North Country Cheerleader

DAYTONA NILES / NNY BUSINESS
Assemblyman Elect Mark Walczyk.

For newly elected Assemblyman Mark C. Walcxzyk, R-Watertown, his first term inn Democrat controlled Albany may be a challenge. He sat down with NNY Business to discuss his hopes for bipartisan solutions, the north country economy and what keeps him in politics.  


NNYB: What got you into politics?

Walczyk: I think public service has always been at the forefront, I was involved in the Boy Scouts at a young age and my family is very service oriented, so it was always kind of instilled in me. In college I majored in political science and history, took more of a liking to history, actually, and thought I was going to be a history teacher.  But I had an opportunity for an internship at the State Senate my senior year, really liked it, and not only that, at a time when it was pretty hard for college grads to find work, worked hard enough and the Senator (Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton) invited me to be on the staff. So that kind of got me involved in the state political realm.

NNYB: What keeps you in politics?

Walczyk: I guess the ability to make a positive change. From the work that we’ve done at Sen. Ritchie’s office to the work I’ve been a part of on the Watertown City Council, I’ve seen that your vote, your advocacy, your push for accountability from the government that works for the people, it gives you that opportunity to make a positive change in the community you live and work in. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. We just started, today was our first day in the office, yesterday we swore in. We had our first staff meeting this morning, and we were talking about how exciting it is to work in a legislative office. That’s what jacks me up, that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning, knowing that first phone call that happens, that could change the entire day. The constituents get to set the priority for the day, they get to set the priority of work. And that’s what’s really fun for me, because it’s different every day, it’s challenging, and I really enjoy it. I hope they stay underneath the two percent property tax cap, and that’s something I re-iterated to all the possible candidates for the appointment, at least for the last year. I told them, always ask questions of the department heads and the city manager, and if you don’t know the answer it’s your job to ask the questions. The city council is the legislative branch of the City of Watertown. So if you have a question for a department head, don’t feel stupid for asking it, ask. It’s your job, it’s your job to find out.  It’s also a problem you see in Albany, and something that will certainly be at the forefront of my tenure in Albany. We’re not there to just get along, we’re not there to just make friends, we’re there to represent Northern New York with pride, and provide accountability. Legislate, yes. Build a budget for New York State, yes. But provide that accountability for the executive branch, and remind the government every single day that we’re the ones paying the bill, and the tax payer and the constituents, it’s their government. And it’s been kind of lively for you since you won the election.  You had some big personal news too, between the election and being sworn in.

NNYB: I understand you got engaged and sworn in on the same spot (in Clayton)?

Walczyk: Yeah, pretty exciting, and pretty significant spot that. Going out to dinner in Clayton’s always fun, it will be fun to reminisce on both those great things. Wore the St. Lawrence Tartan yesterday (at his swearing in), and pretty symbolic not only of Clayton but of the region itself. I look forward to wearing that suit in Albany. But yeah, I’m really excited about starting a new life and having a family here in the north country.

NNYB: You’re going into an Assembly and a Senate and a Governor who aren’t your party, where do you see opportunities for cross party, cross aisle cooperation?

Walczyk: There’s a time for competition and there’s a time for Republican and Democrat and electioneering and all the things you do for that, competition and campaigns. And that stops. Election night they announce a victor, and that’s when you shift and you worry about governing. So I don’t see the world in Republican – Democrat so much, and I think there’s plenty of level-headed Republicans and Democrats in Albany who will be great partners. It’s about coalition building, and its’ about making sure we can get things done for the people here. So I don’t see it as a problem.  And the other thing to point out, and we’ve kind of already talked about it, the purpose of the legislature. Part of it is to make legislation and vote on legislation and part of it is to, you know, create a budget in coordination with the executive, and another purpose of the legislature is to provide that check, that balance of power to the executive power every day. So the state agencies that govern us here in Northern New York, they’re very in-tuned to the people on the ground, that are affected by those rules and regulations that come out of Albany. And we’re either fighting those rules and regulations and policies in Albany, or we’re making sure that there’s good communication, that it makes sense here.

