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Eye on NY: PAC brings 'front porch politics' to NY, PA local elections

It is not uncommon to see a candidate who ran an unsuccessful campaign for elective office form a political action committee. Bernie Sanders launched a PAC after his bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton did the same after losing the presidential race to Donald Trump. 

After her state Senate campaign in 2016, Leslie Danks Burke decided to form a PAC. But this isn't your traditional shadowy group that dumps large sums of money into races all over the country. The goal of Danks Burke's group is much different. 

Danks Burke launched the Trailblazers PAC to focus on local government elections in New York and Pennsylvania. In 2017, the organization endorsed 24 candidates, including two in Auburn — incumbent city councilors Terry Cuddy and Debby McCormick.

Trailblazers PAC is nonpartisan. Danks Burke, a Democrat, said the group supported candidates who ran on five party lines in November. 

To earn the PAC's support, candidates must meet certain benchmarks. They must abide by stricter campaign finance rules than the law requires. For example, candidates must fully disclose all of their campaign receipts and expenditures. New York state law doesn't require 100 percent disclosure of contributions or expenses. 

"There is a striking amount of information about the money in your campaign that you don't have to disclose as a candidate," Danks Burke said in a phone interview. "We ask our candidates to disclose everything." 

Candidates that receive the PAC's endorsement must also raise a minimum amount of money from their districts. That total varies based on the district, but the goal is to encourage candidates to raise money from voters in their community. 

That fundraising mechanism figures into how much the PAC donates to the endorsed candidate. Trailblazers will match in-district contributions up to $50 from each voter. A candidate can receive at least $1,000 depending on how much money they raise from voters in their districts. 

McCormick, a Democrat who successfully ran for a second term on the Auburn City Council, said her benchmark was 100 donors from the city. The supporters could donate any amount — it could be $5 or $50, she said — but she needed to get those donations in order to secure the PAC's support. 

"I really had a hard time with it because I hate asking for money," McCormick admitted. 

But she did it. And Trailblazers PAC donated $1,000 to her campaign, according to state campaign finance records. 

Danks Burke, of Ithaca, was motivated to launch the PAC after her own experience as a candidate. When she challenged state Sen. Tom O'Mara for the 58th Senate District seat in 2016, she knew it would be an uphill battle. Republicans held a strong enrollment advantage in the district. Democrats comprised 32 percent of the total voters in the 58th. 

While Danks Burke didn't win, she received 45 percent of the vote. After examining the results, she found it was "pretty unusual" in 2016 to get 13 points above the base voter registration for Democrats in a race against an incumbent. 

When she narrowed down the factors that contributed to her better-than-expected performance, she came to one conclusion: It was how her campaign raised money that made the difference. 

"A vast majority of the donations to my campaign came from inside the district, whether they were small donations or large donations," she said. "That's very different from how New York state politics is usually done." 

For Danks Burke's state Senate race, the contribution limit was $11,000. That's more than four times higher than the maximum contribution ($2,700) for congressional candidates. 

Records show Danks Burke raised more than $664,000 in the 2016 election cycle. She raised more than O'Mara, who received most of his money from outside the district. 

Danks Burke referred to her fundraising approach as "front porch politics," a slogan that she believes exemplifies the work of Trailblazers PAC. 

"We decided to go ahead and keep going and we immediately turned all the energy and resources from my campaign into this PAC that is now working across two states," she said. "To invest in candidates for local offices who are also interested in clean government and who are also going to fund-raise from their voters." 

For now, the PAC is focused on local races. And Danks Burke thinks their formula is working. 

Voter turnout was higher in districts where Trailblazers PAC endorsed candidates, Danks Burke said. She attributed this to the need for candidates to seek contributions from donors in their districts. 

"By employing 'front porch politics' and by fundraising locally getting local voters, those candidates got their communities engaged in local politics and more people voted," she said. 

Living Nativity features slice of biblical life in Auburn

AUBURN — A nativity scene complete with wise men, shepherds, alpacas, horses and more was tucked away just off Grant Avenue in Auburn Saturday night. 

