The Magazine

The James Buckley Scenario

New York's 23rd could elect a conservative. But the GOP hasn't nominated one.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By KENNETH Y. TOMLINSON
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A couple of weeks ago, political handicapper Charlie Cook alerted his subscribers that "the situation for President Obama and congressional Democrats has slipped completely out of control." Politico asserted the Cook Political Report special "should send shivers down Democratic spines."

This makes the coming special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District an important national bellwether as voters select a successor to Republican representative John McHugh, who is Obama's nominee to be secretary of the Army.

Geographically, the North Country district is one of the largest in the East, ranging from Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain over the Adirondacks to Watertown and Oswego on Lake Ontario. Population centers are scattered in five major media markets. The district twice gave narrow margins to Bush, but last year went for Obama. If Democrats face an implosion in 2010, this sort of Middle America district is precisely where that shift will manifest itself, and both national political congressional committees are mobilizing for what appears to be a major political struggle.

The White House may have chosen McHugh for the Army post because political strategists believed they could win this district. And in a page out of Rahm Emanuel's playbook, Democrats have nominated Bill Owens, a Plattsburgh lawyer whose late law partner was a Republican state senator and who himself was a registered Independent.

The giant New York service employees union (SEIU) is lining up behind Owens because a spokesman says the union "expects" Bill Owens to "work with President Obama on health care reform." Owens's positions on topics like national health care have been nuanced, but he has pledged support for "card check," which would eliminate workers' right to vote by secret ballot on whether or not to unionize.

SEIU support is important because in the recent special election in the neighboring 20th Congressional District, the union outspent even the Democratic party to provide an upset victory to an unknown Democrat over the Republican state assembly minority leader. At one point in the campaign the Republican could not even decide whether he was for or against the Obama stimulus package.

And what are Republicans doing in the 23rd? Upstate GOP bosses (county chairmen) met behind closed doors to nominate veteran assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava of Watertown, whose record qualifies her as the most liberal Republican congressional candidate in memory. She is pro-card check, pro-abortion, and twice voted in the assembly to legalize gay marriage. She repeatedly has won the endorsement of the ACORN-backed Working Families party, sharing that party's ballot with John Kerry in 2004 and Obama last year.

In her official assembly biography, she lists herself as chief operating officer of her family-owned corporation. But now that the firm is in trouble, facing state and federal tax liens, the local press reports she says "she has nothing to do" with the company. Meanwhile, her husband is the regional president of the AFL-CIO.

National Republican leaders have been bombarded by conservative activists to force the pull back of Scozzafava's nomination. To date the National Republican Campaign Committee is stubbornly sticking with her.

But there are developments in the 23rd that may make both political party machines irrelevant.

Doug Hoffman, a native of Saranac Lake, is a self-made successful businessman and accountant with offices throughout the district. A lifelong Republican, he had never thought of becoming a political candidate. The closest he had ever been to political power was shaking hands last year with New York governor David Paterson, who was awarding a medal of heroism to Hoffman's state trooper son, shot while successfully capturing a wanted criminal.

Hoffman and his wife and children have always spent their spare time outdoors. They are skiers. (Another son was one of the youngest ever to make the U.S. ski team.) Together the family has climbed 40 of the 46 peaks in the Adirondacks.

But something happened to Hoffman as he watched the special election in the neighboring 20th District. To Hoffman, the performance of the candidates perfectly exemplified the failure of national business and political leadership in America.

So when Republican chairmen announced they would select someone to run for the McHugh seat, Hoffman declared his candidacy. "If ever there was a time when we need people in Congress who can read a balance sheet, it is now," says Hoffman.

Like nine other candidates, he met with the party bosses behind closed doors to make the case for his candidacy. He learned of the Scozzafava nomination through a party press release.