On November 3, 2015, Fred Akshar won the Special Election for the New York 52nd State Senate seat. The win was a landslide victory that few would have predicted for a first-time candidate. After the victory speech, we spoke with Senator Akshar to request an interview which was agreed to. On April 8, 2016 we were able to conduct an exclusive interview in the Binghamton office of Senator Akshar – the second interview since he took office, and the first to delve into his work as a representative of the people.
The delay might seem long to some, if they don’t consider that Senator Akshar has been very busy. He has consistently traveled the 52nd District, speaking with companies, schools, workers, and seemingly everyone in the District that stops to speak to him. At the same time he has actively ingrained himself into the world of politics that just a year ago he had little interaction with. He has joined the NY State task force on confronting the Heroin epidemic, as well as putting forth a Bill to help small businesses in the State and especially the Southern Tier he represents. Both of these issues were the top priorities of his campaign.
We met up with Senator Akshar just after he returned from a meeting addressing the Heroin crisis. The discussion took place on the 16th floor of the State Building in Downtown Binghamton, in an office overlooking the City. Senator Akshar eagerly jumped into the questions, starting with the Heroin crisis. Sen. Akshar stated,
“We are having a Senate roundtable discussion April 13th in the District [at Chenango High School from 4-6pm]… able to secure $25 million for Heroin/Opioid related issues. It’s not enough money, but it’s more than the $6 million the Governor wanted to put in there. Now its going to be an issue of insuring that we are spending that money properly.”
The determination of developing a plan to best address this problem was no less intense than the several other issues that were covered in the interview. Sen. Akshar flowed from discussing heroin, to his activity across the district, to the concerns of some constituents about the NY SAFE Act with an ease of a politician with many more years of experience. Perhaps more importantly, the answers were given earnestly, and attempted to convey the difficult process of legislation that is New York politics in a manner that non-political junkies would be able to digest.
Surprisingly, Sen. Akshar was very direct about the NY SAFE Act and his actions on that law. Whereas some politicians might have deflected the question on a subject that has not been a major focus thus far, Sen. Akshar dove in with his answer. He made clear the reasons why he has not been as vocal on repealing or modifying the SAFE Act as some of his constituents would like, while also doubling down on his conviction against the legislation that turned many New Yorkers into criminals literally overnight.
“…I have not been paying a great deal of attention to the SAFE Act specifically. I was focusing my energy and attention [on] my small business issues and my heroin issues… What’s good to know, moving forward, is before one dollar of that $10 million can be spent there has to be a MoU [memorandum of understanding] put in place, so everybody completely understands how that money is to be expended… My position on the SAFE Act and firearms has never changed. I’m a proud supporter of the 2nd Amendment.”
This lead to the recently passed budget, and of course the $15/hour minimum wage. A topic that many small businesses have been aggressively against. It’s a subject that Sen. Akshar has spoken to many constituents about as he told us. But his legislation (introduced on 1/29/16) would seem to be at odds with the 3 tier compromise that many Democrats considered a win. Given this inherent opposition the fact that he, and a majority of the Republicans in the State Senate, voted in favor of the budget – and thus the minimum wage – could easily be seen as a surprise.
Sen. Akshar explained how he found this to be a choice of evils so to speak. A decision to barter a deal (along with Senate Republicans) to limit the impact of a minimum wage increase on Upstate New York was seen as the best option when faced with a Governor who was more than ready to take an approach similar to that of President Obama – going it alone and using the power of the Executive to create legislation without the Legislative Branch.
“So when somebody draws a line in the sand, and it was a very deep line, my immediate thought is ‘How do I mitigate this for the people I represent?’…A phase-in to $12.50 over a period of years – to me, in the decision I had to make – was a lot better than going to $15 in a short period of time for everybody… For me, $15 was a non-starter. $12.50 I was not happy with. But $12.50 over a phase-in period was a hell of a lot better than having to deal with him [Gov. Andrew Cuomo] instituting wage boards and everybody going to $15.”
At every turn Sen. Akshar was surprisingly aware of the public’s questions and concerns. He used the interview to convey, without soundbites and with some detail, the why and how of what he was doing, and planning to do. Had anyone failed to see the Special Election race of 2015, they likely would not have been aware that Sen. Akshar is a novice politician. More surprising is his lack of political double-talk that is all too common in many of New York’s elected officials.
Not all the constituents of Sen. Akshar will love the answers to our questions. But in politics there is never any legislation or decision that will make everyone happy. But it is likely that constituents will be at least moderately pleased that Sen. Akshar is earning the title he was elected to, and is actively departing the normal smokescreen and verbal gyrations that accompany most New York politics.
If we are looking for the one flaw that stands out about Sen. Akshar at this point and time in his political career, it would be that he is not as news media friendly (in giving us time to interview and ask questions) as the news media would like. Then again, constituents can be please that State Sen. Akshar is not grooming himself to become the likes of Sen. Charles Schumer or Gov. Andrew Cuomo – figures in NY politics who seem addicted to being in front of news media cameras (when they want to be seen at all).
Thus we are left with a unique conclusion. Constituents can best judge for themselves on how Sen. Akshar is doing, and how they feel about the interview on some of his most recent actions. From the perspective of at least this member of the news media, it was a refreshing change of pace for NY politics.
** Note – No edits or cuts were made to the video of the interview. Due to technology issues some portions of the interview are not perfectly clear in the video. We are re-working the video to provide a more effective coverage of every word said in the interview. We apologize to Sen. Akshar and our readers for any lack of clarity. **