The Farm Team: GOP Could Turn to a Winner in Southern Tier

Posted June 23, 2008 at 4:35pm

Last in a three-part series

For years, there was a certain balance in New York politics: Democrats controlled New York City, Republicans controlled upstate, and the suburbs outside the city were, to one degree or another, battlegrounds.

[IMGCAP(1)]But the ground has shifted dramatically in just the past few years. Democrats are competing everywhere. No Republican is safe. And even upstate, which has some of the most rural, bucolic communities in the nation, rising Republican political stars are few and far between.

Just how the New York GOP got to this sorry state is a topic that could be debated for days on end. But there’s little disputing it. And the proof is in the numbers.

While Democrats have made gains at every level of government, since 2002, the Empire State Congressional delegation alone has moved from an 18-11 advantage for Democrats to a 23-6 majority. Four of those five seats were won upstate. This year, Democrats are seriously competing in four additional House districts — three of them upstate. And while Republicans have one strong challenger running against one of the Democrats who won a GOP seat in the previous cycle, the seat is still likely to stay in the Democratic column.

Some of upstate’s rising political stars are already running for Congress this year — and two are running for a second time.

In the 25th district, former Congressional aide Dan Maffei (D) is the frontrunner in the open-seat race to replace retiring Rep. Jim Walsh (R). Maffei, who worked for then-Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), as well as for the House Ways and Means Committee, finished just 2 points behind Walsh in the Syracuse-based district last cycle.

Republicans are running former Onondaga County Legislator Dale Sweetland. Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, Onondaga County Executive Joanne Mahoney and state Assemblyman Bob Oaks could be Republican candidates for the seat in future cycles, but the district lines, as currently drawn, favor Democrats. If Sweetland upsets Maffei in November, Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll (D) could be a candidate for the seat in 2010.

The other repeat candidate is in the 29th district, where retired Navy officer Eric Massa (D) is once again challenging Rep. Randy Kuhl (R). Kuhl beat Massa by just 2 points in 2006 despite the Republican lean of the Southern Tier/Rochester area district, and some GOP leaders quietly wonder whether another Republican candidate would be stronger in that district.

If Kuhl loses, Republicans could recruit state Sen. George Winner to run for the Congressional seat. State Assemblyman Brian Kolb (R), who briefly ran for the seat in 2004 before deferring to Kuhl, could also run. A possible future candidate for Democrats is Canandaigua Mayor Ellen Polimeni.

Now that Rep. Tom Reynolds (R) is retiring, Democrats are also bullish on their chances in the 26th district, which takes in parts of metropolitan Buffalo and Rochester. Republicans appear to have settled on their nominee, with businessman Christopher Lee the likely choice. Democrats have a four-way primary on tap, with wealthy factory owner Jack Davis, Erie County Councilwoman Kathy Konst, lawyer Alice Kryzan and Iraq War veteran Jon Powers.

If Lee wins, Democrats may turn to Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul as a challenger next cycle. If a Democrat wins the seat, Niagara County GOP Chairman Henry Wojtaszek is seen as a possible candidate.

Republicans are high on their challenger in the upstate 20th district, Sandy Treadwell. Treadwell has an interesting résumé to say the least. Born in London, he is the grandson of a founder of General Electric and spent several years as an author and writer for Sports Illustrated. More recently, he has been New York secretary of state and the state GOP chairman.

Treadwell has poured almost $1 million of his own money into the race, but the woman he is trying to defeat, freshman Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), is a prodigious fundraiser who is favored for now to hold the Republican-leaning seat. Even if Gillibrand wins big in November, she will probably be a perennial target in a district that runs from the North Hudson Valley all the way up to the Adirondack Mountains. Potential future GOP candidates include Assemblywoman Betty Little and Saratoga County District Attorney Jim Murphy.

Another highly touted freshman, Rep. Michael Arcuri (D), is favored for re- election this year over businessman Richard Hanna (R), whose father is a former mayor of Utica.

Adjacent to the 20th and 24th districts is the Albany-area 21st, where Rep. Mike McNulty (D) is retiring after 10 terms. A crowded Democratic primary is under way to replace him, though there are three leading contenders: Tracey Brooks, a former top aide to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D); Albany County Legislator Phil Steck; and former Assemblyman Paul Tonko.

Traditionally in that district, voters like to send someone young to Capitol Hill and watch him accrue seniority: McNulty was elected at the age of 41, and his predecessor, Sam Stratton (D), was elected at the age of 42 and then served for 30 years. But if Tonko wins, a precedent would be broken: He’s 58 (Brooks and Steck are younger).

If the seat were to become vacant again soon, potential Democratic candidates include Albany Common Council President Shawn Morris; Schenectady County Legislature President Susan Savage; Albany County District Attorney David Soares; Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton, the son of the late Congressman; and Charles Diamond, the director of McNulty’s district office who serves as a councilman in the city of Watervliet.

Farther to the south, in the Hudson Valley, freshman Rep. John Hall (D) seems pretty safe this year, even though he upset a Republican incumbent in 2006 and started the cycle as a major GOP target. He appears to have weak opposition, and his district is drifting to the left. But Republicans could have potentially strong opponents in the future in Assemblyman Greg Ball and attorney Emily Pataki, the daughter of former Gov. George Pataki (R).

In the Catskill Mountain-area 22nd district, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D), who turns 70 a week before Election Day, seems ageless, and because his district is so gerrymandered there is no one power center and no obvious successor. But one well- informed Albany-based Democratic strategist said lawyer Vincent Bradley (D), who ran unsuccessfully for Ulster County district attorney last year, would make a good candidate.

Rep. John McHugh (R), though the object of occasional retirement rumors, appears safe in his upstate district. But Democrats say they will contest it vigorously whenever he retires. State Sen. Darrell Aubertine and state Democratic Chairwoman June O’Neill are possible candidates. Assemblyman William Barclay is a possibility for the Republicans.

In western New York, Rep. Brian Higgins (D) appears pretty entrenched after just two terms. But Republicans probably dream of a matchup someday between Higgins and Assemblyman Jack Quinn III (R), the son of Higgins’ predecessor.

House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D), who is 78, shows no sign of going anywhere. But waiting in the wings, should she retire, are Assemblyman Joseph Morelle (D), state Sen. Antoine Thompson (D) and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (D).