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For more than 40 years, Joyce St. George has dedicated her career to public service. Whether it was as a corruption investigator, the co-founder of a food pantry, a hospital chair or as consultant to law enforcement agencies, she has tried to help people.

Now, as a candidate for the New York State Senate's 51st District, a sprawling district that reaches south of the Catskills, east of Utica and much of Cayuga County including parts of Owasco, Moravia, Locke and more, St. George hopes she can help the entire state.

A Democrat from Margaretville, St. George is running against 32-year incumbent state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, with the hopes of addressing what she describes as a culture of corruption in Albany and a need to reform health care.

According to St. George, she is well-equipped to deal with corruption in the state government thanks to her work as an investigator at the state Office of the Special Prosecutor, formed by the attorney general to root out corruption in the New York City criminal justice system in the 1970s.

In the wake of the Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United decision, St. George said she's seen as “legalized corruption” in Albany where elected officials are unduly influenced by campaign contributions.

If elected, campaign finance reform, as well as changing the "archaic" voting system to allow better representation, would be at the top of her list.

“One of the reasons I'm running is, given the background I have, I think I can do something about that corruption,” she said.

St. George used her opponent Seward as an example of  that normalized culture. As chair of the senate's Insurance Committee and a member of the Health Committee, St. George said Seward has received significant contributions from insurance, pharmaceutical and medical companies the committees are meant to oversee.

“At the very least, it's a conflict of interest. He should not have an appearance of conflict in interest,” St. George said. “You cannot take [large contributions] and not feel that you're being influenced, it just doesn't work that way.”

Seward has consistently denied, including at a recent debate at Cayuga Community College, that contributions have influenced his work, saying he bases his opinions on listening to relevant business and constituent groups as well as research.

On the topic of health care, St. George speaks passionately and at length. St. George believes the New York Health Act, which would create a state-run universal health insurance system, could save lives and money.

Citing a report from the RAND Corporation, St. George said, despite the more than doubling of taxes collected by the state noted by critics, the plan would reduce costs for individuals, employers and the state itself by eliminating copays, deductibles, premiums and administrative costs.

The report, which notes several required caveats for the plan to succeed, says the Health Act could save the state $80 billion by 2031.

St. George also disputed concerns from critics that the higher taxes would cause businesses and high-earners to flee the state by saying reducing health insurance costs for employers would instead encourage investment in the state.

More importantly, according to St. George, the change would save lives. As the chair and trustee of the rural Margaretville hospital, St. George said she's heard too many stories of patients pushing off vital procedures because they couldn't afford them.

"I'm looking at this as how do I save the lives of the people in my community. That's really what it comes down to," St. George said.

Infrastructure, especially broadband, is also vital to help businesses and workers stay in the state and expand opportunity in the largely rural district.

Modern technology would also lay the foundation for renewable energy to combat climate change, which she described as the underlying cause of harmful algal blooms plaguing lakes throughout Cayuga County and the district.

In a final pitch, St. George encouraged voters to vote not just for her but anyone running against an incumbent.

"You can't just vote for one person to change a system. You've got to vote for a group of people you believe in," she said.

St. George will also appear on the Working Families Party ballot line.

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Staff writer Ryan Franklin can be reached at (315) 282-2252 or ryan.franklin@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @RyanNYFranklin

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County government reporter