Otsego anti-fracking group holds fast despite county election losses

November 19, 2013

This year’s election took place in an off-year, meaning there was no presidential or Congressional races on the ballot. So voter turnout was lower than usual. But in Otsego County, in the Southern Tier, one group was testing whether the anti-fracking movement could transform county government.

In 2011, it was all about hydrofracking in Otsego County. Back then, Governor Cuomo seemed ready to open up at least part of the state to fracking. The controversial technique was making headlines almost daily. And the industry could be spotted here and there in New York, drilling test wells in preparation for the state opening up to the industry.

Teresa Winchester first ran for county representative that year. She lives in Butternuts in an old, one-room schoolhouse in the more rural part of Otsego. She says, back then, fracking was the big issue.

“Quite frequently the first thing anybody would ask me when I knocked on their door was, ‘what’s your stance on fracking?’ And, you know, I either had them or I didn’t.”

Winchester was one of the candidates supported by the local anti-fracking group Sustainable Otsego. That year, they focused on town council elections, running 11 candidates and seven of them won. Winchester ran for county board with their support and lost.

“It was close last time, I think a lot of people didn’t give me a lot of chance at all, I didn’t know what kind of chance I had but I wound up getting more votes than nine people who actually took seats on the county board.”

Winchester challenged seven-term Republican James Powers again this year. Powers did not respond to requests for interviews but is viewed as openly pro-fracking.

After the gains of 2011, Sustainable Otsego switched its focus from town board races to the county board. But this presented a new set of challenges. When town boards across New York were being asked to take action against fracking, they targeted town board members who weren’t voting for a ban.

There is no similar litmus test for county board members, so Sustainable Otsego’s Adrian Kusminski has sought to move on to the next step: moving away from fossil fuels altogether.

“You’ve got to do that on a somewhat higher level than the local town or municipality. So therefore the counties are crucial and we went into the political aspect of this not just because we’re anti-fracking but because we’re pro-sustainability.”

Kusminski’s group supported seven candidates for county board this year; five ran on the Sustainable Otsego line.

Jim Kevlin is publisher and editor of the Freeman’s Journal in Cooperstown. He says the focus in Otsego County has now shifted away from fracking, which will be a challenge for Sustainable Otsego.

“And so in effect this has developed as a critical election between a group that wants to talk about fracking, fracking, fracking and sort of an emerging economic development community, many local officials and the colleges in Oneonta.”

Kevlin says that split reflects a division in the county overall. In the north, dominated by Cooperstown, the focus is on tourism and maintaining the environment and that’s where Sustainable Otsego draws its support. In the south is the largest city, Oneonta, the interstate and colleges where economic development is out front.

The group representing that side of the county is called Citizen Voices. One of its members, Tom Armao, says it was formed in response to the anti-fracking movement.

“We are an unintended consequence. A couple years ago, a lot of the conversation was what we’re against, you know, there seemed to be no one representing a conversation on the need for economic development, for job growth, for a future for our children in the public conversation.”

Oneonta is a college town, so much of the land is off the tax rolls, and the city and county governments struggle to pay the bills. The county’s poverty rate is about two percentage points higher than the state average. And with fracking much less of an imminent threat, these are the issues that resonated.

In the election earlier this month, all of the county board candidates endorsed by Citizen Voices won.  Only 3 out of 7 won for Sustainable Otsego, dashing their hopes of swinging the county board.

Adrian Kusminski says he’s glad his group has raised the issues it has, starting with fracking, but acknowledges that the bigger issues are a much harder sell.

“Should we go further with the fossil fuel economy? Should we develop that further or should we really try to develop renewables? And I think our local population in Otsego County, just like the rest of the United States honestly, isn’t really ready to bite that bullet yet.”

Kusminski says Sustainable Otsego isn’t going away, despite this year’s setbacks. Because its main mission – moving Otsego County away from fossil fuels – isn’t going away any time soon either.