Chautauqua Conversations: Senator Cathy Young focuses on bipartisanship and WNY advocacy

One politician in Chautauqua County is widely and affectionately known by her first name only. It seems that her positive impact has been felt throughout the county. This much-admired politician is Republican New York State Sen. Cathy Young, of Olean, now in her sixth term representing New York’s 57th District in the state senate in Albany. Chautauqua County lies in Sen. Young’s Southern Tier district.

Cathy Young has risen from Cattaraugus County council member to the New York State Assembly to her present perch as chair of the Senate Finance Committee, where she has managed to send much-needed state and federal pass-through money to this area. A significant portion of that money has been to support the health of Chautauqua Lake. Young spoke to the Daily from her office in Albany after a particularly hectic week as state legislators tried to wrap up legislation before a break.

How do you account for your phenomenal popularity, especially in an era when so many politicians seem to be reviled?

CY: I really do love my district, and by far the best part of my job is to be in touch with the people I serve. I’m constantly in my communities, listening to my constituents and what their hopes and dreams are. It’s very rewarding.

You have gained leadership positions in every legislative body on which you have served, from Cattaraugus County to the state Senate. Are you a natural leader? How did your experiences shape you? How did you become you?

I grew up on a dairy farm. From the time I could walk, I was out with my father and my grandfather on the farm because I wanted to help them. Those are very special memories for me. I developed a very strong work ethic: Do the best job possible. When you combine those two factors, it bodes well for people looking at you as a potential leader. There are so many complex and pressing issues that we deal with in the senate. I just roll up my sleeves and get to work. If there is a problem to be solved, I want to solve it.

You are on a rising political arc, moving up from county legislature to the state Assembly and now the Senate. Many politicians look to continue to move up the political food chain, yet there are no whispers that you aspire to higher office.

Really, I have been focused on serving as a state senator. Even though I have over 4,000 square miles in my district, I’m still very close to the people. I have been rising through the ranks through the senate leadership, and I’m now at the top as chair of the Finance Committee, so it’s been a wonderful honor for me to serve in those roles, and I just want to continue in my current role. I can make a great, positive difference for people in my region.

With your committee assignments, you cover many of the critical issues for your district. In the last year or so, what have you been able to accomplish that gives you the greatest satisfaction?

In my role as chair of the Finance Committee, I oversee the budget hearings and the budget process. We have been able to achieve a lot of great things through that process. I have pushed very hard for more education funding for my schools because in rural areas that is crucial for children’s success.

There are so many things I can influence, such as infrastructure funding, health care funding — especially for my hospitals, which I’m always concerned about. So that part of my job is great because it has a huge impact locally. I played a role in implementing Telehealth, a program supporting local hospitals, especially in rural areas. We can bring in specialists and experts remotely, via Skype and other means, to enhance local health care.

We’ve just passed a five-year extension to Kendra’s Law that helps people with severe mental illness, so they can get services locally in their community. That’s based on a case of a woman from Fredonia (Kendra Webdale) who was pushed in front of a New York City subway train in 1999 by a man with schizophrenia. The legislation reduces incarcerations, violence in the community, hospitalizations, suicides. There have been several major studies on this law and we can improve it. The state Assembly members from New York City fight against those changes, but we did prevail for at least another five years.

You know that the health and maintenance of Chautauqua Lake is a big, perennial issue in Chautauqua County. Many local organizations that exist to sustain the lake count on you to provide funding. You seem to deliver when they need it most. What do you think about the state of the lake; how can it be improved?

Chautauqua Lake is a true treasure, and it is also incredibly important from an economic sense. It brings $548 million to our region annually and sustains roughly 5,600 jobs in Chautauqua County. So we depend on a healthy lake. Ever since I was elected to the Senate, I have been able to secure extra funding to tackle invasive species, and it’s a big battle. At the beginning, I was able to get $50,000 in the budget for weed control and cleanup, but more recently I was able to get that figure up to $100,000 annually.

I was also able to get $50,000 in the budget for dredging to remove debris from inlets around the lake. Now there is a new need for shoreline cleanup, and I was able to get $100,000 in the budget for equipment that the county will actually own to assist with that.

You have three kids, you’re married, you’re obviously very involved in your busy job. I realize women are often better at juggling competing and conflicting aspects of their lives than men, but managing your life had to be difficult at times.

You know, my children know a great deal about public service and getting involved in the community because of the roles I had. My children are now in their late 20s and 30s, but I balanced things when they were younger, and I believe it worked out very well. You just have to be attuned to time management, above all.

Was there an event in your life that persuaded you to get into politics? What sparked your career choice?

I used to read Newsweek since I was 7 years old. I would try to stay on top of current events. I have always been interested in what’s happening in the world. I was going to SUNY Fredonia to become a teacher, and I had a professor call me in and say ‘You have to become a writer’ because I had written a midterm paper and he gave me an A+++.  So I changed my major to align with writing, based on his recommendation. At the time, SUNY Fredonia didn’t have any kind of communications program — they do now — and so I transferred to St. Bonaventure University.

