CANTON — A year ago, Patricia A. Ritchie would have laughed at the situation she finds herself in today: running for state Senate.
Her last run for state office ended poorly. She lost a 2002 bid against her current political rival, state Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine, D-Cape Vincent, to represent the 118th Assembly District.
That she garnered 46 percent of the vote, however, is a fact that has lingered in the minds of political insiders who have since whispered about her as a potential contender whenever a state office is up for election.
But Mrs. Ritchie routinely dismissed any speculation that she again would seek a place in state government.
“People were always strongly encouraging me to run, but it wasn't the right time,” Mrs. Ritchie said over coffee at McCarthy's Restaurant.
All that changed in March, when the Republican St. Lawrence County clerk announced her intent to challenge Mr. Aubertine for the 48th Senate District seat.
She said a palpable sense of public discontent and a chorus of voices urging her to run convinced her the time finally was right to give state politics another shot.
A HOMETOWN GIRL
Mrs. Ritchie was born Feb. 22, 1962, in the town of DePeyster, daughter of Rita A. and Kenneth H. Hilborne. At 15, she, her parents and her brother, Kenneth Jr., moved to a house in the town of Oswegatchie not far from the Delaney Road home where she and her husband, Thomas P., have raised three children.
Her father worked at the former James B. Downing Co. in Heuvelton and later took a job as a state corrections officer at Riverview Correctional Facility, Ogdensburg. Her mother was a manager at what then was called the Oneida National Bank.
“I have great parents who have always been supportive and been there for me,” she said. “They taught me to be a hard worker. When I turned 16, I got an application and went to work for Fay's Drug Store. I've been working ever since.”
She said she was lucky after her family moved to be able to keep attending Heuvelton High School, where she was a good student who played soccer, was a cheerleader and played clarinet in the band.
“I had her as a music student from fourth grade right through until she graduated,” said David J. Poulton, the school's retired band director. “She was a very intelligent gal who always followed through on what she set out to do.”
Mrs. Ritchie said Mr. Poulton was a positive influence on her teen years. She said he and his wife, A. Doreen, have remained an important part of her life.
“He taught me once you're in something, you're in it for the long haul,” she said. “He taught me about commitment.”
After graduating from high school in 1980, Mrs. Ritchie attended the former Mater Dei College, Ogdensburg, where she received an associate degree in social work. She attended SUNY Plattsburgh for a brief time, but homesickness prompted her to transfer to SUNY Potsdam. She married in 1982 and two years later gave birth to her first son, Thomas Jr. Her second child, Jessica A., was born a year later.
While her family grew, she kept up part-time studies and got a job at the county Department of Motor Vehicles. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1991.
Eight years later, County Clerk Orin B. Thomas's decision to retire set the stage for Mrs. Ritchie's political debut.
“My coworkers encouraged me to run,” she said. “I decided to do it, especially after Orin said he would back me.”
She decisively won the three-way race for county clerk that year against fellow Republican Stephen E. Teele, Lisbon, who ran on the Independence Party line, and Democrat Mary Jane Barnes, Canton.
Mrs. Ritchie said in the last decade she has streamlined the office's operations to reduce costs and improve customer service, has established satellite DMV offices in Ogdensburg, Gouverneur and Massena, and successfully lobbied the state to reject a proposal that would require all car owners to buy new license plates.
She said she is most proud, however, of an initiative to process vehicle registrations from downstate car dealerships. The project has netted nearly $2.5 million for the office since 2007.
“I don't think you have time enough to listen to me about the things Patty Ritchie has done for St. Lawrence County and the taxpayers,” said her friend Edward J. Knight, Colton. “She's really proven herself.”
When she was wrestling with the question of running for Senate, Mrs. Ritchie said, her family's support was what mattered most.
“The kids were all for it, even though they realized I'd be away from home more for at least six months out of the year,” she said. “My husband was all for it. The one who was very concerned about it was my mother, who was worried about mudslinging, but once I said I would do it, she was right there with me.”
After years of not giving in to pressure to run for state office, Mrs. Ritchie said, she felt the time finally was right to again enter the fray.
“Being in the public every day, I hear people say they're struggling and they think the state is headed in the wrong direction,” she said. “Hundreds of people encouraged me to run. It's really humbling to have 300 ground workers (volunteers) behind you who believe in you.”
MORE THAN LICENSE PLATES
Her fight against the state requiring all drivers to buy new license plates has become the centerpiece of her campaign. She said she does not think she simply delayed what could be an inevitable push for everyone to get new plates.
“The whole scheme behind it was to make people pay for license plates they didn't need,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “The (new blue-and-gold) plates you see on the road are ones that people would have had to buy anyway.”
She also has taken a stance against voting for any bill that will result in increased taxes, acknowledging that a great deal of legislation funding direct-service programs could cause tax hikes.
“I'm not going to take the easy way out and look to increasing taxes and fees to balance the budget,” she said. “I hear every day that people are getting nickel-and-dimed to death and they feel that they have to live within their means while the state does not.”
Unfunded state mandates are a challenge that she said she will work to eradicate. She said she wants to pass a moratorium on any new mandatory programs that the state expects local governments to fund.
“We need to create a commission to look at every unfunded mandate on the books, every one that's driving costs for local governments, school districts and fire departments and get rid of the ones we don't need,” she said.
Mrs. Ritchie bills herself as a person who cares deeply about her family and her community, but is tough enough to take on Albany and will not be a slave to the Republican agenda.
“You run on a party line for Election Day, but the day after, you have to put politics aside and do what's right for the people who elected you,” she said.