Democrats will go to the polls Thursday to decide who will be the party's nominee for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. But there are races throughout the state where incumbent Democratic state senators are facing primary fights of their own.
One of those races is in the 53rd Senate District, where state Sen. David Valesky is being challenged by Rachel May, a first-time candidate who works as a sustainability education coordinator at Syracuse University.
Valesky, D-Oneida, has served in the state Senate since 2005. In television commercials and digital ads his campaign released ahead of the Sept. 13 primary, he tells voters that he is running on his record. He touts his support of marriage equality, the establishment of a statewide paid family leave program and raising the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour.
"Now more than ever, it's about passion, common sense and standing up for what's right," he says in the 30-second commercial airing on Syracuse-area TV stations.
But it's a decision Valesky made in 2011 that inspired May to challenge him for the Democratic nomination this year. Seven years ago, Valesky and three other state senators banded together to form the Independent Democratic Conference. The breakaway group of Democratic senators continued to run on the party's line in elections, but formed their own caucus in the state Senate.
The new conference gained influence in the chamber through a power-sharing agreement with Senate Republicans. This allowed the IDC members to receive leadership posts and committee chair assignments.
This year, the IDC folded. The decision to reunite with the mainline Senate Democrats came as May and other challengers emerged to take on incumbent senators who are now former members of the IDC.
May said in an interview that she was first motivated to run because of the IDC and Valesky's role in the now-defunct conference. She felt that Democratic priorities weren't being advanced because of the IDC's power-sharing relationship with Senate Republicans.
But she says now that her campaign is about more than just an anti-IDC message.
"I'm running because I feel like this is a moment in our democracy when people are demanding something better of our government," she said. "I felt like this is a moment when we can really reach for a government in New York that we can be proud of."
If elected to the state Senate, May said she would push for passage of the New York Health Act, a bill that would establish a statewide single-payer health insurance program, and the Climate and Community Protection Act to transition the state to 100 percent renewable energy production by 2050.
She would also advocate for governmental reforms, such as updated campaign finance and election laws. She would support the Reproductive Health Act, a proposal to codify the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision into state law.
To boost the central New York economy, she would push for broadband expansion, improved transportation infrastructure and better water infrastructure. Tackling public corruption in Albany would be a priority, too. She said campaign finance reform, such as closing the so-called "LLC loophole," would help combat corruption.
May feels optimistic about her chances against Valesky. She collected approximately 2,500 signatures to force a primary and she received the Oneida County Democratic Committee's endorsement. (The other two county Democratic committees in the district, Madison and Onondaga, backed Valesky.) She also picked up the Working Families Party's support.
"They want to see people with a commitment to the grassroots," she said.
The 53rd Senate District includes most of Syracuse and six towns in Onondaga County, the entirety of Madison County and a portion of Oneida County.
The primary election is Thursday. Polls will be open from noon to 9 p.m.