ALBANY – Sen. Catharine Young, a Republican who represents a sprawling Western New York district, is quitting her job for a post at Cornell University just two months into the legislative session.
Young, who first came to Albany as an assemblywoman in 1999, might not be the last Senate Republican to exit in this current session, a period that has seen the GOP go from all-influential to all-powerless.
Young will cease being a New York senator on March 10, and the district could go unrepresented in the Senate until June and perhaps as late as November.
“It’s a decision I did not make lightly and, of course, it’s bittersweet … But I look at this as a way to continue serving them and the entire state by strengthening agriculture and growing more jobs,’’ Young said in an interview Thursday.
The Republican lawmaker said a recent power battle in the Senate GOP conference, on which she came out on the losing end, played no role in her decision to leave just two months into the new session of a two-year term.
The intrigue over Young’s future has been swirling for months, including much chatter in Albany several months ago that she may be interested in challenging U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, a Republican, when he runs for re-election in 2020. On Thursday, she dismissed that speculation as unfounded.
In December, Young lost a bitter fight – with lingering bad feelings still evident on both sides – against Sen. John Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican, for the Senate minority leader’s post. Flanagan had been majority leader until Democrats handily ousted the GOP from power in last November’s Senate elections. The Democratic Conference boasts 39 members in the 63-member chamber.
Young, tapped by Flanagan in 2016 to become the first woman as the influential head of the Senate Finance Committee, moved against Flanagan in the weeks after the November elections to become GOP leader. The post has little oomph given how political minority legislators defer any and all power to majority party legislators.
Regardless, Flanagan and Young fought sharply over the position, with some upstate lawmakers siding with her saying downstate lawmakers had lost – under Flanagan’s control – the right to run the GOP Senate conference. Flanagan backers, however, not-so-quietly noted that it was under Young’s watch – as chair of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee – that the GOP lost Senate control in November.
Upon defeating Young, Flanagan stripped the Olean senator of the job on the campaign committee as well as her plan to continue serving as ranking Republican on the Finance Committee. Young and Flanagan are not on speaking terms, senators say.
In January, Young took a visible Senate floor role in challenging Senate Democratic bills and trying to advance GOP amendments. It suggested to some senators that Young was not going anywhere and that she was finding a niche as a voice of the Senate opposition to Democrats.
But the departure speculation began heating back up recently, with sources saying Young was skipping some internal GOP meetings. On Wednesday, she was not among Republican lawmakers to stand behind Flanagan as the GOP held a news conference to outline their policy ideas.
On Monday, there was talk at the Capitol that Young had put up for sale a condo she owns and uses when she travels to Albany. The speculation included that Young was getting ready to make an abrupt departure from the Senate.
Some furniture – which the senator gave to her son – had recently been moved from the condo in Rensselaer County, but a Young spokeswoman said Monday the condo was not up for sale. Talk of Young quitting the Senate was merely a “wild rumor,’’ the official said.
On Tuesday, Young herself declined to discuss the matter after a committee meeting ended. “There is nothing new on that subject,’’ she said of speculation that by then had reached Republicans in her district back home.
On Wednesday, in an interview with The Buffalo News, Young confirmed her decision to quit the Senate. (The condo will be put up for sale.)
Young will become executive director of the Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell’s AgriTech in Geneva. She grew up on a dairy farm and her father and his siblings graduated from Cornell’s agriculture school. Young was also a longtime chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
“This is a great opportunity to continue my public service,’’ Young said of the facility that seeks to get cutting-edge agricultural and food industry research into the hands of established and start-up companies.
“I’ve focused on agriculture my entire career,’’ said Young, who represents the heavily rural district that includes Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Livingston and Allegany counties. The 57th District has about 290,000 people, according to legislative redistricting documents. The State Board of Elections shows the district has 64,000 Republicans, 49,000 Democrats and 36,000 Independents.
Asked if the GOP’s descent into the minority contributed to her decision to leave, Young said preferred to focus on her new job. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity,’’ she said.
Young and Flanagan are also having a dispute over $150,000 the Senate Republican Campaign Committee lists as an “obligation” from a loan the Olean Republican made to the political committee in 2014. Two sources in Albany say Young wants the loan repaid while Flanagan doesn’t consider it a loan that was going to be repaid. Young declined to discuss the matter on Thursday.
Young, who has one of the longest drives to the Capitol among state lawmakers, said she looks forward to having a job based closer to her home and not require campaigning and nonstop constituent events. “It’s going to give me time on weekends to spend with my family, which hasn’t happened in 20 years,’’ said Young, who has three children and one grandchild.
Assemblyman Joseph Giglio, a Republican who represents part of Young’s Senate district, said earlier this week he had heard rumors of Young’s departure. “I’m in shock,’’ Giglio said Thursday.
Asked if he would seek her seat, Giglio said: “I’m not sure yet. I’m really very happy in the Assembly.’’
On The Capitol Pressroom public radio show Thursday, it became quickly clear that Young had not informed Flanagan about her decision to quit. "I'm not aware of anything,'' Flanagan said.
In a release Cornell sent out this morning, the center Young will lead is described as having a mission to grow New York’s food, beverage and agriculture economy by connecting Cornell experts with businesses. It opened last September and has since worked with 50 companies and helped startups raise $12.3 million.
“Agriculture and food manufacturing are two of upstate New York’s largest job creators, and Catharine Young has significant experience integrating farm business with food processors and championing initiatives that support the food and farming sector to push our region’s economy forward,” said Jan Nyrop, associate dean and Goichman Family Director of Cornell AgriTech. “We are very fortunate to have someone of Sen. Young’s caliber to step into this role with a strong vision, statewide network and proven track record of growing businesses.”