North Country assembly candidates Hammond, Walczyk talk issues as election nears
BY ADAM ATKINSON
North Country This Week
POTSDAM -- North Country voters have spent the last few months considering two candidates for the State Assembly's 116th District, The River District, both of whom share similarities in what they bring to the table, but marked differences as well.
Incumbent Assemblyman Mark Walcyzk, 35, a Republican, and Waddington Town Supervisor Alex Hammond, 24, a Democrat, are both young and energetic. Both are enlisted, with Walcyzk serving with the Army Reserves and Hammond serving in the National Guard. Both were called to active duty this past spring to assist with COVID-19 emergency relief. Walcyzk ran initially, defeating then incumbent Addie Jenne, as a reformer calling himself a "watchdog." Hammond's policy stances seek reform as well albeit from a different angle.However, their differences are prominent as well.
North Country This Week recently sat down with each candidate to discuss their platforms and what it is like campaigning in the time of COVID-19.
Alex Hammond, Democrat challenger
Hammond hopes to use his experience as a Waddington town supervisor to help represent the 116th if he is elected. The supervisor, a music teacher and North Country native, said his decision to run really started with wanting more representation for municipalities in Albany.
"That's kind of the root of everything," Hammond said.
"Mark (Walczyk) is a very good guy, but unfortunately the way it works, is that the majority rules," said Hammond, adding that being a Democrat (the majority party in Albany) would allow him to leverage more funding for the region. "I have a D next to my name."
The challenger feels being in the majority would allow him to be more of an advocate for the voters.
The Waddington town supervisor said one of the main things he hears from people while campaigning for the Assembly seat is frustration from local business owners with their dealings with the state.
"There is almost literally no communication between the state and small business," Hammond said. "Why should small business feel it is so difficult to be an entrepreneur in New York State. It's not about political party, it's about getting the job done."
Hammond said owners of small businesses like bars and restaurants have so much red tape to cut through and hoops to jump to conduct business that something must be done to make it easier for entrepreneurs. He said he would not promise to go to Albany and cut through red tape, but feels that being a Democrat will help get a seat at the table. If elected, Hammond said he would work to build coalitions in Albany to help advocate for the North Country on issues like infrastructure and the economy. "You can't just elect people on promises if there is no plan," he said.
"The North Country needs its due," Hammond said.
Hammond said there doesn't seem to be any plan to deal with unemployment in the North Country but believes a heavy investment in BOCES programs and trade schools to increase the region's blue collar workforce is the answer to unemployment issues facing the region. "For so long we have pushed college on kids, we need to break that down so hard," Hammond said.
The supervisor said another major issue he hears on the campaign trail is that the North Country infrastructure is in rough shape. "It's crumbling," he said. "But the problem we find ourselves in is that we have roads that completely need to be rebuilt."
The supervisor said the public infrastructure problems facing North Country voters are something tangible to the region he believes he could address if elected.
While being in the majority party in the state, Hammond is critical of the governor's extended executive emergency powers granted him by the state legislature to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Those powers are extended to April 2021 with no checks on his expanded powers in the meantime.
"As far as how serious (the pandemic) was, I commend the governor for his response to this at the beginning. That being said, after two or three months (executive emergency powers) should be rescinded."
Hammond and the Waddington town board declared a state of emergency in the town when the pandemic started. Hammond questioned why the governor is not accountable to the state legislature every 30 days, like he is accountable to his board for the emergency declaration.
He criticized the state legislature and his opponent as a member for not applying a clause requiring a similar review.
"I feel it was definitely a scapegoat of responsibility, giving that power to the governor," he said. "There needed to be a sunset."
Hammond does support the governor's stance that the federal government needs to support New York State with federal emergency aid to help with the rising costs in the state since the pandemic started. However, the supervisor points out that the state was $6 billion in debt before the crisis started. "So I'm not going throw all of it on the federal government. But, the federal government needs to step up and give us our fair share."
Republican talking points often highlight an association of Democrats to raising taxes, but Hammond says Waddington maintains one of the lowest tax rates in St. Lawrence County, and that they raise taxes only 2 percent every year to cover costs. "Look at my record and tell me I'm a tax and spend Democrat," Hammond said.
