In New York's Southern Tier, there are few issues bigger than hydrofracking.
The region sits on New York's sweet spot of the Marcellus Shale, on the border with Pennsylvania where the industry has been in full-swing for years and it's the area of New York picked out by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to be the industry's likely first stop in New York.
Democratic party challengers in this year's Southern Tier elections are trying to make this election a referendum on hydrofracking.
A house party
On a sunny Saturday in October, members of New York Residents Against Drilling threw a candidate meet-and-greet party. Fifteen attendees sat on the back porch of a house in Vestal, snacking on vegan pumpkin bread.
The candidates doing the meeting and greeting were Tarik Abdelazim, the Democratic challenger for Broome County executive, and Paul Logalbo, who’s challenging Steve Milkovich for a spot on the Vestal Town Board.
Both are running as strong opponents of hydrofracking. Donald Glauber is one of the event’s organizers.
“My main hope is that we elect candidates and Governor Cuomo realizes that if he allows fracking, it will be the worst political decision and the worst moral decision that he ever makes in his life,” says Glauber.
Glauber is an active anti-fracking campaigner. But he hasn't gotten this involved in an election since the 60’s, trying to defeat Nixon.
“I worked for Eugene McCarthy, going door to door, but I was 13,” says Glauber.
Jobs and taxes
Abdelazim’s opponent in the county executive race is the Republican incumbent, Debbie Preston. Preston is a strong supporter of fracking, citing the jobs and economic boom that she believes would come with drilling.
Broome County’s poverty rate is higher than the state average. According to Preston’s campaign manager, Bijoy Datta, fracking takes a back seat to other issues in this campaign.
“The two things that just keep coming up over and over are we need jobs, we need to promote economic development, and we need to keep taxes low. So that’s why we have kept our focus there,” says Datta.
And there isn’t much that a New York county executive can do about fracking. Town boards can ban it, but county executives cannot. That’s why Datta calls Abdelazim’s focus on fracking an attempt to drive a wedge in the electorate.
“So ultimately I think for him to use that as an issue, I think that’s kind of disingenuous and I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense,” says Datta.
But that hasn’t stopped it from coming up. During last month’s debate between Abdelazim and Preston, almost 20% of the hour-long debate was focused on fracking.
Abdelazim says he is outspoken on the topic because it’s such a hotly contested issue.
“And I know that many people in the state are actually looking at Broome County and in fact this race as a referendum on fracking,” says Abdelazim.
On one side, a collection of town-level anti-fracking groups that formed a group called the Concerned Citizens of Broome County is aiming to get more anti-fracking candidates elected to town boards. On the other, it's the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York.
The Concerned Citizens of Broome County endorsed Abdelazim for county executive and Paul Logalbo for Vestal Town Board. They've endorsed six candidates in The Town of Sanford, and three in the Town of Union.
From their press release:
Those with hundreds of acres, who stand to make millions of dollars off of fracking are not the majority in our community, and yet they hold all the power. They are making decisions based on the desire to secure their own short term wealth.
The group says it is looking to change the makeup of local government in Broome County during the next several years.
In their list of endorsements, the Joint Landowners Coalition did not go down to the town board level. But they stressed the importance of those races:
According to the JLC, this year, local elections at the county, city, town and village levels will be more important than ever, since those opposed to natural gas development are actively trying to place their candidates on local boards. Electing pro gas candidates at the local level will be crucial while we wait for our courts to determine the extent of local and state control over natural gas development.
Paul Logalbo, who's running for Vestal Town Board, stands in front a fenced red-brick building at the back of an empty lot, near the Susquehanna River.
“We are right now at well site 1-1 in the Town of Vestal. This well, in the 1970s and 80s was contaminated with VOCs, that’s Volatile Organic [Compounds],” says Logalbo
Paul Logalbo is challenging Steve Milkovich for a town board seat.
Logalbo says his family was exposed to contaminated water from this well before it was shut down. He believes the same thing could happen again if fracking comes to Vestal.
"This is why I’m running for Vestal councilman, along with the financial problems we’re having in Vestal,” says Logalbo.
Milkovich declined to be interviewed for this story. He has said that he is neutral on whether or not hydrofracking should be permitted.
Vestal is another Broome County town where the town board has declined to take up a moratorium on fracking, despite sustained pressure from a local anti-fracking group.
Ultimately, the decision on whether fracking will come to New York rests with Governor Cuomo. But the races in Broome County should send a signal to the governor about the political cost he’ll pay no matter what decision he makes.