In her final year in office, Betty Little remains focused on constituents and cell phone coverage
By Gwendolyn Craig
Inside the New York State Capitol, where people in suits and heels rush back and forth and political jabber echoes in grand staircases, Betty Little’s office is a slice of North Country life.
On a Wednesday in January, Little sat on her couch in the small room. She wore an evergreen suit, surrounded by hints of home—a framed landscape from the Adirondack Balloon Festival, pine cones and greenery on a side table, a poster featuring Washington County’s grassland birds.
She held a printout of her day’s schedule. Her greatest accomplishments over roughly 18 years in the state Senate and seven in the state Assembly were scribbled in a few lines on the same sheet.
“I think one of the things I’m most proud of is the constituent service that my office has done,” Little, R-Queensbury, said. “You don’t itemize those things because they aren’t very important to somebody else, but they’re very important to that person.
“That’s my main role.”
Her District 45 spreads over 6,800 square-miles from parts of Washington County, up past Plattsburgh to the Canadian border and west past Tupper Lake. Her devotion to the more than 300,000 constituents is perhaps what many will miss most about Little, who announced in December that she is retiring from the Senate.
Even some who have disagreed with her positions, including those on the environment and the future of the Adirondacks, admire her.
“She’s always been there for people in every way,” said David Gibson, managing partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.
“She’s been a good senator,” added Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council. “She’s really done a great job of representing the interests of local governments in the Adirondacks.”
But there’s no rest for Little yet.
With a shortened legislative calendar this year, a $6 billion budget deficit to tackle, continuing gaps in cell service in the Adirondacks and the health care and education of constituents on the line, there’s work to do.
A brief history
Little, 79, was born in Glens Falls. She graduated from St. Mary’s Academy and the College of Saint Rose. She was a teacher, educating students in New York City Public Schools and Queensbury schools in the 1960s.
By the 1980s, Little had become involved in local government. She was the Town of Queensbury’s supervisor-at-large in 1986, and served as Warren County’s budget officer in 1990 and 1991. While working in politics, she also worked in real estate.
She made her way to the state Assembly before getting elected in November 2002 to take on Ronald Stafford’s seat for state senator. She was recognized with a number of public service awards along the way.
Leaving office was a hard decision, she said.
Her tenure as the state’s longest-serving Republican female senator received recognition in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address in January. “That was a total surprise,” she said.
Matt Simpson, supervisor for the town of Horicon and president of the Adirondack Association of Towns & Villages, called Little “a leader among leaders.”
“She dealt with every issue, always in the best interests of every single person across the entire Adirondack Park,” Simpson said.
Many would agree Little had the best of intentions throughout her political career. But that did not mean they always thought her decisions were good for the environment or Adirondack Park wilderness preservation.
The New York League of Conservation Voters publishes a scorecard annually for how legislators vote on environmental issues, and Little has scored below 50% the last two years. In 2019, her score was 44%.
She didn’t support, for example, the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which aims to reduce New York’s greenhouse gas emissions by 85% below 1990 levels by 2050.
Little said she thinks climate change is a “huge factor” and she believes in reducing fossil fuel use, but she didn’t support the legislation because it had a 22-person committee with no legislators on it.
“The Legislature is the one who is making the rules, and we’re the ones that ought to be formulating the policy,” she said, not 22 people “who don’t really care where the money is coming from, or how expensive it is.”
The senator is in favor of the proposed $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, she said. That bond, which the public will have to vote on in November, could help local municipalities pay for water and wastewater treatment upgrades, she pointed out.
Environmental groups have generally said they appreciate and admire the senator for her service, while acknowledging their disagreements. Willie Janeway, executive director of the Adirondack Council, mentioned his organization’s support for the climate change legislation, and how Little did not support it.
Still, Janeway said Little has always been respectful, and Gibson said “she’s never shut the door in our face.”
Peter Bauer, director of Protect the Adirondacks, was not so delicate.
“Betty Little’s career in the Assembly and the Senate was marked by tremendous lost opportunities because of her ceaseless opposition to the environmental protection of the Adirondack Park,” Bauer said. “She always saw the park as an obstacle.”
Bauer particularly blames Little for the current state of the Adirondack Park Agency, which he said has been “gutted.” He pointed to Little’s opposition to Peter Hornbeck, an environmentalist and owner of Hornbeck Boats, who at one point was near to an appointment on the agency’s board. The governor appoints board members, with Senate approval.
Sitting in his art studio above his rural Olmstedville boat business in January, Hornbeck said he didn’t hold a grudge against Little.
“She felt that if you were an environmentalist, you would naturally be anti-business,” Hornbeck said, recalling conversations with the senator. “And at that time, I didn’t take issue with it. … I didn’t see the relationship between business success and land protection that I do now.
“She had the welfare of her constituents—what she felt would be the welfare of her constituents—uppermost in her mind, and that’s how she acted.”
Little takes credit for her work combating invasive species, and many environmentalists likewise praise her for it. Bauer, though, said it was only because Glen Lake became infested with thick beds of Eurasian watermilfoil. Little lives on Glen Lake, in Queensbury.
While that is true—Little did say she was watching the aquatic problem grow before her eyes—the funding she rallied for and got would go on to help a number of lake associations across the Adirondacks fight their tangled battles against invasives. The funding continues year-to-year, still making a difference.
