Meet John DeFrancisco, who wants to replace Cuomo as governor  

CONTRIBUTEDNew York State Sen. John DeFrancisco is pictured.

ALBANY – As State Sen. John DeFrancisco tells it, an empty factory in a Syracuse suburb built with $90 million in state funding is a symptom of the wasteful spending by the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

This year, DeFrancisco, a trial lawyer from Syracuse, hopes to deprive Cuomo of a third term as New York's chief executive and become the first Republican to win a statewide contest since 2002.

DeFrancisco, 71, has emerged as the front-runner so far in the race to become the Republican nominee for governor.

NEVER OCCUPIED

The 82,000-square-foot light-bulb factory in DeWitt, the Syracuse suburb where DeFrancisco now lives, was authorized by the development arm of SUNY Polytechnic Institute in 2014 after a California-based LED manufacturer, Soraa, agreed to create 250 full-time jobs there.

The company never occupied the building, though development officials had agreed to lease Soraa the complex for $1 per month for 10 years.

DeFrancisco called it a major "misstep" for the Cuomo administration to approve the project without the company having to make any of its own investment.

"This philosophy of the state providing hundreds of millions of dollars to these companies to create jobs hasn't worked," he said.

TAX RELIEF

DeFrancisco, the son of a house painter, said New York needs tax relief and regulatory reform to help businesses expand and to attract new companies to the state.

DeFrancisco said he decided to run for governor after serving as a senator for 23 years because "the only way there is going to be a fundamental change in the state of New York is to have change at the top."

"More people are leaving this state than coming here," he said.

FUNDING IMBALANCE

Cuomo began the year with a campaign war chest brimming with $30 million, giving him the financial resources needed to amplify his messages to voters.

Despite that advantage, DeFrancisco, who has about $1.5 million in his campaign account, said he is confident he can generate the contributions needed to compete with the incumbent.

"I'm going to raise enough to beat him, and I'm going to beat him," DeFrancisco insisted.

A Siena College poll released this week showed the governor's approval ratings had fallen notably in just a month, a period when one of his former top aides, Joseph Percoco, has been on trial in a federal courthouse on bribery and corruption charges stemming from a power-plant construction project.

"People upstate and people downstate aren't happy with this governor," DeFrancisco said, contending "it's a different atmosphere out there" than it was in 2006, when Democrat Eliot Spitzer coasted past GOP challenger John Faso, now a congressman, in the 2006 gubernatorial election.

DeFrancisco also sees an opportunity to compete with Cuomo in what has been the governor's home territory - New York City - due to what the challenger contended is growing public dissatisfaction with the state's role in overseeing the mass-transit system there.

He argued the current state budget deficit of more than $4 billion, Cuomo's proposed $1 billion in "revenue enhancers" and expensive new programs such as free tuition at public colleges threaten to make New York less affordable for many families.

'EXTREME'

State Democrats, meanwhile, are banking on what polls suggest is voter disapproval of President Donald Trump to keep Republicans from getting any pep in their step this year.

Geoff Berman, director of the state Democratic Committee, mocked DeFrancisco as a Trump "Mini Me" who has opposed same-sex marriage and Cuomo's gun-regulation measure, known as the New York SAFE Act.

"The moderate Republican Party is dead in New York and has been taken over by the extreme conservatives who shaped the Trump candidacy," Berman said in a Jan. 30 statement.

CHALLENGES

As the former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, DeFrancisco, has a keen understanding of state budgeting, said Gerald Benjamin, a veteran political science professor at SUNY New Paltz.

But he is not known to downstate voters, who have a major influence on the outcome of statewide elections, he noted.

The last New York governor from the region north of the New York City suburbs was Nathan Miller of Cortland, who served in Albany from 1921 to 1922.

There is also the Trump factor, Benjamin said.

"New Yorkers tend to be predisposed to the Democratic Party, but Trump is creating an even more negative environment for Republicans this year," he said.

'PIT BULL'

DeFrancisco's criticisms of Cuomo's economic policies have not gone unnoticed by the governor's team.

One Cuomo appointee, Richard Azzopardi, responded by insulting DeFrancisco's physical appearance in a tweet: "That statement is about as real as his hairline."

DeFrancisco, once a captain of the Syracuse University baseball team, is not reluctant to engage in hardball of his own.

After Cuomo's office released photos and a video recording showing the governor with a new puppy, the senator said: "He's going to need more than dogs and cats to improve his image. The animals aren't going to help."

As for canine comparisons, DeFrancisco has been admiringly dubbed a "pit bull" by one of his Democratic colleagues, Sen. Kevin Parker of Brooklyn.

"Despite our differences on issues, I have a great deal of respect for Senator DeFrancisco," Parker said. "He is very knowledgeable, and he is somebody who is always prepared when he speaks on the floor."

ENDORSEMENTS

Two other Republican politicians are competing for the GOP nomination: former state housing commissioner Joseph Holland, whose interest in running for governor was first reported by CNHI, and former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra.

But DeFrancisco has garnered the endorsements of more than a dozen GOP county chairpersons, giving him the edge so far in the race for his party's nomination.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.