The race for the Democratic nomination in the new 44th Senate District, which includes all of Saratoga County, offers a choice between legislative experience and life experience.
“As a Schenectady County legislator, I fight for the things we care about: thriving schools, high-quality child care, safe roads and bridges, more sidewalks, reliable health care for all our communities, and rising to the challenges of climate change with courage and optimism,” said Michelle Ostrelich of Niskayuna, one of two candidates.
“I have that ‘lived’ experience … that gives me a full grasp on issues that my constituents might come to me with,” said Thearse McCalmon of Schenectady, the other candidate. “As I move up, I am going to bring my constituency with me.”
McCalmon said she got interested in politics when she and her family were homeless in 2003.
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“We experienced a lot of discrimination — a lot of ‘fiery hoops’ I call them — to try to get back on our feet,” she said.
She thought at the time that there must be a more efficient way for people to get help.
She volunteered on several political campaigns, and worked for one session as an aide to state Sen. Neal Breslin, D-Albany.
Her first bid for elected office was a Democratic primary for Schenectady mayor in 2019, which she lost by 105 votes.
“That energized me to keep going,” she said, leading to an unsuccessful run for state Senate in 2020 and now her current run.
She now is an adult education instructor at BOCES, working with students who are preparing to take the GED examination.
Ostrelich, a former health care, labor and business lawyer who took time off from her career to raise her children, was appointed to the Schenectady County Legislature in 2019, and won election to the seat that November.
She is chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee.
Ostrelich said serving as a county legislator provides good perspective for serving in the Senate.
“I’ve seen the many mandates and funding streams that hinder or help our progress of the county here,” she said.
In 2020, Ostrelich co-founded the Schenectady Coalition for Healthcare, a public interest organization to monitor the merger of Ellis Hospital with Trinity Health, and to advocate for the interests of patients as the merger process continues.
“Our role was really to educate folks on the merger,” she said.
The group was able to identify a new health care organization to run a dental clinic that was going to be shut down as part of the merger, she said.
McCalmon said that Ostrelich switched her party enrollment from Republican to Democratic in 2016.
“I think what sets us apart is I am actually more progressive. … She just recently woke up,” McCalmon said.
Ostrelich said that her mother worked for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a moderate Republican who was governor from 1959 to 1973.
“So I was raised in a foundation of what today are Democratic values,” she said.
Ostrelich said she changed her enrollment because the Republican Party was changing.
As a legislator, she has focused on achieving bipartisan consensus on consolidation of local fire and police dispatching into a countywide system, in eliminating overdue fines in the county public library system, and on coordinating public awareness communication during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s a real need to have deeper relationships with people to erase the divide,” she said.
Asked about specific policy differences between the two, McCalmon said the differences are subtle.
In health care, for example, “I want to make sure that everyone is covered. She says that everyone should have access.”
Under her policy, the government makes sure that everyone is covered, while under Ostrelich’s policy, people must figure out on their own how to get health insurance, she explained.
Ostrelich said it is a difference in terminology, not in policy.
“I don’t see a large distinction between our perspectives on health care. I think we see the same problems,” she said.
Ostrelich said that she, like McCalmon, supports state legislation to establish a universal health care system in New York.
“It would be the solution to all those cracks and holes,” in the system, she said.
The challenge, she said, is how to pay for it.
The new 44th District includes all of Saratoga County and the city of Schenectady and town of Niskayuna in Schenectady County.
Sens. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, and Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, are seeking the Republican and Conservative nominations, running in primaries brought on by redistricting.
Tedisco currently represents 15 of the municipalities in the new district, and Jordan nine.
Both Democratic candidates have previously run for state Senate, McCalmon in 2020 and Ostrelich in 2018, both losing to Tedisco but carrying the Schenectady County portion of the district.
Democrats now have an enrollment advantage in the new district.