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All eyes on Ted O'Brien 

State Senator Ted O'Brien is not in an easy spot.

The first-term Democrat faces a tough re-election bid against Republican Rich Funke, a political newcomer and former anchor for WHEC. And some people are wondering if the race is already influencing O'Brien's actions.

Recently, O'Brien broke sharply from his party on a couple of controversial, high-profile issues. He was one of two Democrats to vote against the DREAM Act last week, and he came out against Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposal to give prison inmates access to college degree programs.

O'Brien says he's representing the will of his constituents.

"Those aren't easy positions, but ultimately I have a very diverse district and my responsibility is more to the residents and the taxpayers in the 55th Senate District than to my conference," he says. "And that's maybe a little harsh for some members of my conference to hear, but that's my responsibility as a senator."

The 55th District starts on Rochester's east side, stretches through some eastern Monroe County towns, and down through Ontario County. O'Brien says that his constituents told him at events as well as through phone calls and e-mails that they oppose the DREAM Act and the prison program.

In his statement on the DREAM Act, O'Brien says his district's sentiment "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 measure ultimately failed in the Senate.

In the case of Cuomo's prison program, O'Brien says that the state "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."

But O'Brien also has certain political realities looming over him. He faces a tough re-election fight in a race that is bound to attract statewide attention. All state senators are up for election this year, so control of the Senate is at stake. Both parties see the 55th District seat as a possible win.

And by breaking with his party, O'Brien is pushing back on one of Funke's out-of-the-gate attacks: that the senator too often votes with downstate Democrats.

But O'Brien stresses that the DREAM Act and the prison program are just two issues. On others, he says, he's stuck to progressive principles. He worked with his fellow Senate Democrats to push for a more aggressive minimum wage increase, he says, and he backs the full Women's Equality Agenda, including the abortion rights provision. And he was co-sponsor of an unsuccessful bill to temporarily ban fracking in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.

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