2014 has arrived, and we can be sure that things will never be the same. Count on it. With a new administration in place, Livingston County has never seen an overhaul like it has in the past 2 years. We, folks, are witnessing history being made.
One of the objectives at the GeneseeSun.com has been to offer, with our coverage and our hosting of political debates, an unbiased forum and opportunity for political candidates to engage with the public. In my career in journalism I have covered many elections in Plattsgburgh, New York City, and in Avon when I published the initial print version of the Genesee Sun, and that wasn’t always available. What got the ball rolling here was when Steve Sessler, a local defense attorney, who had already secured the Conservative Party nomination, challenged Eric Schiener for the Republican nomination for District Attorney. The move may have changed the political system of our County permanently.
Here’s how county politics worked before the time of “Sessler – Schiener round 1.” The Republican Committee hand-picked candidates, usually by senior members of the committee, and very, very rarely were candidates, or the committee, challenged. The Livingston County News endorsed the candidate like it was a game of capture the flag, and the Republican Committee dominated Livingston County politics for decades. No one went against the committee – until Steve Sessler.
The duel between Sessler and Schiener was epic, by local standards, and if we had lived in the previous century it would have been settled in a pistol duel. Instead, the race ended up in a tie, and the Republican Committee, who despised the challenge that Sessler represented, gave Schiener the nomination in a lopsided vote, setting up a three way race in the general election. Democrat Greg McCaffrey cleaned up and won, becoming the first Democratic DA in living memory.
Fast forward a year to the 2013 season, and we have two Republican candidates running for Sheriff, one with strong ties to party insiders, and the other an ambitious challenger. What was the Republican Committee to do? After the previous debacle between Sessler and Schiener, a potential committee endorsement risked a serious backlash and they decided to punt. We started hearing “let the voters decide,” and there was no endorsement whatsoever. After a thrilling election, the now sitting Sheriff, Tom Dougherty, won by some 600 votes.
Notably, Eric Gott, the newly elected Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, worked tremendously hard on both the Sessler and the Dougherty campaigns.
Tom Dougherty and Eric Gott mark a historical turning point for politics in Livingston County. But let’s not forget what Steve Sessler did for our community. He changed the mentality, and showed that it’s okay to challenge the political system. A lack of candidates is a sign of an unhealthy democracy. Competitive elections and active voters are a sign of freedom, and democracy in action.
The questions now are fascinating. Will the county Democrats, currently led by Judith Hunter, finally gain some traction and start running competitive, even winning, candidates? Will senior Republicans try to beat down upcoming challengers like the old game of whack-a-mole?
The next significant political contest will be County Clerk, and incumbent Jim Culbertson will likely be seeking another term. Will Culbertson be challenged by a fellow Republican, and will Hunter seek out a Democratic candidate? Or will we slip instead back into the somnolent days of uncontested elections?