Iraq Vet May Challenge Reynolds

Posted March 28, 2007 at 6:39pm

A 28-year-old Iraq War veteran is contemplating challenging Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) in 2008.

Jonathan Powers, a retired Army captain who has started a widely acclaimed nonprofit group to help Iraqi children since returning from the war in 2004, has been reaching out to Democratic leaders in New York and Washington, D.C., about the possibility of making the race.

Reached Wednesday in Washington, where his organization, War Kids Relief, uses office space at the Veterans for America headquarters, Powers said it was too early to discuss his political plans.

But political operatives in Western New York and Washington said Powers has been taking steps to become a candidate. He is being advised by John Gerken, who was campaign manager last year to factory owner Jack Davis, Reynolds’ Democratic challenger in 2004 and 2006, and likely would be Powers’ manager should he decide to run.

Powers also has been talking to strategists about realistic fundraising goals for a race against Reynolds, who was one of the most powerful Republicans in the House until Democrats took control of Congress in January. A person familiar with these conversations said $2 million has been mentioned as a possible target.

One Washington-based Democratic operative familiar with party leaders’ thinking said Reynolds is likely to be a big Democratic target in 2008. Even though President Bush took 55 percent of the vote in the Buffalo-area 26th district during the 2004 White House election, Reynolds’ winning percentages have shrunk from 74 percent in 2002 to 56 percent in 2004 to 51 percent in 2006.

“Support in his district has clearly eroded,” the Democrat said. “This is a great year to be recruiting in the 26th district.”

But despite his declining victory margins, the five-term Congressman remains a formidable political force in Western New York. (Reynolds spokesman L.D. Platt could not be reached for comment by press time Wednesday evening.)

Reynolds has been a fixture in local politics for more than 30 years, having served as Erie County GOP chairman, in the Erie County Legislature and in the state Assembly, where he rose to Minority Leader. Reynolds spent the 2004 and 2006 election cycles as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, where he presided over historic victories followed by devastating defeats. He was considered a leading contender to enter the top echelons of the House GOP leadership until Republicans lost control of Congress in November.

At home, Reynolds seemed invincible until Davis, an eccentric, free-spending millionaire, took him on in 2004. In 2006, Davis surged ahead of Reynolds in some polls after the Congressman became ensnared in the scandal surrounding then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). But Reynolds took advantage of an early fall snowstorm to display his clout in Washington, and Davis’ unconventional campaign ultimately fell short.

There is some talk that Davis — who has remained active on the Buffalo-area political circuit — could attempt to challenge Reynolds a third time. But despite his personal wealth, he probably would not be the first choice of most local and national Democratic leaders.

Since completing a 14-month tour of duty in Iraq in 2004, Powers, who grew up in Buffalo, has been associated with anti-war veterans groups. When the documentary “Gunner Palace,” a look at the lives of American soldiers in Baghdad, was released in 2005, Powers — who was in the film — took to the road, introducing the movie to audiences across the country.

Powers also has worked to build his nonprofit organization, which is working with the American and Iraqi governments to send humanitarian aid to children in Iraq. Powers’ first major project is helping to build a youth center in Baghdad, and his work was featured recently in Newsweek and other media.

“It isn’t just about how we help these kids, it’s a discussion about how we renew and retool our national security,” Powers told Roll Call.