Rochester, NY – In 1992 Dollinger beat an incumbent in a Democratic primary that focused on abortion issues: Dollinger is pro-choice, his opponent then was not. He then went on to win in the general election and served until 2002 when he left for the private sector. Dollinger's next foray into political life was as Brighton Town Justice, a position that he just recently left in order to run for the state senate again.
This time around, Dollinger is running hard on his party affiliation in the heavily Democratic district that includes Greece, Brighton, Parma and the city of Rochester. Dollinger is emphasizing his Democratic roots in his campaign literature, and underlining his opponent Joe Robach's switch to the Republican party in 2002.
Dollinger is also running as a reformer who wants to pick up the pace in Albany by instituting term limits and getting rid of pork barrel spending, in a year when dislodging the Republican majority in the state senate might actually be possible.
If that happens, Paychex Founder Tom Golisano's organization Responsible New York will have had a hand in it. That organization is infusing races across the state with $5 million, and is backing three Democratic senate challengers locally.
Laureen Oliver is with Responsible New York. She says Dollinger is on the organization's slate of candidates because of his interest in changing the way Albany works. "I always found Rick Dollinger to be a little bit different. He's talked about reforming the process in Albany as long as I can remember. That the process itself is wrong. I'm a big supporter of that, and so is Tom Golisano: that we send good people to a bad system."
According to those who've observed his career, Dollinger's potential for reform in that system was limited by his party's minority status. Brighton Town Supervisor Sandra Frankel has known Dollinger since the late 1980s. This year, she ran in the Democratic primary against him for the seat he's now battling for. Frankel says that if Dollinger is elected, and the majority in the state senate switches to the Democrats, he'll have a better chance of getting bills passed.
He was in the minority in the state senate for about 10 years and that can be a frustrating experience because of the way the senate rules work and the way their procedures and practices have evolved. It's been difficult for anyone in the minority to have policy considered in a serious way, to get legislation passed.
The changes that Dollinger is looking for include more oversight over the member item dollars that the majority leader assigns to senators, and instituting term limits in the state Senate and Assembly.
Dollinger also wants to change the very face of electoral politics in New York state: districts. Dollinger wants make them more geographically cohesive, rather than the gerrymandered abstract shapes they look like now. As he did in 1992, he's calling for a constitutional convention to create an independent commission to assign new districts.
Oliver, with Responsible New York, says Dollinger deserves another shot in the state senate, to enact his reforms. "You know you gotta know Rick Dollinger too. Over the years I got to know him and saw his sincerity, and how much he really cares about it. He doesn't have to come back and run for senate. He's a successfully attorney, he doesn't need to do it. But he's truly a public servant. He wants to go back and try and make a difference. And I admire and respect him for that."
But can Dollinger still flex his reformer credentials, even as his candidacy is supported by the big money from Golisano's Responsible New York? Oliver notes that the organization doesn't operate within the current campaign finance system. It has no limits on what it can spend, because it doesn't collaborate with the campaigns.
Oliver says even though the candidates aren't getting cash directly from Responsible New York, there is still an incentive for them to keep their campaign promises. "We'll probably be tapping them on the shoulder a lot saying hey, remember us? We supported you, and you said you were going to do this'. And I have a feeling that people might honor their endorsements because in two years, there's another election."
Dollinger is unlike other challengers looking for a freshman seat in the senate in another way. During his first stint in the senate, he shared a desk with a young senator from the 29th district - who is now Governor David Paterson. The two reportedly remain close friends; a friendship that could be useful if Dollinger were to win his senate contest this fall.
If the Democrats do take the senate in November, they will hold the majority in both houses and the governorship, and be in a powerful position to enact a reform platform - if the heady power of Albany incumbency doesn't take hold first.
Regardless of the outcome in the 56th senate district, it is unlikely that this will be the last time Rick Dollinger runs for public office. His assistant, Scott Solomon, says this former state senator and county legislator simply loves the race. "One thing he says is he complains about the campaign because he's never around his family, he loves his family, and he loves to be around his family ... but the campaign means everything to him."