O'Brien, like all state legislators, is up for election this year. And Republicans clearly want to unseat him; local party leaders have lined up in support Rich Funke, a well-known retired newsman, who last week announced his candidacy for O'Brien's 55th District seat. State-level Democrats and Republicans will likely sink resources into this race, since it could play a major role in determining which party controls the Senate.
And while Democrats have a 13,000-voter enrollment advantage in the district, their victory isn't a given. Prior to O'Brien, Republican Jim Alesi held the seat for approximately 15 years.
Over the past week or so, O'Brien broke sharply from his party on a couple of issues, and It's hard not to see the possibility of a contentious election as a factor in his thinking; Funke has criticized O'Brien for voting too often with downstate Democrats.
Last night, O'Brien was the only Democrat in the Senate to vote against the DREAM Act, which would have allowed children of undocumented immigrants to apply for college tuition aid. O'Brien sent out the following statement on his vote:
"I have taken many factors into consideration with this vote, but at the end of the day, my primary responsibility is to my constituents. The overwhelming sentiment in my district is that we should not use taxpayer resources to fund higher education for undocumented immigrants at a time when our state’s universities and community colleges are already woefully underfunded."
The statement is similar to one he sent out explaining his opposition to Governor Andrew Cuomo's plan to provide state inmates with access to college degree programs:
"We should not spend taxpayer money on funding college classes for inmates when rising tuition rates are preventing so many hardworking young people who have done nothing wrong from going to college. However well-intentioned, I cannot support a policy that would divert resources away from helping students in good standing and their families afford a quality education.”
O'Brien was recently made ranking minority member on the Senate's Environmental Conservation Committee. He'll also remain the ranking minority member on the Standing Committee on Banks.
In the months leading up to its typical June break, the State Legislature will work its way through a number of bills. And Democratic Senator Ted O'Brien's votes and positions on those issues will be closely watched by political and advocacy groups.