“Lakes really generate the tourists, and you just have to have it,” she said of the money.
Balancing people and the environment
On her list of accomplishments, Little noted five constitutional amendments that she helped push for the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
One, called the health and safety account, created a 250-acre land bank that municipalities could use to fix roads and bridges, or add water and sewer lines and other infrastructure to areas in the forest preserve. It also pertains to the Catskills.
Gibson recalled when a bridge—the Middleton Bridge over the Schroon River—was in disrepair. Because the state preserve surrounded its location between Warrensburg and Bolton, it could not be replaced.
Little said the bridge outage became a public safety issue. Rydin’ High Ranch Resort in Warrensburg had a fire in 2018, and emergency crews had to take a longer way around.
Now, with the land bank amendment, it can be fixed.
“These are really, really important things,” Little said.
Driving up the Northway in 2008, Little stopped at an emergency phone, picked it up and dialed for State Police.
They answered. She drove a bit further to the next phone. Dialed. They answered.
The next phone.
“Finally, I was just saying, ‘Me again,’” Little said, recalling her test of a number of the 710 emergency phones spaced a half mile apart up and down that Interstate 87 route.
The desolate stretch has been the site of numerous car accidents and one of Little’s greatest fights in her career has been to expand cell service along it and into the Adirondacks.
It’s a fight she’s taking to the end of her term.
The battle has been constant, but it perhaps reached its peak in January 2007 when 63-year-old Alfred Langner drove off the Northwayin North Hudson and, after about 19 hours, died of hypothermia. Little said the Brooklyn man was holding his cellphone in his hand, unable to get reception and call for help. His wife, Barbara Langner, was found alive.
Little said the couple’s car was close to an emergency phone, but there are no indicators on the highway to show whether the emergency phone in front of you or behind you is closer. Shortly after Langner’s death, Little tested the call boxes.
She also keeps track of where cell service drops on the Northway. New cell towers have made reception much better, but Little still finds dead zones between exits 30 and 31, near where Langner died.
“We have to have better cell coverage,” Little said. “The governor mentioned it in his budget, or the State of the State, and I’m on that cell service task force that he put together. We have to work with the environmentalists.”
The Adirondack Park Agency has strict cell tower regulations, including that they can’t be taller than the trees around them.
Little wants the towers taller. The Adirondack Council and other environmental groups do not.
“We’re going to disagree with her over whether cell towers should be screened in the park or not,” Janeway said, about this legislative session. “We think they should be.”
Aside from the public safety concerns, Little is worried that the Adirondack Park’s population is aging and shrinking. In a society where there are more and more people working remotely, Little thinks expanding internet and cell service in the Adirondacks could attract them.
More people will help struggling schools and their dwindling enrollments, she said.
The state’s new welcome centers, she added, have no paper brochures because visitors are supposed to get information from their phones. State troopers need coverage to search the license plate of a car they may pull over.
Little said she can accept the concession of making the towers look like trees—if they’re taller than the trees around them. “Every place you look in the Adirondacks, you look at the ridgeline, there are trees that are above,” she said, “and it just seems so unfair trying to preserve the view of the hikers who come to the Adirondacks, and hurt the people who live here and are visiting here even.”
Following Cuomo’s budget address on Jan. 21, Little walked out of the Kitty Carlisle Theatre at The Egg in Albany, her voice shaking as she realized that it would be her last budget presentation.
The days are long in a senator’s shoes, but the time is short, and Little is savoring it.
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, released a statement in December wishing the senator well on her next journey, and calling her a “tremendous role model” and a “local icon.”
U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, D-NY, said he and Little “are different in so many ways,” but added that “Betty and I have always concentrated on the areas where we could work together for the Adirondack Region.”
He mentioned bringing professional hockey back to Glens Falls with the Adirondack Thunder, and getting funding to upgrade Lake George’s wastewater treatment plant. Schumer said he will miss working with Little “when she ends her impressive career in public service.”
Someone else will be in that Senate 45 seat next year, and while Little hasn’t officially endorsed him, she hinted that she has always worked well with Dan Stec.
Having served as an assemblyman for seven years under Little, Stec, R-Queensbury, said he has learned a lot.
“You can’t be a bull in a china shop all the time,” Stec said. “She built up a lot of trust and a lot of credibility over the years. She never over-promised and she never deceived anybody. She was very pragmatic, and I think people respected that.”
Two other Republicans—Cambridge Mayor Carmen Bogle and Kevin Beary, from St. Lawrence County—announced they will run for Little’s seat.
Kimberly Davis, treasurer for Clinton County and a Democrat running for Little’s seat, said she appreciated Little’s work over the years.
“I absolutely appreciate her long and continued service, both in the Assembly and the Senate, to our district,” Davis said. “When you ask anyone on either side of the aisle something about Betty, everyone will talk about the great constituent services that she gives. I think that will certainly be part of her legacy.”
While Little may be giving up seat 45 in the Senate chamber, she plans to still be a face in the community. She’ll use her free time volunteering. On her list is working at the 2023 World University Games in Lake Placid. She also wants to spend more time at the Double H Ranch in Lake Luzerne, helping provide recreational opportunities for children with serious illnesses.
But first, she said: cell coverage.