Interview: NY State Senate Candidate Leslie Danks Burke (2022-05-10)

Leslie Danks Burke is an attorney and political organizer and a candidate for New York State Senate. WRFI's George Christopher interviewed her on May 10, 2022. Transcript below.

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Transcription of Interview:

George C., WRFI 0:13
Hello and welcome to WRFI's series of candidate interviews. I'm George Christopher. In the studio with us today is Leslie Danks Burke, a candidate for New York State Senate. Our series invited all candidates for both the 22nd Congressional District and New York 53rd State Senate District in the June primaries. Last week, the State Court of Appeals threw out both the Congressional and State Senate maps, meaning the maps will have to be redrawn and the primaries likely delayed. WRFI has decided to continue our series with all the candidates we previously invited. Coming up tomorrow at 6pm, we'll interview Lea Webb, a former Binghamton city councilor, and a Democratic candidate for State Senate. You can see our full interview schedule of all the candidates and listen to archived interviews at our website, Leslie, welcome to WRFI. And thanks for joining us in the studio.

Leslie Danks Burke 1:01
Thanks so much for having me, George.

George C., WRFI 1:03
I will start out with just a two minute or however long you want. Just tell us who you are and what your campaign is about.

Leslie Danks Burke 1:11
So I am a mom, I'm a lawyer. I've been practicing law here in Ithaca and Tompkins County for quite a while. But before I was here, I practiced in New York City until I moved to upstate New York in 2004. And before that, I was born and raised in Colorado, and my parents are farmers in Eastern Colorado. They raised corn and wheat. And I've seen over the last several decades that our region here in upstate New York is getting left behind. And folks are getting shoved out of the middle class and young people are growing up and they're not able to find jobs, and they're not able to find economic opportunity. And they move, they leave, we're losing population. And that's not sustainable for the future. As a mom, I don't want to see my children grow up and leave by any means. And I am standing up to fight for us in a really terribly volatile political time. I see that our Republican incumbents all around Tompkins County, we've been represented by three different Republican incumbents here, no matter where you live in Tompkins County, are not getting the job done. And so I threw my hat in the ring to run against any one of the Republican incumbents who is currently representing our area. And as you pointed out, we we don't necessarily know who that is because the district lines are still up in the air. But I know that we need to get in there and fight for us. And I know the current situation benefits the incumbents. So I'm, I'm willing to take a stand.

George C., WRFI 2:35
Okay, well, why don't we start off with something that's on a lot of people's minds and clearly on your mind, as I'll get into in a second with a question here. Last week, a draft decision from the Supreme Court suggested that the court will overturn Roe v. Wade, and Planned Parenthood V. Casey. The next day, you spoke at the Bernie Milton pavilion against that decision. Now, what do you think New York State should do in response to the rumored decision?

Leslie Danks Burke 3:00
I'd like to start with what New York has already done. And I'm really proud to have been a leader in this movement over the last decade to get the protections of Roe vs. Wade codified into New York state law. And that is an initiative that I worked with for about 10 years. And there are a lot of people across the state who spend a lot of time and energy and effort making sure that that the New York State Legislature passed that and that the governor signed it in 2019. And so the outcome there is that women and girls and pregnant people of all persuasions will be protected in New York state, if Roe versus Wade is overturned. We did that because the writing was on the wall, it's it's been pretty clear for about 20 years that there was an orchestrated movement to undo Roe versus Wade. Now your question is what should happen next. That's been a huge part of my initiative for the last two years. I am very focused on taking it one step further than we got to in 2019, and getting those protections enshrined in constitutional law in New York State. Right now, what we achieved in 2019 was we got it codified into statute, but what one legislature can put into statute, the next legislature can take away and I want to see those protections enshrined in the New York constitution.

George C., WRFI 4:18
Well, that was something I was going to ask you about was the proposal to add an amendment to the state constitution that's been talked about by Attorney General Letitia James recently. The Attorney General also talked about a new program, the Reproductive Freedom and Equity Program. Also, the governor has just early today actually announced that they're going to set aside about $35 million for expanding access to abortion. What do you think about programs like that? And do you think that that's something that we need to look into and you will support?

Leslie Danks Burke 4:48
They're tremendously important programs-- Yes, absolutely. Anything that protects those human rights, those basic human dignities, that right to privacy that does exist in our Constitution, even if the current Supreme Court is choosing to look the other way. We need to make sure that we protect those in New York State law and as a candidate for New York State Senate, and as simply an activist who has been very active in this for the last 10 years, that's something that I will always fight for.