Performers and animals were out for the Living Nativity event all over the Auburn Alliance Church parking lot. Passersby could see and interact with the different stations set up either by car or by foot. Around 50 volunteers were involved in the event for various duties, ranging from performing to making hot chocolate for those outside to handling the various farm animals.

At one point people in a car waved at Earl Brown and Mickey Brown, who played biblical figures Mary and Joseph, respectively, and Mallory Brown and Avery Koch at a re-creation of the manger where Christ was born. Mallory and Avery  — dressed as angels and armed with cups of hot chocolate — were watching after a calf. Avery's mother, Alisha Koch, was right next to the manger.

Mickey Brown, Mallory's mother, said their family has been involved with the event since it began five years ago. Mickey said she was happy to volunteer, as she said she isn't aware of similar events around the area.

"It brings the story of Christmas to life," Mickey Brown said. 

The event is spearheaded by Becky Mindek, wife of one of the church's pastor, Mark Mindek. Becky said she was inspired by a similar event she and Mark saw in South Carolina, but that event only had one scene, while Becky wanted to take advantage of the church's entire parking lot. There were two sets of performers taking 90-minute shifts.

One of the scenes featured shepherds, played by younger volunteers, with wooden staffs they used to play between car headlights shining on them.

"Get to your places!" Jacob Wright yelled to his fellow shepherds as a car approached.

Becky Mindek said one of the main purposes for the event was to create a spiritual alternative to the commercial hustle and bustle common this time of year.

"I feel like (Christmas) has become very commercial, that Grant Avenue has become 'Let's get as many presents as we can before Christmas,' and I want them to know that the true present of Christmas is the birth of Christ," Mindek said.

Lockdown drill at Auburn school sparks discussion about communication with parents

Tony Ranauro's world froze when he received frenzied texts from his daughter, McKenzie, about a lockdown at Auburn Junior High School on Dec. 12.

Ranauro said McKenzie, 12, initially thought the lockdown was a real scenario with a credible threat in the building. It was actually a drill. Forty-five minutes away from the school at the time, he told her to remain calm. But the counter-terrorism training he received with the U.S. Department of Defense didn't stop his mind from racing. 

Getting a call from his daughter saying she was fine and the situation had been a drill was "like a car taken off my chest," Ranauro said.

"I never really understood what a heart attack felt like until that morning," Ranauro said. 

Later that day, wanting to get the perspective of other parents, Ranuaro posted his concerns about how the drill was handled on an Auburn-focused Facebook page, saying he was appreciative of the Auburn Enlarged City School District and the Auburn Police Department for the drills, but wished the district would have informed parents beforehand. His post swiftly garnered a number of comments with various opinions — ranging from saying they were also confused about whether the lockdown was a real situation to saying the district and the APD made the right call.

State law passed last year mandates four lockdown drills be conducted at each school building a year. The district operates three announced drills conducted by the district in which staff are made aware of when the drills will be happening. Another one, though, is unannounced.

Sgt. Greg Dann of the APD, who runs the Auburn school district's student resource officer program, said the Auburn Police Department conducts a drill — like the Dec. 12 drill — in which police notify the school a lockdown is about to happen shortly before the drill commences. The district is not given any additional advance notice.

Dann said unannounced drills have been conducted in the district since 2008. When the APD contacts the school about the drill, a lockdown is immediately announced at the school without any indication that it isn't a real scenario.

Dann said the Dec. 12 drill wasn't done differently than any other unannounced drill. The call to the school about the lockdown happened at 9:50 a.m., while the end of the drill was announced at 10:30 a.m., Dann said. He said drills in most of the other buildings take around 30 to 45 minutes. He said APD always meets with administrators after each drill to talk about how the school did. Dann said the Dec. 12 drill went well.

While complaints after a drill aren't unusual, Dann said, he believes the social media comments on this particular drill caused more of a stir. Auburn Enlarged City School District Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo said the district received complaints from parents about the Dec. 12 drill, with many wanting to know why they weren't informed beforehand. 

