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88-year-old veteran of Korean War and politics battles again from sidelines

NEW WINDSOR – State Sen. Bill Larkin searched a desk drawer and pulled out an 8-by-10 color photo of himself.

“How do you spell your first name?” he said to the young visitor who came to his Senate district office one morning last week in this Orange County town west of the Hudson River.

For 20 minutes, Larkin had been giving 12-year-old Ashley Clemente, a seventh-grader from a nearby school, tips about life, brief history lessons, glimpses into his more than 88 years of life and kindly but firm lectures on the importance of public service.

Larkin’s day was not starting off as one might expect for someone facing a re-election fight for the Senate seat he has held since 1991.

Instead of speaking to packed audience or knocking on doors, he was answering questions from Ashley, who came to Larkin to gather information for a school project, and her father.

“What’s your most vivid time in the Army?”

The companies he commanded in Korea, he said.

“How hard was it being a young officer in Korea?

Cold as heck, he told her.

“What do you remember about JFK’s visit to Germany in 1963?”

Larkin smiled, and an aide quickly fetched an old photograph depicting a young Larkin standing near Kennedy that day.

And on it went.

During his last re-election bid two years ago, Larkin feverishly worked his Senate 39th District for votes: Senior citizen events. School gatherings. Ribbon cuttings. Knocking on doors.

But now, at age 88, Larkin has slowed down. This year, he’s been especially hampered by frostbite suffered some 60 years ago during the Korean War that has caused painful nerve damage. It forced him to miss some session days this year and put him in a wheelchair to get around the Capitol.

More recently, his doctors have told him to stay off the campaign trail.

Still, he’s running again, and dismisses any suggestion of retirement.

“There’s always something to do,” he says of his Senate job.

But, can he win?

That’s an important question, as Republicans and Democrats again wrestle for control of the state Senate, and Larkin’s seat is now in the “up in the air” category. Majority party winners sit at the negotiating table in Albany, where they get their say on spending, taxes and important social and economic policies. Minority parties don’t.

Battleground district

Just a couple of months ago, the race was not necessarily considered in play, leaving GOP Senate leaders to focus on battleground contests, including a few on Long Island and the 60th Senate race in Buffalo. But several Republican senators say there now is a growing worry over Larkin’s seat.

For starters, there is the absence of Larkin on the campaign trail, at least at a pace he once was able to keep.

Also, given Albany’s corruption problems, this year is not necessarily a popular time to be an incumbent, or at least an incumbent with strong competition.

And the Senate 39th is growing more Democratic. Larkin was not helped by the last round of redistricting in 2012, when he lost a GOP-dominated town from his district. Today, there are 176,000 registered voters in the Senate 39th, and 15,000 more Democrats than Republicans.

Add in the uncertainties of the presidential contest, which is certain to boost voter turnout, and the worries for Larkin add up.

Finally, there is his opponent, former public high school teacher Chris Eachus, an energetic 60-year-old. One Democrat said he should win this campaign season’s door-knocker award for the number of homes he has visited.

Four years ago, Eachus, an Orange County legislator, got 48 percent of the vote against Larkin in a race in which Eachus had none of the usual and important support from unions or major party groups.

“In an election where people are clamoring for a change, incumbents that have been around a longer time and have the stink of Albany on them are most at risk. Bill Larkin has been around for decades,” said Sen. Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who heads the Senate Democrats’ overall election effort.

“We think Larkin is very vulnerable,” Gianaris said.

Larkin, referring to Gianaris as “what’s-his-name from Queens,” says the Democrat “is always poking at me, but I don’t work for Gianaris. I don’t work for (Senate Majority Leader John) Flanagan. I work for the people.”

A district in play

Larkin is popular and well-known in this region, winning every re-election since his first state legislative race in 1978 to the Assembly, the same year Hugh Carey also won his second term as governor.

Alternately called “Senator” or “Colonel,” Larkin’s reputation is that of a gentleman. He is old school, military-style, straight-forward. He talks with understatement and delivers goods and services for constituents in a district that includes aging suburbs, dairy and fruit farms, one of the Hudson Valley’s poorest river cities – Newburgh – and military families connected to his beloved West Point just down the river from his home in Cornwall-on-Hudson.

The 39th is a district caught between the tug of upstate and downstate. Residents in its southern towns can reach Manhattan in an hour. But the region is also home to apple orchards and vineyards. The district is 72 percent white, with Hispanics, at 15 percent, the largest group of minorities.

