Breaking Through Sherwood’s Forest?

Posted June 22, 2004 at 6:06pm

The Congressional election in New York’s 24th district has several candidates seeking to break through Sherwood’s forest.

It won’t be easy.

Eleven-term Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R) did not even face a Democratic foe in the last election, after barely surviving a scare in the Republican primary.

This year, however, two Democratic candidates — a college professor and a former local union chief — will compete in the Sept. 14 primary in the central New York district.

Despite the fact that the district is split roughly even between the parties, the winner will be the heavy underdog, assuming Boehlert survives a primary rematch.

Boehlert will face a familiar opponent in the Republican primary: surgeon David Walrath, a former Cayuga County legislator. Walrath took a surprising 47 percent of the vote against Boehlert in the 2002 GOP primary — a scant 2,000-vote victory for an incumbent accustomed to landslide victories.

This year may prove no easier a battle for Boehlert, but the Congressman has armed himself with $538,000, as of March 31, in anticipation of more wrath from Walrath. This figure compared to the $370,000 Boehlert had on hand at the same time two years ago.

Walrath, who attributed his 2002 primary loss partially to unequal funding, held roughly $70,000 on March 31. Two years ago at this time, he had not even begun to campaign because the Congressional district boundaries in New York had not been finalized.

Boehlert has also blamed his 2002 showing on redistricting, arguing that a significant portion of the district’s voters were new to him then. That won’t be such a problem this time, he says.

Walrath, who considers himself the only “true Republican candidate,” hopes to gain support from the Club for Growth, which supports candidates with conservative fiscal views. If the Club for Growth decides to help Walrath close the financial gap, the primary could become quite competitive.

Nevertheless, Chris Paulitz of the National Republican Congressional Committee does not seem tremendously worried about Boehlert’s prospects either in the primary or the general election.

“Every year Boehlert spends in Congress he gains more support,” Paulitz said. “Even though the district is split, [President] Bush was still at the top of the ticket and there has been little competition in years past.”

But tension between the two Republican camps remains intense. Recently a Walrath aide admitted to writing a series of letters under a fake name to newspapers throughout the 24th district in the past two years. The newspaper submissions, which held the name Kevin McGuiness and clearly stated support for Walrath, remain so controversial because the real McGuiness, an attorney in D.C., is a longtime Boehlert supporter.

The aide, who was working on a volunteer basis, will suffer a demotion and no longer deal with the media, but will not be released from the campaign effort altogether.

The aide “has been with the campaign for two years,” said Brett Mecum, Walrath’s campaign manager. “He made a mistake. We firmly believe people deserve a second chance.”

Meanwhile, both Democratic candidates are making their first bids for political office.

Utica College communications professor Jeff Miller and former United Auto Workers official Brian Goodell — a bus driver on the Cornell University campus — both announced their candidacies in mid-February.

The 24th district “has historically been Republicans fighting against themselves,” said Greg Speed, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Speed said Democrats are hopeful about November’s election.

“Both candidates have good profiles and strong local contacts,” he said. “There are areas trending toward having Democrats on the top of their tickets … there has been a failure to create jobs and the district needs change.”

Miller and Goodell have already faced off in three debates and agree that Boehlert is not doing enough to retain jobs and attract new employers to the district.

“The only person in our district who has had job security in the past 20 years is Sherwood Boehlert,” Miller said.

Miller said his No. 1 priority would be to develop “short-term and, especially, innovative long-term initiatives that will create good jobs and give young people of the district the opportunity to live and work here.”

Goodell, a former president of UAW Local 2300, decided to run against Boehlert after meeting him a year ago. Goodell said he found Boehlert to be “inattentive and disengaged” from the problems people in the district were facing.

“Brian knew something had to be done,” said Joe Rossi, Goodell’s campaign manager. “He knew the district needed a voice to more accurately represent the people.”

While Boehlert maintains that he is a moderate Republican, some former supporters feel that he has leaned too far to the right.

“I thought he was more moderate,” said John Klein, the Republican husband of New Hartford (N.Y.) Democratic Party Chairwoman Barbara Klein. “But as time goes on, he is not.”

Political analysts believe Klein will be the typical type of voter that the Democrats will need to attract to have any chance in November.

Several Democratic organizations in the multicounty district have lined up behind Miller.

“Democrats in the district for the first time in two decades will have a real choice,” Miller said after gaining the support of the Oneida County organization.

However, there does not seem to be unanimity among Democrats, so a primary election appears likely, and money could prove scarce for the eventual winner.

“We will never have the kind of money Boehlert does,” Rossi said, “but we will have enough to get our voice heard.”