Aidan O'Connor: Help + Hope for the Catskills
I was at a 55th anniversary potluck in an Oak Hill barn the first time I saw Aidan O'Connor. The blue-eyed, fresh-faced 30-year-old stood a head taller than the rest of the crowd, chatting and laughing with a gaggle of white-haired ladies. I recognized him as our local Greene County legislator, but to be completely honest, I was raised to be distrustful of politicians.
So for a while, I watched him through narrowed eyes as he greeted small children by name and typed into the cell phones of people old enough to be his grandparents. I slowly realized that he was giving everyone his number. "Anytime you need anything, just call me, okay, Marylou?" he called across the barn. He said goodbye with a couple of handshakes and a bunch of hugs on his way out. I looked at my husband and said, "Is this guy for real?"
Well, I've been following his work for over a year now, and the answer seems clear: Aidan O'Connor is that rare politician whose interest in government is born out of his love for humanity.
A fourth-generation resident of Greene County, Aidan studied to become a paramedic at SUNY Cobleskill. He specialized in helicopter rescues, airlifting the hurt and the sick from their remote mountain homes to the nearest hospital. The man literally flies people to safety. Is it an exaggeration to call him a real-life superhero? In addition to being a paramedic at the Greenport Rescue Squad in Hudson, a lab instructor for the paramedic program at SUNY Cobleskill, and the manager of 5 aero-medical helicopter bases, he's also the youngest-ever Greene County legislator, elected as a Democrat in a traditionally Republican county, at the age of 27. We talked with him about his current campaign to become the first-ever paramedic elected to the NYS Assembly.
WHERE HE'S RUNNING
The 102nd district doesn't have borders along county lines, but it does include all of Greene and Schoharie counties, along with parts of Columbia, Ulster, Ostego, Albany, and Delaware Counties. (You can find your own assembly district here.) This is known as a "pivot district" because Obama won in the district in 2008 and 2012, but Trump won by 22 points in 2016. "The take-home message is that this district votes more for the person than for party politics," Aidan said. The current State Assembly member is Republican Chris Tague, whom Aidan O'Connor faced in a special election in April. Aidan came less than one percentage point away from winning.
TAXES AND FAKE NEWS
"For the people in the district who are retirees or on fixed incomes, an 8%, 10%, or 12% tax increase can be catastrophic," Aidan said. "As a county legislator, I voted against an 8.5% increase. I only voted for increases that were under 2%."
This seems important to reiterate, since some of his opponent's campaign literature has stated otherwise. It's unclear to me whether this was an oversight or deliberate misinformation, but these votes are on the public record. I asked how his opponent could claim that Aidan voted to raise taxes by 8.5% and get away with it. Shouldn't the local press have been all over that? "Unfortunately, we don't have enough media support," Aidan said. "In this whole district, they just don't have the capacity to fact-check."
As a journalist and former magazine fact-checker, this is hard to get my head around. (Fellow fact-finders: You can click here to see that Aidan voted down the 8.5% tax increase.)
PEOPLE BEFORE POLITICS
"I care about people before politics," Aidan explained. "I've never held a leadership role in the Democratic Party. And I don't have generation politics—both my parents are registered nurses."
Aidan considers himself a man of the people, even though he's a Democrat and most of his constituents are registered as Republicans. "People have told me numerous times, 'If you would just run on the Republican ticket, you would definitely win,'" Aidan said. "But party politics is about matching your ideas and values, and it should never be changed just to win a race."
He also explained, from a cultural standpoint, why most people in this district are registered Republican regardless of their political views. "When you register to vote, everyone knows what your party registration is. If you looked up the 500 employees at our county building, most of them would be registered Republican," he said. "Historically, if you weren't registered Republican, your legislature might not vouch for you or hire you."
And we're not just talking about positions on the local town board. We're talking about police officers, highway workers, and court-appointed attorneys. So, does this mean that all the registered Republicans in the 102nd District should worry about job security if Aidan gets elected as a Democrat? He replied without missing a beat: "I will treat people as I did as a paramedic. I never asked what party they were in—I would just help them. I judge people based on their capacity to do their job."
A DEMOCRAT IN THE 102nd DISTRICT
"We have not had somebody in the majority party in the State Assembly in my lifetime," Aidan said. I asked him why that was significant, and he gave me a quick lesson on caucusing. My understanding is that the majority party caucus gets to decide which bills are being considered and sets the agenda before the minority party caucus even gets a chance to weigh in.
With this in mind, it seems like a much better bet to elect a Democrat who represents the needs of his constituents and can reach across the aisle on the issues important to his community. Aidan said, "As a Democrat, you're in the room where decisions are being made. You are in the position to bring money back into our district."
CELL SERVICE AND BROADBAND
One major thing many city dwellers don't realize is that you can live 2 and half hours north of Manhattan and not have cell service or broadband access. No access to WiFi hotspots. No cable or satellite TV. And no home internet access. At all. At my family's Greene County home, our closest WiFi café is a 20-minute drive away.
"Broadband is a fundamental. If we want to keep our youth here, we need broadband. If we want to improve business, we need broadband. If we want to improve education, we need broadband. We need it like we need roadways, like we need electricity," Aidan said. "We don't want to change the historic landscape, the peaceful way of life, but we do want to bring it up to the 21st century when it comes to Internet and cell phones." One thing he'd do as an Assembly member would be to allot some state funding to cell phone towers.
BRINGING US ALL TOGETHER
I was hesitant to write this profile because city folks like me can get a bad rap in the Catskills. I worried that the support of my Brooklyn blog might be detrimental to this campaign. Aidan disagreed: "We are one state, so beautiful, so rich in history—that's what makes New York the amazing place that it is. Up here, we're better with NYC, and NYC is better with us."
That said, Aidan is very much a small town guy. "When my friends come up to visit, they don't want me to go to the grocery store because I'll go to pick up a few things and then I'll be sucked in for 2 hours. I see it as the biggest positive, to be able to be around my neighbors and talk to them. I love every minute of it."
This is the kind of person I'd like to see in office. "Helping people is at my core," he says. "November 6th is big because we finally have the chance to do something different. But win or lose, I just want to help as much as possible."