His campaign

Like most incumbents, Larkin takes campaign money from disparate Albany interests: labor, business and groups focused on varied single interests. He’s gotten money from a New York City public employees union, the state AFL-CIO, electrical workers and professional firefighters, as well as energy companies, contractors, Anheuser Busch, trial lawyers, insurance executives, auto dealers, nursing home operators and gambling interests.

Larkin on Friday reported a campaign bank balance of $207,000. He spent $182,000 in a two-month period, and the Senate Republican Campaign Committee pumped in $79,000 to his re-election bid.

In his district office, there are pictures of him with prominent politicians, a pope, and the sign board in Times Square lit up with his name wishing him a happy birthday.

But the Army connections are everywhere, including the “Retired Army” bumper sticker on his Chevy Equinox parked out front. Larkin said he doesn’t need the trappings of political life.

“My glory days were 23 years in the military,” said Larkin, who has eight children, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

In an interview, Larkin talked little of the millions of dollars he has secured in state funding for his district. Instead, he talks of individual constituents he has helped with problems ranging from immigration matters to workers compensation logjams.

But Eachus, his opponent, says Larkin has not shown enough energy in recent years and his district is not competing well enough for state funding.

“It doesn’t have to do with being there too long or age or anything like that. I have a barber who is 105 years old who still can do the job. It’s whether you’re doing the job or not. I respect Bill Larkin for his service to the country, but it’s been a decade since he’s fought hard for this district,” Eachus said last week in the village of Washingtonville as he was about to take a winery tour.

Labor split

The Senate 39th race has caused a split in labor, a group state politicians in both parties heavily rely on for money and for volunteers to make phone calls and canvass neighborhoods.

At Larkin’s campaign office in a small strip mall last week, a table was piled high with folders filled with lists of registered voters, their addresses and whether they had voted in the last several elections. The packets were to be given that night to volunteers from the Civil Service Employees Association union. The volunteers would use those details when knocking on doors. Besides the CSEA, the largest state workers union, Larkin also has the backing of the state AFL-CIO and the Public Employees Federation.

The New York State United Teachers union, which endorsed some 18 Senate Republicans, rejected another endorsement for Larkin. It is giving money and political operational help to Eachus, who backs the teachers union on charter schools, school funding and opposition to the Common Core.

Eachus said he expects help from others, too, including the Communications Workers of America and groups like the Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood.

Senate in play

Control of the state Senate, where 31 Republicans and a caucus of five independent Democrats now reign, is again at stake in this election. And unknown is how battleground districts like Larkin’s will tilt that alliance.

Eachus was swift to say he is not thinking about big-picture Albany political maneuverings.

“I’m not running to turn the Senate Democratic. I’m running because we have a need in this district for proper representation,” he said.

Eachus also said he’s not trying to run on Hillary Clinton’s coattails because, he says, he believes the presidential race will have “zero impact” on the Senate 39th campaign.

But he would like a bit more help from the Senate Democratic campaign group. So far, he said he’s gotten some political expertise – mostly in the form of a campaign manager the Senate Democrats set up for his campaign. Eachus, though, is paying for that expertise.

Would he like more help – read “money” – from the Senate Democrats?

“I would, because last time I was outspent three-to-one,” he said.

His latest campaign filing with the state elections board on Friday showed him with just $33,000 in the bank.

Eachus said he would “welcome” support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo against Larkin, “but I have not requested it at any point.”

Senate Republicans declined to show their hand regarding how much they might commit to save Larkin’s seat.

The back roads of the Senate’s 39th District are dotted with more campaign signs for Larkin than Eachus. Larkin’s campaign office uses a computer program to locate backers and, with the click of an icon, dispatches volunteers to get them lawn signs if they want – or rides to the polls or whatever means are necessary to help them vote on Election Day.

Still, it has not gone unnoticed that someone is often missing this time from the campaign trail: Larkin.

“It’s not me not campaigning,” Larkin said. “It’s the doctors saying, ‘Stop it.’”

Republicans say Larkin’s name recognition and years in office can buffer his fewer public appearances.

“Most of the people with him in Korea died and he survived, but his feet were frozen solid, which means he has nerve damage,’’ said Sen. Catharine Young, a Republican colleague from Olean. “Despite that pain, he continues to go strong … and I think most people understand the sacrifices he made on behalf of our country.”

email: tprecious@buffnews.com

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