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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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.