Joe Robach says he doesn't want to be a member of the Republican majority in the state Senate so much as he wants to be the "Commissioner of Getting Things Done." Given the paltry progress he and his fellow state legislators made this year on a host of important issues --- reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, a minimum-wage increase, cleaning up Superfund sites --- that would be a novel post in more ways than one.
Robach, a state Assemblyman from Greece who's served since 1991, created a stir last May when he announced he was abandoning the Democratic Party to run for the state Senate seat in the newly created 56th District as a Republican. The new district encompasses Greece, Hilton, Brighton, Parma, and much of the City of Rochester, including the Charlotte and Maplewood neighborhoods that were removed from his Assembly district after redistricting.
Although the 56th district contains more registered Democrats than Republicans, Robach's announcement effectively scared off would-be Democratic challenger Rick Dollinger. Dollinger, a 10-year veteran of the state Senate, initially vowed he would run in the new district, but dropped out of the race July 1.
In a press release announcing his decision, Dollinger cited the prospect of challenging Robach in an expensive campaign as a major reason for quitting the race. Specifically, the Democratic senator was worried he'd have to raise as much as a million dollars in campaign funds to match the support he assumes Robach will receive from the state Senate Republican machine. "I would be required to seek that money from the special interests, who have a strangle-hold on Albany and our state government," Dollinger wrote.
The prospect of raising scads of cash for a high-profile election doesn't bother Robach. "When it comes to elections," he says, "for someone who's been in big elections to criticize someone else in a big election, it's a little bit shallow and false."
Robach says he only has $70,000 in the bank for this campaign, so far. "I'll have additional fundraisers to raise the money I need to deliver my message," he says, "just like he [Dollinger] would have done or whoever runs against me will try to do also."
Dollinger did not return calls seeking comment.
In contrast to Dollinger's discomfort with big-money and partisan politics, Robach unabashedly embraces the benefits partisanship has to offer, while, in the next breath, professing indifference to party lines.
His switching parties is "not about party for me as much as it's about getting things done," says Robach, who claims he's never been to a political convention. "People want politicians to focus on the job, not partisan rhetorical politics... While there are people in both camps who may not like that in political headquarters, the people do, and I'm about the people... There's nothing partisan or mean-spirited about it. It's all about pragmatics to me."
As Robach sees it, the current political power structure in Albany is "a reality, and it's not going to change. Whether you like the system or not, when it comes to dishing out capital improvement funds, member item initiatives --- which you guys call 'pork barrel;' we like 'member item initiatives' better --- the pool of money in the Senate is huge for the majority, almost nonexistent for the minority.
"I'm not saying it's the perfect way to do it," he continues. "But that's the system we have. We [Greater Rochester] need to get what we need and deserve." The list of local projects Robach hopes to help secure includes a fast ferry, a soccer stadium, a downtown bus terminal, and a performing arts center.
If he wins the senate seat on the Republican line, Robach says he's "not going to change one position. I've always been, as people say, 'a raging moderate.'" Robach's moderate --- many would call it "conservative" --- approach reportedly caused some friction within his old party. His involvement two years ago in a failed effort to oust Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver didn't improve his popularity within the party, either.
Monroe County Democratic Party Chair Ted O'Brien cites Robach's backing of Syracuse legislator Michael Bragman for the Assembly speakership as a political wound that never healed. Unlike fellow Assemblyman David Koon, who also backed Bragman, O'Brien says Robach "was never willing or able to make his peace with Shelly Silver."
"While I'm sure I would've gotten re-elected to the Assembly, I was not going to be heeded very well by Assembly leadership," Robach says. "That would have curtailed my ability to get things done for this area."
Of course, membership in the majority doesn't guarantee anything, particularly in the state Senate, where the Republican majority is slim compared to the Democrats' domination of the lower house. To O'Brien, Robach's plan to deliver more for his constituents as a member of the majority "sounds a little hollow.
"Joe was in the Assembly majority before," O'Brien says. "Just being in the majority isn't the whole story."