Assemblyman John Salka
By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – It’s been a long journey for John Salka from a boyhood in Utica’s Corn Hill section to the sumptuous New York State Capitol.
His tiny 5-foot mom Carmella, a single parent, supported him and his sister Carole by working in a suitcase factory in Whitesboro. “A lot of glue; a lot of grimy work,” said the son, who at one point worked there, too.
Evenings, Carmella Salka would take care of welfare families’ children, as well as the two young Salkas.
“We had kids at our kitchen table, black, white, Hispanic, whatever. They’d be there a couple of days; then they would be gone,” said Carmella’s son, now 66 and completing his first term as assemblyman from the 121st District, which includes western Otsego County.
Every other Saturday, young John would take a bus to the Utica Armory, the pickup point for government surplus food. “Actually, it was pretty good,” he remembers – the peanut butter, in particular.
His mom put her two children through Catholic school, St. Francis de Sales, and John went on to Utica Free Academy. Absent a father’s restraining hand, when he was a junior he said to himself, “I don’t want to be here anymore.” He walked out and never went back.
For the next two years, in Boston, he handled the soundboard for Celebration, a Utica band that was trying to make it big there. (In those days, the now-tidy lawmaker confesses, his braided hair grew down his back to his belt.)
Back home, “I worked a lot of dead-end jobs” through his 20s, including as an aide to the famously impetuous Ed Hanna, Utica’s mayor in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
After Hanna left office, Salka found himself working as an orderly at Utica’s Faxton Hospital, and loving the atmosphere. By then, he had gotten his GED, and, at age 28, enrolled in Mohawk Valley Community College’s respiratory therapy program, (where he became editor of the Student Voice newspaper.)
It was a big demand field. Still in school, he got a job at Community Memorial Hospital in Hamilton and, graduating, he joined the neonatal care unit at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., and he and wife Erin – the couple had met at MVCC – headed for the Nation’s Capital.
“On one side, Marine One would be coming in for a landing; on the other was the Washington Monument,” he remembers. He’d copter out to pick up premature babies, then fly them back for treatment. “It was pretty exciting,” he said.
At the time, a two-bedroom condo in D.C. was going for $150,000. But the Salkas were looking to start a family, so in 1990 headed back to Upstate New York, buying “a fixer-upper on 62 acres of land” in North Brookfield, Madison County, across Unadilla Creek from Edmeston. “We’ve been there ever since.”
Rejoining Community Memorial, Salka rose to the head the respiratory therapy department. On the side, he pursued a mason’s trade, starting a chimney building and repair business.
In Brookfield, the Salkas began raising a family, daughter Emily (Emmy) and Aleksandr. “I got to know the folks; I got to know the community,” and in 2002, he agreed to serve on a Brookfield Central School committee planning a capital project.
The next year, he ran for the school board; three years in, he was elevated to board president, went through the state School Board Association’s prestigious School Board Institute, and served on Madison County BOCES.
In 2007, he ran for Brookfield town supervisor, beating an 18-year incumbent. With 122 miles of roads, he developed a plan that replaced aging highway equipment, cutting the maintenance budget in half and reducing the tax rate from 7.68 per thousand to 6.24.
On the county Board of Supervisors for those 11 years (until he was elected to the Assembly in 2018), he applied his medical background to chairing the Social Services, Mental Health and Public Health committees.
As vice president of the county Board of Health, he oversaw the privatization of the 42-nurse home-care agency, which was “hemorrhaging money because of legacy costs.”
“It took a year and a half,” he said. “We were very, very selective in choosing the company that took over.”
First year, “we saved $1 million. All but two of the nurses found work with the company that took over. Because the company was able to modernize, I think we are providing even better service.”
He called that “my ‘shining star’ in terms of achievement.”
On the Planning & Economic Development Committee, he was involved in installing a 10-acre solar project at the county landfill, saving the county an estimated $200,000 a year, he said.
Through all this, he faced challenges at home. Daughter Emmy contracted cancer, passing away on Oct. 27, 2015, at age 22, after a years-long struggle. Son Alek was placed on the Asperger’s spectrum, but, now 27, is living on his own and has been supporting himself.
In public service for more than a decade, Salka realized, “at the town level, a lot of budget pressures are because of what’s coming out of Albany.” Further, “education is wrought with rules and regulations that schools have to comply with that don’t improve the quality of education and accountability.”
So in 2014, the Republican challenged Assemblyman Bill Magee, D-Nelson, the ailing Ag Committee chairman who had been in office since 1990. Salka lost, 53-47 percent. In 2016, he narrowed Magee’s lead, 52-48 percent. Finally, in 2018, the challenger won, 51-49 percent.
Some question what a Republican can do in an Assembly dominated, 42 to 103, by Democrats. Salka, Thursday, Oct. 8, in this newspaper’s Cooperstown offices, said he’s been able to leverage his knowledge of the state Education Department and other agencies to the benefit of his constituents.
He knows who to call.
Salka said he had a recent success bringing in the state Canal Corp. to resolve flooding in Eaton, allowing a construction project to proceed, and in helping find state help to combat eutrophication in Oneida Lake.