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Dems plan at DRC meeting

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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SCHENECTADY — It might seem odd that the fortunes of a downstate politician, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and the Democratic Rural Conference would be aligned.


But speaking to members of the organization at its annual get-together Friday night, the governor solidified that link.


"You can call me a son of the DRC anytime," he said.


And Irene W. Stein, the chairwoman of the conference, took pleasure in doing so.


"The Democratic Rural Conference has a long and proud history of supporting Andrew," she said of Mr. Cuomo, noting that the organization endorsed his failed gubernatorial primary bid in 2002. "It took the rest of the Democratic Party eight years to catch up."


In a political scene whose epithets include "downstate" and "New York City," this has become an annual occurrence: statewide elected officials coming before the Democratic Rural Conference, a coalition of Democrats from the less populated parts of the state founded by a Watertown party activist.


In election years, the purpose of the trek is typically to seek the group's imprimatur in a straw poll. Without many marquee matchups in November, this year's spring get-together, the 15th annual, tacked more toward preparation and some political points.


Michael W. Schell recalls the times before the DRC was founded, when a mish-mash of loosely affiliated rural Democrats wielded little power within the party or politics in general.


At one of the first conventions, in 1997, each and every attendee got a chance to speak, via a microphone that was passed around the room, Mr. Schell recalls.


This year, with hundreds in the audience to hear U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer speak at the Proctors Theater in Schenectady, that would have been impractical, if not impossible.


"After 15 years, I don't think any of us could have imagined the success we've had," Mr. Schell said Friday night.


By most measures, 2010 was a bad year for Democrats nationally and in the state. In New York, the party lost control of the state Senate and nationally, it lost the House of Representatives.


Democrats at the Proctors Theater said preparation would turn that around.


On Friday and again Saturday morning, attendees sat in on seminars about campaign law, fundraising, recruiting candidates and sending operatives out into the field.


"This is the group that put the feet on the street to get him" — pointing to Darrel J. Aubertine, who was standing a few feet away — "elected," said Jane Dodds, a DRC official who grew up in Edwards.


Mr. Aubertine, a Cape Vincent dairy farmer and former state senator for the 48th Senate District, won in a historically Republican-dominated district in large part because of the DRC, as the political lore would have it.


As Friday night wore on, groups started to splinter off in a high school dance sort of way. The north country had its own group — among the Northern New Yorkers who milled about together were Jason Clark, an economic development official from Massena; June O'Neill, a Morley resident who recently stepped down as a top official in the statewide party and took a job in the state comptroller's office; Mark Bellardini, the top Democrat in St. Lawrence County.


Another familiar north country sight — but perhaps out of place at a convention for Democrats — was Dierdre K. "Dede" Scozzafava, the former assemblywoman of Gouverneur who is still officially a Republican.


She took a job in the Cuomo administration after endorsing a string of Democrats since her 2009 loss in the special election for the 23rd Congressional District. Deemed not conservative enough by some in the Republican Party, she bowed out and endorsed her Democratic opponent and has endorsed other Democrats since then.


One DRC official hoped to erase the RINO label used by conservative critics — "Republican In Name Only" — by making her a Democrat.


"We'd be delighted to have her, whatever she chooses to do," said B. Donald Alexander, a Democratic Rural Conference board member and event organizer.


Without a straw poll, speakers at the event used the opportunity to discuss some of the upcoming legislative fights in Washington and Albany.


Mr. Cuomo said he was "sick and tired of seeing kids at an airport, waiting for a plane to leave because they don't see a future in upstate New York."


The solution, he said, was lower taxes and bringing regulations down.


"As Democrats, we fundamentally believe in the power of government," but not by paying for programs without asking for results, Mr. Cuomo said.


In a brief conversation with reporters after the speech, Mr. Cuomo didn't get into many specifics about his efforts to pass a property tax cap. One version of the cap would restrict property tax increases to 2 percent annually.


"I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying," Mr. Cuomo said, declining to direct any sharp barbs at the Senate GOP, with whom he is in negotiations. "My hope is to pass it. We're not over the goal line yet."


For his part, Mr. Schumer, a Democratic senator from Brooklyn, lambasted House Republicans, who have put forward a budget that would alter government health insurance programs and cut taxes for the wealthy.


"We are going to have a battle royal," Mr. Schumer said to applause.


That battle, Mr. Schumer said, was made easier by those in attendance.


"It's easy to be a Democrat from Brooklyn. When you're a Democrat in Allegany County, Greene County, Lewis County, it's not so easy," he said of the traditionally Republican-leaning areas of the state.


"We stand on your shoulders," Mr. Schumer said.

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