The deepening reds and blues of America’s political map are making it harder and harder to be a Republican member of Congress from New York.
Republicans widened their majority in the House of Representatives by 11 seats between 2000 and 2004, but New York is heading in the other direction, with the Democrats picking up one seat in 2002 and another last year.
As a result, New York’s Democrats and their allies smell blood. The party is poised to field a ticket next year headed by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and gubernatorial nominee-apparent Eliot Spitzer. Meanwhile, Republicans find themselves on the defensive on issues ranging from Social Security to ethics. The latter controversy has taken on a special urgency as scandal continues to swirl around House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.
What’s more, the party in control of the White House generally loses seats in mid-term elections. All of this could spell trouble for some of the state’s nine remaining Republican members of Congress in 2006.
“We want to force these Republicans to choose between [President] Bush and DeLay on one hand, and senior citizens and protecting the interests of the voters in their district on the other,” said Bob Master, chairman of the liberal Working Families Party, which is leading the push against private Social Security accounts.
The group has targeted Republicans across the state, but two in particular already are facing well-organized challenges. One is the city’s lone G.O.P. Congressman, Vito Fossella, who represents Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn. The other is Tom Reynolds, a powerful figure in Washington but a narrow victor in 2004 in his Buffalo-area district, where a local businessman won 45 percent of the vote.
It’s hardly time to write their political obituaries. Unseating incumbent members of Congress is a bit like knocking those weighted dolls off the shelf at the fairgrounds: harder than it looks at first. Nevertheless, the growing pressure on these two supposedly “safe” Republican seats reflects the reshaping of American politics into polarized states organized by color, Republican red and Democratic blue.
Of course, the famous red-blue maps showing Presidential election returns by county oversimplify American political divisions. But just as Republicans in the 1990’s all but destroyed the Democratic Party in conservative parts of the country, Democrats in places like New York are doing their best to turn “Republican” into a dirty word.
“New York is getting bluer,” said Joe Crowley, a Democratic Congressman from Queens with a leadership position in the House. Mr. Crowley said that if the Democrats take over the State Senate, he would push to redraw the boundaries of the state’s Congressional districts to favor Democrats, as Mr. DeLay did for Republicans in Texas.
Democrats and allied liberal groups are working to turn Mr. DeLay into a burden on his members, the kind of political liability Newt Gingrich became in 1994. Their ammunition has been reports about his former aides’ lobbying practices and about his all-expenses-paid foreign travel and golf outings, which have made him a symbol of that perpetual political punching bag: the overfed, overprivileged Washington establishment. So far, however, partisans on both sides say they’re hearing little about Mr. DeLay from their constituents. One Northeastern Republican, Connecticut’s Christopher Shays, has broken ranks with Mr. DeLay and defections have begun in the Senate, but New York’s members are grimly backing their leader. Even Long Island’s Peter King, who clashed with Mr. DeLay over Bill Clinton’s impeachment, said he supports the Texan.
“Let he who is without sin throw the first stone,” he said, adding that he had less sympathy for a former DeLay enforcer, Michael Scanlon, who is caught up in the scandal. “I have to admit to a certain delight in seeing Scanlon in this, because I remember him as a young punk telling me he was going to get me.”
Other New York political figures have closer ties to Mr. DeLay, whose political-action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, gave $10,000 to Representative John “Randy” Kuhl’s successful campaign for an upstate Congressional seat in 2004. Another upstate Congressman, Syracuse’s James Walsh, gave $1,000 to Mr. DeLay’s legal-defense fund. And Governor George Pataki’s top fund-raiser, Cathy Blaney, received more than $10,000 in fees from Mr. DeLay’s committee.
Mr. Fossella may be more vulnerable to charges that he is close to Mr. DeLay. He has voted more consistently with the House leadership than any other New York representative. And he has a link to the central figure in the scandal over Mr. DeLay’s travel expenses, lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
In 2002, Mr. Abramoff and another DeLay associate, Tony Rudy, were listed as the three hosts of a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Mr. Fosella at Baltimore’s Camden Yards ball field, according to a list of events posted at one time to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Web site.
Mr. Fossella’s spokesman, Craig Donner, however, said the entry referred only to baseball tickets provided to Mr. Fossella by Greenberg Traurig, the large law-and-lobbying firm where Mr. Abramoff worked.
“Vito’s never met Mr. Abramoff, nor has Mr. Abramoff ever hosted an event for Vito or attended one of Vito’s fund-raisers,” he said.
