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Retiring Sen. Little reflects on big career

Betty Little speaks in Saranac Lake about the road salt bill signed by Gov. Cuomo in December 2020. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

PLATTSBURGH — Betty Little sees serving in the State Legislature for 25 years as an enormous privilege she never anticipated as a former stay-at-home mom.

“I’m very grateful and (there’s) so many people I’ve met,” the retiring state senator told The Press-Republican during a recent interview.

“So many hardworking people, really, working not just for themselves and to improve the lives of their family, but to improve their community.

“I think that’s pretty much the way you can describe North Country people is, looking at the bigger good as we go forward.”

Will miss it

After serving in Queensbury and Warren County government, Little (R-Queensbury) won a special election to the State Assembly in 1995.

In 2002, she won the race to succeed Ron Stafford in the Senate, and has since been re-elected eight times.

Little announced her plans to retire at the end of this year in December 2019. In November, State Assemblyman Dan Stec (R-Queensbury) was elected to succeed her.

The 45th State Senate District’s current configuration encompasses all of Clinton, Essex, Franklin and Warren counties along with parts of St. Lawrence and Washington counties.

“I’ve loved what I’ve done and loved having the privilege to do this and loved being in the district more than in Albany,” Little, 80, said. “The Albany part has been good, too.

“I definitely will miss it, but I just had told myself I would not be there when I was 80 years old. There’s several 80-year-old people nodding their heads and needing to be nudged to stay awake and I thought, ‘That is not going to be me.'”

COVID-19

Little never expected all that her final year brought. Due to COVID-19, she has not gone to Albany since March and has spent her time working with people who are really hurting due to the pandemic, noting those in the hospitality and entertainment businesses.

She posited that there is a lot of inequity in how the state has handled things. For example, two arcades in Lake George have remained closed while casinos have been allowed to reopen.

“It’s such a big thing and it’s done on bigger levels but it doesn’t always filter down to the smaller levels equitably,” Little said.

Noting the arrival of the vaccine, Little said she hopes the pandemic can end soon. In the meantime, she is glad the importance of students attending school in-person when possible has been acknowledged.

“I was a teacher. I can’t imagine teaching a class of 30 kids that I didn’t see.”

She believes it is a lost year for businesses and many people.

“I don’t know how we recover psychologically from all of this, either as a country, as a state.”

Breast cancer

A bout with breast cancer also marked Little’s 2020.

A routine mammogram tacked onto a regular checkup in July detected the lump, which was removed in October. Little subsequently underwent five days of radiation treatment.

Little hesitated to make her diagnosis and treatment public, and for a time sat on a statement she and Chief of Staff Daniel MacEntee had drawn up. She later read the op-ed to her hairdresser.

“She said, ‘Somebody’s going to go to the phone and make an appointment,'” Little said.

So she released the piece, which ran in The Press-Republican and other news outlets.

“The next morning, I got a call from Andrea Stewart-Cousins and she said, ‘I just want to tell you I made an appointment this morning,'” Little said. “I don’t think my hairdresser thought it was going to be the majority leader of the (state) senate who would make the appointment, but she did.”

With two daughters, nine granddaughters and nine grandsons in mind, Little also planned to undergo genetic testing for breast cancer risk.

Constitutional ammendments

Little believes Gov. Andrew Cuomo has done a lot for the Adirondacks and the North Country, noting in particular Regional Economic Development Councils that have ensured the region gets a share of state monies.

She said his Adirondack challenges which brought legislators north of Albany have made it easier to get legislation and constitutional amendments through. Little has sponsored five amendments.

“I don’t think any other legislator has ever sponsored five constitutional amendments — nobody else has had to have constitutional amendments to do the things we had to do.”

Little considers the Forest Preserve Land Bank Amendment the most significant. Approved by voters in 2017, it created a land bank that offsets public health and safety projects in the Adirondacks and Catskills. In September 2019, Cuomo signed legislation, cosponsored by Little, that added more than 1,400 acres to the forest preserve.

Little cited the Cascade Road as a thoroughfare in need of widening and repair.

“That needs to be a priority if we ever get any infrastructure money from the federal government, like we have in the past and hopefully we will in the future.”

Women

The number of women in the State Senate has increased by eight to 19 since Little joined in 2003, and the body is now led by a woman as well.

Certain issues, she said, have been raised to a different level by increased presence of women, such as domestic violence and sexual assault.

Little recalled how, when she was on the Warren County Board of Supervisors, a bill to support displaced homemakers came up. A man asked what a displaced homemaker was.

“I said, ‘It’s a woman who, through death, divorce or illness or something, is 55, 58 years old and has to go to work and needs confidence-building and help and training and that kind of thing to assist them to find a job and get back to work.'”

Later on, when she was in the Assembly, another bill for displaced homemakers came up.

“And the assemblyman next to me said, ‘Just what is a displaced homemaker?’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s the second time.'”

Little contended that women make good candidates since many do not have the baggage men have.

“I would not say they’re better legislators than men, but I think they have different priorities.”

ORDA, internet

Though retiring from the legislature, Little will continue her state involvement as a member of the Olympic Regional Development Authority board.

She looks forward to the 2023 Winter World University Games, to be held in Lake Placid.

“We’re either going to remain historic with the ’32 and ’80 Olympics or we’re going to be relevant and be where world cups are taking place, where athletes come and train.”

On what she hopes North Country legislators will continue working on, Little said remote learning necessitated by COVID-19 has proven the need for internet service.

“There has to be internet availability and accessibility and it has to be like free and reduced lunches. There are people in Plattsburgh that don’t have internet at home because they can’t afford it or don’t think it’s a priority and this probably is not the last time that we will go virtual.”

Hard to leave

In an Albany dominated by the Democratic party, it is important for Republicans to speak up to raise and debate the issues, Little said.

“Many of the issues that we support have to do with the economy and health issues as well, and education, but so many of the legislators are from New York City, Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, Yonkers, and their issues are so different than rural New York.”

She believes the district will be in good hands with Stec at the helm.

“It’s hard to leave it, but it’s necessary,” Little said. “I’ll definitely miss it, but I’ve been lucky.”

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