George C., WRFI 5:16
Well, how do you think we can achieve this? You talked about the constitutional amendment, that's probably one of the bigger ones. How do you think-- as you talked about being an activist, obviously, that involves a lot of planning and planning out how to achieve things. So what what would your blueprint look like for achieving something like a constitutional amendment for the state to protect abortion rights?

Leslie Danks Burke 5:39
Well, that's a great question, because it's a complicated process. And it's a process that takes a long time. The way it's set up in the New York State Constitution is the change to the Constitution has to be passed by two consecutive legislatures. And that doesn't mean the legislature passes it twice in a row, it means it has to be passed twice with an election day in between. So if we were to pass it, for example, over the course of this summer, and then all the legislators are reelected in November, and then they passed it again, next March, for example, that would count as two consecutive legislatures. And then after the Constitutional amendment passes two consecutive legislators, it goes to the full public for a vote, you might remember that in 2021, we just had a whole lot of voting rights amendments to the Constitution that were on your ballot in 2021. If you turned your ballot over, you could see those voting rights amendments. Unfortunately, those did not pass. And they did not pass because the might of the Democratic Party did not come into bear behind those unfortunately. And at the same time, the Conservative Party and the Republicans spent a whole lot of money making sure that those voting rights protections failed, we would have to be very clear that that we need to stand up and, you know, put our money where our mouth is and make sure that we're doing the organizing to be sure that the electorate is educated about what needs to be done.

George C., WRFI 7:07
Well, another thing that's been talked about recently is the possibility of an influx of abortion seekers, people looking to get abortions in New York state, as some states will have the ability to bar them. So what do you think New York state needs to do in terms of protecting outside of non New Yorkers who might be coming into the state for abortions?

Leslie Danks Burke 7:29
We will be seeing people come here, New York will be a safe haven state. And we need to make sure that all are welcome here. It's going to be very clear that the people who are affected most by this are the people who have the least and you know that was true before Roe vs. Wade was decided. Anybody who's seen the movie Dirty Dancing knows that Baby was able to go to her dad, her wealthy doctor dad, and get the money. But the other woman in the show, the woman who actually needed the abortion, did not have a rich father that she could go to. And that classic story really describes how the people who are going to be affected most are going to be the people with least.

George C., WRFI 8:11
Well, how can you actually help those people? Those what I'm what I'm trying to get at, is how can how can New York State be sure that they're supporting people coming into the state?

Leslie Danks Burke 8:19
We need to make sure that we're a safe haven, we need to make sure that our health centers are funded. I was on the Planned Parenthood board for many years here in the Southern Finger Lakes region, which has now been merged into a larger Planned Parenthood of Greater New York. Planned Parenthood's are always looking for funding, they are always under attack. And so I would strongly encourage anyone who's listening to this, who wants to make sure that those health care opportunities are available to everyone inside New York State and also to the visitors who will be coming here, go donate to your local Planned Parenthood organization.

George C., WRFI 8:54
Now, switching gears for a second, I guess, what would you call your number one policy priority that you've discovered across this campaign?

Leslie Danks Burke 9:03
My top priority is focused on property taxes, and how the very richest among us are paying the least and the rest of us are having to pick up their share. And what I would like to see is New York State cutting property taxes in half by making the folks at the tippity top, by making the big corporations and the hedge funders and the folks who currently don't pay income taxes like the rest of us do, pick up their income tax share, which will mean we can cut our property taxes in half.

George C., WRFI 9:38
If you're just joining us, we are talking with Leslie Danks Burke, a State Senate candidate in the Democratic primary. Let's talk about--

Leslie Danks Burke 9:46
I'd love to talk more about property taxes. Can I tell you why?

George C., WRFI 9:50
Sure. We can give you another minute or two to talk about property tax. It's the sexiest issue there is.

Leslie Danks Burke 9:55
I don't know if it's-- taxes are never sexy, but I will say that it hits most people where it hurts. And why do I care about cutting property taxes in half? Well, it's because that money is supposed to be going to our bridges and roads, our schools, our infrastructure, it's supposed to be paying for our social services. And right now it's not. Right now half of it gets sent up to the general fund for what's called unfunded mandates in New York State. And the outcome of that is that it wallops the people who have the least. And so what I want to do is start charging the folks at the tippity top what they should be paying, cut the rest of our property taxes in half, and make sure that that money is going to our bridges, our roads, our schools, our nurses, are healthcare centers.