NNYB: Are there specific issues that you see there being broad cross-party agreement on, going in? Everyone’s talking about the contentious issues, but are there things you think you’ll be able to build those coalitions around?

Walczyk: Yeah, and if you look at bills, and even pieces of the budget, the budget’s enormous. You look at the pieces of it that are debated versus not debated, and there’s a lot more agreement. It seems funny to say this, there’s a lot more agreement that goes on than there is disagreement, but we don’t highlight the agreement. So I’m sure there will be a lot of ways that are non-contentious, that don’t parse upstate versus downstate, that don’t parse any Republicans against Democrats, where we can just work together and make sure the government is functioning.

NNYB: Looking at your district, what do you think the biggest challenge is going to be for your district in 2019?

Walczyk: Jobs is always number one. Especially with some of the policies that have come out of Albany, job growth is continually a problem here, and we need to make sure businesses have the right platform, the right infrastructure, the right climate, to be able to create those good paying jobs here in Northern New York. And I think on top of being one voice out of 150 in the assembly, I think being a cheerleader for Northern New York and being a representative in its very core sense, letting people state-wide understand how great this district is and what it brings to the table I think is going to be critical. To break down that cheerleader word, I’m certainly going to have a lot of cheer when I talk about this district, and I’m going to be a leader for the 116th district, which I call the Front Yard of America, which is often called the River District.

I think it describes the district a little bit better. When you talk to the border communities especially, everything on their mind is where the Canadian dollar is and how we can bring more Canadian business here. And this truly is the front yard of America. It sort of upgrades the prominence of the district a little bit, to talk about it (as) more than just river, because there’s a few of those around New York. It’s the Front Yard of America, not the back yard of New York State.

NNYB: Speaking of front yards and being accessible, there’s currently an issue with two of the airports in your district, Boutique Air at Massena and Massena wanting to continue with that (service), Allegiance in Ogdensburg wanting to get both Massena and Ogdensburg. Where do you land on that issue?

Walczyk: I think there’s an opportunity for both airports to do well, I’m continually meeting with the stake holders. I sat down with (village mayor) Tim Currier of Massena and I sat down with (Ogdensburg mayor) Wayne Ashley in my preparations. I’ve already been making those reach-outs and meeting with those community stakeholders. I think there’s no reason, whether its airports or lots of other various projects, to pit Massena against Ogdensburg. And I think there’s lots of opportunities for me, as the Assembly member, to help bridge that gap.

NNYB: How do you think this might be resolved? Do you have any idea what the end game might be?

Walczyk: For me, I work for them, I’m going to continue to listen. It’s not my style of government to say, “hey, I’m here from New York State and I’m going to tell Ogdensburg how to run their airport and Massena how to run theirs,” it’s my job to listen to both and see where the best opportunity is for coordination and success for everybody.

NNYB: You mentioned the lack of jobs in the area and the importance of increasing jobs. There also seems to be an issue in some places with jobs that can’t find workers. Obviously there’s been a loss of population in New York State in general, the north country specifically. How do you plan on addressing the lack of people for some of these jobs?

Walczyk: Yeah, we’re losing like 1,000 people a week in New York State, it’s a tremendous outflow of population that in some ways is scary. And you’ve seen that in this assembly district. When it was last redistricted they added a whole new town, they didn’t take anything away from it. And that’s because the population continues to decline here. We do a phenomenal job of, I think, educating our youth, we’ve got great communities to raise a family in, we’ve even got higher education institutions across this assembly district. You’ve got St. Lawrence University and Canton University and Potsdam and Clarkson and SUNY Jefferson, but after we’ve invested in our youth at the primary level and the secondary level, and the higher education level sometimes, we export all of that knowledge. And there needs to be a climate not only for business growth. That’s why I’m a big proponents of keeping property taxes down, just making it affordable to live here. I think sometimes you have the policies or the understanding out of New York City that are just out of whack. You talk about the price of a red pepper at the grocery store to somebody in Manhattan, and it’s a totally different culture and a totally different understanding of what it means. Or you talk property taxes to someone in Manhattan and they don’t have the same understanding. A lot of this job is going to be sharing that understanding, it’s not necessarily combative, it’s “hey, let me help you understand our way of life up here so we can put policies in place that make it more affordable to live, do business, play, raise a family.”

