Things Look Sunnier for Naples

In Race for Quinn’s Seat, Republican Jumps to Early Lead in GOP Poll

Posted June 21, 2004 at 6:48pm

House Republicans, initially dispirited by New York Rep. Jack Quinn’s (R) late decision to retire from his Democratic-performing seat, are buoyed by a 7-week-old partisan poll showing their likely nominee beating the leading Democratic candidate by 14 points.

In the poll conducted April 28 and 29 for the National Republican Congressional Committee — just two days after Quinn’s retirement announcement — Erie County Comptroller Nancy Naples (R) was favored by 49 percent of those surveyed. State Assemblyman Brian Higgins (D) received 35 percent, with 16 percent of those queried undecided.

The poll of 400 likely general election voters, conducted by Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies, had a 4.9 percent error margin.

Carl Forti, the NRCC’s communications director, said the committee decided to release the poll only now because it appears as if Higgins, who is competing in a multiple-candidate Democratic primary, will be the nominee. Naples currently has no primary opposition. The poll also tested other combinations of candidates, but those figures were not released.

Forti said the poll shows that even though the Buffalo-area district has 80,000 more Democratic voters than Republicans, Naples starts the campaign in excellent shape.

“I think a lot of people in this town have written the race off [for Republicans], and this poll shows that’s just not the case,” he said.

Kori Bernards, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the Democrats’ registration advantage will be difficult for the GOP to overcome.

“All the polls in the world don’t change the fact that this is a highly Democratic-performing district,” she said.

Still, Republicans are further heartened by the knowledge that Naples, who has worked on Wall Street and in the insurance business, handily defeated Higgins, then a Buffalo city councilman, in the race for county comptroller in 1993.

But Democrats — and some neutral observers — argue that the dynamics of the Congressional race aren’t anything like the election for the county post.

It was, Higgins said, a “different time. We’re two different people today. Different race. Different office. It’s not an apples-to-apples situation.”

Higgins acknowledges that he was a young-looking 34 when he lost that election.

“Higgins has certainly grown in stature,” said Joe Illuzzi, publisher of the PoliticsWNY.com Web site. “We have a reasonably good New York state [legislative] delegation in Western New York, and Brian is a standout.”

If nothing else, the NRCC poll illustrates just how hard-fought the 27th district race is going to be. The contest is expected to be one of the half-dozen most competitive open-seat races in the country. NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), who was stunned by Quinn’s departure, represents the adjoining House district, ensuring that Republicans will devote plenty of resources to retaining the seat.

But while a Naples-Higgins matchup is considered likely, both candidates do have internecine battles to worry about first.

Higgins is the favorite of the powerful Erie County Democratic machine, organized labor and House Democratic leaders, but he must still get through a Democratic primary.

His principal opponents are West Seneca Town Supervisor Paul Clark and Chautauqua County Executive Mark Thomas. Lawyers Mike Collesano and Paul Crotty Jr. — the latter was the Democratic nominee against Quinn in 2002 — are also considering running.

Clark and Thomas, at least, are potentially formidable candidates.

Clark, the top official in Buffalo’s largest bedroom community, is an accountant who plans to seed his campaign with $250,000 from his own pocket. His campaign is being guided by his brother, Tim Clark, one of Western New York’s most respected political operatives.

Tim Clark worked most recently for Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, a Republican whom Paul Clark endorsed for re-election in 2003. This prompted some conspiracy-minded Democrats to privately grouse that Paul Clark entered the Congressional primary to damage Higgins in the general election, an accusation the Clark camp vehemently denies.

Thomas has the modest advantage of being the only candidate from Chautauqua County, south of Buffalo. The county, however, accounts for less than 20 percent of the primary electorate. Thomas is also touting the fact that he is the only Democrat in the race who is a full supporter of abortion rights.

NARAL Pro-Choice New York labeled Higgins an opponent of abortion rights during his 2002 re-election campaign, though an official with the group said Higgins put himself in NARAL’s good graces by voting this year to retain Medicaid funding for abortions in the Empire State. Higgins, in an interview, called himself “pro-choice.”

Former New York Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine (D), a one-time Congressman from Western New York who is Thomas’ most prominent supporter, called Higgins “the frontrunner right now” in the Democratic race.

“But frankly, he’s never won any tough races,” Lundine said. “Mark Thomas has won tough general election races in a very Republican county.”

Even so, Higgins is supremely confident. His father and uncles were prominent in Buffalo politics and organized labor — his father preceded him on the city council and held a top political appointment in the administration of former Democratic Gov. Hugh Carey.

Higgins has also been endorsed by the Independence Party and the Working Families Party, meaning he’ll appear on two ballot lines in November beyond the Democratic Party’s. Higgins’ endorsement by the centrist Independence Party is considered a blow to Naples.

On the Republican side, Reynolds and other GOP leaders quickly cleared the field for Naples after a handful of other prominent Republicans elected not to run. But Giambra, the county executive, has pointedly refused to endorse her, saying he’ll wait until the general election field is set before taking sides.

There is some bad blood between Giambra and Naples. As county comptroller, Naples has issued embarrassing audits of the agencies Giambra oversees.

Complicating matters further, Giambra is a party-switcher, joining the GOP in the 1990s when the Democrats wouldn’t nominate him for county executive. Moreover, his ties to Paul and Tim Clark leave some Republicans suspicious of his motives.

Republicans in Washington believe that given Giambra’s recent problems, it’s a plus for Naples to be seen as independent of the county executive. And because Giambra harbors statewide ambitions, most Republicans are convinced he’ll fall in line behind Naples eventually.

Illuzzi, of PoliticsWNY.com, suggested that Giambra may be simply be jealous of Naples.

“A year ago, that seat would have been his for the asking,” he said.

Republicans also argue that Naples possesses many of the same independent qualities that 27th district voters found so attractive in Quinn.

“Nancy Naples,” wrote pollster Bolger, “is a very difficult candidate for the Democrats to beat in the general election.”