Leslie Danks Burke, founder of the Trailblazers PAC.

Leslie Danks Burke, founder of the Trailblazers PAC and now a candidate for New York State Senate. 

Local political organizer and former lawyer Leslie Danks Burke, of Horseheads, has announced her intention to seek the New York State Senate seat currently occupied by Republican Tom O’Mara, representing the 58th state district. She will vie for the Democratic nomination. 

Danks Burke has run twice before for public office, having lost previously to O’Mara in 2016 for his seat in the State Senate and to Nate Shinagawa during the Democratic primary for the House of Representatives seat for New York’s 23rd Congressional District in 2012. Shinagawa would eventually lose to Tom Reed, a Republican who still holds the seat.

She’s the first challenger to announce in the race, and O’Mara has not made an official announcement regarding his intentions, but his office said he will seek re-election to the office he has held since 2010. The election will be held Nov. 3, 2020. Democrats currently hold a 43-20 majority in the State Senate after a wave of success in 2018. 

According to Danks Burke, her new campaign will be similar to her previous one, even reusing some of her left-over campaign brochures from 2016. The mantra for that race was “jobs, schools, farms,” touting jobs, education (especially early education) and support for agriculture, all of which remain primary focuses for Danks Burke, though her overarching priority is on enhancing representation for people in the rural parts of the state. 

“I’m running because we have been left behind for too long here, we’ve had 40 years of broken promises,” she said. “It’s not a Democrat problem, it’s not a Republican problem, it’s a leadership in Albany problem. We need someone to go to Albany who’s going to fight for a real seat at the table for the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes.”

She argued that a “powerful coalition of interests” in New York City and Albany have the true power in the state and have worked to box out regular people, who have in turn been left behind and have lost the chance at any real benefit even if the economy booms. 

Her 2016 loss was not entirely for naught, as it led her to establish her own political action committee, the Trailblazers PAC. The PAC’s mission is to support local candidates in contested races, claiming that they will assist candidates regardless of party affiliation as long as their views align with the organization’s is to make politics more transparent. Running Trailblazers has been Danks Burke’s full time job since early 2017 when she announced its formation, and during the last election cycle Danks Burke said they worked with candidates in 12 states. Yet still, when this election season came along, the pull to get more directly involved was too strong. 

“It’s the same thing that’s changed for all of us,” she said. “As Americans, we have really recognized over the last three or four years that our country needs us. This democratic republic only functions if we are participating. [...] After 2015-2016, I realized that I wanted to put my career as a lawyer on hold to spend as much time as I could doing what I could to help improve our region and our country. I think we’re all called to do that.”

That sense of responsibility appears to be the driving force behind Danks Burke’s re-entry into direct involvement with politics. Having kids has made it additionally personal for her, she said, as she’d like to help secure a future that opens opportunities for people here instead of watching them leave for either New York City or other states. 

“I really think we all have an obligation to fully participate in our democratic republic to the extent that we are able,” Danks Burke said. “Honestly, I look at my kids and my kids’ future here in the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes, and I see that young people are leaving, and I don’t want that for my kids. I want them to find a bright future here, and I want all our kids to have that opportunity.”

During an interview, Danks Burke emphasizes throughout that she believes upstate New York bears a disproportionate tax burden to support people statewide despite not having its needs addressed by the state government. When asked what kind of liberal she identifies as, Danks Burke said she doesn’t believe the currently vogue terms like “progressive” or “centrist” are adequate, and that she doesn’t think either apply to her. 

“I am very progressive, I am also deeply concerned about the expansion of the state and its intrusion into our civil liberties,” Danks Burke said, noting that Republicans seem to have decreased their prior focus on small government. “I’m not sure the labels hold anymore. The government is there to do what the government is supposed to do, which is the common purposes that people can’t do for themselves: build bridges and roads, make sure that we treat each other fairly and kindly, make sure there are schools for our children to go to. When we get hung up on labels, we lose sight of what we’re supposed to be doing as Americans.”

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