Gray: we’re here to govern

Published: Nov. 17, 2021 at 3:59 PM EST
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WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY) - Scott Gray has a photo on a shelf behind his desk, in the small office designated for the Jefferson County legislature chairman.

Gray is shaking hands with former governor Andrew Cuomo. It’s the kind of photo every politician has in his or her office, and a decade ago, it would have been unremarkable.

In 2021, a picture of Gray, a Republican, shaking hands with Cuomo, a Democrat, gets a reporter’s attention.

“I’m proud that I’ve reached across the aisle,” Gray said the other day. There was a time, he said, when voters rewarded politicians who could do business with the other party, and “I still think the majority of the people recognize the value of that.”

But it is a style of politics that is out of fashion in 2021, and Gray - who has served three terms, six years as chairman - will not seek a fourth term.

His decision to not seek the chairmanship again comes after a trying year and a half in which he’s been the public face of Jefferson County’s effort to combat COVID, and after a dispute with the legislature’s most conservative Republicans went public last summer.

“There’s no question, there’s no secret that I’ve had differences with some of the members.”

“They like to politicize many of their decisions. I think we’re here to govern, I think that’s left for campaigns, and when you’re here you’re serving everybody.”

Gray believes he could have won another term as chairman, but it would have divided the legislature.

On COVID, he sees “polarization” over issues like mask and vaccine mandates.

“It’s been difficult. They’re tough waters to navigate. You see it on the national level, you see it on the state level, you see it on the local level.”

Gray believes in governing from the political middle, neither strongly conservative nor liberal. He points to the annual surveys done by Jefferson Community College’s Center For Community Studies.

“If you look where the electorate is in the county, it is right in the middle, and that’s where I’ve tried to guide the board,” he said.

For the conservatives on the legislature, Gray has been too willing to cross political boundaries, and not willing enough to take a public stance on issues like 2nd Amendment rights.

Gray sees it as part of a larger, national trend in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

“One side or the other, the fringe part of their party talks loudly and starts whipping the middle around, and then the other side talks even louder and starts whipping their middle around.

“What we have is a huge mess going on where nothing is, there’s no compromise any more, there’s no communication, there’s no working together. I think that’s a sad day.”

He believes “that very vocal style on the fringe of either party” will burn itself out eventually, but in the meantime, it’s made getting things done more difficult.

As he leaves the chairmanship, Gray points to a couple of accomplishments in particular; the work he did with the state to protect the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River shoreline after two years of flooding, and getting the county’s finances into shape.

“We are probably, over the six year period now, sitting in our probably most advantageous financial situation. Our balance sheet is probably as strong as it’s ever been,” he said.

Gray will remain on the board, as a legislator representing the southeastern part of Watertown. His likely replacement is his political ally, veteran Town of Alexandria legislator Phil Reed. The legislature will select a new chairman at its January meeting.

Gray was just re-elected in November to another term on the legislature. Is it his last?

“I don’t know,” he said Tuesday. “I’m open to whatever comes my way.”

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