George C., WRFI 10:38
Well you talk about healthcare there at the very end, which is a nice little segue for my next question, which is about the New York Health Act. Now, the Health Act would create a single payer health care system in the state, it would eliminate co pays deductibles and premiums would also involve a tax increase. And the bill has enough co sponsors in both chambers to pass. But it hasn't been brought to a vote by in either the state Senate or the State Assembly. What is your position on the New York Health Act?

Leslie Danks Burke 11:03
I am 100% in support of the New York Health Act, I believe in single payer health care, and that comes from a personal history. My daughter was born with a syndrome that required 29 surgeries by the time she was 14 years old. And sitting in those hospital waiting rooms alongside other parents who were waiting for their own children to come out of medical treatment gave me a real insight or view into how significantly our healthcare system disadvantages a huge proportion of our population. And and that's a real problem. And we need to move to single payer to fix that. One thing I would take issue with, though, that you pointed out is you said that the New York Health Act will necessarily involve a tax increase. And I dispute that I do not believe that the move to a single payer health care system needs to require a tax increase. In fact, I think that there are all kinds of efficiencies. I know there are because comptroller Tom DiNapoli has released audit after audit showing that there are all kinds of efficiencies that we can take in our healthcare system, that will mean that moving to a single payer plan would not require a tax increase.

George C., WRFI 12:15
Well, I guess my question, then would be since like I said, it has enough co sponsors in both chambers to pass, what what role do you think you could exercise in helping getting that passed? Like I said, you have past as an activist. How can you use that role to get things like the Health Act passed?

Leslie Danks Burke 12:34
Well, I think the first thing very much goes to the funding for it. I think that the people who are most opposed to the single payer plan, they've staked their opposition on this idea that it's going to be more expensive. And I think you have to address that. Right. And so I understand tax policy, it's something that I again, you know, it might not be the sexiest thing, but it's certainly important to understand how budgets work and to understand how, where the money comes from. And I've made it my business to really understand that, and I can have those conversations with folks who are maybe on the other side, who might imagine that it's going to require a tax increase, it doesn't-- we can take a look at the numbers, we can sit down together and work through it and discover that actually, there's a meeting of the minds here.

George C., WRFI 13:17
Well, talking about, again, achieving things in the legislature, if elected, what committees in the State Senate would you like to join that you think could best help you serve the district?

Leslie Danks Burke 13:33
I'd like to join the Agriculture Committee. Agriculture is the single greatest driver of economic growth here in the upstate New York area. And just in the last two years of the pandemic, we have seen how very vital the agricultural sector is to the entire state. And I think, actually, there's a real opportunity there. We didn't have a real clear understanding, I think, in the downstate area of how important upstate agriculture was to the whole state until the supply chains broke down during the pandemic. And that was a rude awakening for a lot of folks downstate. But out of that rude awakening came a real sense that we can fix this, we can change this, and I would like to be part of coming up with new solutions there.

George C., WRFI 14:18
Well, another thing going back a little bit to your talk about tax policy earlier, was a property tax deduction. How would that impact the farmers in the in rural New York?

Leslie Danks Burke 14:28
It would be tremendous. Right now, farmers are going bankrupt all across upstate New York. Dairy farmers, for example, are getting pushed out. The price of dairy is is kept often artificially low by subsidies that the federal government gives to big huge dairy conglomerates and then they come in and try and buy up the land and they force local family farms out of business. And what we need to do in New York State is protect those family farms because the very substantial family farms that have been there for generations, for decades, those are land stewards. And it's not just economic growth. It's also a climate change protection program to make sure that we are not turning that land over to huge corporate monopolies that that will destroy the protections that we've put in place.

George C., WRFI 15:18
Well, that's something that you've talked a lot about as rural voices in the area. Now, what would you say are the two or three things besides the property tax, of course, that you think would you'd want to do that would benefit the farmers?

Leslie Danks Burke 15:30
So I am focused on three things jobs, schools, and farms. We need to focus on jobs in this area, we need to bring back economic investment, not just new jobs, we definitely need new jobs, we can have new green energy jobs, we can have new jobs and internet broadband build out, but also in increasing the wages and existing jobs. I'm very proud that I was just endorsed by the United Auto Workers, UAW region nine, and UAW represents Cornell University, facilities and maintenance staff, the dining room staff, the facility staff, and those wages are are not going up, unfortunately, right now. And folks are finding it very difficult to support their families. We need to find ways that those jobs, those good strong union jobs, are actually providing the salaries that folks need to stay in the middle class.

George C., WRFI 16:25
You've talked about unionization, talked about the-- what do you think are the things that people can do-- that you could do in the state senate that could benefit unions? We've had a recent drive here in Ithaca, with all three Starbucks in the city being unionized, what do you think the state Senate can do? And what would you want to do that could benefit organized labor?

