As Republicans seek this November to retake seats the party lost in the New York State Senate in 2018, and Democrats try to shore up their one-party rule of the Empire State, one race both parties have their eye on is that of the moderate 42nd District, which includes all of Sullivan County and parts of Delaware, Orange and Ulster Counties.
Jen Metzger, the incumbent, first-term Democrat, won the seat in 2018 following the retirement of Republican John Bonacic, who had held it for two decades. Republican Donald Trump won the district by more than five points in 2016 – after Democrat Barack Obama had won by over 9 points in 2012.
Orthodox Jews may play a decisive role in this election. While they have been spending summers for a century in the district, which includes much of the Catskills and western portions of the Hudson Valley, in recent years more and more Orthodox Jews looking for greener and cheaper pastures than are available in New York City have been making this area their permanent home.
Of the approximately 193,000 registered voters in the district, around 3,000 are Orthodox Jews – a number that may well be within the margin of victory in what is expected to be a close election.
Republican challenger Mike Martucci, 35, is running in his first ever political race.
A farmer and lifelong resident of Orange County, Martucci – whose grandfather was a New York City police officer before moving upstate in the 1950’s – started a school-bus company called Quality Bus Service at the age of 22.The company eventually grew to over 350 buses before Martucci sold it.
In 2015, Martucci was elected President of the New York School Bus Contractors Association.
Martucci and his wife, Erin, have established a charitable foundation, and he volunteers for his church and participates in other charitable activities and organizations. They live with their children Mike Jr., Elizabeth and Catherine in New Hampton, a hamlet in the Town of Wawayanda.
“I’m not a politician,” Martucci says. “I’m doing this because I’m so sick and tired of what’s going on in the state. I’m a business guy, and I got a young family. You look what’s going on in this state right now, it’s crazy.”
What are some important issues for you?
The most important thing that we’ve been talking about this year has been the changes to the dangerous bail reform.
This has fueled a cycle of violence that we read about in the news every day. And while it has impacted New York City the most, it is impacting small upstate communities, like where many folks from your community vacation up in that Catskill area. It’s affecting everywhere across the state.
My opponent voted in favor of bail reform. She was also the co-sponsor of the original bail reform bill of 2019. So she is someone who’s been all in on this message since Day One. Worst piece of public policy we’ve seen in decades. Period. There’s nothing else to say about it.
There was the original one, and then it was reformed in April.
From my perspective, what happened in April was really a set of cosmetic changes that only addressed some of the most heinous crimes that one could commit and be released. So, while there were modifications made, the best I could call it is cosmetic.
Really correcting that [entails] restoring judicial discretion in particular. Because our judges have been elected or appointed to address some of the things that we’re talking about with respect to individual offenders, those people that reoffend on and on.
That was adopted in April, it took effect in July. Look where we’re at today. I think we see this has far from corrected the problem.
Ideally, in your view, would we just tear up the entire thing and go back to what it was before? Or do you believe that any sort of reform is necessary? What would bail look like in an ideal world in your view?
In an ideal world from my perspective, it’s all about restoring judicial discretion. It’s that simple. I come from the school of thought that says that each offender, as they appear in front of a judge, is their own individual case with their own individual history, their propensity to reoffend, whether or not that offender is violent, whether or not that offender is likely to skip a future court date and not return. So if I were to sum it up in one piece, it’s, “We need to restore judicial discretion.” I’m not looking to take a nice guy who made a bad choice and throw him in jail and throw away the key. That’s not what this is about. But I can tell you that for the Senate district that I seek to represent, I trust the judgment of those judges who are elected to make good decisions on an individual basis.
Let’s turn to the issue of health care. What would health care look like in your view? Would you like to see any sort of changes made legislatively?
I can generally speak to the fact that my opponent supports a single-payer health-care system. I do not. Because what we know is that the smallest number of New Yorkers ever have been uninsured. My focus would be taking a look at those New Yorkers that aren’t insured and finding options for them.
A lot of the health-care issues, I believe, are more appropriately addressed on a federal level, only because I don’t think a single-payer health-care system works at a state level, because of the nature of health care and what it is. It’s not a state-by-state system.
A single-payer option specifically for one individual state is problematic in that, in a global society, we live in an environment where individuals travel quite frequently. The other question becomes, as folks move to New York or move away from New York, what does that process look like? So I’m in favor of a system that would focus on those small number of New Yorkers who are not insured, and providing opportunities for them.
