by Maria Strinni
One of Molly Reilly’s earliest memories is going into the voting booth with her father when she was three.
“I am, by personality and training, a politics junkie,” Reilly says. “I am naturally curious about relationships in society and power- power for people; how people who are underrepresented can rise up and have their voices heard.”
Local governance is a family affair for Reilly. Her grandmother, Mary Flynn, was the first woman elected to the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors before the county was governed by a legislature, Reilly says. Mary represented the working-class neighborhoods of the Sixth Ward in the 1980s and held office until 1992.
Now Reilly is running for Mayor of the Ontario Lake village of Sackets Harbor, New York. Reilly has been reflecting on her grandmother’s approach to politics and life: “Do what’s right.” Mary Flynn has always done what’s right, Reilly says. “She’s made some unpopular decisions but it was always what was right.”
What Reilly knows is “right” is listening to the people who live in Sackets Harbor, population 1,450, along with her. Listening is what Reilly does. She was appointed to the village zoning board in 2013; a position she held for two years. She was then elected village trustee from 2015 until her mayoral bid for a two-year term. She’s running against incumbent Vince Battista, who won two terms with no contest, Reilly says.
Although her trustee election was uncontested, Reilly says she campaigned for the seat as though it were a hard-fought race. Reilly says that’s how she learned the value of transactional politics; the importance of meeting constituents face-to- face.
“Sometimes … when you are talking with a voter, they have specific needs but, sometimes, there’s a promise you cannot make. But there’s a transaction in just saying ‘I’m not sure I can support that.’ But sometimes just giving people the opportunity to discuss a problem sometimes solves it,” Reilly says.
Reilly says her constituents asked her to run for mayor, something she’s quite proud of. But she wasn’t sure she was prepared or qualified.
“But what I’m understanding is … that if you are responsive to the people, if you are listening, if you rely on the experts who are available to you, you are qualified,” she says. “I cannot guarantee an answer but I can guarantee a question.”
One of the questions Reilly has is how to capitalize on unique features of Sackets Harbor that draw tourists as well as residents. She’s worked on the villages signature Can-Am Festival, been a member and a liaison of the Chamber of Commerce and helped plan and market numerous village events.
Sackets Harbor was founded in 1801 and the U.S. Navy built a shipyard there to support the War of 1812. The Army built an earthworks, fort and barracks there. By fall of 1814, Sackets Harbor was the third most populous city in the state, after New York City and Albany. Many of the military and downtown buildings have been beautiful preserved and repurposed.
“Madison Barracks is the not-yet- discovered greatest thing in America. It is so historically significant. It has remarkable military importance but it is not managed as such,” Reilly said. She’d like to change that.
Reilly’s an Army brat who married a military man. She calls Alliance, Ohio her hometown but her family roots are in Jefferson County. She moved to Sackets Harbor in 2009 when her husband Clint was stationed at Fort Drum. Reilly is a teacher in the BOCES Alternative Center for Educational Services where she teaches at-risk kids adjudicated in the court system. She and Clint have a son, Joseph, 8.
Reilly’s father is from Jefferson County, as is all his family for generations. And many were involved in local government. Molly’s great-grandfather was William J. Flynn, a Watertown city councilor in the 1930s and 40s. The city pool is named for him.
“I never met him, but in trying to get to know him, I’ve read some articles that were printed in the newspaper about him; his obituary was several pages long,” Reilly says. “When commenting about him, people said he was tough but fair and honest. And they respected that. Those are the qualities I would aspire to demonstrate as a leader myself. “
She’s most proud of her contributions to village water, sewer and sidewalk projects. “I was able to ask questions and I was able to make sure the bid that repaved sidewalks and got granite curbing. We extended aesthetic and historical lighting features. Those kinds of projects I’m really proud of because they involved response and asking the right questions.”
Like so many others who’ve been sparked to run for local office by national political strife, Reilly says she feels embraced and encouraged by her neighbors.
“I am overwhelmed by the interest to help me. I am overwhelmed by the willingness of people to be so generous of their time and with their money. These things are bizarre. It’s an awkward scenario to ask people for a contribution but it’s awesome to receive their generosity. Face-to-face wins the race.”