Pamela Helming is known for doing her homework.
The state senator representing the 54th District – which spreads from Webster in the west past Fair Haven, Cayuga County, in the east to the town of Lansing, Tompkins County, to the south – has been known to consult a tablet in the middle of a legislative debate to buttress her argument.
Victor Town Supervisor Jack Marren, who is the chairman of the Ontario County Board of Supervisors, once threatened to cut off internet access during board meetings so Helming – then the supervisor of the town of Canandaigua – couldn’t “stump the supervisor” with the contemporaneous research she was obtaining with her tablet.
Now in her third year and second term as a state senator, the Republican Helming can – without consulting her notes or staff – tell a visitor where the Waterloo Girls’ cross-country team stands in sectional, regional and state competitions. A former cross-country athlete herself, Helming took pleasure in recognizing the championship team one recent morning.
Before she ran against a Democratic incumbent for the position of Canandaigua town supervisor some years ago, the then town board member asked local political parties for time to speak with them about their concerns.
“I sent a letter to every political party involved in the town of Canandaigua,” she recalled. She was working without a tablet at that time, having lost her company-owned tablet, laptop, smart phone and car when she was laid off as an environmental compliance manager from a landfill-operating waste company. So she made a daily habit of walking four miles from her home outside the city of Canandaigua to the Wood Library downtown for the computers and printers.
The Republican, Democratic, Independent and Conservative parties all endorsed her.
“I beat a Democrat on his own line,” said Helming with a note of pride in her voice.
Helming, who comes from the Midwest but has lived in Canandaigua for more than 35 years, first became active in public affairs after her daughter was born in 1990; becoming a mother made her focus on the future of the environment. At the time, development of Canandaigua Lake was becoming a much-discussed environmental issue, she recalled. She found a seat on the zoning board of appeals and then moved up to town board.
“I never had a plan laid out,” Helming said about her political career during an interview in her downtown Geneva district office.
As a town supervisor she worked to make town government more transparent, creating a community newsletter and putting information on the town’s website where people could see it without having to visit town hall. She pushed for a greenway plan for the town, trying to balance environmental concerns while encouraging economic development.
Similarly, she had no designs on running for state office, even after longtime state Sen. Michael Nozzolio announced he would not run for re-election in 2016.
In fact, instead of making political plans, she went on vacation with her husband, Gary, who sells snow-making equipment for ski areas. Helming wasn’t answering her cellphone, so two people who had worked with her and for the Ontario County Republican Party ended up calling Gary Helming to get Pam on the line so they could try to persuade her to run.
Both Kristine Singer and Doug Finch had been hired by Helming to work for the town. Singer, who worked in bookkeeping for Canandaigua, is town supervisor for Canadice. Finch is town manager for Canandaigua.
“We got to see how dedicated she was to her constituents. And she took a very personal, active role in everything that was coming before her,” Singer said. “Pretty much anything that came before her, she did her homework, she dug into it and … she didn’t just pass it off to staff to do.”
Helming didn’t go for idea at first, Singer recalled. “She thought we were nuts.”
But Singer and Finch felt she was better than anyone else running. “We know nobody can push her around,” Singer said. “She’s not easily influenced.”
Helming said recently she had a hard time thinking of herself in the same category as Nozzolio, with his Ivy League education. Nozzolio holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cornell University and a law degree from Syracuse University.
“I’m the first person in my family to go to college,” Helming said.
“She’d be the first to say she used to be a little shy in front of a microphone,” Marren said. At an appreciation event she emceed recently, she laughed at herself for repeatedly breaking a promise to her staff that she would not hug everyone who came forward for a certificate, as well as all their family members.
Marren added that she relates to people genuinely and compassionately, which serves her well as a senator.
Away from the mic, Helming is a problem solver. She brings to bear her experiences from working in direct care right out of college, to marketing for care agencies, to working in environmental compliance for a multi-state corporation, to more than a decade in municipal government.
“I don’t think the public realizes how much case work” is involved in government, Helming said. “I’m able to help a lot of people solve problems.”
Marren said her experience at the town level really helps her in her newer role of state representative.
