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November 1, 2011

Fracking becomes 'wild card' in Otsego races

COOPERSTOWN -- Hydrofracking has become a "wild card" in races that could impact the makeup of the Otsego County Board of Representatives as well as a number of town councils.

Precisely how much of an influence the gas-drilling debate will have on the outcome won't be known until votes are counted the night of Nov. 8.

But several area officials agreed Monday the issue has enlivened the contest and added a new dimension of suspense.

Otsego County Republican Chairwoman Sheila Ross said she believes most voters will spurn appeals from candidates they see as single-issue contestants attempting to use hydrofracking as a springboard into elective office.

"You want people who will represent you on all your issues, not just one," she said. "Voters will think twice before they support a one-issue person."

The anti-fracking group Sustainable Otsego has spearheaded the push to make drilling a major issue in the elections by having four candidates for the county board run on its line and endorsing a fifth candidate.

Another seven candidates in local contests for town office also are running on the Sustainable Otsego line. All of the Sustainable Otsego candidates are also running on the Democratic line.

Emotions are running so high about fracking that candidates who have formulated a clear, consistent message on the topic are bound to get the attention of voters, Alan Chartock, a retired professor of political communication at the State University at Albany and the president of WAMC public radio station, said.

"This has become such a salient issue for so many people that it could mean that some incumbents are gong to be kicked out of office," Chartock said.

He also said New York's political leaders will likely closely analyze the outcome of Otsego County elections to help them gauge the impact of gas drilling on the electorate.

"There is no question the most astute politician in New York State (Gov.) Andrew Cuomo, will be watching to see what happens," Chartock said. "If Cuomo thinks he is backing a bad horse here (by supporting drilling), he will very probably take action."

In the local races, Adrian Kuzminski, a founder of Sustainable Otsego, said he objects to Republican suggestions that the candidates running with the group's backing are only versed on one issue.

"Our candidates have been showing they have a pretty good command of all the issues," he said.

Two of the most hotly contested races involve county representative seat for Districts 7 and 8. The four candidates for those two seats appeared together at a forum in Cooperstown last Thursday.

But the Republican Party said Monday that while the discussion forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Cooperstown Area gave the candidates ample time to discuss hydrofracking, other issues received little attention.

Ross said the two Republicans -- incumbent Rep. Jim Johnson of District 8 and first-time candidate Ray Holohan of District 7 -- are eager for another face-off against their two respective opponents, Democrats John Kosmer and Beth Rosenthal, both of whom are also on the Sustainable Otsego line.

"We owe the constituents of these districts the opportunity to ask non-gas-drilling questions, and this will give them that opportunity," Ross said in an email message to local Democratic leaders.

Otsego County Democratic Chairman Ed Lentz said he had just received the invitation from Ross and was still evaluating it.

"It suggests to me that they think they are losing this race," Lentz said.

He noted that incumbents often try to minimize their involvement with debates, suggesting Johnson's willingness to climb back into the ring with Kosmer -- a founder of Sustainable Otsego -- is a sign the drilling issue has gained traction.

However, Johnson said the debate invitation was made to help familiarize voters with the candidates' stances on a spectrum of issues -- such as the operation of the county-owned Otsego Manor nursing home, making solid-waste programs more efficient, economic development and the county budget.

Of the drilling issue, Johnson said: "It is a wild card. It is something of a veil covering all of the other issues that need to be discussed so people can make an informed choice."

In District 7, both Holohan and Rosenthal are opposed to hydrofracking.

The issue has also frothed up in Districts 2 and 5. In District 2, incumbent Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts, faces a challenge from Democrat Teresa Winchester of Gilbertsville, who has the endorsement of Sustainable Otsego. Powers has said he believes hydrofracking can be done safely with the right environmental safeguards in place, while Winchester is flatly opposed to the technique.

In District 5, Democrat Barbara Monroe of Hartwick, who also has the Sustainable Otsego line, has made opposition to drilling the centerpiece of her campaign. She is competing against Republican Pauline Koren of Milford, who also said she is opposed to hydrofracking.

Meanwhile in District 4, incumbent Rep. Rich Murphy, D-Town of Oneonta, also running on the Sustainable Otsego line, supports a ban on hydrofracking, while his Republican opponent, Oneonta Town Councilman Scott Gravelin, has said he'd allow gas drillers to tap county-owned land to generate revenue.

Control of the county Board of Representatives could be in play because of the drilling topic, according to some Democrats.

"I think we have an excellent chance to take and win control, said Richard Abbate, a Cooperstown Democrat who is helping pilot the campaigns of Monroe, Kosmer and Rosenthal.

Ross, though, said Democrats won't get the dividends they hope to pick up by focusing so much on hydrofracking.

"Everybody understands they are not going to be drilling in Cooperstown," she said. As for Johnson's chances of withstanding the challenge from Kosmer, she said, "I don't think it will be a landslide by any means, but I think he'll be re-elected."

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