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Former Slaughter aide in race against Robach.

Byline: Gino Fanelli

In his race against incumbent Republican Joseph Robach, Democrat Jeremy Cooney markets himself as a "fresh face" willing to represent the 56th District in the New York State Senate.

It's a phrase that has many meanings for Cooney's campaign. If elected, Cooney would end a 16 year incumbency for Robach, turning the district representing Monroe County blue. Cooney would also be not only the first Indian-American to serve in the state Legislature, but the first Asian-American to serve in the Senate.

Born in Calcutta, Cooney was adopted by a single mother as one of the first Indian adoptees in New York State. He graduated from the School of the Arts in 2000, and in 2004 began working as a staffer for the late U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter and, most recently, as chief of staff for Mayor Lovely Warren.

A lifelong Rochesterian, Cooney is running on a platform that is nearly the inverse of Robach; pro-gun reform, pro-universal health care, pro-cannabis legalization and pro-reproductive rights.

"The three priorities we've heard from citizens of this district is access to affordable, high-quality health care, common sense gun safety laws and initiatives and reproductive justice, abortion rights, especially with what's happening right now in Washington with the Kavanaugh hearings," Cooney said. "Those are the differences at the policy level where I've seen differences with Joe."

Cooney is a vocal supporter of the Reproductive Health Act, an Assembly bill that has died in the Senate each year for the past several years, including the most recent legislative session. The bill would adjust the New York penal code to classify abortion in line with Roe v. Wade. It's a critical time for support of that bill, Cooney said, as the likelihood of Brett Kavanaugh or another conservative judge being voted onto the Supreme Court is extremely high, hanging Roe v. Wade in the balance. The protection of reproductive rights, he believes, should be rolled in with universal health care and his support of the New York Health Act, which would provide health care to all New Yorkers.

Having cared for his mother through, first Alzheimer's disease and then brain cancer, Cooney is all too familiar with the complexity of the health care system.

"I had a single mom; she never married and there were no other siblings, so it was just the two of us," Cooney said. "I had to navigate a very complex health care system in that process of caring for her myself. I didn't know anything about taking care of an Alzheimer's patient, let alone the cost of cancer treatment. I didn't understand how to navigate that system to get her the care she needed...What frustrated me the most was I couldn't figure this out as a lawyer (so) how does anyone else figure it out in this state?"

According to a study by the nonpartisan Rand Corp., the New York Health Act would cost about $139 billion in 2022, about a 156 percent increase in total state revenue under normal conditions. However, the study also found total health care spending could be 3 percent lower than normal by 2031 under the legislation.

"I believe health care is a right. I believe in universal health care and I support the New York Health Act because it fits those two qualifications," Cooney said. "I have some concerns with the costs it will put onto small and medium-sized businesses, especially in upstate New York, but we need to start someplace. We can at least change the conversation from 'what's not working' to 'how can we make it better?'"

Policy and public health collide often in government, but perhaps no more than during the opioid epidemic. Cooney, like Monroe County Health Commissioner Michael Mendoza, sees it as a public health issue, one which needs to be approached with harm reduction in mind. Cooney is in support of easy access to Suboxone for managing opioid dependence, clean needles and expansion of rehabilitation resources across New York.

"If people are looking for help, and we have the ability to help them medically, we should help them medically. It shouldn't be up to a politician or an administrator or a health care plan to determine thatit should be between a doctor and a patient," Cooney said.

Among the prominent issues this electoral season has been the legalization of recreational marijuana. A state Department of Health study this year recommended dropping criminal penalties for its use. For Cooney, it's an inevitability and one we cannot afford to sit on.

"I also support expungement of the records of people who have been incarcerated, because it's not right. In Rochester, people have been disproportionately affected."

All of these issues are components of Cooney's focus on how to make New York work for New Yorkers. The thing that will keep Rochesterians here is a bigger, better economy, he believes.

"Right now, we invest in companies and say 'yep, we'll give you X amount of dollars if you create X amount of jobs in X amount of years,'" Cooney said. "The frustration from the citizens are those jobs never come aboutthey're arbitrary. How about we pledge to support our individual citizens?"

Cooney calls his plan "Onward Upstate," which is modeled on a program called Opportunity Maine. In an effort to attract people to that state, Maine residents get tax credits to help pay off their student loans.

"I don't care if you're a marketing professional, an HR professional or a journalist, as long as you're bringing your talent and starting a family and raising your kids in this community great, we want you here," Cooney said.

There's a good chance that the state Senate could skew Democratic this year, which would put Robach in the minority and, in Cooney's eyes, make the region less visible. As a Democrat, he looks to what he learned from Slaughter, who was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 30 years. She was known for her approachable nature and her willingness to have a conversation with just about anyone. That's a legacy Cooney hopes to carry on if elected to the state Senate.

"Our approach is not only to run a grassroots campaign that I learned from Louiseknocking on doors and making calls," Cooney said. "But when you get to the door, shut up and listen." 653-4022

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Publication:Rochester Business Journal
Date:Oct 4, 2018
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