New York Democrats Try to Keep It Kuhl

Posted July 9, 2007 at 6:07pm

In the emerging Democratic primary for the right to challenge Rep. Randy Kuhl (R-N.Y.) next year, one candidate has endorsements from powerful labor unions and most of the relevant local Democratic committees.

And the other candidate? Well, he may have a lot of money. But no one is quite sure just yet.

From coast to coast, a handful of Democrats who fell just short of victory in House races in November are finding that they have no automatic claim on their party’s nominations this cycle. But nowhere is the nomination battle more potentially rancorous than in New York’s 29th district, where 2006 nominee Eric Massa (D) must contend with a man who ran very briefly last time, business executive David Nachbar (D).

In a sprawling Republican-leaning district where Kuhl has won two surprisingly narrow victories, both Democrats are putting a brave face on the primary, insisting that it energizes party activists and gets the candidates themselves in fighting shape well before the general election. But some party leaders in New York aren’t so sure.

“I just think the primary is an unfortunate occurrence,” said Carolyn Schaeffer, the chairwoman of the Yates County Democratic Party and a Massa supporter, who argued that the primary drains precious resources from the party that could be used to defeat Kuhl.

Most local Democratic leaders, like Schaeffer, believe that Massa has earned the right to a rematch with Kuhl, based on his 49 percent showing last fall and the more than $1.4 million he raised for his first political race.

But Massa, a retired Navy commander and former top aide to Wesley Clark who moved to the district just a few years before entering politics, was an unknown quantity when he kicked off his campaign in the previous cycle, and several national and state Democratic leaders tried — not so subtly — to push him aside in favor of Nachbar last year.

In February 2006, state Democratic officials issued a news release from Nachbar in which he announced his intention to run for the Democratic nomination, even though Massa already had been in the race for several months. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who represents an adjoining district, was among those touting Nachbar’s candidacy, and some Democratic insiders said Nachbar, a vice president at the Bausch & Lomb eyewear company, was prepared to write his campaign a $100,000 check.

But 24 hours later, Nachbar pulled out of the race. At the time, Nachbar was an unaffiliated voter, not a registered Democrat, meaning he would have had to go through extraordinary measures to get on the Democratic primary ballot — an effort that would have been complicated by the fact that most of the county Democratic chairmen in the 29th district already were supporting Massa.

Now, as he tries again, Nachbar’s party enrollment is not in doubt — he is a registered Democrat. But he is proceeding without Slaughter’s support. According to several knowledgeable Democrats in New York and Washington, D.C., the Congresswoman was embarrassed by Nachbar’s party registration snafu and, aware of the loyalty Massa has accrued among local Democrats, has decided to remain neutral in the primary this cycle.

Nevertheless, money may continue to be one of Nachbar’s selling points. While Massa has been chalking up key endorsements in the district, “we’ve been focusing more on getting money than in outreach at this point,” said Chris Malaise, Nachbar’s finance director and lone paid campaign staffer.

Malaise was unable to say Monday what the candidate’s second-quarter fundraising totals would be, except to say “we’re excited by the quarter.” Massa’s camp also was unprepared to talk about money.

Malaise said Nachbar is neither surprised nor dismayed by the early support Massa is racking up from local Democratic committees and key interest groups, and he said it is questionable how many real votes the endorsements will yield in next year’s primary.

“It seems like a tactic on their part to go around and get all these endorsements to force us out, which isn’t going to happen,” Malaise said.

In an interview last month with the Rochester City Newspaper, Nachbar cautioned local party leaders against trying to sway the outcome of the primary before voters have their say.

“Choice is good,” Nachbar told the paper. “It tests candidates, it vets them, it makes sure that all of the arguments are heard, and it makes sure that the voters are well-informed. This is not the old communist Soviet Union, this is America.”

Still, Massa and his allies are happy to point out not just that he is sweeping the local Democratic committee endorsements, but that Nachbar has barely shown up at any of the committee meetings thus far.

“We don’t know what he understands about the meaning of the term ‘primary campaign,’” Massa said.

Massa extended that argument further when he recently announced, with great fanfare, that he had hired Paul Novak, a Rochester-based Democratic consultant, to handle his media campaign. He also is using the New York City-based Global Strategy Group for polling.

Massa had several Washington-based consultants in the last go-round, including pollster Alan Secrest, who this time around is working for Nachbar. Also working for Nachbar is John Lapp, the former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who now works for the media firm McMahon Squier Lapp and Associates.

“It means his is a Washington, D.C.-based operation and mine is not,” Massa said.

The implication from Massa’s camp is clear: Massa’s campaign is being fueled by the grass roots, while Nachbar’s is favored by national party leaders and D.C. insiders.

“It’s like the voter here doesn’t matter,” complained Schaeffer, who called Massa “perfect for the district.” She added that Nachbar “crunches the numbers a little differently.”

Carrie James, a spokeswoman for the DCCC, said the committee is confident about going into battle with Kuhl with either of the Democrats.

“They’re both strong candidates, and the biggest thing is Randy Kuhl is incredibly vulnerable,” she said.

Whoever wins the nomination is likely to be the beneficiary of outside help, with anti-war organizations and Democratic-leaning groups already hitting Kuhl with broadcast ads and mailers. The question is whether the nominee will be too bloodied by internecine strife to mount a powerful challenge.

“It’s my hope that by [late summer], David will have rethought this,” Schaeffer said.