The 60th District Senate race between Republican Christopher L. Jacobs and Democrat Amber A. Small seemed quiet during its early stages – especially in light of the fact that the outcome could go a long way in determining the next majority of Albany’s upper house.
But an influx of hundreds of thousands of dollars – mostly from outside groups – has quickly transformed the district encompassing much of Buffalo and its suburbs into the epicenter of Western New York politics. Now, fueled mainly by money from groups representing various education interests, Small and Jacobs are waging a fierce battle that is burning up the airwaves and gaining the focus of both party organizations, too.
"Many people at the state level who see our enrollment advantage wonder why we can’t pick this up," said Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner. "It’s not that simple."
His Republican counterpart, Nicholas A. Langworthy, says control of the race has passed from Buffalo to Albany and New York City.
"They’re trying to make it competitive," he said of Small and the Democrats. "But I am confident Chris continues to have a lot of strength in the district, even if NYSUT has essentially taken over the campaign."
Indeed, the New York State United Teachers union is heavily spending in support of Small or against Jacobs, reprising its role of 2014, when it dedicated more than $1 million to a set of different candidates seeking the same seat (this year’s pair seeks to succeed departing Democrat Marc C. Panepinto). Since Oct. 1, a NYSUT-affiliated group called the Fund for Great Public Schools had spent more than $536,000 for Small or against Jacobs, according to state Board of Elections records.
Outside money also is flowing toward Jacobs, 49, the county clerk. Just this weekend, a Super PAC called New Yorkers for Independent Action promised to become involved at a "significant" level in support of Jacobs. It backs the tax credit that would increase donations to non-profit scholarships for lower income families, such as the BISON Fund that Jacobs co-founded in Buffalo.
All of the money fueling the local race signifies that the special interests view it as winnable, or at least worth the effort, with at least one statewide source noting that Small has significantly closed the gap against Jacobs in recent weeks, though she is not yet near putting the race in the Democratic column.
"Any time you see the teachers union come in, they’re trying to make the race competitive," Langworthy said.
NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn said the union and its affiliated funds choose their candidates regardless of party, noting that it backs at least 18 Republican senators this year. Endorsements like those granted Democrat Small, he said, reflect the members’ support for candidates committed to investing in public schools, demanding greater accountability for charters, and other considerations – regardless of party.
Teacher unions have warily eyed Jacobs since his days on the Buffalo Board of Education and because of his support of charter schools and private school scholarships. And Small, who at 30 credits teachers in her native Fredonia as major influences in her life, believes investing more money in public education is paramount.
She has no problem echoing virtually all of NYSUT’s positions, sought its backing and will work against Common Core standards, which she called "not an effective way to test."
Jacobs, meanwhile, points to his own extensive background in education and several labor endorsements of his own. He advocates a return to neighborhood schools as a way of saving $50 million in busing costs that could hire more teachers, and wants education advisory councils to foster more communication between administrators and key stakeholders like parents and teachers.
The 60th District race typically gets lots of attention. Stability, however, ranks as one quality noticeably absent over the past few years. Republican Mark J. Grisanti held the seat for only two terms after Democrat Antoine M. Thompson’s short stay in the Senate. And Panepinto in March announced his departure after only 14 months in office.
But even a hefty advantage of about 35,000 Democrats over Republicans means little in this year’s race.
The Democratic Party’s major fund-raising vehicle has not contributed anything so far to Small’s campaign. The Senate Republican Campaign Committee sent $347,000 to Jacobs during the past three weeks, and allocated another $91,000 to various campaign activities on his behalf. Jacobs also has loaned $200,000 to his campaign.
"I’m not afraid of the enrollment disadvantage because he’s a proven commodity who’s won countywide two times," Langworthy said, referring to Jacobs’ pair of big victories for clerk in overwhelmingly Democratic Erie County.
Small, executive director of the Parkside Community Association making her first attempt at public office, is running as a champion of women’s issues and infrastructure investment. The Buffalo Billion program is a good example of economic development investment, she said, but needs "stronger oversight and complete transparency." When asked if she would vote for another version of the Buffalo Billion, she answered: "It depends."
Jacobs, meanwhile, likes the possibility of a healthy SolarCity factory sponsored by the Buffalo Billion employing 1,500 people locally, but doesn’t like the concept.
"I don’t think it’s a good economic development model," he said. "We should stop relying on silver bullets, and that amount of money going to one entity is very, very, very risky."
Small, meanwhile, wants the state to finance megaprojects like reconstruction of sewer systems and environmental projects to prevent worsening pollution problems in Lake Erie and other waterways.
And she will not organize with the Independent Democratic Caucus that shares majority power with Senate Republicans. She will caucus with Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and the Democrats.
Jacobs has also focused much of his campaign against New York City dominance of state government, which he says is misunderstood.
"It’s not a Republican-Democrat thing, it’s an upstate-downstate thing," he said. "The Senate is the only place in the state not controlled by New York City."
Both candidates agree on the need for major ethical reform in Albany, with both advancing specific but different agendas. Jacobs advocates term limits, for example, while Small calls for a full-time Legislature.
The pace of the contest is not expected to slow in its final days.
"This race is dominated by outside money on both sides," said Zellner, the Democratic chairman. "I think it will go right down to the wire."
News Albany bureau chief Tom Precious contributed to this report.