A Look at New York

Posted April 25, 2003 at 4:59pm

Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles on the Empire State. The first dealt with New York City Congressional districts.

In New York’s 29 Congressional districts, only one general election was competitive last year: in the 1st district at the eastern end of Long Island, where college Provost Tim Bishop (D) narrowly upset then-Rep. Felix Grucci (R). [IMGCAP(1)]

Not surprisingly, the 1st may be the only competitive district once again this cycle, at least in the November general. It was one big incumbent protection party when the decennial redistricting process

took place two years ago in Albany, leaving just a handful of districts even remotely balanced between Democrats and Republicans.

Bishop wasn’t given much of a chance last year until Grucci essentially self-destructed, with a harsh negative ad that backfired and serious environmental and safety complaints lodged against his family’s fireworks company.

Grucci himself won the seat under bizarre circumstances in 2000, showing just how tenuous Bishop’s hold on the district may be.

“It’s a seat that’s ripe for the picking,” said Carl Forti, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Obviously, it depends on who the candidate is.”

Forti said that in New York, the NRCC traditionally defers to state and local party leaders when it comes to anointing candidates — or deciding to live with wide-open primaries. But in Suffolk County, a once-dominant Republican Party is in shambles, with the third county GOP chairman in less than a year elected earlier this month. What’s more, the Republicans stand a good chance of losing the county executive’s post this year, the wellspring of much political power and patronage on Long Island.

But Republicans do have a favorite candidate to take on Bishop next year: Brookhaven Town Supervisor John Jay LaValle (R), an energetic and movie-star-handsome official who is part of a local political family (his second cousin, Ken LaValle, is a veteran state Senator). While LaValle has kept mum on whether he’ll challenge Bishop next year, supporters see his decision not to run for county executive this fall as a hopeful sign. It’s not clear where the GOP would turn if LaValle doesn’t run.

If Republicans have one other pickup dream in New York, it is upstate, where liberal Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D) continues to confound the GOP by racking up huge margins in a fairly conservative district that now extends from Kingston to Binghamton. But the right challenger has never emerged, and Hinchey is probably safe.

Democrats have pickup dreams of their own in the Buffalo region, where six-term Rep. Jack Quinn (R) has used his long-standing ties to organized labor to maintain a fairly firm hold on what is essentially a Democratic district.

“The right person could shake things up,” a veteran upstate Democratic strategist said of his party’s prospects against Quinn.

Certainly there is no shortage of ambitious Democrats in the Buffalo region — though whether any are willing to take on Quinn is another matter. The list of Congressional wannabes includes Amherst Town Supervisor Susan Grelick, state Assemblyman Brian Higgins (who is also eyeing runs for mayor of Buffalo and Erie County executive), and Assemblyman Sam Hoyt (who ran the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Buffalo office).

There are two serious retirement watches under way in the state. One involves 73-year-old Rep. Louise Slaughter (D), whose rejiggered district extends from the Rochester area and picks up parts of Buffalo. In the last cycle, state Sen. Byron Brown (D), one of the state’s fastest rising political stars, came very close to challenging Slaughter in the Democratic Congressional primary. Brown, one of the few black politicians being groomed for statewide office, could still run for Congress again, though he is also being touted for mayor of Buffalo and lieutenant governor.

Despite Brown’s magnetism and his reputation as a tireless campaigner, Slaughter’s successor is just as likely to come from the Rochester region, which has been her base for decades. Potential candidates when she retires include Assemblywoman Susan John (D) and Assemblyman Joe Morelle (D).

The retirement watch on the Republican side focuses on moderate nine-term Rep. Amo Houghton, 76, who is resisting efforts by ambitious Republicans at home and conservative Republicans in D.C. to shove him out the door.

Already Monroe County Legislator Mark Assini (R) has told associates that he plans to seek the Southern Tier seat in 2004, though he may change his mind if Houghton runs again. Other possible GOP candidates include state Sen. James Alesi, state Sen. John Kuhl Jr., Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Bill Nojay, Monroe County Legislature Majority Leader Bill Smith and businessman Rick Snowden.

But if national conservative groups such as the Club for Growth begin to push Houghton too hard, the wealthy Congressman, a former CEO of Corning Glass Works, could match their financial firepower.

“Amo Houghton could buy Club for Growth several times over,” a former top aide to ex-Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) observed.

New York’s Congressional delegation also features Members who could seek higher office. Rep. John Sweeney (R) is talking about running for governor in 2006 if Gov. George Pataki (R) does not seek a fourth term. And Rep. Nita Lowey (D), who prepared to run for Senate in 2000 before deferring to Hillary Rodham Clinton (D), may still hunger for statewide office.

While the GOP continues to search — fruitlessly, so far — for a marquee candidate to run against Sen. Charles Schumer (D) next year, there are several Republicans besides Sweeney who could run for governor if Pataki doesn’t, including Secretary of State Randy Daniels, Erie County Executive Joel Giambra and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

On the Democratic side, Attorney General Elliot Spitzer is almost certain to run for governor, as is former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who pulled out of the race in 2002. Schumer could also run.

Because New York is still a Democratic state, the party has a large stable of rising political stars who could seek higher office before long. The list includes Albany County Executive Mike Breslin, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, Assemblyman Ryan Karben of Rockland County, who is just 28, Assemblyman Steve Levy of Long Island, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, and Chautauqua County Executive Mark Thomas.

One wild card in New York politics, as he has been in the past three gubernatorial elections, continues to be Rochester businessman Thomas Golisano, who has spent millions of dollars of his own money on three independent runs for governor. Golisano, however, just bought the Buffalo Sabres National Hockey League franchise and is being hailed as a hero there for saving the club.

Golisano is now reportedly thinking of running for public office in the Buffalo region, and “his poll numbers,” one New York political operative said, “are through the roof.”