By JIM KEVLIN • Special to AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – Nov. 6, 2019, came the troubling news to his many fans and well-wishers in Otsego County and the 51st state Senatorial District.
Veteran lawmaker James L. Seward’s cancer, vanquished in 2016, was back.
Treatment followed, “and a scan at the end of December found I’m responding well. The tumor shrank,” he said in an interview following his Monday, Jan. 20, announcement that he won’t seek another term – it would have been his 18th – this fall.
As the legislative session began Jan. 7, he was back in his Albany office, and in his seat on the Senate floor, where he’s been a familiar figure since 1985, ticking off a list of goals for this year’s session, ranging from blocking the commercialization of the marijuana industry, to cutting taxes to stem the state’s – and Otsego County’s – outmigration.
“But I was going to have to continue to have treatment, one day a week. For two, three days after that, I’m tired,” he said, concluding, “It limits my ability to maintain a busy schedule needed in a reelection campaign. If I can’t go 100 percent in a campaign, I’ve opted to not run this year.”
He plans to pursue his duties fully in his district and in Albany, including as ranking member of the Finance Committee, which will be holding all-day hearings for the next two weeks. “I will participate in that,” he said.
But the decision, if it holds, signals the end to one of the most remarkable political careers in Otsego County history, dating back to 1972 when, still a student at Hartwick College, he challenge incumbent Assemblyman Harold Luther of Dolgeville in a Republican primary. He got losing out of the way early in his career, and has won every race that followed.
The next year, when he collected his Hartwick degree in political science – lively debates in OHS teacher Bud Pirone’s classes (Pirone, 80, died last week) inspired his career – he was already a member of the Otsego County Republican Committee. When County Vice Chair Hazel Fields was elevated to chair in 1974, he succeeded her.
The next year, he rose to chairman, at 24 the youngest in county history, where he served for 12 years until his election to the state Senate. As chairman, he attended three nation conventions. He also served as an aide to Assemblyman Pete Dukovitz of Oneonta, Sen. Charles Cook of Delaware County, and Sen. Steve Riford of Auburn.
When Riford retiring at the end of 1984, the still-young Seward beat two more seasoned Republicans in a primary, then turned back a Democratic opponent that fall. He faced challenges in the years that followed, but never a serious one.
“Jim is one of the hardest-working people I’ve known,” said former assemblyman Tony Casale of Cooperstown, in explaining that success. “He always focuses on the job at hand. And he never takes anything for granted. As a result, he has a reputation in Albany as someone you can depend on, someone you can trust, someone who gets the job done.
“In the district, he has the reputation of being successful, for being a good listener, and for following through on every request that’s made of him,” said Casale, a contemporary of Seward’s; their friendship goes back to the 1970s when both were young aides to successful politicians.
“That combination is unbeatable in politics,” said Casale, whose district overlapped with Seward’s for part of their careers.
Jim Seward has been supported all along the way by his wife of 48 years, the former Cindy Milavec. A member of the Cooperstown Junction Methodist Church, the teenaged future senator was testing his organizing skills by start Methodist Youth Fellowship chapters in surrounding churches. In Schenevus, he saw a young woman enter the hall and said to a friend, “Let’s get her involved.”
The two raised two children, Ryan and Lauren, the mother of their two grandchildren, Norah and Vivian.
Asked about his fondest accomplishments, he cited the “Power for Jobs” campaign that provided cheap electricity for companies and the School Tax Relief (STAR) program, which provided property-tax relief to all homeowners earning less than $250,000.
And, and obtaining funding for SUNY Oneonta’s Dewar Arena, the Foothills Performing Arts Center ($6 million), the former National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta ($4 million), which continues to live on as Ioxus, and innumerable other projects.
“I would mention constituent services,” he continued. “It’s given me a great deal of satisfaction. To help people straighten out problems they’ve having with state government, to help individual people with their problems.”
Most satisfying was people coming up to him and saying, “You saved my life.”
“What do you mean?” he would ask.
“My insurance company was not going to pay for treatment. I called your office, you turned that decision around,” more than constituent has told him.
“That’s very, very satisfying,” the senator said.
For now, he said, “I have no plans. I want to get healthy. But I want to stay engaged and acrtive. I have a deep commitment to my community, our region. I will certainly, in one way or another, continue my service, continue to improve the lives of the people who work here.”