ALBANY–After thirty years in politics, most of it as a member of a powerless opposition party, Jim Tedisco has perfected the art of being unignorable.
He’s neither a policy wonk nor a politician who sought office for the perks and platform. He’s never had enough influence to flex his muscles in back room deals. So Tedisco has basked in whatever limelight he could find during his 26 years as a minority Republican member of the assembly. And now, if a 70,000 voter enrollment edge, stronger party apparatus and higher recognition numbers have anything to say about it, Tedisco will be elected to succeed Kirsten Gillibrand in the House of Representatives.
His allies think his skill-set will translate well to Washington, where he would, once again, find himself squarely among the Outs.
“I think he’s Nancy Pelosi’s worst nightmare,” said State Senator Roy McDonald, who until this year represented other parts of Saratoga County in the Assembly. “He’s not going to remain silent and take orders.”
State Senator Hugh Farley, whose district overlaps with Tedisco’s and has “raised him since he was a pup” politically, said that Tedisco is “one of a kind.”
“The like of Washington is never going to see anything like him again,” Farley said. “He’s going to be one of the most-interviewed freshman congressmen in the history of that Congress, in my judgment.”
If you ask people of a certain age how they first came across Tedisco, they will tell you about the first time they saw him on the basketball court. Tedisco is not physically imposing; his success was due in large part to fast moves and a hyper intensity.
“The shortest guy on the team was shooting the lights out,” Farley recalled of a game between Union College and the University of Albany, where he was a professor, in 1970.
Tedisco was the Dutchmen’s point guard for three years, scoring a record 1,632 points. Three and a half thousand people watched as his jersey was retired in 1972. After graduating Union, he became a special education teacher, and within five years was elected to the City Council.
“We have a way here of hiring athletic people. Or at least they used to,” said Marv Cermak, a newspaper columnist who has covered Schenectady for over 40 years. “What the hell, let’s face it. Name recognition? There’s proof right there. The guy’s name was always in the headlines as a sports star.”
Tedisco won a contentious primary for the Assembly in 1982, and cemented his position by being omnipresent in his district and at the Capitol. Cermak said there was rarely a pancake breakfast in Rock City Falls that Tedisco did not attend. Farley, who is older and more staid, still appears often with Tedisco at community events.
He told the story of one night when a moose wandered across his yard.
“The T.V. interviewed me and it was all over. I was at a function that night and I mentioned a moose ran across my lawn,” Farley said.
Then Tedisco took the podium.
“He came up with some ridiculous story, too,” Farley said. “He had the crowd in stitches. They didn’t believe my story was true!”
“He always had to have a joke that would top mine,” Farley said. He usually succeeded.
At the Capitol, all the legislators and staffers interviewed for this article smiled when asked for Tedisco stories. There was the budget clock, one pointed out, noting the digital countdown Tedisco had installed to push for a property tax cap before the budget deadline.
“As if we didn’t know when April 1st is,” one annoyed legislator said.
Or the time Tedisco scored a bull’s-eye in an axe-throwing competition.
“It was unbelievable,” said Ed Lewi, a public relations man who was running a promotion for an outdoor show in Albany that weekend on the Capitol’s west lawn, and invited Tedisco to stop by. “It was a cold day in March. Jimmy took his coat off, and first of all, none of the kids had made a bull’s-eye yet.”
There were cheers. A local television crew caught the incident on tape. “I said the new line for Tedisco is ‘Tedisco’s on target,’” Lewi said.
There were countless press conferences, from the usual taxes-are-too-high fare to one calling for a special election to replace Hillary Clinton. (Which is ironic, since it’s doubtful voters would have chosen to the send Kirsten Gillibrand to the U.S. Senate—hence clearing the vacancy in the House–as David Paterson did.) At leader meetings, Tedisco always muscles his way into the conversation to make a point–usually that he has been excluded from negotiations by the governor and majority leaders.
(Asked by the Observer for his thoughts on Tedisco’s congressional run, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said, archly, “Is that’s where he’s been?”)
“The first thing I think of is: loud,” said Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari, a Democrat whose district lies just east of Tedisco’s. “And passionate about the things he believes in. He certainly has a flare for the dramatic, has perfected the art of the sound bite, and I think it’s helped him get the victories and exposure he’s gotten.”
Tedisco was responsible for pushing Buster’s Law, which makes it a felony to torture an animal. As minority leader, a post he secured in 2005, he led successful opposition to Eliot Spitzer’s plan to offer driver’s licenses to undocumented aliens. But most of the other measures mentioned on Tedisco’s campaign web site came about as a result of others’ efforts.
Despite his long record as a legislator, Tedisco has tended to bristle, and obfuscate, when asked for specific positions on legislation. He has repeatedly declined to say whether he would have voted for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, calling the question “hypothetical.” The non-answers on the topic–one day he spoke for five minutes about the stimulus without saying how he would vote–have been seized upon by Scott Murphy, the Democrat vying for the seat, as well as several newspaper editorial boards. When the New York Times asked Tedisco for his position on the legislation, he accused them of “carrying the water” for the Democrats.
Tedisco declined to be interviewed for this article.
In recent days, the intensity of his campaign has increased. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appeared with Tedisco in Dutchess County on Monday. He has started running a negative ad which portrays Murphy as “just another Wall Street millionaire.” A poll last week showed Tedisco leading Murphy by 12 points; both campaigns expressed delight with the result, but the result breaks in the unknown Murphy’s favor.
Opening a campaign headquarters in suburban Queensbury two weeks ago, Tedisco was already couching the significance of the race in grander terms.
“I think it’s a bellwether election,” he said. “It’s the first election of 2009. It’s a referendum not only on Assembly Republican Leader Jim Tedisco and my opponent, but it’s a referendum on where we go in a new year, 2009. It’s the first election. It will be the first win for either party. There’s a lot at stake right now, and I’m not afraid to stand up and carry the banner for my party, but I’m going to stand up and stand up on my record, also. They’re sending to Washington when they vote for Jim Tedisco a public servant.”
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