After graduation, I got involved in lots of local boards and worked in public relations, and I was asked to run for the county legislature. I decided that would be a great way to make a difference. So I ran, and I won. That started it all.

St. Bonaventure has gained a bit more prominence recently here at Chautauqua.

Absolutely. I have known Michael (E. Hill) a long time. He was at St. Bonaventure. I’m always out and about and we’ve often crossed paths. I’m thrilled he’s at the Institution.

Your political and leadership track record suggests at least an openness to bipartisanship. What is your philosophy on that?

Well, both parties need to work together to get the job done. I have worked closely with people on both sides of the aisle if there are issues important to the people in my district. Often we need Democrats in the assembly to help sponsor a bill, and Andy Goodell (Chautauqua County Republican assemblyman) is good at trying to build support for legislation we both support.

The fact of the matter is that the way the system is structured, you have to work in a bipartisan manner. You cannot always agree. There are a lot of things, especially that emanate out of New York City, that I strongly disagree with because they are hurtful to the upstate regions of New York. Overall, though, when we have a chance, we have to work together to create opportunities so everyone can have success.

The interests of your constituents and those from greater New York City often don’t match.

Right, and that’s why we need balance in the state government. The state assembly is heavily dominated by New York City. Republicans lead a coalition that controls the senate. We bring balance in the senate and can focus on getting things done for upstate New York. For example, reducing the tax burden, focusing on jobs, making sure our schools are taken care of. Our infrastructure needs a lot of work. That’s where we put our priorities.

You mentioned earlier that you had originally intended to become a teacher. Do you have any teacher in you now?

When I started out at SUNY Fredonia, I completed all the work to become a teacher except methods and student teaching. It was close. And even now, I love to stand in front of classrooms. I go several times a year and teach a participation in government class in the schools. It’s another way to make a positive difference and may inspire some to get involved in their communities. I often speak to children in schools in my district. I will often ask them if when they woke up this morning, did they think of how the state budget affects them. Usually, one or two wise guys raise their hands. But of course none of them do. Still, when you drive over a bridge or visit a hospital or pay your taxes or visit grandma in a nursing home, the budget does affect you.

Let’s talk about federal money. It’s a big part of funding that reaches localities including Chautauqua County. How are you able to impact that funding source?

Congressman Tom Reed, who represents the 23rd District of New York, works hard to bring funding to New York state. If it’s a pass-through from Washington (D.C.) to local communities, that money goes through the legislature, and we have an input in how it is distributed. A lot of federal agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency actually have programs that don’t pass through the state governments.

In my district, we’re as far from the power centers in Albany and Washington (D.C.) as you can get. I always want to make sure I’m speaking up and speaking out on behalf of the people I serve.

What is your view on relations between Chautauqua Institution and Chautauqua County and the greater region? Can you offer any wisdom on how to bring the two closer together?

You know, one of the bills I got passed in the Senate — but which the Assembly won’t pick up — deals with people who don’t live full-time in New York state, but only reside here for a couple of months. The bill would allow these temporary residents to be volunteer firefighters. This actually arose because of Chautauqua Institution. I was at the Chautauqua Volunteer Fire Department a couple of years ago, and they approached me with the suggestion to permit Chautauquans who are certified firefighters in other states to serve here during the season. As I say, the Assembly won’t go along with it yet.

This whole episode tells me we have a lot of people who do want to get involved, and we need to encourage much more of that kind of interaction.

Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Well, you know after I graduated from St. Bonaventure, I started out as a reporter. I covered features and hard news stories and also covered town, village, school, sewer and zoning board meetings. The newspaper was the Brighton-Pittsford Post. I rented a little apartment in downtown Rochester, about 20 miles north of where I grew up in Livingston County. I was basically starving to death because I was making very little money as a reporter. But it was a fantastic experience. To eat, I would do my newspaper job and then go into downtown Rochester and clean office buildings until 1 or 2 in the morning.

Those kinds of experiences teach you a lot about working hard and setting goals.

I had met my future husband while at SUNY Fredonia. He was from Olean. We stayed together after I transferred to St. Bonaventure. I got my newspaper job after graduation. He returned to Olean. We wanted to get married, and agreed that whoever got the higher-paying job, the other would have to move. So he called me one day. I was making $4 an hour. He called one day and said he was making $5 an hour, so ‘you’re moving back to Olean.’ The rest is history.

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The author John Ford

John Ford is in his ninth year with the Daily. He reports on general news, does feature reporting and writes the weekly Chautauqua Conversations column. A wire service reporter for United Press International prior to embarking on a career as a foreign service officer with the Department of State, he currently writes a regular column on American politics and foreign relations for one of the two principal daily newspapers in Nassau, Bahamas.