Leslie Danks Burke 16:44
First of all, anytime government is involved, there should be a requirement that union labor is part of the conversation. It's only in the last year or so that in Tompkins County, the Industrial Development Agency, which in Tompkins County is called T CAD, has required that a certain number of jobs that go to developers who are asking for tax breaks have to be union jobs. It's sort of mind boggling that here in very blue Tompkins County, it took us that long to get that sort of protection for fair wage jobs in a blue County, that should be statewide. And so I would want to push for those sort of protections that make sure that wages are are hitting a floor so that everyone has an opportunity to succeed.

George C., WRFI 17:36
Well also something about unions, and we can kind of circle this back to something we talked about earlier, was there have been a few unions who have been skeptical of things like the New York Health Act with the argument that it would eliminate union benefits. How would you respond to that? And do you think those fears are justified?

Leslie Danks Burke 17:52
Well, the fear comes from a scarcity mentality, right. And unions have been under attack in American politics for the last couple of decades. And those are really hard fought hard won achievements that they have achieved for their membership. And if there's a sense that they're going to be threatened, you can understand why they they'd be scared, right. So what you have to do is have those real clear conversations between people who are in favor of single payer health care, and people who are in favor of a much broader plan of health care and wage benefits, to see that actually, their interests are aligned. And actually, this is going to benefit everybody. But you can't go into that conversation oppositional, you can't go into that conversation thinking one side or the other side is right or wrong, because that's just going to make the pie smaller, and it's going to lead to a dissolution of the coalition that you really need to build.

George C., WRFI 18:46
Well, again, you've talked a lot about your rural background, talking about rural progressive voices, but a large sector of the district--we don't know what's going to be yet--but at least the district that that once was, was also urban, Ithaca and Binghamton both being there. What are your priorities for urban communities?

Leslie Danks Burke 19:02
Well, I think actually, they're very similar and our urban communities in in upstate New York are dependent on our rural communities and vice versa. Binghamton, for example, as a small city, is really dependent on the agricultural community surrounding it. I would argue that Tompkins County is is very, very dependent on the rural counties that surround it. For example, I think it's somewhere around 30% of Schuyler County's workforce commutes into Tompkins County every day, same thing is true for Cortland County. And so if Tompkins County and Ithaca are not thinking about what are the housing needs? What are the transit needs? What are the economic development needs of those rural counties surrounding it? Then that's a bubble that's gonna burst and so we really need to come up with an integrated plan that's going to pull it all together.

George C., WRFI 19:54
If you're just joining us, we are talking with Leslie Danks Burke, a Democratic candidate for State Senate. I want to ask you about criminal justice reform. It's been a hot button issue in the state lately. There are a number of prisons in this general region, the New York Central and Southern Tier region. What is your position on criminal justice reform?

Leslie Danks Burke 20:15
That's a that's a pretty big topic. We've got a lot of a lot in there. Yeah, there's a lot in there. I think that the problem that we're facing is that the current criminal justice system vastly disadvantages certain people in the system. It is factually accurate that Black and Brown people are incarcerated at a significantly higher rate than white people are for the same crimes. It's also factually accurate that up until pretrial incarceration was changed with with the bail plan being changed, if you were rich, and you got accused of a crime, you could stay out of jail during your pretrial period. If you're not rich, then you had to go to jail. So those sorts of inequities, whether it's on race, or wealth, those are baked into our system right now. And we need to unbake those, we need to get back in there and make real systemic change that is going to dismantle a system that has perpetuated inequality. And there's lots of different ways to do that.

George C., WRFI 21:21
Well, let's go into those, then. What do you think that the state hasn't done that you think they should--the state senate or the state government in general--should be pursuing to confront criminal justice reform?

Leslie Danks Burke 21:31
I think the most significant thing that we need to do is make it much more open and transparent. We simply do not have the level of transparency in our criminal justice system that we should have. And that we should expect to have as voters as citizens as participants in the system. This is a government of by and for the people and when information like, you know, how judges are making certain decisions, or how district attorneys are making certain decisions, when that's not available, when it's left wholly to discretion that it can never be reviewed, that's when you really run into problems. So my very first approach would be to one after another in every single sector we can find, open it up and make it more transparent.

George C., WRFI 22:17
One of the things you mentioned there was about judges and the decisions they make. In the recent budget process this past year, the state legislators and Governor Hochul, they did make changes to the state bail reform law that was passed in 2019. One of those measures include expanding the number of crimes that were eligible for bail, do you support those changes?