And certainly, the last and final piece of this is, we have so many New Yorkers who through collective-bargaining agreements have negotiated health care as part of their employment packages. And to just arbitrarily say, “All those benefits that were negotiated over long periods of time,are going to be wiped away,” unduly hurts a tremendous number of people who worked a lifetime for them.
Are you saying that single-payer is problematic on a state level, but you’d be more open to it on a federal level?
I don’t support it on a federal level, either. But what I’m saying is, I think it’s totally misplaced on a state level.
I don’t support single-payer in general.
What is your view on the state supporting private school tuition, including religious schools, whether it’s tuition credits or vouchers?
I think it’s every parent’s right to choose the best education for their child, and I want to see the state support every child, regardless of where they go to school. That means whether they choose a public school, a non-public school or a charter school.
The state government has been talking about mandating private-school curriculum – including for religious schools – exactly what the secular subjects have to be, and how many hours per day. Do you support government mandating the secular curriculum for religious and other private schools?
Again, very simply, I think parents get to choose a couple of things for their kids, and one of them is their education. So, what that means is, if a parent chooses a religious school, a secular school, whatever they choose, they do that full well understanding what the curriculum offered in that program is. And a parent who sends their child to a non-public school is a parent who has the most control over their child’s education, because very simply, if they don’t like what’s being taught in the non-public school, they can just withdraw their child. It’s that’s simple.
At the end of the day, I support parents’ rights to choose, and I don’t support the Education Department – or, under their formula, the school district in which the private school is located – controlling curriculum.
I would like to ask about the issue of zoning. Sometimes people from big cities move out to suburban or rural areas, and then there’s some tension with the local populations over zoning. Sometimes the local populations have said they’re just trying to stop what they call overdevelopment, but they’ve been accused of having bias and trying to keep certain groups out. This is more of a local issue than a state issue, but it is an issue in your district. So I’d like to ask what your view is of this.
I think we’ve found some great local examples of the two communities working together for a common good. Folks in the Catskill region – some of them are summer residents only, others are year-round residents.
As you [mentioned], it’s about local zoning boards, and those boards controlling what their communities look like. But, I think secondarily to that, there are really, really good examples of communities working together to come up with solutions to these problems.
From my perspective, should I be lucky enough to become a senator, what my goal is going to be is to work with the communities to bridge those gaps, because at the end of the day, I want to see these scenarios work for the interests of all residents. So if there is a community that, say, is looking for a more dense housing scenario, look at how from a state perspective, can we help make that scenario safe? Things like lighting and sidewalks and securing grants so that those communities can fit into those rural environments and do it in a way that’s safe and makes sense.
When I look at some communities in the Catskills in particular, you have scenarios where there are some very densely populated areas that don’t have those infrastructures, where you have individuals walking on the street in the dark of the night. And it’s a public safety issue. So I think that my goal would be to make sure that we bring in resources so that we can make those scenarios safe, and we can make them work for everyone.
Do you have a specific view as to whether in general, development should be allowed or whether the localities should say they will maintain the rural nature and not allow what they consider to be overdevelopment?
I think it really depends on the individual locality. I seek to represent 37 different towns, villages and cities. I think each of them is built in a very different way. And it’s appropriate in some but not in others.
The state passed a plastic-bag ban last year. It’s been postponed a bit, and there were concerns during COVID of the bags carrying germs. What do you think of the bill, which bans plastic bags, and also allows localities to implement, if they choose to do so, a five-cent fee on paper bags?
The worst part about the bill for me is it became a grocery tax. A plastic ban is one thing. But the second part of the bill, which was really the overreach portion, had to do with the expense associated with paper bags. Authorizing a grocery tax by localities is really one of the most cruel expenses that you can force upon someone at a time like this. I don’t think that was good policy.
And with respect to the plastic-bag ban, yes, with COVID and all, certainly it did change the shape of that a bit.
In general, setting aside COVID, while you oppose the five-cent fee on paper bags, do you support the plastic-bag ban or not?
Personally, I can live without plastic bags. If it had to be paper bags, it’s something that I’m comfortable doing. But again, what I was opposed to is the state providing a mechanism for there to be additional costs to everyday New Yorkers who are struggling.
New York State is facing a big fat budget deficit thanks to COVID. Assuming there will be no Washington bailout, how would you like to see the budget shortfall closed?
The first thing that I would call out is, the lawmakers who are in power today would like us to believe that the entire shortfall is due to COVID. Don’t forget, there was a $6-billion deficit built into the budget. Essentially, what happened was our state legislature had spent every last nickel when times were good, including $6 billion of money they didn’t have. While they’d like us all to believe that the entire state budget deficit is COVID-related, it’s not.