“Those are big shoes to fill,” Marren said. “Not to disrespect Sen. Nozzolio. He had his ways. Supervisor Helming has filled those shoes and she’s done it in a whole different way.”
The environment is still a key issue for Helming and played a role in her deciding to run for Nozzolio’s former seat. The district includes four Finger Lakes and the shoreline of Lake Ontario.
“I was concerned our lakes wouldn’t get the attention we need,” she said.
Singer said Helming was instrumental in getting state funding to combat algal blooms in the Finger Lakes, including Honeoye Lake. Though Canadice isn’t in the 54th district, it benefitted from the legislation Helming promoted.
Helming’s was also one of the louder voices opposing the creation of a waste-fueled power plant in Romulus at the former Seneca Army Depot, a project that appears stalled now because of the passage of legislation that would prevent such an incinerator in the Finger Lakes watershed. Helming co-sponsored the legislation.
She said she hopes Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has supported banning the project, will visit the Finger Lakes to sign the legislation into law.
“I encourage him to sign it here, where all the people who’ve been a part of it can see him,” Helming said. “Grassroots efforts can and do make a difference.”
On other issues, though, Helming is critical of the governor’s stances, particularly his penchant for creating policy by way of budget funding. Though the proverbial “three men in a room” making decisions for the state (the governor and legislative branch leaders) is now two men and a woman, she notes: “That excludes hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and those of us who represent them.”
A gun owner herself, Helming is opposed to the Safe Act gun control law Cuomo enacted several years ago. She also supports lowering taxes in the state.
Helming began her work as a senator by methodically doing her homework once again. In her first two years, she held 30 town hall meetings all over the district. And she introduced more legislation than any other member of her freshman Senate class, she said. “A lot of it came out of the town hall meetings.”
Like many upstate office holders, Helming feels the region doesn’t get the attention it needs or deserves. She points to roads and bridges that fail to earn state transportation dollars for needed repairs, and the lack of sufficient broadband service in rural areas.
“There are so many areas that have sketchy service,” she said. While many people seek internet service at local libraries, Helming notes that there’s even a library in southern Cayuga County that doesn’t have reliable service.
Such issues form the backbone of the 54th District and Helming’s role in the Senate.
“I’m the spokesperson for our rural communities in central New York,” Helming said.
During her initial year in the Senate, Helming kept the office in Seneca Falls that Nozzolio, a native of Seneca Falls, had used. Then she moved it to Exchange Street in Geneva to be more centrally located, to take part in the renaissance of downtown Geneva, and to be closer to conveniences. She holds business meetings in a nearby Lyons National Bank office, she said, and larger gatherings in the new state visitor’s center on the edge of Seneca Lake, she noted.
The office also happens to be about 10 miles closer to her home. She has a satellite office in Wayne County.
These are terribly negative political times, Helming said. And in reaction, she’s become a one-woman band of positivity.
“I have made a real attempt to highlight and spotlight positive things happening in the 54th Senate District,” she said. Her schedule, when she’s in the district, is filled nearly daily with recognition events, like greeting the cross-country runners and a classmate who won a wrestling championship. She has established regular recognitions for veterans in her district, too.
At each event with youngsters, as she did with the Waterloo athletes, Helming makes sure to ask the young people if they’ve ever considered a life in government. She usually gets a negative answer, but then she tells the teenagers how such work is a job for people who like to help people.
Later on the day she met with the runners, Helming would champion not one woman of distinction for her senate district, but all 25 nominees for that title with a reception at Ventosa Winery on the east side of Seneca Lake. The event drew about 200 people, giving attention to women who quietly go about their business, as Helming said, and might not otherwise get recognized.
If there’s any doubt that women sometimes lack the recognition and status they’re due, consider this: Helming represents the senate district that includes the place where the women’s rights movement was born in 1848. And yet 168 years later, she became the first woman to hold that seat.
d[email protected]/ (585) 363-7275
Position: State senator, 54th District
Family: Husband, Gary Helming; daughter, Catherine Helming-Sauter, 28, of North Carolina; son, Evan Helming, 25, of Canandaigua; one granddaughter.
Residence: Town of Canandaigua
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Hiram College, 1984
Hobbies: Downhill skiing, boating
Quote: “I’m the spokesperson for our rural communities in central New York.”