Rochester 10: Leslie Danks Burke 

Like many political pursuits, the Trailblazers political action committee began with a dash of disillusionment in the political process.

While running for the 58th District New York Senate seat in 2016, Leslie Danks Burke dedicated herself to running a transparent campaign, one that accounted for every penny donated. Hers was a simple goal, but one she saw as uncommon in the world of local politics.

After losing the election to the incumbent, Republican Thomas O'Mara, Danks Burke set out to create an incentive for transparency in local elections.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Photo by Josh Saunders

In early 2017, she founded the Trailblazers PAC with the goal of finding and funding candidates for local government, anywhere in the country, who "stand up for honest government" and strive for transparency, clean campaigns, and community engagement. Its motto is, "Moving politics out of the backroom and onto the front porch."

Based in the Southern Tier, the PAC has endorsed candidates across the state and as far away as Indiana, Georgia, Ohio, and Massachusetts.

"Most people who run for local level offices are doing it because they care about the community and they want to make things better in their area," Danks Burke said. "We ask candidates to not only do the hard work, but to go even a step further."

That step further can be demanding. The PAC is open to candidates running for office at the county level or lower, and in order to qualify, they must disclose all of their campaign donations, as well as draw donations from at least 1 percent of voting households in their district.

That latter part was an eye-opening hurdle for Democratic Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart, whose recent campaign was endorsed by the PAC. She said it was difficult to make the cut.

"We would knock on doors of people who had my campaign sign on their yard, and some didn't have a quarter to donate," Barnhart said. "These are people who supported me, but simply just didn't have the money to spare."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Photo by Josh Saunders

The 1-percent donation standard is intended to force candidates to engage with and pull funding from the community they'll serve. In New York, any donation from a single donor under $99 does not need to be itemized. In 2017, the Trailblazer PAC carried out a survey determining one out of every eight dollars came in the form of these small donations, or $31 million. The cash was what the PAC called "ghost money," donations that could not be traced via public record.

"There's always some loophole that allows a candidate to hide some donations to their campaign," Danks Burke said.

Transparency is the name of the game for Danks Burke, and while most of the candidates endorsed by the PAC are Democrats, she hopes that the PAC's message will transcend party affiliation.

"One of our biggest goals is to endorse candidates on both sides of an election," Danks Burke said.

Chemung County Legislator Mark Margeson is one of the few Republicans to have received the PAC's backing. Margeson was endorsed in his successful 2018 bid, and ran a campaign aimed at community engagement.

"I wrote letters to Democrats, Republicans, Conservatives, Independents, everybody, I sent literally 6,000 to everybody that was registered in my district," Margeson said. "The Trailblazers thought this was very unusual because nobody had ever done that, and I was getting phone calls from Democrats thanking me for sending them a letter...I don't believe you vote for a specific party, I think you vote for a specific person."

His was the type of campaign Danks Burke said she wants to see more of.

"Really, a big part of what this does is it helps politicians work for us," Danks Burke said.
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