By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
MILFORD – A few weeks ago, the young mother of a newborn died – suddenly, before she and the baby’s dad could follow through on their intent to wed.
Already stricken, the young father discovered he had no legal claim on the little boy.
This is the kind of story state Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, will tell you when asked about the most satisfying part of his 34 years in office: constituent service, helping the people of his 51st District.
Alerted to the dilemma, the senator’s staff sprang into action.
Saturday, Nov. 7, his daughter Lauren had just relayed a message: “Thank your father. I have my son in my arms.”
Seward was being interviewed – in the open air on his back porch in Milford, appropriately masked and socially distanced – on learning he’s receiving this year’s Eugene A. Bettiol Jr. Distinguished Citizen Award.
The award, from the Otsego County Chamber of Commerce, was due to be presented, via Zoom, at
4:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, from the back lawn of The Otesaga.
He remembers the younger Bettiol’s effectiveness in promoting the former National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, and Foothills Performing Arts Center. “He loved Oneonta and our area,” Seward said.
And he remembers Bettiol’s father, Gene Bettiol Sr., the developer of Southside Oneonta, as “a father figure. That makes it extra special.”
Retiring at year’s end, the Bettiol Award – plus the Community Leadership Award, due Friday, Dec. 4, from the Boys Scout’s Leatherstocking Council, and no doubt more honors to come – has the senator, 69, who successfully fought both cancer and COVID-19 in the past year, thinking about the past – and the future.
Raised in the Cliff section of Goodyear Lake with a brother and two sisters, both their parents, Wes and Vivian, were involved in community life – he as a town assessor, she as tax collector.
Attending Valley View Elementary on Oneonta, “I was interested in what was going on in the world,” an interest encouraged by teachers John Clapp in fifth grade and Alice Edwards in sixth. And, at OHS, by future principal Bud Pirone.
As a teenager, the young Jim Seward began identifying role models: Clifford Seward (no relation), who as Milford town supervisor also served on the county board; and with Milford then-mayor June Hotaling.
He entered Hartwick College in 1969. With unrest about the Vietnam War all around him, “I gravitated toward the idea: You ought to have a seat at the table to get things done.”
The opportunity soon arose: In 1970, the Otsego County Republican Committee backed him for state Assembly against a sitting Republican, Harold Luther of Dolgeville. In the GOP primary, Seward lost, 45-55 percent.
Many successful political careers begin with a loss. “I got that out of the way,” he said. But he learned public-contact skills, and the importance of knowing people, of building a network of supporters.
He graduated in 1973 and married Cindy Milavec – the two had met as teenagers, while Jim, organizing Methodist youth groups, set up one in Schenevus – and two children, Ryan and Lauren, would follow.
Soon, he was working for Assemblyman Peter Dokuchitz of Oneonta, then state Sen. Charles Cook of Delhi and, by his mid-30s, for Senator Steve Riford of Auburn.
These were exciting years for the young couple. In 1976, Seward was a convention delegate for President Gerald Ford, and the Sewards found themselves at a reception in the East Wing of the White House, sipping champagne. (Ask Cindy Seward about the phone call in Milford from a mellifluous-voiced man who turned out to be candidate Ronald Reagan.)
As a legislative aide, the future senator also learned the lesson of constituent service. People don’t call up their senator or assemblyman lightly, he said, “people call legislative offices as a last resort.”
Then, unexpectedly in 1986, Riford announced his retirement. “You don’t plot or plan too much in the business,” Seward said. “You never know when opportunity will arise.”
After a hard-fought three-way primary, Seward dispatched the Democrat that November, entering the ornate state Capitol in Albany 34 years ago, as of this coming Jan. 1, 2021.
Senate Majority Leader Warren Anderson, the Binghamton Republican, tested the newcomer, soon naming him chairman of the Energy & Telecommunications Committee.
“It’s something you can sink your teeth into,” said the leader.
“I could get my teeth knocked out as well,” the young legislator said to himself.
In thanks, Seward also came up with the idea of calling I-88 the “Sen. Warren M. Anderson Expressway.” The leader had championed the Binghamton-to-Albany four-lane, which wags nicknamed “Anderson’s Driveway,” (even though, Seward said, Anderson usually flew back and forth to the state capital.)
A subsequent majority leader, Joe Bruno, picked Seward to join then-Assemblyman (now Congressman) Paul Tonko in co-chairing the first-ever conference committee on a stymied Power for Jobs bill.
The bill passed, making low-cost energy available for Upstate job growth.
In the early years, most of the complaints Seward received came from senior citizens struggling to pay skyrocketing school taxes.
In response, he crafted STAR – the school tax relief program – giving the elderly a break on school taxes.
“I remember getting a letter from a senior citizen,” he said, “saying, ‘The only reason I can afford to stay in my home is the STAR program’.”
Now, complainants are mostly asking for broadband.
In the last decade, Seward’s been particularly focused on bringing state funds here for economic development. When he convened his first “Seward Summit” on March 11, 2011, the county had received just $140,000 in such funding that year. Since, “we’ve been bringing in millions.”
While he’s pleased with the county’s economic diversity – the colleges, the hospitals, tourism – he’s worried about the million New Yorkers who have out-migrated from the Empire State in the past decade. “We need to come to terms with that,” he said.
Looking back, the senator finds some satisfaction in having been able to serve the county where he was born, raised, was educated and launched his career, assembling a lifetime worth of friends along the way.
“There are multiple counties in my district,” he said of the 51st. “But there’s something special about my home county.”
Retiring, he plans to complete his recuperation. But, he said, “there’s a role for me in moving our county and our region forward,” and he’s already looking at options.