative borough.
 
"I think if you look at the Assembly, you'll see that a lion's share of those unopposed are coming out of (New York City), where the registration in some districts can be 4-, 5- or even 9-to-1 (Democratic)," said Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County. "I think you really almost have to look at it as an upstate-downstate sort of thing."
 
Kolb was first elected to the Assembly in a February 2000 special election, where he won in a tight race. Since then, he's handily won re-election eight times and hasn't faced an opponent since 2008.
 
The number of unopposed lawmakers appears to be in line with some other states.
 
About 28 percent of Rhode Island's state lawmakers have no opponent this year, according to the Providence Journal. In North Carolina, about 32 percent of the state's 170 lawmakers have no general-election opponent, according to WRAL-TV.
 
Unopposed lawmakers say the lack of a challenge doesn't mean they can rest on their laurels, particularly with potential opponents having an opportunity to run against them every two years. State lawmakers serve two-year terms.
 
Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski, D-New City, Rockland County, was a target of Assembly Republicans in 2010, a race he ultimately won by about 6,000 votes. This year, he's unopposed.
 
"You never know in this business when or how an election is going to go," Zebrowski said. "Some years you have a tough challenge, some years you don't. With as often as we run, every election cycle is going to be different."
 
Ortt, the Republican senator whose district includes all of Orleans County and part of western Monroe County, was first elected in 2014, succeeding longtime Sen. George Maziarz, a Newfane Republican.
 
He put up a strong showing during his first Senate run, receiving twice as many votes as his Democratic challenger.
 
This year, Ortt is unopposed, and he and others said they still attend events and help constituents -- they just don't need to knock on doors campaigning.
 
"It means I get to spend my time doing the job rather than trying to keep the job," Ortt said of his uncontested race. "We're still very busy, and I'm still very much out in the district, but more focusing on the governing side of things."
 
Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, R-Corning, Steuben County, said he is "fortunate" to be a Republican in a conservative district, which has about 39,000 Republicans and 21,000 Democrats.
 
Palmesano hasn't faced a challenger since 2010, which he attributes in part to hard work.
 
"I'm always at events, I'm always at functions, I'm very accessible," Palmesano said. "I believe that's a very important part of this job, to be out in the community so people can see you, they can approach you and they know you're responsive."
 


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