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Time Out: Retiring Sen. John DeFrancisco reflects on 4 decades of public service

Sen. John DeFrancisco. (Michael Davis/Syracuse New Times)
Sen. John DeFrancisco. (Michael Davis/Syracuse New Times)

At the ballot box, retiring Republican state Sen. John DeFrancisco never came in second. “It’s been 41 years,” he reflects. “It started with the school board, and with all my various political races: the city council for two terms as councilor-at-large and the final city council race for president of the city council. That was the first 15, with the last 26 in the state Senate (as deputy majority leader from the 50th District).”

During that tenure in Albany, DeFrancisco became known for his support of the arts, a lasting image emerging from his occasional short solo saxophone performances during several music festivals. Last January he announced he would seek his party’s nomination for governor. He acknowledged the odds were stacked against him: an upstater facing an incumbent downstate Democrat with $30 million in the bank.

He was right. “I know how to play hardball,” he said at the time, pitching barbs at Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo for “pay to play” politics and using a nationwide tourism campaign as a ploy to run for president. But an early poll showed DeFrancisco to be largely unknown outside Central New York. Then in March, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro surged past him with votes from Manhattan Republican committee members.

DeFrancisco stayed in the race until the formal state committee voting at the GOP convention in May, which Molinaro won. Afterward, reflecting on the second-place finish, he noted simply that he didn’t like losing and that he would likely not be seeking re-election to his Senate seat. Potential Republican candidates who have emerged to succeed him include county Comptroller Bob Antonacci and former city Councilor Rick Guy.

 

After such a distinguished political career, do the loss of the gubernatorial nomination and reversal on key issues like Route 81 and the Near West Side make this a melancholic exit?

If you’re in anything for 41 years, you’re not always successful in getting what wants to be done. For seven of those years I had a battle over the wisdom of spending the amounts of money and tax breaks for Destiny USA (shopping mall). Technically, if you want to look at it, Destiny USA won. But realistically, if you look at the outcome, the things that I said happened exactly the way I said and the city of Syracuse lost millions of dollars in tax revenue. So the fact that you aren’t successful in accomplishing what you want to do doesn’t mean you weren’t doing the right thing. That’s more important to me.

As far as Route 81, I think from the outset there’s been a movement to have a community grid. A lot of people felt that maintaining the current viaduct system made a lot of sense to move traffic. I felt, quite frankly, that there was a way to make everybody whole on this thing and that would be to get rid of the viaduct, and reunite the city without the viaduct going through the city of Syracuse.

But on the other hand, having at least a 1.2-mile high-speed thoroughfare through the city, I still think to this day it makes a lot of sense. It may cost more, but you’ve got to move product, you’ve got to move people. You don’t want the community grid to be the community gridlock.

I think that from the beginning the powers that be wanted to do the community grid. Some people say it’s urban planning at its best, but others note that it’s the cheapest route. The cheapest isn’t normally usually the best, especially when you’re talking about a project that’s going to be around and moving people for the next 70 years.

So I don’t think it’s bittersweet. I’m still making my point. I still continue to make it. Hopefully, someone will see the light, and if not, I did what I said I would do: namely, be honest with myself and advocate for what I thought would be advocatable.

Second, the Near West Side. I attended the Arts Week press conference where young people were playing bongos and different drum-type instruments. The leader of the group told me that he is in a Near West Side initiative where there is a cluster of artists in certain buildings and he didn’t realize there had been a proposal from Clarkson University to have the state forgive millions of dollars of debt if they would use the funds for economic development.

(Former Syracuse University) Chancellor Buzz Shaw was pushing for an arts community on the Near West Side. I got onto that quickly and was able to get $7 million of debt that SU had with the state to be converted for the Near West Side as an artists’ community. That started the ball rolling.

It certainly hasn’t gone as quickly as I would have liked it to grow, but you have (the PBS channel) WCNY there, you’ve got the literacy organizations there, you’ve got the artists’ communities there. That’s not a bittersweet moment; I think it was a large success when you think of what was there before. Lastly, they’re going to have a groundbreaking very soon on a performance facility that they got additional money for in the Case Building.

Looking at the whole political experience, what was the best thing? What was the worst thing?

I’m actually editing right now a book I’ve been working on for years. The book basically starts out in two sections: getting there and being there. It has stories about running for office, and it talks about incidents that occurred to me. What jumps out to me is dealing with people that have resulted in incredible things.

For example: Casey’s Place. A group of women came to me years ago and said, “We have mentally handicapped children. They don’t get to be with any children because they’re outcasts. We care for them 24 hours a day. How about a place where they could go to be with kids they could relate to? And how about a place for the parents?” Casey’s Place came out of it. And that wasn’t just me. That funding was to start the process, and we got some funding recently to expand it. There are many of those instances; I couldn’t pick one.

The worst is what’s going on right now: the inability of anyone to act civilly toward each other on any issue. I’ve been disagreeing with people my whole life, and with people disagreeing with me. But you could get along with people, make your point of view and not go ballistic if your way just doesn’t happen.