He said in Waddington the town seeks other revenue sources to pay for expenses when they can, a practice he would like to see at the state level. One of the sources could be legalized marijuana Hammond said. He said he would also support reinstitution of the stock transfer tax.
Incumbent Mark Walczyk, Republican
Incumbent Mark Walczyk, Republican, a former aide for State Sen. Patty Ritchie, served on the Watertown City Council from 2016-2019. He defeated Assemblywoman Addie Jenne in the 2018 election to take the 116th District seat.
"One of the things I love about campaigning is the retail of it, meeting people face to face and seeing if they need anything. I miss that part," Walczyk said of campaigning during the pandemic. "Sometimes if you are just listening you are only going hear the squeaky wheels."
Walczyk said the early days of the pandemic last spring saw the state government in something of a reactionary mode and that the threat of the virus distracted representatives from the bigger picture in regards to the governor's emergency powers.
"But, as history may show, this story hasn't been written yet," he said.
He was critical of the governor's ongoing state of emergency and pointed out that the pandemic, while being managed, is still going on and the governor recently inked a book deal highlighting his performance during the crisis.
However, he did credit Gov. Andrew Cuomo's communication to state residents during the ongoing crisis, even if sometimes it was "over communication. "That real time communication has been effective in leading New York State, and initially I agreed as well (with the emergency powers)," Walczyk said.
The assemblyman said the state should remain vigilant until a vaccine is developed. "But once the curve was flat and we eliminated the curve, when does the boot come off of our neck?" he asked.
Walczyk said the other important thing to look at regarding COVID-19 is to compare the mortality rate of the virus versus the mortality rate of poverty from keeping the economy locked down. "Everyone is focused on coronavirus, but what about suicide?" Walcyzk asked. Suicide, domestic violence, child abuse and other social symptoms of poverty are thought to be on the increase since the shutdown according to many research studies.
"When you are a public policy maker you have to balance these things," Walczyk said.
The Assemblyman was critical of his opponent for also declaring a state of emergency at the municipal level as the Waddington Town Supervisor. "I was shocked that he did it," the Assemblyman said. "The governor was very clear (to municipalities). 'Do not declare a state of emergency,'" Walczyk said.
The Assemblyman said the governor's extended powers were "snuck" into the spending bill for COVID relief passed by the Assembly in the spring. He said he "hammered" Assemblyman Ortiz who presented the bill on the issue. "It's one of those things that's ugly about Albany," Walcyzk said of the practice of marrying unpalatable legislation to measures that need to be passed. He said the Assembly did try to take back the governor's extended powers later but were unsuccessful.
The Assemblyman said while everyone you talk to has an opinion on the presidential race or the governor, "as Americans we are putting a little too much emphasis on the executive branch."
"We have to sell representative democracy again. We kicked the king out of this country a long time ago," he said.
In regards to the governor's stance that the federal government needs to bail New York out of its ever growing financial debt since COVID started, the Assemblyman said "that's the easy button."
"When the April (2020) budget was due, the legislators scurried out of the capital. They were derelict in their duty," Walczyk said. He pointed out that the majority party passed the current year's $178 billion budget with $2 billion in new spending in the midst of a pandemic and an emergency declaration. "We should have been decreasing the budget. It was appalling. Basically they just rubber stamped this. The governor still has all of his Hunger Games money in it," the Assemblyman said.
Walczyk was critical of Hammond's stance that he would be able to achieve more at the state level by being in the majority party in Albany.
"That is an argument that does not sell to North Country voters that are independently minded. One party rule is not good for everybody, checks and balances are good for everybody," Walczyk said.
"We need more watchdogs in Albany. We need more people to bring balance," Walczyk said. He said sometimes fighting for your constituents means building bipartisan coalitions to get legislation passed.
However, the Assemblyman said it was better to be a "watchdog than a lapdog."
"Albany has had lapdogs in the past, we don't need more 'go along to get along.'"
Walcyzk points out that Hammond has increased taxes in the town of Waddington every year since being elected. And, that while the challenger encourages a search for new revenues to help pay for state expenses, Hammond "is not saying cut spending."
"I'm 100 percent the mantra that you can't tax yourself into prosperity," Walczyk said. He said to right-size the government he would like to get rid of many of the state's unfunded mandates to local governments and look for ways to cut spending. "There are lots of efficiencies to be had."
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