Houghton Seat Up for Grabs

Posted April 6, 2004 at 6:02pm

Rep. Amo Houghton (N.Y.), the patrician former CEO of the Corning Glass Works Co. and one of a dwindling number of Republican moderates in Congress, announced Tuesday that he would not seek a 10th term.

Houghton’s announcement sets up what is likely to be a crowded, closely fought Republican primary to replace him and gives Democrats a glimmer of hope of retaking the district that runs along New York’s Southern Tier and up to the Rochester area.

It also creates another opening on the Ways and Means Committee, where Houghton chairs the oversight subcommittee. Houghton is the 28th House Member to retire this cycle.

“Amo Houghton is a leader, a statesman and a true friend to many on both sides of the aisle,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), who represents an adjoining district. “I think I can speak for all of Congress when I say he will be greatly missed and will leave enormous shoes for all of us to try and fill.”

Houghton, 77, has been the subject of retirement rumors for years. Four years ago he told his staff he would not run again, but then declared his candidacy a week later. This time, the Congressman kept his intentions secret until the very end, scheduling a morning announcement for the restaurant in Corning where he has always kicked off his campaigns and then a two-day swing through the 29th district, which is roughly the size of Connecticut.

Houghton is proceeding with his districtwide tour today, spokesman Bob Van Wicklin said.

“Same type of stops — different message,” he said.

At Donna’s Restaurant in Corning, Houghton, who did not release a formal statement, told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that his health and the health of his wife — both have battled cancer recently — were among the principal reasons for his decision.

“I was probably too old to be in the job anyway,” he said.

But throughout his career in Congress, and earlier as leader of the Fortune 500 company his family founded in 1851, Houghton was known as a tireless fighter for economic development programs for a district that has been hard hit by the decline of heavy manufacturing. The race to replace him could turn on which candidate is best able to articulate a vision for revitalizing the Southern Tier.

Two state legislators have spent months preparing to run in case Houghton retired — state Sen. Randy Kuhl (R) and state Assemblyman Brian Kolb (R).

Kuhl is expected to kick off a daylong tour of the district on Thursday, formally announcing his candidacy.

Representing a district covering much of the Southern Tier, Kuhl has long been seen as Houghton’s heir apparent. Although he is more conservative than Houghton, he is also seen as the likeliest of the Republican candidates to get the blessing of the Republican Main Street Partnership, the group dedicated to electing centrist Republicans that the Congressman helped organize.

But since the district took on part of the Rochester area after the latest round of redistricting, several ambitious politicians from that part of the state are also in the mix, and a candidate’s geographical base could be a factor in determining the primary winner.

“I would hope that the race would not be divisive for the district,” Kuhl said. “But the potential for that is there.”

Kolb, who comes from Ontario County in the middle part of the district, plans to announce his intentions the week of April 19.

“We’re certainly in decision mode right now,” said Scott Armstrong, Kolb’s campaign manager.

Kolb has been the most aggressive of the would-be candidates when it comes to raising money. He collected $108,000 in 2003, compared to the $39,000 Kuhl had in the bank. Kuhl said Tuesday he did not know what he would report in the campaign finance statements due on April 15; Armstrong said Kolb would show $91,000 on hand.

Kolb has signaled that he plans to distinguish himself from Kuhl by noting that Kuhl has supported tax increases in Albany over the past several years — something that Kolb has been able to avoid because he serves in the minority in the Assembly.

Both legislators would have to give up their posts in Albany to compete in the Sept. 14 primary. But they are unlikely to have the GOP field to themselves.

Monroe County legislator Mark Assini, a staunch conservative, was already in the race and planning to challenge Houghton in the primary. He predicted that the Republican race would come down to a battle between himself and Kuhl.

“I’ve been actively campaigning for a year,” Assini said. “My name has been circulated. Anyone who wants to win this seat isn’t going to make inroads with 14 or 16 weeks of television advertising.”

Other names mentioned as possible Republican candidates include former Monroe County Executive Jack Doyle, former Monroe County legislator Sean Hanna, Rochester lawyer Bill Nojay and Rochester businessman Geoff Rosenberger.

Nojay said he would make an announcement today but did not want to say anything beforehand out of respect for Houghton.

Rosenberger, the Republican nominee against Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) in a neighboring district in 1996, spent more than $400,000 of his own money on that losing effort and has filed papers indicating that he plans to spend at least that much this time around.

Some political observers have suggested that the Congressman’s son, Mory Houghton, might also be coaxed into the race. But while the younger Houghton has been politically active in the district and is an official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he is not expected to run this time.

Van Wicklin said his boss plans to endorse someone in the primary sometime after the July filing deadline.

“He wants to let the field fill up,” he said.

Democrats believe they can compete in the 29th district now that Houghton is gone, although Republicans hold a 45 percent to 29 percent edge in voter enrollment and George W. Bush beat Al Gore there by 10 points in 2000. Still, it is a highly independent electorate; Tom Golisano, the billionaire businessman who ran for governor on the Independence Party line in 2002, racked up some of his best vote totals in the state in the 29th.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is high on Samara Barend, a 26-year-old political operative who has worked on economic development issues in the district since she was an intern for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) as a college student.

Barend, who has also formed an exploratory committee, said she would announce her intentions in the next couple of weeks.

Because the district has so many independent-minded voters, the Independence Party and the Conservative Party could be factors in a close general election contest, depending on whom they decide to nominate.

On Capitol Hill, Houghton’s departure brings the expected number of open GOP Ways and Means seats in the 109th Congress to four. Reps. Jennifer Dunn (Wash.) and Scott McInnis (Colo.) are retiring, while Rep. Mac Collins (Ga.) is running for Senate.

Several Republican Members have already put forth their names for the vacant committee seats, including Reps. Henry Brown (S.C.), Chris Chocola (Ind.), Mark Kennedy (Minn.), Jon Porter (Nev.) and Adam Putnam (Fla.).

Brown has been particularly vocal in his desire for Ways and Means, having lobbied the leadership for a slot since before he was elected in 2000. Now he also has his eye on an Appropriations Committee seat.

“Obviously I’d like either one, but I feel that the Appropriations Committee would better fit South Carolina,” Brown said.

Similarly, freshman Rep. Tom Cole’s (Okla.) name has been mentioned for both panels, but he is said to be focusing more heavily on Appropriations.

With both McInnis and Dunn leaving Ways and Means, meanwhile, Porter plans to argue that one of the vacant slots should be taken by a westerner.

“Clearly the Congressman is still actively engaged in seeking a seat on Ways and Means and talking with leadership,” said Porter spokesman Adam Mayberry.

The Nevada lawmaker has the strong backing of the gaming industry for the seat, particularly since fellow Silver State Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) has so far been unsuccessful in her own efforts to join the tax-writing panel.

Freshman Rep. Bob Beauprez (Colo.) would also have a decent shot at a seat if he asked for one, according to a GOP leadership aide. Beauprez recently turned down a chance to run for the Senate.

Houghton’s exit will also open up the chairmanship of the Ways and Means subcommittee on oversight. Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.) is currently the seniormost GOP lawmaker on the full panel roster without a subcommittee gavel.