I get along with everybody and I try to work with everybody. They know where I stand. But I don’t poke them in the eye if I happen to be disagreeing with them. I think that’s the biggest disappointment.

What is the nature of the upstate/downstate antagonism? What are the implications?

The nature of the conflict is basically along philosophical grounds. But I, as an upstate legislator, try to make sure that upstate New York gets its fair share of funding, its representation as far as their philosophical leanings.

New York City is a different animal. It’s a different philosophy. There’s no tax that most legislators from New York City wouldn’t wrap their arms around. There’s no program they wouldn’t want to provide for anybody who wants a program provided for.

That’s part of the situation and I think that you can really see that it’s just not talk. In 2009 and 2010, after an Obama landslide the Senate went Democrat. Of the 32 Senate majority members who were Democrat, 23 were from New York City. And what happened during that period of time was taxes were increased by $10 billion, spending was increased by $10 billion.

But more importantly, when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was giving funds to try to keep their system going, roads and bridges were totally ignored upstate. They kept saying we’re going to have a package for upstate. It never happened.

There’s this fight between upstate and downstate over philosophy as well as distribution of resources. And then in 2011 Republicans take the Senate back and you have a little bit more balance. That’s what it’s about, but again, I can work civilly with anybody on the other side of the aisle, and I have. So even though we have these differences, it doesn’t mean you have to act like children when you don’t get your way.

One result of what you’re talking about is not a very good reputation for the state. How corrupt is New York state?

Corruption can be defined in many different ways. You can see the trials that are going on right now. I have a list of all the individuals who were in the Senate and the Assembly in the last 15 years and how many people got charged with various offenses. Some offenses are very serious, such as money being provided to nonprofits where a senator’s family was on the payroll and making a lot of money.

There are situations that are less serious, but they resulted in convictions and jail time. When I became ranking member, the highest Republican on the finance committee, in 2009 to 2010, when Democrats were in control, the chairman was Carl Kruger. He’s still in jail.

Many people have been charged and convicted. The question isn’t whether wrongdoing has happened; there’s wrongdoing that happens in every walk of life, not only politics. The issue isn’t whether the corruption is there. The fact of the matter is that it is and it’s been dealt with existing laws.

Where I go off and disagree with a lot of people is that we need more laws to root out corruption. The existing laws have indicted the majority leader of the Senate, the speaker of the Assembly, the higher-ups and the lower-downs, so the laws are there. Having term limits or having public financing of elections, all these so-called solutions I don’t think even scratch at trying to act appropriately. No matter who is in the Senate seat, there’s an infrastructure, there’s a bureaucracy that exists forever. People there now are going to be there for the next 20 years.

The fact of the matter is the system runs the way it runs based on the leadership. In my judgment, if you want someone to stay on, people should be allowed to let them stay on. If you want them out, then you vote them out. If they’re corrupt and they’ve got to be indicted and charged and convicted, they should be.

But the fact of the matter is I don’t think it’s going to do one iota to change the corruption that’s being talked about in the state of New York. And when you talk about corruption, going on right now is a whole issue of financial benefits going to developers in the state of New York and the whole program of doling out money, primarily controlled by the governor, to big businesses.

That’s the problem, not whether you have public financing of elections, or whether you have term limits on various offices. The fact is corruption should be followed all the way up the line to the person who allows it to happen.

As a result of school shootings, should school districts consider arming teachers?

I don’t support that at all. But I do believe that you have to have a defense in schools. You have a wealth of retired police officers that are capable of carrying and using a gun to be resource officers in the schools. Otherwise, the only people that have a chance to use a gun are those who are illegally running into a school.

Read: Are Schools Safe? Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler on school shootings, March for Our Lives

The Senate passed this year a group of pieces of legislation: more funding for warning systems, metal detectors, trained police officers for the school. The Assembly did not put in a bill in that regard; controlled by New York City, their solution was more gun control. We can debate gun control all night long, but it seems to me if only the bad guys are the ones with weapons, you may be politically correct, but you’re not providing protection.

What is the future of the party system in state government?

When I started out, and even until a couple of years ago, I thought you really had to have a major party endorsement to win. When (Syracuse mayoral candidate) Ben Walsh came to me saying he’d run independent, I said, “You’re nuts.” I was obviously proven wrong. He won.

Donald Trump: Whether you like him or dislike him, the fact of the matter is he was the anti-establishment candidate and he won. Stephanie Miner is running an independent race for governor. Cynthia Nixon has got the Working Families’ line running for governor, and she’s going to primary Cuomo. The odds are that she won’t beat him, but there are more options now than there ever were.

And there are more dissatisfied people than there ever were because nobody likes the friction that’s going on at this point in time that makes it difficult to accomplish anything in a bipartisan manner.

What will it take to replace you?

You have to find a good-looking guy. No, I don’t know what it will take to replace me, but what I’d like to see replace me is somebody that says it like it is and you always know where the person stands. I could live with disagreeing with people. I cannot live with someone telling me what they think I want to hear and then do something totally opposite. The credibility of this individual, whoever succeeds me, is the main thing.

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