NNYB: So, front yard of America. Obviously, tourism, Thousand Islands is really big. What do you think are the ways that that can grow and expand and sort of live up to that Front Yard of America slogan?

Walczyk: When you look at the Canadian side of the border, they treat it – and it’s because it is – like their southern Rivera. This is them moving as far south as can in the province. And you look at the wealth on the northern side of the river and it’s just that. You’ve got some beautiful cities and villages just on the other side of the border, they’re doing really well, industry wise, economy wise. And  then you look at our southern side, and yeah, you’ve got some localized wealth and some nice homes, but the cities and villages not necessarily doing as well, and if they do it’s primarily focused on tourism. Tourism is great, but it’s not the base of a core economy, I think, that we’re looking for here, for that long term sustainability, for those good paying jobs that are going to sustain our way of life here in Northern New York.

NNYB: You mentioned committees. Would you talk a little bit about what your committee appointments are?

Walczyk: Yeah, I’m the ranker on the social services committee. I’m also on the transportation committee, the higher education committee, the energy committee and the cities committee. And I’m really excited about all of that committee work. You know we have two small cities in this assembly district, so I’m excited to be on the cities committee. Transportation policy has always been interesting to me, and I know that may sound mundane, but it impacts every single one of our municipalities here in the 116th Assembly District, we have a lot of transportation infrastructure issues across the district and I can’t wait to advocate in favor of the assembly district. Energy policy, we’ve got micro-hydro facilities, we’ve got the NYPA power dam in Massena and the ReEnergy plant on Fort Drum, so there’s a lot of local issues that energy has a tremendous amount of impact here in the 116. Higher ed, we already talked about that, the higher education institutions. And there’s a ton of other policy areas that I’m also interested, but I’m really excited I’m on these committees.

NNYB: Speaking of Fort Drum, you mentioned the plant there. Most of the Fort Drum stuff is federal but there’s some state stuff that comes into play. What are the issues you anticipate coming up on a state level for Fort Drum in the next year or two?

Walczyk: Yeah, on the ReEnergy plant I know what I’ve read, I haven’t met with anyone from ReEnergy or Fort Drum about it yet, specifically, but I plan to sit down with both to learn more about that issue and what role I would play from a state role from the assembly. Fort Drum issues under the state’s purview – the ACUB (Army Compatible Use Buffer) funding would be an important one, making sure there’s a compatible use buffer and some protection from encroachment for the communities around Fort Drum and Fort Drum itself. I think talking about Fort Drum as “ready today and relevant tomorrow,” as they often say out there. Preparing for the future not just the 10th Mountain Division as it is today, and their major training area, but sort of seeing the way warfare is going to move forward and doing whatever we can from the state level to prepare Fort Drum to be relevant tomorrow and ready for whatever that training is going to require.

NNYB: And how is that going to interact with wind turbines?

Walczyk: It may, I guess is the answer there. You got to continue to listen to the stakeholders there, Fort Drum wants a seat at the table, especially making those decisions about airspace.

NNYB: So the governor looks like he’s on board now with legalized marijuana. I know we talked during the campaign and you’re not a big fan of it, but if it goes forward, which it looks like it might, how would you like to see legalization happen?