Pirozzolo said the principal of a building with a lockdown have sent out automated calls to parents about drills afterward. Going forward, he has decided that principals will make prerecorded messages that will go out quickly after a lockdown to avoid potential delays in parents getting the information.

Pirozzolo plans on writing about the district's intention to continue the drills in the district's next monthly newsletter. Auburn has run 17 lockdowns since September, he said. He said the safety of children and staff is the district's "No. 1 priority."

While some parents have requested advanced notification, giving an indication of a drill in advance would not be as effective, Dann said. He believes students would not take the situation as seriously. He said there had been past situations in which word leaked about a drill, and students didn't commit to those scenarios.

"They don't know and they shouldn't; (students and staff) should just follow the procedure they would if there was a real lockdown," Dann said.

Ranauro said while he understands the argument of why staff and students wouldn't be informed that the drill wasn't real, he remembers a drill at Auburn Community Hospital — where he works security — in the summer. He said everyone in the hospital was informed that it was an "active shooter" scenario and that the situation was a drill. He said the drill still went well and that drills have occurred before, but people were still taking the matter seriously.

"All they heard was 'active shooter,' they didn't care it was a drill," Ranauro said.

Ranauro said he understands why the district wouldn't contact parents in the middle of an actual threat, but he said he wished the school would have contacted parents about the drill as it was unfolding. That being said, Ranauro said he appreciates how seriously the district and the APD take child safety. Ranauro said he can't recall his daughter mentioning other lockdowns before.

Dann suggested that when talking about lockdowns with their child, parents should say the drills are necessary due to various emergencies in other schools that have occurred across the country, and that students should follow the procedures they have been taught.

Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services consulting firm, said parents should broach the topic using the language most appropriate for that child, though parents shouldn't "sugar coat" the topic's seriousness. He said students should be reminded that just as with a fire drill, a lockdown is meant to get students and staff out of harm's way.

Trump said the best way to mitigate stress about lockdowns is through parents and children to talk about schools and for districts to communicate with parents about the drills in place and how the district will communicate with schools in case of emergencies.

"While you can't predict every scenario, what (districts) can do is to reassure parents that they have reasonable plans in place to protect children," Trump said.

Pirozzolo said that as a parent and a school administrator, he understands concerns about wanting children to be safe. He lamented the "unfortunate" need for lockdown drills but said he views them as necessary. 

"We have got to be prepared under any circumstances for any emergency," Pirozzolo said.

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Auburn police officer suffers concussion in struggle while making arrest

Police said an Auburn police officer suffered a concussion in an attack by a man Friday night.

Justin T. Gervais, 22, 123 Wall St., Apt. 3, was charged with second-degree assault, a class D felony, and resisting arrest, a class A misdemeanor.

According to a news release, officers responded to a domestic disturbance at Gervais' apartment. Officers contacted Gervais, who was upset by the presence of police, the release said. The release said the officers investigated the situation and left without incident but later returned for a noise complainant after Gervais reportedly banged on a neighbor's door, believing that the neighbors prompted the police appearing earlier.

Gervais initially refused to open the door when officers arrived, police said, but opened the door shortly after. The release said officer Morgan Flickner confronted Gervais after he walked down the stairs. Flickner told Gervais he was under arrest for a noise violation, and Gervais tried to run back up to his apartment.

Flickner grabbed Gervais to stop him from reaching his apartment door, police said, and Gervais tried to push the officer down the stairs and then grabbed her hair, pushing her head to top of the stairs and striking her head. Gervais then punched Flickner in the head four to five times after getting on top of her, the release said.

Police said that Flickner hit Gervais in return and tasered him when he tried to get into his apartment, the release said. Police said the taser was not effective, as full contact wasn't made, and Gervais took the taser from Flickner's hand. Flickner then used her oleoresin capsicum stray on Gervias' face, which made Gervais compliant, the release said.

Flickner was taken to Auburn Community Hospital for head and face injuries, and was diagnosed with a concussion.

Gervais was arraigned at Auburn City Court and was remanded to the Cayuga County Jail with no bail. His next day in court is Tuesday.