Legislature Blocks Cornell

MAYVILLE – For the first time in 31 years, a resolution to fill a Chautauqua County Legislature vacancy has failed.

Ten legislators voted against Democratic Committee nominee Chuck Cornell, D-Jamestown, to fill Fred Larson’s District 12 seat at Wednesday night’s legislature meeting.

District 12 consists of portions of Jamestown’s north side, which has been without a county representative since Larson took his position as Jamestown’s second city court judge in April.

Terry Niebel, R-Sheridan, was the only legislator to speak prior to the vote, which would have required a simple majority of 10 votes in Cornell’s favor.

“In the 150-year proud history of this legislature, there has only been one instance where this body has turned down a recommendation of the local committee, and that was in 1983,” Niebel said. “Not since then has there been any recommendation of a district committee that has been turned down and there have been dozens and dozens, if not hundreds. I would urge my Republican colleagues to do the right thing and that would be to seat Mr. Cornell.”

After the resolution failed, Keith Ahlstrom, D-Dunkirk, who voted against the resolution, said his reasoning involved a letter to the editor from Cornell, which was posted on Nov. 17 in the OBSERVER. The letter is available in its entirety at the end of this article.

Norm Green, Democratic election commissioner, said he was surprised and shocked at the outcome of Wednesday night’s vote.

“I had no idea that we had legislators that are that small, not to accept someone who has a resume like Chuck Cornell has,” Green said. “It epitomizes all the bad things we hear about in Washington, and all the bad things we hear about in Albany and now these things come to Mayville.”

Green went on to say that the political discourse belongs in election season.

“At this particular point in time, it’s not right at all,” he said. “The people of legislative District 12 obviously are not going to be represented for at least 30 more days, possibly until the end of the year, and that certainly isn’t fair to the people of Jamestown. I’m highly disappointed.”

Now, the Democratic Committee must name another nominee, who could once again be Cornell. Until another Democratic Party member is chosen and approved by the legislature, the District 12 seat will remain empty.

A general election will take place in November to fill the seat for the second part of a two-year term.

Mark Tarbrake, R-Jamestown, was one of eight Republican legislators who voted against Cornell’s nomination.

“I felt it was the right thing to do,” he said. “At this time, we can move forward and look to the future for the next person the Democratic Committee chooses.”

Legislators who voted in favor of the resolution to seat Cornell included Paula DeJoy, D-Jamestown; Dave Himelein, R-Findley Lake; Janet Keefe, D-Fredonia; Chuck Nazzaro, D-Jamestown; Terry Niebel, R-Sheridan; Dave Wilfong, R-Jamestown; and Jay Gould, R-Ashville.

Legislators who voted against the resolution besides Ahlstrom and Tarbrake included George Borrello, R-Irving; Pierre Chagnon, R-Bemus Point; Shaun Heenan, D-Dunkirk; John Hemmer, R-Westfield; Ron Lemon, R-Frewsburg; John Runkle, R-Stockton; Bob Scudder, R-Fredonia; and Lisa Vanstrom, R-West Ellicott.


Editor’s Note: The following letter written by Chuck Cornell which Keith Ahlstrom referred to earlier in this article, appeared in the OBSERVER on Nov. 17.

The sweeping Republican victory in obtaining 13 of 19 Legislature seats has been depicted as a “tsunami” based on the fact that voters were “paying attention.”

However, this victory could have been predicted, give or take a seat or two, given the fact that the Legislature lines that were adopted were not those developed by an independent, non-partisan commission, but instead largely by a partisan Albany-based consultant hired by the Republican caucus to draw the lines. Minda Rae Amiran of the League of Women Voters and member of the Independent Redistricting Commission cautioned legislators right before the partisan plan was ultimately adopted to be careful about the “message you are sending to the public both about your commitment to a transparent and non-partisan process and about your willingness to waste the time of serious and committed citizens.”

The Republican legislators, plus legislators Keith Ahlstrom and Shaun Heenan voted against the independent, non-partisan plan. Then a partisan plan was adopted.

Both Legislators Heenan and Ahlstrom did not draw Republican opponents in this year’s election. Much like the “bipartisan gerrymandering” in Albany has helped to keep the New York State Senate with a Republican Majority and the New York State Assembly with a Democratic Majority, the people of Chautauqua County have partisan gerrymandered legislature districts that limits choices and competition for legislature seats. So while other valid conclusions can be drawn about the 2013 election, including the dramatically low voter turnout, it’s clear that the legislature lines that were deliberately drawn to favor one political party worked as they were designed.

Political scientist Gerald Benjamin once concluded that Albany gerrymandering has resulted in “diminished competitiveness and accountability” and “cemented divided partisan control” and provides state legislators with “insulation from the public will.”

It’s possible for the same conclusion to be drawn in Chautauqua County. Voter participation and competitive legislature seats may decline even further until new lines are drawn that are “transparent and non-partisan” and put communities and civic participation above party politics.

Chuck Cornell is a Jamestown resident.