Walczyk, Hammond reflect on Assembly race

Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, and Waddington Town Supervisor, Alex V. Hammond, both 2020 candidates for the state’s 116th Assembly District, prepare to debate each other in early October on-air at the 7 News studio in Watertown. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

On Nov. 3 this year, 53,448 Jefferson and St. Lawrence County residents cast their votes in the race for the state’s 116th Assembly District, and a majority voted for incumbent Republican Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk.

The final count took a few weeks, but by Nov. 20, all votes were counted. Mr. Walczyk won with 61% of the vote, 13,420 votes more than his opponent, Democrat Alex V. Hammond.

“I’m elated,” Mr. Walczyk said of his win in an interview on Nov. 24, “and I think my whole team feels pretty validated. Two years ago, people hired us to do a job, and we’ve worked very hard for last two years to earn their support, respect and to get re-hired to do that job again.”

This year’s campaign was unprecedented. Both Mr. Walczyk and Mr. Hammond are part-time members of the military: Mr. Walczyk is an engineer in the U.S. Army Reserves and Mr. Hammond is an officer for the New York Army National Guard. Both men were called away to active duty as the coronavirus pandemic worsened across New York state and the country in April. Mr. Hammond suspended his campaign during his service, and Mr. Walczyk’s campaign was run exclusively by his staff during his absence.

In an interview Monday, Mr. Hammond said he thinks that early absence made his run more difficult and was partially the reason for his loss this year.

“At the end of the day, there were some odds against us, but we knew that going in,” he said. “A month after we announced, we had to pivot, and with both of us on active duty, it was just a very different year, to say the least.”

Mr. Hammond said the pandemic had other chilling effects on his campaign. When he was actively running, it was impossible to host large campaign events, and Mr. Walczyk had the upper hand by already having gotten out to meet many constituents during the 2018 campaign and after. He also said the north country’s natural trend toward Republicans made it more difficult for a new Democratic face to glean much support without a traditional campaign to run.

Mr. Walczyk said he thinks Mr. Hammond’s message — that the 116th Assembly District needed a Democratic representative in Albany to get anything done, because Democrats control the state government — didn’t work with north country voters.

“People are tired of partisan politics,” Mr. Walczyk said. “They want someone that is going to fight for them and stand up for their values.”

Mr. Hammond said he still believes that argument is correct, but he does admit it may not have been the right message to win an election.

“Yes, we probably should have done a different message,” he said. “But I’ve never been one that likes to play politics; I like to just do the job and get the job done, and maybe that’s not the best mindset to have when you’re trying to get elected for office. But for me it was more facing the facts and facing reality.”

He said he still looks at what has happened in the district over the two years since Mr. Walczyk unseated 10-year Democratic incumbent Addie E. Jennie, and he still believes the 116th Assembly District has suffered without a voice in the majority, but it’s clear that’s not what the average voter wants to hear.

Following his loss, Mr. Hammond said he’s focusing on restoring one of the oldest houses in Waddington, the town where he serves as town supervisor. He said he remains committed to serving as Waddington’s lead executive and is focused on local issues like sales tax disbursement.

He said while he has thought about running again in 2022, his focus will remain at home for the time being. As a constituent of Mr. Walczyk, and an elected official in his district, Mr. Hammond said he hopes Mr. Walczyk will focus on job creation and addressing poverty.

Now that he’s been re-elected, and by a comfortable margin, Mr. Walczyk said he’s happy to be headed back to Albany, although he’ll be entering a Legislature with even more Democrats in office. One of his key proposals, which would apportion state senators by county instead of population-specific districts, was intended to secure more voices for upstate New York — a key complaint for upstate representatives and voters in recent years. But he said he knows that bill is currently impossible to make into law.

“It would require leaders in Albany who want to give up power and bring more balance to government,” he said.

Mr. Walczyk said he plans to keep up that fight and will continue to bring the issue to the front of voters’ minds and to the floor of the state Legislature.

Mr. Walczyk’s win matches a trend of Republican wins across the north country. Mr. Walczyk carried a higher percentage of the vote than up-ticket Republican races in both counties. In Jefferson County, he won with 65% of the vote, compared to the Republican congresswoman for NY-21, Elise M. Stefanik’s 63% and President Donald J. Trump’s 58%. In St. Lawrence County, both he and Rep. Stefanik won with 58% of the vote, and Mr. Trump won that county with 54%. Mr. Walczyk said he was also pleased to see low drop-off rates, where voters stop choosing candidates for the smaller, more local races.

“The drop off in this race was incredibly low,” Mr. Walczyk said, as St. Lawrence County saw just over 4%, and 3% in Jefferson County. “That means people voted for president, that’s likely why they were showing up on Election Day, and they made it all the way down to our little Assembly race to check that box for me.”

Mr. Walczyk said that margin also shows a number of people who voted for Democratic President-elect Joseph R. Biden and unsuccessful Democratic candidate in the NY-21 congressional race, Tedra L. Cobb, crossed party lines to vote for him as well.

“I think that just shows the bipartisan nature of the voters in Northern New York, and I think that’s the coolest part of the story,” he said.

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