Walczyk: I think it’s important if it does go through, to couple legalization with some of the health concerns that area already existing. It’s always struck me as kind of odd that the same people who are pushing for cigarettes to be banned from 50 feet to 150 feet from the entrance of every building are the same people that want to legalize marijuana. I have concerns, from the health professionals I’ve heard from, and I have a lot of concerns when I hear about the polling of our youth, especially at a high school level, about the level of marijuana usage that there is among our high school students right now and the perception as a very safe, no harm type drug. So whether you’re for it or against it I think you need to be very clear about the public messaging going forward. But yeah, I’m opposed to legalization. I’m especially concerned about some of the rhetoric about “well, think of what we could do with the tax revenue,” because we watched some of that rhetoric not work for the New York State lottery. If you notice the thruway authority is still charging tolls on that highway, and once that highway was paid for the tolls were supposed to come off. I don’t want to get hooked, or get anybody else hooked, so to speak, when they say the marijuana revenue is going to go to x good cause. It certainly wouldn’t sway my vote, because we’ve seen Albany lie to us about that in the past.

NNYB: Broadband – what do you think the state needs to do moving forward on broadband? I know there are a couple spots that are still a little spotty in this district, certainly in the immediate area surrounding, what are you looking to see?

Walczyk: Broadband is not considered a utility, but in some ways it sort of acts like that, our constituents treat it that way. There’s an expectation when you talk about, when you talk about an attractive area to live, to raise a family, to do business, high speed and broadband – critically important. More and more so when you talk about the bridges out of poverty, you’re talking about access to information that is absolutely critical. I was happy to see some of the changes, because it means a lot for rural communities.

NNYB: On healthcare, what do you think is going to happen? It seems like the Governor and certainly the Assembly, maybe now the Senate, have different ideas what they want healthcare in New York to look like. I’m sure your idea may be different from both of those, but what do you think is going to happen?

Walczyk: I don’t know – there’s a lot of changes in Albany right now, and I think it’s going to be a very interesting session. Until I see a final proposal it’s tough to really say, there’s a lot of them out there. There’s a change in leadership in the Senate, that’s certainly going to play a role in what, if anything, shakes out here. I have concerns about some of the proposals that have been put out there, and the concerns are pretty simple: I would hate to see taxes skyrocket, double, triple, like I’ve seen in some of these proposals, for a benefit that is difficult to describe or nail down. My job is to advocate for the people of the 116 Assembly District, and if we’re not getting a better deal, then I’m certainly not going to vote for the bill.

NNYB: And on agriculture, on a federal level we saw the farm bill go through, on a state level what do  you think are going to be the big agricultural issues of the coming year?

Walczyk: We’ll take them as we come. You point out the one that is certainly at the forefront, farmers want a fair price for their milk. Dairy farmers want a fair price for their milk. From the agriculture community that I’ve heard from, a lot of the complaints are not that far off from the small business community. It’s taxes, it’s regulations, it’s cost of doing business in New York. One nuanced example is milk that they’re selling in Ohio right now. I already brought up the thruway tolls, but they’re paying tolls twice on a truck to get it to and from Ohio. I know they would rather sell the milk here locally, but if you’re getting the best price in Ohio, then I think us as New York State could probably cut them a deal on tolls, because they got to drive all the way out there.

So there are small ways that you can pay attention to the community, you just got to continue to listen. So that’s really what the next at least six, nine months of this job are going to be for me, really getting out there, pro-actively listening to every town supervisor and mayor and business leader and agriculture leader and every day constituent, because this job is to serve the public.  Like I said earlier my style is not a top-down approach. It’s not now, me, Mark Walczyk, your assemblyman, and now I’m going to tell you what you need every day. Not at all. It’s going to be to pick up the phone and listen to the needs of the people.

NNYB: So last month, the Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority got turned down for, I think it was $1.5 million grant for the bridge state funding. Do you see there being state funding for the Ogdensburg bridge, and if not, how is that going to get fixed?