Leslie Danks Burke 22:36
We do need to adjust how how it was put down. The pretrial incarceration changes that were put in place in 2019 were done without the conversations with law enforcement, without conversations with district attorneys that you would want to have in order to have an educated process come out. And we saw that evolve over the next two years with with all kinds of glitches in the system that were not anticipated because it was rushed through too fast. And so what happened in this last budget cycle, as you point out, is that some of that was addressed. It's not enough, though, this should be an ongoing conversation we have, we certainly do not want to go back to the system that we had before simply because people were left out of the conversation. And that there were glitches in what was rolled out does not mean you throw the whole thing out and you go back to what existed before. Because what existed before, as I pointed out, was rich people could buy their way out of jail, and poor people could not. And that's unAmerican, that's undemocratic. So we've got to get away from that. But at the same time, we need to continue to have the conversation moving forward to make sure that we are addressing these sorts of systemic challenges that I was describing earlier.

George C., WRFI 23:47
Well, then what could you say--we haven't gone far enough in terms of of addressing those issues? What other changes do you think might need to be made to the bail law to Criminal Justice measures? Do you think the number of crimes need to be expanded-- anything like that?

Leslie Danks Burke 24:03
Well, so again, the transparency piece is very significant for me, we still do not have the accountability for judges that I would like to see in the system.

George C., WRFI 24:12
But I'm talking about you said when talking about a bail reform, and how there was as you described having kinks in the system, and my question is, do you think that there are more crimes that need to be bail eligible than there are currently under the recent changes to the bail reform law? Do you think that the current changes made earlier this year were good enough? So like I said, there were changes to the bail reform law over the last year. Do you think those changes are enough or do there need to be more changes made to the bail reform law passed in 2019?

Leslie Danks Burke 24:48
There there definitely needs to be more changes. We have not solved the problem yet. We still have a system that unfairly disadvantages people of certain races, people of certain backgrounds, people will as well. And there's no way we can say that we have completely cleaned up that system. We've got to make more changes.

George C., WRFI 25:07
We have time for one more question, and I'm going to go to a question about undocumented people. There's been a debate at state level state legislature about benefits and documented people in New York State, especially with the recent budget. What responsibility do you think the state has to undocumented people living in the state?

Leslie Danks Burke 25:27
First of all, if you look at it from a budgetary perspective, if we are extending benefits to undocumented people in New York State, it's actually a lot cheaper than it would be to try to track down and chase down and keep folks out of the system. So one of the gripes that I often have with my conservative fellow Americans is this argument that they have about about conservatism and making sure that you're hanging onto the money and you're being fiscally responsible, and you're not spending unnecessary dollars. Sometimes taking care of people is the best way to do that. And so, setting aside all the social justice implications, which I am a very firm believer in, if you look at it purely from an economic perspective, it's cheaper to take care of people.

George C., WRFI 26:17
Well, then I guess that leads me to the follow up: there have been proposals to include undocumented people with childcare benefits, would you support offering those benefits to undocumented people?

Leslie Danks Burke 26:28
Yes, if we're talking about children, and making sure that children have the opportunity to succeed, and those are children who already have the right to attend public schools, and who already have the opportunity to succeed in our economy, they're going to be here anyway. It's it's a much greater burden on our society to not educate them and not care for them.

George C., WRFI 26:47
Well, I want to give you the last two minutes here. We're at our wrap up point for the day. I want to give you a two minutes for your closing statement.

Leslie Danks Burke 26:56
Well, one of the things that I find myself having to point out to folks is that we're actually in a striking period of opportunity in American politics right now. If anyone had asked me 10 years ago, when I was really getting engaged in my community advocacy work, what the biggest threat to America was, I would have said, apathy. And I wouldn't say that today--people are engaged and participating. I have real hope, because I see how many young people are engaged in our political process. And I see real opportunity for our future and I'm excited to be part of that.

George C., WRFI 27:37
You've been listening to an interview with Leslie Danks Burke, a candidate for the Democratic primary in the New York State Senate. Both the district where Leslie is running and the date of the Democratic primary will be determined later this month. Leslie, thanks for joining us in the studio to discuss your campaign and your positions on the key issues.

Leslie Danks Burke 27:53
Thank you.

George C., WRFI 27:55
Our interview series with candidate for Congress and New York State Senate continues tomorrow. Tune in at 6pm, we'll be talking to Lea Webb, a candidate in the Democratic primary for State Senate. You can see the full interview schedule and listen to archived interviews at our website, Our producer is Corinne Shanahan. For WRFI Community Radio News, I'm George Christopher.