Oswego County Clerk: Behind the ballot, many moves make for unusual race

Above left is former Oswego County Clerk Michael Backus, whose resignation in September set off a chain reaction of candidate announcements from Volney’s Jacqueline Thorpe, above center, and Oswego County Legislature Majority Leader Terry Wilbur, R-Hannibal, above right, and speculation about the future of the four-year office.

OSWEGO — The race for Oswego County Clerk features the incumbent candidate alone and unopposed on the ballot, but in the past several weeks the election has turned into one of the most complicated and consequential in recent Oswego County history.

Oswego County Clerk Michael C. Backus had served in the four-year elected position since 2013 but last month surprised many by resigning and taking the post of chief operating officer at Oswego Health. Due to how New York election law is enforced, Backus’ resignation came too late in the calendar to remove his name from the ballot; Backus was almost assuredly on track to win a third term with no Democratic Party challenger.

The now-former clerk and Mexico native told The Palladium-Times on Sept. 6 (the official date of his resignation and first day on the new job) that leaving politics was bittersweet, but the opportunity was too good to pass up.

“It has been an honor to serve as Oswego County Clerk, and I am very proud of the team we have in place across the department,” Backus said. “There are many challenges awaiting us as COVID-19 has affected every part of our community — thankfully, Oswego Health is strategically positioned to meet those challenges.”

The future of the Oswego County Clerk’s office is, at the same time, both a settled issue and a highly controversial one. Longtime Deputy County Clerk Matthew Bacon, who served under Backus for the better part of this decade, was automatically elevated to Acting County Clerk Matthew Bacon on Sept. 6 once Backus’ resignation paperwork was accepted. Backus in the same Sept. 6 interview expressed “complete confidence” in his top aide’s readiness.

“Every morning, I come in the office and meet with (Bacon) and go over what’s going on in the day, or the last week before we start planning our week and our day going forward,” Backus said. “Matt and I built good camaraderie and I’ll miss the friendships I’ve been able to develop with the staff and within different county departments.”

Backus’ high political profile and popularity, combined with his being the only name appearing on the ballot for county clerk, made him a shoo-in for another term. If he ends the election with the highest total number of votes, then he’s pledged to take his Oath of Office as Oswego County Clerk, re-appoint Bacon as his deputy and promptly resign again. Bacon is again promoted via self-executing statute and continues until the office can be contested in November 2021. Bacon, a career civil servant, told The Palladium-Times recently he has no desire to seek the office in an election.

That is one possibility.

Another possibility is for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to appoint a county clerk, as is his right by law, in the event of a vacancy in the office. This does not necessarily mean Cuomo will, and while signs point to the governor staying out of this particular local fight it is folly to say with 100 percent certainty anything will or won’t come out of Albany.

Two other Republicans are betting on themselves to try to force a different outcome.

Oswego County Legislature Majority Leader Terry Wilbur, R-Hannibal, launched a write-in campaign for Oswego County Clerk in the days following Backus’ resignation announcement. After 10 years in the Legislature and most of the decade as a staff member of Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, Wilbur says he has the know-how to lead the clerk’s office

“It has been an honor and a privilege to represent Hannibal in the Legislature and to work with leaders throughout the county on public safety, public health, infrastructure decisions, and many other matters affecting county residents,” Wilbur said. “I stand committed to educating the public in the next two months about this write-in campaign so that Oswego County may have an experienced, elected leader at this critical county-wide post.”

Wilbur will attempt to seek an outright victory in the Nov. 3 election, and would take his place Jan. 1 for the start of a regular four-year term. It won’t be easy: Backus’ electoral attributes are listed above, compounded by the surge in mail-in voting this year. More voters this year than ever before are choosing to vote by mail (also known as absentee voting — it is the exact same thing, tell your friends) and the only name listed as a choice for clerk is Michael C. Backus. In his last election, Backus collected more than 30,000 votes running unopposed.

Volney’s Jacqueline Thorpe, the second Republican to enter the clerk race, is looking to bypass a super-long shot write-in campaign in favor of a sustained campaign looking toward 2021.

If the scenario explained above — Backus wins then resigns, Bacon ascends, clerk is contested in Nov. 2021 —Thorpe believes she’s the best positioned to carry on the momentum of Backus’ tight-walleted, customer-centric operation.

“I’ve done the job, I know the job and I have experience,” Thorpe said, referencing her time as deputy of operations under Backus in the clerk’s office.

Oswego County Clerk is inherently a political job as an elected office but Thorpe said “the laws we follow when doing business are impartial,” and jabbed Wilbur’s longstanding party ties.

“I’m not political by nature and putting someone in the job who is going to work hard, be the best at it and be confident is far more important than who’s been hanging with the most people for the longest time,” Thorpe said.

Terry ‘Bucky’ Wilbur

Hannibal, 32

Education: Hannibal High School, degrees from Cayuga Community College and SUNY Oswego

Family: Wife Brianna, three children

Now: Oswego County Legislature Majority Leader

Previous: Oswego County Legislator, district staff member for Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, Oswego County Clerk’s Office

Who he is: With a decade in the Oswego County Legislature and having risen to second in command, Wilbur is making his first run at four-year office. Wilbur is a moderate conservative and has advocated regularly for fiscal restraint at the county level; his deep roots in local agriculture and GOP politics shows he’s both a deft practical and political operator.

Why he’s running: “The county clerk’s office is an integral part of every citizen’s life. I promise the people of Oswego County that I will work hard every day to make sure your documents are protected, you have swift access to reliable services, and that your needs are addressed professionally and responsibly. During my tenure at the State Assembly, I have worked on many local, county and state matters.  The experience I’ve gained in solving issues for constituents and engaging directly with individuals and organizations in the community has also prepared me for the challenge of helping people at the county clerk’s office.”

“One of my first jobs — in addition to working for my in-laws on their farm — was as a clerk in the clerk’s office. During that time, I quickly learned how much I enjoyed the pace and challenges of the Oswego County Clerk’s office: filing deeds, mortgages, pistol permits, passports, and performing multiple other duties which were all focused on helping people. I understand the value of hard work and that is what I am going to bring.”

Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Thorpe

Volney, 36

Education: BA, SUNY Oswego

Family: Widowed; five children, one grandchild

Now:  Making first run for office  

Previous: Oswego County Clerk’s Office, Tobacco Free Network CNY, Greater Oswego-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, HSBC

Who she is: You couldn’t tell it from her sharp campaign rollout or polished pitch, but Thorpe is making her first run for any type of elected office. As a civil servant, she served in a director role in the clerk’s office before the sudden and unexpected death of her husband in 2019. After taking time for her family, Thorpe says she wants to bring her experience and fresh perspective to the big chair at her former workplace.

Why she’s running: “I’m running for office because I love my community and I have the experience and qualification to do the job and to do it well. County clerk is not a position earned by privilege or years in politics. The residents of Oswego County deserve to elect the best person for the job, and i unquestionably believe I am that person.”

“Oswego County is the place I have loved and called my home for more than 15 years, and it would be a sincere privilege to serve this community. As a former deputy clerk of operations, I had the benefit of working alongside (Backus), who made great progress in providing office transparency, online access to records, e-filing of court documents and continued growth of the Department of Motor Vehicles. I have come to understand both the mechanics and the many challenges the Oswego County Clerk’s Office faces. My career experience coupled with my dedication and loyalty make me the prime candidate.”

Election Day is Nov. 3.

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