Walczyk: I don’t know, it’s tremendously expensive, it’s something I already sat down with OBPA about. I don’t think that they, at the time, had a tremendous amount of hope that all that help would come from New York State, they hoped that, you know, some kind of state and fed (combined funding). Look, that is a critical border crossing, it is a life line for Ogdensburg. And when you look at the good work that the OBPA (has) done with the industrial park there and the partnerships they’ve created with Canadian companies, it would cut them off at the knees if that bridge didn’t exist, and would really damage Ogdensburg in the long term. Having been through, witnessing budgets on a state level, and going through some local budgets myself, it’s a complicated process and it takes a lot of give and take. But this is one of those major items, no question.

NNYB: Hemp is now legalized.  Do you see there being an opportunity for farmers in the north country to do industrial hemp in your district? Do you think that’s something the state will be able to assist in growing as an industry?

Walczyk: You look at the history of industrial hemp and it’s interesting, because there are times when the Federal government was incentivizing and even requiring the growing of industrial hemp to help our maritime industry. So I don’t see it as a controversial issue as all, I think it’s great, but it’s got to be market driven. The selective capitalism or the promoting one industry over another instead of you know, letting capitalism do its job, not really my style. If  there’s a market for industrial hemp and we can grow it here in the north country and there’s a good business model then definitely, we’ve got to do everything we can to promote job growth in the area.

 

NNYB: So the Governor laid out his 100 day agenda, his Justice Agenda, last month. Realistically, what is your 100 day agenda look like?

 

Walczyk: Alright, it looks like figuring out how to work the phone system and signing into an email account and then answering the emails and picking up the phone. I don’t want to sit here and say “these are the things that I’m going to accomplish in the first 100 days,” and it’s not because I don’t have things in my mind that I think are going to really assist the 116 Assembly District in moving forward, it’s because I haven’t done that job of proactively listening. I could think I’m so smart that I know all of the answers, but I know from my experience in government and my experience with people that I don’t, and that there’s nobody who’s so smart that they know all of the answers. If I could come back 100 days from now and say, “I can answer you every question for what’s going on in the town of Rossie,” that’s when I know I’ve done my job. And when I can say, “I know what the issues are in Cape Vincent because I sat down with the supervisor and he told me and now I understand not only what the issues are, but I’ve got a course of action to help solve the problems from a state level.” That’s when I’ve done my job for the first 100 days.

 

NNYB: Final question – you moved to the north country, you’re not born here. What keeps you here?

 

Walczyk: I would encourage everyone to make the same migration from Brewerton, New York, or wherever you’re from here to Northern New York. It’s gorgeous, I absolutely fell in love with this area. Been here on and off since 2008. First I fell in love with the area and then I fell in love with a girl who also fell in love with the area, and here I am, making my life here. I mean this in the most sincere way possible – I’m so honored to represent this area, it gives me a tremendous amount of pride. I wore the tartan jacket down for my official headshot in Albany, right? And I was walking through the hall, and as you can imagine, it’s a kind of loud coat, it gets a couple of head turns. There were these two ladies, I think they may have worked for the Governor. I got a head turn and they said, “wow, what a nice jacket.” And I said, “can I tell you about it?” And it gave me the opportunity to explain the St. Lawrence tartan, the official tartan of the Thousand Islands Museum in Clayton, New York. I told them what assembly district I was from, and they didn’t know where that was, at all. I said, “there’s this river called the St. Lawrence River and it borders us in Northern New York, it’s basically the front yard of the United States of America. The green in this jacket represents the cedars that line that river and the blue represents the river itself and the red represents the sunset over the Thousand Islands, it is the most beautiful region of New York State and we would love to have you anytime.” And it gave me that opportunity, like I said, to be that cheerleader for the 116 Assembly District. From that short interaction I got to walk away with being an ambassador for the region and talking about it with pride, and I can’t wait to do more of that.

~Interview conducted by Abe Kenmore. Edited for length and clarity to fit this space.