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.

In the days that followed, Hoffman was shocked to learn of Scozzafava's positions in press reports about the coming race. He called friends who put him in touch with conservative leaders, and a meeting was arranged with New York Conservative party chairman Mike Long who was in Lake Placid to watch his own son, a New York City fireman, run in the Iron Man Triathlon.

"I met [Hoffman] early in the morning," Long recalls. "I was struck by his honesty and his refreshing grasp of the issues. I didn't know they made people like this any more. I didn't try to talk him into running, but I sure didn't try to talk him out of it."

Driving back to his hotel after the meeting, Long thought to himself, "That man has a shot at being another Jim Buckley." In 1970 Buckley was elected to the U.S. Senate on the Conservative party line against two liberals, a Republican and a Democrat.

Hoffman's campaign is winning surprising respect. Reports Brian Mann on National Public Radio's North Country website: "Hoffman also brings a lot of personal wealth to the race; that's a big deal in politics. My sense is that he could serve as a spoiler in this race.  .  .  .  But I also think there is a legitimate, if still remote, chance that Hoffman could win."

When the Adirondack Daily Enterprise asked readers to cast votes on its website, the result was Hoffman 58 percent, Owens 23 percent, and Scozzafava 19 percent. The survey was obviously not scientific, and the Adirondacks are Hoffman's home territory, but when he tells you his life's story, it is easy to see why those who know him are so very much for him.

He and his four siblings were raised by a single mother. By age 8 he was delivering papers to help his mother pay the bills. He started pumping gas at 14. By the time he finished high school, he was a master mechanic.

He finished at the top of his high school class, but there was no family money for college. A group of local civic leaders believed in him--and raised scholarship money for him. He graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh in 1973 with a degree in accounting.

He joined the Army reserves, got married, started a family, and went to work for Price Waterhouse. Meanwhile, he earned an MBA in finance and accounting from the University of Connecticut.

In 1977, he moved his family back to the North Country for a new job as assistant controller for the Lake Placid 1980 Olympic Organizing Committee. His first day on the job his boss quit, and at 27 he assumed the position as corporate controller, eventually overseeing a budget of $150 million and 2,500 employees as well as 6,000 volunteers.

Today, the accounting firm he heads has six offices. The Hoffman Family Enterprises he owns with his children runs a diverse group of small businesses, from construction to auto service to hospitality and tourism. His list of civic leadership positions is vast.

Mike Long is pleading with national Republican leaders to push aside Assemblywoman Scozzafava and give the GOP nomination to Hoffman. Says Long: "She symbolizes the tax-and-spend-and-earmark philo-sophy that has so decimated the Republican party in Congress. On the other hand, if Owens wins, it will be a huge victory for the discredited Obama White House."

If Republicans do not accept Hoffman as their candidate, state and national conservative movement leaders have an enormous stake in what happens in the 23rd. Despite Hoffman's pledge to put in at least $250,000 of his own money, fundraising for the Hoffman campaign will prove a real test of the strength of conservatives nationally. National parties can be counted on to pour huge resources into the district for the election. Can conservatives match these donations? The answer may tell us a great deal about the future of American politics. After all, Jim Buckley's Senate victory helped build conservative political credibility and was a direct forerunner to the Reagan movement.

McHugh is expected to be confirmed when Congress returns in September. Governor Paterson probably will set the special election for November 3, when only local races will be on the ballot.

A John McLaughlin poll, still closely held by the campaign, shows that Hoffman has every chance of winning the seat. In the 23rd district (which went by a narrow margin to Obama last year), 56 percent of likely voters said they wanted to elect a conservative Republican to succeed McHugh. Only 24 percent said they would vote for a Democrat. A minuscule 8 percent said they wanted a liberal Republican. The North Country is a spectacular place to be in late summer and early fall when the beauty of the region is unimaginable. This year the North Country will be a colorful arena for politics as well.

Kenneth Tomlinson is a former editor in chief of Reader's Digest.