But aside from that, we’ve got to look to close the budget. Late federal bailout aside, here are some things we need to be looking at: First, Medicaid spending in the state. We know that Medicaid is filled with fraud, waste and abuse. We spend more on Medicaid as a state than Texas and Florida combined. Each of those states has an independent population larger than the state of New York. We have a Medicaid spending problem; it’s a place that we need to look. Second, in the state budget, there’s $4 billion of money that’s spent for corporate welfare.
When you talk about programs like the Buffalo Billion, and the different Empire [State] Development programs, $4 billion of corporate welfare that, from my perspective, has not created valuable jobs, particularly valuable upstate jobs; these sorts of things, $4 billion, should be cut out in places like that. There’s also just flat-out tons of wasteful spending that exists in the budget: I’m talking about a $450-million-a-year tax credit for Hollywood filmmakers, $100 million this year that Democrats set aside to publicly finance campaigns in the future, we’re talking about $30 million of free college for undocumented aliens in the state. So when you go through these different spend items, what I am very confident about is that the first thing that we need to do before we raise taxes on any New Yorkers, is to go through this budget and take away these huge, huge, huge pieces of waste. That’s our first obligation without question.
Would you support any tax increase of any kind?
Seventy-seven thousand people left this state last year – voted with their feet, fleeing New York – a million people over the last 10 years. It’s because of our taxes; it’s not because of our weather. While the Democrats’ suggestion here is that, “We need to ask New Yorkers to pay, and while the pie continues to shrink, more and more and more,” my attitude isn’t, “We have to cut up the ever-shrinking pie,” but rather, “Look for ways to grow that.” And I’m talking about preserving the businesses that are here, attracting new businesses and attracting people back.
Cellphone towers is an issue very relevant for a rural district. There are dead zones, and this can be not just an inconvenience, but a safety issue, if someone gets into an accident on the road and can’t call 911. Do you believe that government has any role in trying to expand them, whether with direct funding or trying to force companies to add them?
I’m going to tell you where I think government needs to contribute, or really I’m going to use the word, “Get out of the way” of the development of projects like cellphone towers and rural broadband expansion, which is a huge issue in this district. Cable is not prolific in the district, there is not a complete network here of internet or even cable TV service. And one of the things that was passed in the 2019 budget was a tax that was applied to cable installers, which effectively taxes the process of expanding broadband networks. And that’s been prohibitive to expanding both internet broadband networks, and it’s been prohibitive to expanding what we’re talking about with respect to other networks, cellphone towers, etc.
I think government’s role is to get out of the way on these things. We, here in New York, should be doing things like repealing that tax so that we can incentivize companies to expand networks in places where they don’t exist.
Let’s turn now to the Cuomo Administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
There are things that I believe that the governor did well, and there are things that I believe should have been handled differently.
I think that initially, New York was one of the first places in the country to face the COVID crisis. So there was a lot to figure out in a very short period of time. I think that the governor did a great job doing things like getting ventilators at a time when that was such a critical process here in New York. So, certainly, from my perspective, he’s done some things very well. Certainly, there were some missteps too.
Certainly the directive on nursing homes was something that, looking back, was a tremendous misstep, and was devastating to, we really don’t know how many New Yorkers, but at least 6,000. That’s certainly one piece.
But really, what I look at, especially running for a legislative seat, what I’m most reflective of, of the entire process, is how the state legislature completely abrogated its entire responsibility to the governor, for this entire pandemic. I can appreciate the need for the executive to be nimble during a crisis time, like the pandemic, but the reality is today, the decisions that are being made are costs that are going to be borne by my grandchildren and yours. These are huge decisions that are going to have lasting effects on the state of New York, and our legislature is completely absent on this. So, today, if I had a critique of how the whole thing was handled, I would expand it much more than to just the governor’s administration and say that our legislature has completely walked away from its responsibility here to lead during a time of crisis.
My final question is about the hospital- and nursing-home-visitation policy. Day after day, we hear about how our coronavirus-infection numbers are getting lower and lower, but we still have severely limited hospital and nursing-home visitation. If you were elected, and these visitation restrictions were still in place when you took office in January, and we were still doing a good job in fighting the virus, would you support expanding visiting hours, or keeping these restrictions in place, or eliminating the restrictions completely?
I would say that provided the infection rate stayed low, and the individual facilities, whether it be a hospital or nursing home, have the protocols and the PPE, etc., in place to properly manage visitations, I’d like to see [visiting hours] expanded.
[Read interview with Martucci’s opponent, Democrat Jen Metzger, here.]