The Magazine

Empire State Special

Can the AIG issue elect a Republican in New York's 20th?

Mar 30, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 27 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Latham, N.Y.

If Republicans are ever going to recover a majority in Congress, they'll need to start by retaking districts like New York's 20th.

Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand wrested the upstate district from incumbent Republican John Sweeney by 6 percentage points in 2006, amidst allegations that Sweeney beat his wife and showed up--uninvited and drunk--at a frat party. Ever since Gillibrand vacated the seat when she was appointed to the Senate in late January, Republican state assembly minority leader Jim Tedisco and Democrat Scott Murphy, a venture capitalist, have been sprinting toward a special election on March 31.

While that election can't seriously shift the balance of power in Washington--Democrats control the House 254 to 178--both national parties have taken a keen interest in the race. Republicans, looking for a morale-boosting victory after November's drubbing, have flooded the district with cash and sent high-profile figures like Rudy Giuliani to campaign for Tedisco. Democrats, concerned that a defeat will be seen as a rebuff to Obama's economic policies, have likewise called in the big guns. Bill Clinton held a fundraiser for Murphy a couple of weeks ago, and Murphy told a crowd of 75 supporters at Bard College last Sunday, "I spent an hour and a half in [the White House] Situation Room talking to [Obama's] political advisers about the race and how they could be involved."

Talk of the economy has sucked up almost all of the oxygen in this race. For weeks Murphy hammered Tedisco for not coming out firmly for or against the stimulus package. "I may be wrong about the Economic Recovery Act. It may not work, but I'll tell you I would have voted for it, and I'll work hard to make sure we get our fair share here in the 20th District," Murphy told the audience at Bard. "My opponent seems to think you can avoid saying that. I guess it's something you learn in Albany after 27 years--ways to answer questions without telling people anything. I don't think that's the way you govern. I don't think that's the way that you should lead."

Tedisco had, in fact, taken a qualified position on the stimulus--that he would have voted for it if it had included an amendment to cut wasteful spending. But last Monday, as furor erupted over AIG's $165 million bonuses, Tedisco removed any doubt about where he stood on the stimulus. "No. That's the answer," Tedisco said of how he would have voted. He conceded at a press conference that he "made a mistake" in lacking the "clarity I should have had at the beginning of the discussion" of the stimulus.

In the following days, the candidates cut dueling ads, with Tedisco attacking Murphy for supporting the stimulus's provision allowing AIG bonuses and Murphy attacking Tedisco for opposing the stimulus's tax cuts and jobs programs. "Did Scott Murphy knowingly support a bill that handed out millions in taxpayer-funded bonuses to greedy Wall Street executives, or did he simply not read the bill?" Tedisco said last Wednesday. "Taxpayers are mad as hell and deserve answers and accountability--it's time Scott Murphy explained himself."

Rather than answer that question, Murphy decided to take a heads-he-wins, tails-Tedisco-loses approach. Murphy's campaign denied that he supported the provision in the stimulus to allow the AIG bonuses while claiming that Tedisco actually opposed executive pay caps because he opposed the stimulus, which included a pay cap provision. In other words, Murphy denies that he supports every provision in the bill while insisting that Tedisco must be opposed to every provision in the bill.

The stimulus isn't the only issue on which Murphy is less than straightforward. After the campaign event at Bard, Murphy wouldn't say if he supports the Solomon amendment, which prevents federal funds from flowing to colleges that bar military recruiters or ROTC from their campuses. "I haven't looked into it. I've got to do some more research," Murphy said of the amendment, sponsored by Gerald Solomon, who once held the House seat Murphy is vying for.

While a student at Harvard, Murphy cosigned an anti-ROTC editorial in 1989 that argued that the U.S. military was a racist, sexist, and anti-gay institution and that the "values enforced by the military--submission to authority, unquestioning obedience, and a hierarchy of power--are contrary to the University's values of independence, thoughtful inquiry, and equality for all."

Murphy told me that he now thinks ROTC should be allowed on campuses, in part because the military changed its policy to "Don't ask, don't tell." Yet when asked if he now supports gays' openly serving in the military, Murphy wouldn't say.