In age of distanced campaigning, candidates down the ballot adapt to survive

Syracuse City Court Judge Rory McMahon, pictured above, is one of the candidates in a November 2020 down-ballot race trying to adapt to campaigning in the age of COVID-19.

SYRACUSE — Elections for the state Supreme Court will occur as planned this November, making campaigning for one of the most notoriously difficult offices to contest even more exacting.

New York’s Supreme Court is split into judicial districts, placing Oswego County in the Fifth Judicial District along with Jefferson, Oneida, Herkimer, Onondaga and Lewis counties. There are roughly 330 justices statewide, elected to 14-year terms but age limited to 70 years old.

Due to the relatively large number of justices serving in each district, nearly every year contains at least one Supreme Court seat on the ballot due to a challenge to a sitting Justice, retirement, death or age-out limit. Local parties held their judicial nomination conventions in recent weeks, but ballots and a complete list of candidates will not be certified by the state Board of Elections until Sept. 9.

Supreme Court candidates are bound to uncommonly strict campaigning laws. Candidates can neither directly solicit nor personally accept campaign donations, and are strictly prohibited from discussing political or legal issues on the campaign trail.

For example: if a candidate for Supreme Court is asked in a public forum his or her opinion on the Second Amendment or reproductive rights or any other political issue, the candidate by letter of the law is required to decline to answer. Strict adherence to these laws is expected but enforcement can be inconsistent.

Each year, Supreme Court candidates face the same dilemma: how to campaign when you can’t make or spend money, talk to voters about issues or even take political stances. Candidates usually run on their bonafides as attorneys, previous experience on the bench or personal charisma. Because Supreme Court terms are so lengthy and their caseload almost exclusively civil (as opposed to criminal), it can be difficult for average voters to contextualize who, and what, they are voting for. In the best of times, Supreme Court candidates spend their summers barnstorming parades and chicken barbecues around the massive six-county district, saving up their cash for television ads in the district’s major media markets (Syracuse, Watertown and Utica) in the final weeks of the campaign. In a normal year, it wouldn’t be long before billboards are erected on I-81 and 690 with smiling faces and snappy quotes of men and women begging voters to pay attention. 2020 is special in many ways.

Traditional retail politics is gone now, maybe for good. There will be no teams of volunteers this year marching in matching T-shirts holding signs while their candidates waves to the parade-goers and toss candy to children on sidewalks. There will be no parades at all. There may not even be candy the way things are going.

One announced candidate is current Syracuse City Court Judge Rory McMahon, who spoke recently with The Palladium-Times about his motivations for running and challenges of seeking public office during a pandemic.

A CNY native, McMahon began his career by taking his degrees from SUNY Plattsburgh and the Syracuse University School of Law to the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office working in the Special Victims department. The experience was “deeply affecting,” McMahon said, and he went to some of the worst “scary, strange places” when dealing with cases involving sexual and physical abuse of children.

Unless you’ve stood in front of him for a Salt City infraction, most voters who recognize McMahon’s name know it in connection to the eponymous McMahon Ryan Child Advocacy Center, named for him and community advocate Martha Ryan. The facility, opened in 1998 and located off East Genesee Street in Syracuse, now welcomes more than 1,000 children through its doors per year in its mission is “better care for victims, public awareness and ultimately prevention” of child abuse.

It’s an unusual path from stamping out abuse to serving on the bench, but McMahon says to him, it makes perfect sense.

“We have the honor of being able to change people’s lives,” he said. “And we’ve learned that the old white judge yelling at defendants doesn’t work.”

McMahon is also proud of his CARE initiative (Court for Addiction, Recovery and Education), which works daily with people in opiate recovery who are trying to break out a crime, poverty and addiction cycle. He called CARE Court an “amazing success” — before COVID-19 temporarily derailed its momentum.

It’s a combination of his background (growing up in Onondaga County with six brothers) and his experience working with marginalized or at-risk groups that has spurred his electoral attempt.

“Everybody needs to be heard,” said McMahon, who is in his 10th year as a Syracuse city judge. “A Supreme Court Justice needs the wisdom to look deep into a case, listen objectively and fairly to all parties. That’s the temperament you need, and the one I have.”

To torture a court analogy: McMahon has the motive and the opportunity — it’s the means that are tougher to come by. It would cost him exponentially more (running into tens of thousands of dollars) this year to run an absentee ballot campaign, which is common in Supreme Court races, due to the exploding amount of voters who will be exercising their rights by mail. McMahon said he has to reach voters when and where he can — farmer’s markets, “small, distanced events” and as much social media as possible.

“I want to get across to people I’m energetic, but the voices of people have to be heard so you need the temperament to sit back and listen,” he said. “You can’t have a big crowd, you can’t go to rallies or fundraisers but I’m trying to get out and meet as many people as possible.”

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