Massa Headache Creates Upstate N.Y. Free-for-All

Posted March 8, 2010 at 6:35pm

Rep. Eric Massa’s (D-N.Y.) decision to resign Monday has upended the race in the 29th district and put both parties on edge, with uncertainty swirling about both the candidate field and the timing of the contest to replace him.

On the Republican side, the open seat in the GOP-leaning district has attracted renewed attention from Republicans who initially passed on the race, heightening the possibility of an intraparty showdown with the one existing candidate, former Corning Mayor Tom Reed. On the Democratic side, party officials have shifted to kick-start a recruiting process in a traditionally Republican district.

Adding to the turmoil is the fact that no one knows when or whether Gov. David Paterson (D) will call a special election to fill the vacancy, or even whether the embattled Paterson, who is fighting off calls for his own resignation, will still be in office to make the decision.

Many of the officials that Roll Call spoke to anticipate there will be a special election, rather than a vacancy that extends until the regularly scheduled contest in the fall.

“I’m anticipating there being a special [election], and I’m anticipating that being called once the Democrats have determined their candidate,” Monroe County Republican Chairman William Reilich said.

The governor has wide latitude to determine a special election date — the only requirement is that it take place 30 to 40 days after the governor officially declares a vacancy. Under New York state law, the party county committees in the district vote to pick their nominee for a special election.

Reed looks to have that vote sewn up, given the fact that Republican Party chairmen in seven of the eight counties that make up the district have reaffirmed their support for him in the wake of Massa’s resignation.

“Right now we have 70 percent of the weighted vote,” said Steuben County Republican Committee Chairman William Hatch, a staunch Reed backer. “So if it becomes a situation where we have a special election, in my opinion, the candidate will be Tom Reed.”

That hasn’t deterred Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks (R), who continues to mull the race and plans to make a decision later this week. Brooks met with the National Republican Congressional Committee on Thursday while in town for an unrelated event. Brooks spokesman Noah Lebowitz called the meeting “informational.”

The NRCC is “not urging her in either direction,” Lebowitz said.

The NRCC has included Reed in the first tier of its “Young Guns” program for promising recruits. “We’ve been impressed with Tom Reed’s campaign,” NRCC spokesman Tory Mazzola said.

Brooks was back in Washington, D.C., on Monday to attend an International Women’s Day event at the White House.

Lebowitz said that given the changing dynamics of the race, it is “very reasonable to reconsider the slate of candidates.”

Should she run, Brooks has the support of the party committee in Monroe County, which takes in the Rochester suburbs in the northern part of the district and amounts to 30 percent of the voting population there. Lebowitz said Brooks also has support in the district’s more rural southern tier, where Reed is from.

Reilich, the Monroe County chairman, also believes “things could change” between now and when the county chairmen would actually vote on a special election candidate.

He highlighted Reed’s fundraising problems as a sign of his potential weakness and an argument for Brooks’ candidacy. Between the funds needed for a special election and a regular contest, “you’re probably talking about four and a half million dollars,” Reilich said. “Tom Reed has been in the race since July and raised a total of $230,000.”

“It’s not been at the amount we’d like to see going into this,” Reilich said.

In what appears to be an attempt to silence some of those criticisms, the Reed campaign announced Friday that it named former Assistant Commerce Secretary and major GOP donor Wayne Berman as his Washington finance chairman. The campaign also announced last week that former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) was joining former Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), the district’s longtime Congressman until 2004, as honorary co-chairmen of the campaign.

State Sen. Catharine Young (R) told Roll Call that she had decided not to run for the seat and is throwing her support behind Reed. “I believe Tom has the background and the ability to win,” Young said, adding that she decided she could make the most difference in the state Senate, where Republicans hope to win back the majority in the fall.

Reed’s political director, Tim Kolpien, said the campaign will have more announcements on its finance team and political endorsements later this week.

Kolpien also dismissed the possibility that any of the county chairmen will renege on their promise of support. “In the last 24 hours, we have just received very positive feedback,” Kolpien said. Party officials, he said, have been calling and saying, “Hey Tom, don’t worry about this stuff, we’re sticking with you.”

Former Rep. Randy Kuhl (R), who lost to Massa in 2008, is also looking at running again now that the seat is open and has been making calls to local party officials. But he may struggle to find much support in Washington, where one GOP source called him an “underperformer.” State Sen. George Winner (R) and Assemblyman Joe Giglio’s (R) names have also been floated.

“These are kind of like Johnny Come Latelys right now,” said Hatch, the Steuben County GOP chairman. “Where were they last July?”

Democrats are hoping to avoid a major intraparty fight of their own in culling a more wide open field of candidates, particularly given Hornell Mayor Shawn Hogan’s decision Monday to pass on the race. Hornell had been urged by Massa to consider a run.

“In some respects, we’re casting a wider net, try to take a little more time with it,” Monroe County Democratic Chairman Joe Morelle said. The eight Democratic county chairmen plan to not only assemble a list of all the candidates who have expressed interest, but also to get “creative” and reach out to candidates with “untraditional” backgrounds who may be interested, he said.

That was an approach that worked well for the Democrats in two other upstate New York special elections that the party won in 2009. In both cases, Democrats recruited first-time candidates with business backgrounds and little political baggage who won the traditionally Republican seats.

Morelle said he has been in regular contact with Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s recruiting chairman who also played a significant role in the 20th and 23rd district specials, since Massa’s announcement last week.

Assemblyman David Koon (D) has expressed interest in running, while Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D) ruled out a bid Monday.

New York’s filing deadline is not until June, and the primary is slated for September, but a special election would obviously take place on a much shorter time line.

Morelle said that regardless of whether there is a special, he expects the Democratic recruitment process to last a few weeks to a month, at most. Morelle said he didn’t anticipate a split in the party, geographic or otherwise.

“I think everyone is really just focused on dealing with the changing landscape and very concerned about trying to keep the seat in Democratic hands,” he said.