City Democrats hope new leadership means end to lean times

Local Democrats campaign for Assembly candidate Gail Tosh (seen at left) last week on Bridge Street.

OSWEGO — After several years of watching their proportion of representation in local government decline sharply, Port City Democrats have a new leader and what they say is new energy.

Jonathan Ashline, who challenged Oswego Common Council Vice President Kevin Hill in last November’s election, was elected City Democratic Committee chairman in a recent unanimous vote replacing outgoing chair and Oswego County Legislator Tom Drumm.

“It's clear our voters are engaged and passionate about the political world both nationally and locally,” said Ashline, 33, citing explosive turnout in the Democrats’ June primary election. “I know that we will raise the platform of local Democrats, listen to the voters, and elect responsible, thoughtful and compassionate candidates.”

Drumm said he was giving up the leadership role due to time requirements of his elected position and career. Someone who can “give it the time commitment the committee deserves” should lead local Dems, he said, and gave Ashline his full endorsement.

“We need to win more races and I’m excited for a fresh leadership team to have a chance to elect more Democrats,” Drumm said.

Republicans hold a six-to-one majority on the Oswego Common Council, with 1st Ward Democrat Susan McBrearty the sole outlier. As recently as 2014, Democrats controlled both the council and mayor’s office but the steady reversal of fortune began when that same year 6th Ward Councilor Eric van Buren switched parties and took the deciding vote from the Dem side of the City Hall aisle to the GOP. Then-councilor Billy Barlow ran for mayor in 2015 and following a fraught Democratic Party nomination process, Barlow won a decisive victory. In 2019, it was even easier as he ran unopposed. Barlow is term-limited after eight years — will the Democrats attempt to take back City Hall?

“We’re already eyeing a shift in focus to the city races and countywide races,” Ashline said. “We’re recruiting qualified and exciting candidates for those races, and our candidates are listening to constituents.”

Barlow’s five years in office have been defined by a series of large changes in the city’s economic landscape and skyline: the $10 million in state matching funds awarded in 2016 to build up Oswego’s downtown corridor is bearing fruit in the form of new, visible construction and improvement projects. Other grants and projects have flowed regularly from City Hall, and a major waterfront transformation is in its beginning stages.

“There’s a lot of good things (Barlow) has done for the city, he’s definitely leveraged a lot of political capital and that’s great,” Ashline said. “But when you talk to neighbors and see people on social media, they don’t always feel like this city government hears them or is working for them.”

The level of “dissatisfaction” with the Barlow administration, Ashline hopes, will draw new votes and energy to the local party.

“Our committee is 100 percent inclusive and collaborative,” he said. “We’re always interested in others’ opinions and we’re looking to be for everybody to help everybody.”

The 2020 races at the top of local Dems’ agenda feature two women looking to unseat entrenched male incumbents in rematches from 2018: Dana Balter, running in the 24th Congressional District against U.S. Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, and Gail Tosh, taking on Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski.

“You’ll be hard pressed to find candidates that are as hardworking as both of them,” Ashline said of Balter and Tosh. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm among our party and it’s echoed with (U.S. Senator) Kamala Harris nominated as vice president — we’re part of a national movement of more women running for office.”

Rounding out the Oswego City Democratic Committee executive board are Dr. Lisa Glidden as vice chair, John Spence treasurer and Benjamin Kolp secretary. According to the state Board of Elections, the city Democratic committee reported in July (the most recent available information) a closing balance of $5,593.26 in its coffers.

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