Neither Mr. Abramoff nor any of his Indian-tribe clients appear to have contributed to Mr. Fossella’s campaign.
But the 2002 fund-raiser could be the least of Mr. Fossella’s problems. On Staten Island, there’s been a flurry of activity around a potential challenge to Mr. Fossella. A high-ranking House Democrat, Steny Hoyer, recently met with potential challengers to Mr. Fossella, including City Council member Michael McMahon. And a memo from a Washington pollster, Brad Bannon, to a local Democratic political-action committee in February detailed lines of attack on Mr. Fossella. In recent weeks, the campaign against changes in Social Security has been hard to miss on the island, which hasn’t elected a Democrat to Congress since 1978. A recent town meeting on Social Security featured an empty chair with Mr. Fossella’s name on it, while lawn signs will soon be popping up with the words, “Where is Vito?”
“I’m surprised that we see a lot of this happening so early,” said Staten Island power broker Guy Molinari, a Republican who was elected to Congress from the island in 1980 and later elected to three terms as borough president. He and Mr. Fossella have been feuding over internal party matters, although the two men were once close. In fact, Mr. Molinari handpicked Mr. Fossella to run for Congress after Mr. Molinari’s daughter, Susan, resigned her House seat in 1997 to pursue a television career.
Evidence of the fledgling campaign against Mr. Fossella was evident one recent morning, when Lou Jacobi, a genial, silver-haired 62-year-old, was soliciting passers-by outside the Great Kills Post Office in a post-suburban corner of the island.
“Excuse me, will you help me save Social Security?” Mr. Jacobi was asking as he stood in front of signs reading “Don’t Dismantle Social Security” and “Vito: Sign the Social Security Pledge.” As often as not, the passers-by end up stopping and signing the petition or even writing a letter by hand.
Mr. Jacobi and his dozen or so fellow volunteers on Staten Island that morning are part of the effort by the Working Families Party to persuade Republicans to block Mr. Bush’s Social Security plan. It’s hard not to see the organizing as something else: a means of laying the groundwork for a challenge to House Republicans who vote the wrong way.
A union official, Denise Allegretti, pretty much told the volunteers on Staten Island as much. “We need to have a clear response from Vito on which way he wants to go so we can kill him if he goes the wrong way, or know that he’s on our side,” she said.
Mr. Fossella declined to speak to The Observer, but Mr. Donner said that Mr. Fossella’s position on Social Security is clear. He said the Congressman opposes any plan involving a tax increase, or cuts to benefits for current retirees, and that he’s taking a “wait and see” attitude toward any plan that presents itself.
“It’s just a political campaign masquerading as an issue campaign,” he said of the Working Families Party effort.
Mr. Donner also said he was confident that Mr. Fossella’s position on big national issues like national security, and on local issues like rampant real-estate development, make him popular on the island.
Indeed, even Mr. Bannon’s poll last fall-conducted for Mr. Fossella’s 2004 opponent, Frank Barbaro-found the Congressman with approval ratings well over 50 percent. Mr. Fossella won the race with 59 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, in Buffalo, Mr. Reynolds has been complaining about the liberal Campaign for America’s Future, one of the deep-pocketed “527 groups” that appeared amid the bitterly polarizing 2004 election. The campaign has already run television advertisements calling for Mr. Reynolds to repudiate Mr. DeLay. And the main local newspaper, The Buffalo News, which endorsed the Congressman, has echoed the criticism of Mr. Reynolds. His challenger in 2004, Jack Davis, hasn’t officially declared his candidacy for 2006, but he has a self-financed political operation already in gear to trumpet his strident opposition to free trade.
Mr. Davis has also met with officials of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which appears likely to aid his campaign, according to a senior Democratic aide.
“He’s a free-trader, he’s for globalization, and he’s for destroying America as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. Davis told the Observer.
He also said he expected Mr. Reynolds to be hurt by support for whatever the President ultimately proposes to do with Social Security.
“He’s a butt-boy for Bush, so he’s got to do whatever Bush wants him to do,” he said.
Mr. Reynolds’s office referred calls to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which the Buffalo Congressman chairs.
“The Democrats are really stretching if they think they can put either of those districts in play,” said spokesman Carl Forti. He noted that, in contrast to his well-financed committee, the DCCC remains in debt from its losing effort in 2004.
A spokeswoman for the DCCC, Sarah Feinberg, called Mr. Reynolds “vulnerable” and said the committee was taking a “close look” at the Buffalo race.
“He’s a prime example of a member of Congress putting the national party above their district,” she said.