ALBANY - While protestors filled all available corners of the New York capitol building on Wednesday and lawmakers hustled from one meeting to another, the office of Assembly Minority Leader was quiet.
In his new headquarters on the third floor of the ornate granite epicenter of Empire State politics, Will Barclay’s 18th year in Albany began in a manner no one could have predicted but a few short days ago.
Assemblyman Brian Kolb, the 10-year leader of the Assembly GOP, resigned his position of authority (but not his seat) last week following his arrest for alleged drunk driving. The Canandaigua Republican’s absence left a conspicuous leadership gap - filled quickly by Barclay, who served previously as deputy minority leader and conference campaign chair.
It took roughly 48 hours for Barclay to contact the 42 other members of the Assembly GOP conference and gauge their interest in his bid for the top job.
“Obviously, I wanted to be leader,” Barclay said in a Wednesday interview with The Palladium-Times at the capitol. “My initial thought was 'Well, make some calls and see what kind of support is out there,' and see if I was going to get a positive response and I'd kick it into overdrive.”
The high-gear vote whipping worked. Barclay was elected earlier this week unanimously to lead the conference. Joined in Albany by his wife Margaret and son Harry, Barclay said he didn’t make the decision alone and once he received “very heartening” support from his colleagues, it was off to the races.
“I'm incredibly proud of Will,” Margaret Barclay said. “I'm very supportive of what he's doing to help his constituents."
Longtime state Sen. Patty Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, called Barclay “a tremendous advocate for the people of central New York and a respected voice in Albany,“ noting the Pulaski native knows how to work with peers on both sides of the aisle to achieve results.
“I am confident his experience, knowledge and leadership will enable him to succeed in this position,” Ritchie said. “Will is both a dedicated public servant and a friend, and I wish him the very best in this new role.”
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, who leads the Democrats in the state Assembly opposite Barclay, offered congratulations to the newly minted Republican leader in a statement Wednesday.
"He has always been a fighter for his constituents in central New York, and dedicated in his role as ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee," Heastie said. "While our seats are on different sides of the aisle, I look forward to working with him to put New York families first.”
Watertown-area Assemblyman Mark Walczyk said Republicans in the assembly are “very encouraged” by Barclay’s leadership, noting the unanimous vote by which he was chosen.
“It totally speaks to his character as a servant-leader,” Walczyk said of the vote. “He’s going to be the single voice in New York state leadership from upstate New York and from the North Country. It’s great news for us.”
As a longtime Albany stalwart, Barclay said his ability to bring institutional knowledge and stability - along with new ideas - were crucial to his successful bid.
“It wasn't a real stretch I think for my colleagues in the conference to see me step into this leadership role. It's important to have continuity, particularly because we have issues in the state that are very pressing that we have to address,” Barclay said. “With Brian Kolb’s unfortunate circumstance and having to step down so quickly, with the State of the State being today and a compressed legislative session we're going to be doing, I think one of my assets is I can hit the ground running because I've been around a while, I know the players and the issues.”
While old school methods are valuable and useful, Barclay said, it’s impossible to move forward without some changes.
“I think [Kolb] did a lot of things great. He was a good leader. I think he put his heart and soul into the job, but anytime you've been in a position for 10 years, sometimes the cliché I use is 'the wheels could use a little oil,'” Barclay said. “One of the things I look forward to doing and I think is important is we have 42 members, and when you have five or six voices you can make some noise. When you have 42 members, you can really make your voice louder.”
As leader, Barclay begins the 2020 legislative session in control of a conference outnumbered more than two-to-one by Democrats, but that will take a back seat to no one, he said. Barclay said beyond a move to a new office, the position gives him a “more expansive viewpoint” than he’s been privy to in his last two decades in office.
“In the past, I was going to the State of the State representing myself and representing my district. Now I'm going to the State of the State as the leader of the Assembly Republican conference. It's definitely a little different. I always had the viewpoint of representing Oswego County, a little bit of Jefferson and a little bit of Onondaga County. Now, we have members from across the state.”
In another first, Barclay was invited on stage during Cuomo’s wide-ranging Wednesday address representing the Assembly minority along with fellow leaders - Democrats all - from the legislature.
Cuomo’s speech touched on a wide array of issues from Lake Ontario flooding to social justice, but Barclay said he’s got one focus off the bat for this year’s legislative session.
“The number one issue I'm hearing from right now is certainly bail reform, which is not surprising. It's been dribbling out every day, someone gets released and it's really creating a public safety concern,” said Barclay, referring to controversial law enforcement and justice reforms that took effect Jan. 1 “That's the first thing we're going to address. It looks like there may be some cracks in that, but we want to make sure those are more than cosmetic changes they're making in the law. We want to make sure if they are interested in reform, we'll be partners with that. We want to make sure they're more than cosmetic and they're substantive changes to the law.”
Fulton Mayor Deana Michaels made the trip to Albany for the State of the State proceedings and said she was pleased to see Barclay - whose district office is located in Fulton - ascend to the top of his conference.
“Will is a terrific representative,” Michaels told The Palladium-Times in the lobby of the state capitol. “He’s done a great job and is a great voice for us.”