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The race to succeed Robach is wide open 

Though Democrats have a pronounced enrollment advantage in the district, Republican Joe Robach has held the seat for the past 17 years. But Robach is one of several Republican senators who, after spending the last two years in the chamber’s minority, chose not to run for re-election. Republicans lost control of the chamber in the 2018 elections and Democrats are just two seats shy of holding a two-thirds majority in the chamber.

This year’s contest pits Republican Mike Barry, a Greece Town Board member handpicked by Robach to run for the seat, against Democrat Jeremy Cooney, a former staffer for the late House Rep. Louise Slaughter and Mayor Lovely Warren who ran against Robach in 2018.

click to enlarge Jeremy Cooney - PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • Jeremy Cooney
The 56th District has always been a political battleground and the stakes in this year’s race are as high as they’ve ever been. Rochester Democrats are keen to have a voice in the relatively young Senate Democratic majority, while Republicans locally and statewide want to keep their ranks in the chamber from shrinking further.

For Cooney, a larger Democratic majority means progressive policies have a better chance of making it through the legislature.

“All of the problems we talk about — education, criminal justice reform, healthcare access — happen at the state level,” Cooney said.

One Tuesday afternoon, Barry, clad in a blue flannel shirt, was running a rag in circles across the bar at Barry’s Old School Irish Pub, the bar in Webster owned by his brother, Danny.

Barry positions himself as a pragmatist. He believes his role in the Senate should be to bridge the gap between the left and right.

“There’s so much animosity, there’s so much hate,” Barry said. “I sound like my grandfather, but when I was growing up, it was fun to be part of the discussion, to have those conversations. We need to get back to that.”

click to enlarge Mike Barry - PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • Mike Barry
Bipartisanship will be critical as Monroe County stares down a potential $122 million deficit, housing instability has become a crucial sticking point, the Rochester City School District faces more potential layoffs, and protesters still march through the street demanding justice against police brutality, Barry said.

Speaking about the same cluster of issues, Cooney said the state legislature needs cohesive leadership that is able to swiftly pass legislation.

“Since 2018, we have seen a different state assembly, we have a Democrat-controlled Senate, Assembly, and executive chamber,” Cooney said. “But we in Rochester and upstate New York haven’t been swept up into that energy and excitement, because our representatives didn’t participate.”

Both candidates believe in serving the community’s values, but offer diverging views on what exactly that means.

Cooney believes that service relies on pushing progressive policies that aim to improve quality of life, especially amid economic uncertainty and social tension. Barry, a born-again Christian, believes it starts with promoting the faith community, fostering community dialogue, and pulling the community together across partisan lines.

“There’s just so much hate right now,” Barry said. “That’s what bothers me. Partisanship is now much more than just ‘I disagree with you.’ I think we all may believe different things, but we should be able to just sit down, have a cup of coffee, and talk.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.

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