Few people in New York City have heard of U.S. Representative Thomas Reynolds. A Republican, he represents a rural corner of western New York. He is not a notable orator; he speaks plainly and with a strong upstate accent. He looks like a trimmer and slightly lesspasty versionofKarl Rove.
But to those New Yorkers who follow the nuts and bolts of national politics, Mr. Reynolds is a celebrity. After just five years in Congress, he has risen to a prominent leadership position in his party, and has been granted the heavy responsibility of spearheading the G.O.P.’s fund-raising and organization for the 2004 elections. With Democrats out of power in Washington and New York City’s heavily Democratic House contingent particularly marginalized, Mr. Reynolds has become the man to see for securing federal dollars and warding off the privations of a conservative Congressional leadership not known for its warm feelings for New York.
At a recent meeting of the Association for a Better New York, an influential civic group founded by the late developer Lew Rudin, Mr. Reynolds talked about his accomplishments in getting funding for various projects in New York and boasted of close relationships with the state’s political leaders. He gave a brief discourse on how his party engineered its victory in the 2002 elections, praised President Bush’s leadership and said that he was proud that the Republican convention was coming to New York in 2004.
The speech itself seemed fairly routine. But the reviews by many of the audience were little short of rapturous.
Elliot Sander, a transportation expert who attended the breakfast, said, “I think this is the beginning of a relationship that could be really good. And we need him, big-time. He’s our only hope.”
Veteran public-relations man Howard Rubenstein is also high on Mr. Reynolds. “He is very pro–New York City as well as New York State, and he seemed to know a tremendous number of people in the room,” Mr. Rubenstein said. “Having an open door to a person like that, who’s close to the administration and close to New York, is a great advantage. I can count those people on one hand.”
This growing perception of the Congressman as some sort of legislative savior is a development that he both acknowledges and welcomes. “I’m kind of pleased that word has traveled that I’m a results-oriented guy,” Mr. Reynolds told The Observer in a subsequent interview, “and that from time to time, in all parts of the state and sometimes from different parts of the country, different entities will call me to see if I can be helpful.”
Mr. Reynolds, who is 53, is an unlikely champion for New York’s interests for a number of reasons. He has been in Congress, where seniority often rules, only since 1998. (Until then, his career was on a local track, serving in the Erie County Legislature and the New York State Assembly, where he became minority leader. He ran for Congress only after the unexpected retirement of his predecessor, Bill Paxon.) He is not a well-known figure outside of western New York, and does not court publicity. And most important, he is faced with the seemingly insoluble conflict of working to preserve the House leadership of Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay while opposing significant parts of their agenda.
“I think there’s the potential of Tom Reynolds offsetting the hit that New York has taken for having Congress being dominated by Republicans when we don’t have any Republicans,” said Mr. Sander. “He would appear to be one of the last effective bulwarks. But certainly, how he navigates this is going to be very interesting.”
Mr. Reynolds’ rise through the party ranks since arriving in Washington has been swift. In 2000, on the strength of his fund-raising and political skills, he was put in charge of raising money for the National Republican Congressional Committee. He is now the chairman of the NRCC, with the responsibility of defending the Republican majority in 2004, giving him access to politicians and contributors nationwide.
It is an accomplishment of which he is clearly proud, and he describes it as a major advantage in getting things done.
“I think I have the opportunity to be an advocate for things I think are important,” he said, mentioning as examples his push to have funding for a Long Island Rail Road improvement included in this year’s budget, and a request for more money to cover the state’s Medicaid costs. “Usually, that’s left to members of the senior party that are chairmen of committees, like [Sherwood] Boehlert, or to ranking minority members like [Charles] Rangel. I, with just five years in Congress, have had an opportunity to be able to express myself as a rank-and-file member, but also to be able to lay these views at the leadership table.”
Decline in Clout
One factor that has boosted Mr. Reynolds’ stock has been the general decline in New York’s clout in Washington. Both of New York’s Senators, and a majority of the state’s Congressional delegation, are Democrats, meaning that they’re left out of lots of important conversations in Washington. And even as the Bush administration’s recent tribulations have given new hope to the Democratic Presidential candidates, the House, where Mr. Reynolds resides, looks to be out of reach for the foreseeable future. This means that Mr. Reynolds is not only one of the few New Yorkers with access to power in Washington, but he’s likely to be in that position for a long time to come.
Mr. Reynolds’ rise in influence has also translated into increasing support for him from important figures in New York City who don’t normally contribute to upstate conservatives. William Rudin, for example, who is the head of ABNY, president of the Rudin Organization and a major donor to Democratic causes, contributed $1,000 to Mr. Reynolds’ campaign committee earlier this year. (The committee now has $1.7 million on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission Web site, which is tops among House members from New York.) “He has been very responsive to issues relating to New York,” said Mr. Rudin. “Last year, on the issue of terrorism insurance, he was very proactive in making sure that our issues were addressed and was very helpful in getting legislation passed.”
Mr. Reynolds has already shown some ability to flex his muscle, leveraging his political and fund-raising success with the NRCC to win funds for New York over the initial resistance of more senior members of Congress. One example is funding for an ambitious commuter-rail project, the long-sought extension of LIRR tracks to the East Side of Manhattan. When a more senior member sought to slash funding for the proposal, Mr. Reynolds intervened and the money was restored.
To hear Mr. Reynolds tell it, he’s going to continue to oppose the House leadership on spending issues, and is girding for serious conflict in the next session. At the ABNY breakfast, responding to a question on funding for transportation projects, he said: “We’re going to have to get ready for this fight with Tom DeLay if he continues in wanting to do the battle. But I also think of the timing on the battle-we need to not peak too early. We need to wait, see what kind of votes they need out of New York, and get into a little muscle battle, united … I think we’re up for the fight; we’ve got a number of people on key committees for that battle. But it’s going to be a battle.”
In the interview afterwards, he again laid out his disagreement with the House leadership on the equation for allocating funding between states. “[Tom DeLay] wants to change the formula to where it benefits Florida, Texas, California and some other states,” he said. “We think that that aspect of the formula should stay in place, because it’s beneficial to New York.”
For all his stated willingness to oppose the House leadership, though, Mr. Reynolds will never be mistaken for a maverick. Other than the fact that he comes from New York, he is very much a part of the House leadership team that distinguishes itself, even in Republican-dominated Washington, for its conservatism. He led the floor fight against campaign-finance reform last year, is a vocal advocate of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and is emerging as one of President Bush’s fiercest defenders against the rising criticism of his conduct of the war on terror.
“When you get into interstate-formula issues, it’s normal for those to divide not along party lines, but along state and regional lines,” said John Faso, a former Assembly minority leader who now works as a lobbyist for the state on transportation issues. “But on big, overarching questions, they’re on the same team.”
Whether Mr. Reynolds can actually win his battles on New York’s behalf remains to be seen. “He really is the go-to guy for New York’s interests in the House,” said Howard Wolfson, who was the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee leading up to the last election, “but I think the jury is still very much out on whether or not he actually does deliver. Republicans in New York like George Pataki and Michael Bloomberg make the same argument as Reynolds-that their willingness to help conservative Republicans with fund-raising enables them to deliver for the city. I have yet to really see the tangible evidence of that, and I think that Reynolds’ performance in this regard will be an interesting case study.”
For his part, Mr. Reynolds said that he’ll keep his goals simple. Recalling another famously overachieving Republican from New York, former Senator Alfonse D’Amato, he said: “I’m a pothole guy-Congressman Pothole. I’m a former Assemblyman. That’s what Assemblymen do: They work on details of people’s problems.”