After decade in Albany, Heuvelton Republican found new voice this summer when COVID unemployment crisis hit critical mass
OSWEGO — For the fourth consecutive election, no challenger will contest New York State Sen. Patty Ritchie’s office.
The Heuvelton Republican looks assured to return to Albany for a sixth two-year term, with her only opposition from declared write-in candidate Ron Throop of Oswego. In 2012, Ritchie defeated Oswego Democrat Amy Tresidder by a rough tally of 66,000 votes to 28,500 votes. It was the last time she’d face serious opposition.
Despite lack of electoral risk, she’s been fighting nonetheless and will likely return to Albany with a very specific and timely agenda.
“To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world would be an understatement,” Ritchie told The Palladium-Times in a recent interview. “Part of the focus for the Legislature in 2021 will be continuing to respond to the pandemic and doing what we can to help people thrive in a world that’s changed.”
To wit: Ritchie said it will be “critically important” to “ensure resources are equitably distributed to upstate New York.”
“It goes without saying that small businesses in every corner of our state are struggling in the wake of the pandemic,” she said. “I am hopeful the Legislature will focus on efforts to help them rebound — whether that’s via cutting red tape or other avenues.”
Most of Ritchie’s causes during her time in office have been focused on pro-business efforts like strengthening agriculture and small business policy, and drawing on her experience as a former St. Lawrence County Clerk to push for DMV changes. She’s been the main advocate for the prevention eastern equine encephalitis, an annual summer push to combat the potentially deadly disease.
She found a new voice this spring, however, which echoed all the way to the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. More than 1 million New Yorkers found themselves out of a job due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Ritchie’s constituents flooded her office with stories of waiting weeks in “pending purgatory” after applying for unemployment insurance benefits.
In an uncommonly fierce interview, she torched Cuomo and the state Department of Labor as part of a larger media blitz.
“Clearly, the system is broken,” Ritchie told The Palladium-Times when reached by phone on May 8. “We’re seven, eight weeks out and I’m at my wit’s end trying to find some solution to the people who are calling my office in desperation. Whatever you have to do, I don’t care — somebody’s got to do something. I don’t know how it’s expected to tell someone who has $10 left and four kids and is a single mother, ‘you have to wait.’”
Correlation does not equal causation, but in July the Cuomo administration announced it had worked with omnicorporation Google to use the company’s cloud computer capacity for the launch of a redesigned online unemployment insurance application. Some of the new features were created to streamline and simplify the overall user interface and “reduce timeouts and call center volumes,” according to the governor’s office — both of which were major complaints of Ritchie’s constituents.
Voters in 2018 gave Democrats solid control of the state Senate, the first time the house has flipped (without a succession crisis to scuttle the change) in a generation and Ritchie found herself in a minority conference for the first time. Democrats took away her chair position on the state Agriculture and Markets Committee and while Ritchie is the ranking minority member on the energy and telecom, local government and veterans, homeland security and military affairs committees, her influence — along with that of all Republicans in Albany — has waned.
“Much of the job is still the same. I’m still working every day to represent my constituents, listen to their concerns and introduce legislation that will help improve our state,” Ritchie said, when asked directly about life in the minority conference. “The biggest part of my job has always been working with constituents who contact my office looking for assistance. That’s one thing that has changed since I’ve been in the minority — the constituent work has only increased.”
There are 63 senators in New York, just one more than the total number of counties but districts often cross county boundaries. Ritchie’s 48th Senate District represents roughly 312,000 people in Oswego, Jefferson and parts of St. Lawrence counties. She’s held the seat since she took it from Democrat Darrel Aubertine in 2010.
“People are grappling with so many different challenges — from struggling to obtain their unemployment benefits to suffering the effects of their business being forced to close. Since the pandemic began, my office has fielded more than 10,000 calls and emails from constituents seeking our assistance,” she said. “I think people appreciate that my office is there to serve them and I consider it a privilege to do so.”
Among Ritchie’s non-COVID priorities is addressing what she says is another clear public safety threat.
“My colleagues and I in the Senate minority will continue our call for a repeal of the bail reform legislation that went into effect earlier this year,” Ritchie said. “While some changes have been made to the law, they didn’t go far enough. Every time you turn on the news or read the paper, we’re seeing stories about dangerous people being released from jail, only to go on to commit crimes. The bail reform laws were enacted without any input from stakeholders. They need to be revisited and public safety officials need to be part of the conversation.”
State Sen. Patty Ritchie
Ballot lines: Republican, Conservative, Independence
Now: Incumbent Senator
Before: St. Lawrence County Clerk; Senator since 2010.
Education: Heuvelton Central High, Mater Dei College and SUNY Potsdam
Family: Husband Tom, three children, four grandchildren
Why she’s running: “Since a young age, making a difference through public service has been a passion of mine. It’s why I served for more than a decade as St. Lawrence County Clerk and now, have served for nearly a decade as state senator. I think one of the biggest reasons that voters continue to place their confidence in me is that they know that I’m there to serve them — always. I pride myself on customer service and people know that if they call my office for help or to share an opinion, we’ll be there to assist, or simply just to listen. This is something that has become increasingly important during the pandemic. I’ve always been a loud voice and a strong advocate for my constituents and our region. When you’re in the minority though, one of the major differences is that your voice just has to be that much louder and you have to advocate even more strongly to see the needs of your region and its people are being acknowledged.”