Summer 2011 Issue
June 29, 2011

Voters: 'Don't mess with Medicare'

Author: Bernie Mulligan
Source: NYSUT United

Kenmore TA's Robyn Brydalski, her
baby Eleanora and Joi Chimera work
for Kathy Hochul's election.

New York's 26th Congressional district was the eye of a political hurricane for several weeks in May, as the national fight about the future of Medicare drove an intense campaign. NYSUT members were in the thick of the effort — and ultimately helped Democrat Kathy Hochul pull a stunning upset in a largely Republican district in western New York.

"Medicare was the primary issue," said Marcella Fugle, a retiree leader who taught in Hamburg schools for 20 years. "Hochul's support for closing tax loopholes and all paying their fair share also helped her."

The 26th Congressional District includes all of Genesee, Livingston and Wyoming counties, and parts of Erie, Monroe, Niagara and Orleans counties.

Political pundits believed the seat would remain in Republican hands. "Only three Democrats have won the House seat in this area the past century. It was one of just four in the state that voted for John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008. And it was one of the few districts that voted overwhelmingly for Carl Paladino in last year's governor's race," the ABC political newsletter, The Note, stated.

But national political winds blew a hot-button issue into what was expected to be a cool, low-key race. In early May, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan offered a new Republican proposal on Medicare, the federal program that meets the medical needs of America's seniors. Ryan's plan is to give seniors vouchers to buy medical coverage from private insurance companies.

"Within days of Ryan's announcement, a wave of concern built throughout our union and the labor movement," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "His plan is a direct attack on one of the foundations of a decent life for older Americans, and it became a tipping point in this congressional race." Hochul's Republican opponent, Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, defended the Ryan plan. Corwin also brought Speaker of the House John Boehner in to campaign for her and saw more than $3.4 million spent on TV ads defending her.

But on a strong position of strengthening and defending Medicare, the Hochul campaign answered with a massive voter mobilization effort, and NYSUT members were a key component. "Our retired political activists came out to make calls, work at Hochul headquarters and join labor walks," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue, who oversees the union's retiree services. "Retirees are the union's daytime warriors."

In-service members were just as active. "We worked so hard on that race because it was an obvious choice between a candidate who was for working families or a candidate who was not just out of touch with, but even against the concerns of the middle class," said Cheryl Hughes of the Kenmore TA.

Hughes teaches middle school science so she knows Newton's Laws of Motion, especially that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. "A Democrat won in a Republican stronghold to send the message people want to preserve Medicare, not turn it into a voucher system; and we don't want the national budget cuts proposed by Sen. Ryan," Hughes said. Hochul won with 47 percent of the vote. Corwin and tea party candidate Jack Davis received 43 and 9 percent respectively.

"Our activists in this district did all the right things," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. "They show us all what we need to do in 2012 to elect politicians who understand our members' needs and concerns."