SARATOGA SPRINGS—The federal stimulus package is still the central issue in the race to replace Kirsten Gillibrand in Congress, but it's gone from a bludgeon used by Democrats to a new line of attack on their standard-bearer, Scott Murphy.
The change can be summarized in three letters: A.I.G. During a Thursday evening candidate forum, the first question Murphy was asked had to do with whether he was aware of language within the stimulus bill that did not prohibit the insurance company from awarding executive bonuses after accepting billions of dollars from taxpayers. Murphy called the clause a "clarification" and said he supports the stimulus bill anyway. He also supports legislation passed last week to "claw back" 90 percent of the bonuses.
That didn't stop Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco, Murphy's Republican opponent, from immediately cutting an ad portraying Murphy as "one of them": a corrupt fat cat fleeing with the people's treasure. He made it the theme of a campaign appearance Sunday with Representative Aaron Schock of Illinois.
"He knows he made a mistake, one way or another, and the Legislature knows it made a mistake or they wouldn't have clawed back those bonuses if they didn't think they made a mistake," Tedisco told me afterward. "So Jim Tedisco taking his time is really what a public servant does in understanding that leadership is just not rubber-stamping stuff."
Tedisco's event at his Halfmoon campaign headquarters started an hour after an event Murphy was holding in Saratoga Springs. He started 20 minutes late, perhaps out of strategic recognition that television crews are finite things, especially on weekends.
In a back room with an exposed brick wall that was jammed with supporters, Murphy made his case for supporting the stimulus standing at a makeshift podium between two congressmen: Representative Paul Tonko, the "congressman from next door" who has been stumping with Murphy, and Representative Steve Israel, who was involved in selecting Murphy as his party's candidate and traveled from Long Island for a weekend visit. He pulled no punches.
"Jim Tedisco said: Let me think about it," Israel intoned, throwing a pointed finger with every sentence. "Do you know what that's like? Could you imagine John F. Kennedy in 1962 saying, ‘By the end of the decade we will land a man on the moon,' and Jim Tedisco saying, ‘Let me wait until the end of the decade to take a position on whether we should do that?'"
After the event, I asked Murphy whether he was aware of the Dodd amendment when he declared he would have voted for the stimulus plan. He didn't answer the question.
"I think that the important issue is, how do we solve this problem?" Murphy began. "I've been about it this whole campaign, is that my skill set is solving problems and getting to solutions. What we need to do right now is get the money back from people who took bonuses at A.I.G. That was wrong, but what we need to focus on is solving the problem, not at pointing blame or playing politics."
I then asked Murphy how he would have voted on the amendment that included the language in question. "I'd have to look at the whole amendment, I haven't seen that amendment, but I would have voted for the bill and I'm in favor of getting the money back from the A.I.G. people that took bonuses out of the taxpayers' pockets."
"Mr. Tedisco apparently wouldn't have made his mind up for a month on whether he would have voted for it, as thousand and thousands of people across upstate New York were losing their jobs," Murphy said. "This is a big bill. It's not perfect, I've never said that it was, but it's got important elements in it."
Murphy's children—who had been fidgety but quiet during his speech—scampered around the room, tugging at their father and winning enough of his attention to be held. As the candidate and family posed for pictures with volunteers and others, I asked Israel if he thought the A.I.G. issue had put Murphy on the defensive in a way he wasn't last week, fresh off a poll finding the race within four points.
"We're not on the defensive—in fact, Mr. Tedisco is on the defensive against himself," Israel said. Earlier, he had clarified, "If this is a referendum about anything, it's about a candidate who is willing to take a position to solve a problem, as opposed to Jim Tedisco, who has delayed taking a position and has no solutions to the problem."
He closed by calling Tedisco "a walking clarification."
Tedisco is doing everything he can to give the A.I.G. issue legs, and will likely continue to do so, especially since Murphy will not back off his support of the stimulus as the central theme in his campaign. The groundwork has also been laid for another line of attack by the Republicans, over the death penalty for convicted terrorists. Fred Dicker on Friday got Murphy to say that he would not support it. Fox News picked up the story.
Murphy was as concise as anyone trying to kill an issue can be when asked by a TV cameraman about it.
"My belief is that for us, as a state, we shouldn't be executing people. So I believe that in all cases," he said. "I lived in New York City. I was there on 9/11, and I'm well aware of the horrors of that tragedy, and I'm excited that President Obama's getting serious about using our military to take out Osama bin Laden. I'm hopeful that when we get the surge in Afghanistan we're going to be successful and we're going to get him."
And I was somewhat surprised that over the course of the event, neither Murphy, Israel or Tonko bit at the latest flap involving Tedisco: his declaration to an editorial board that Rush Limbaugh is "meaningless" to him.
Larry Bulman, the Saratoga County Democratic chair and labor leader, said it was "very relevant" and claimed that a woman approached him Saturday saying it would be a voting issue for her that Tedisco issued a Bart Simpson-esque statement that Democrats branded an apology.
I asked Tedisco about this, and he stood firmly apart from Limbaugh.
"How does saying that constituents are more important than him in my district, than he is, kowtowing to him?" he replied. He said he doesn't listen to Rush. "No, no. If I'm turning the station I might hit him and listen for a little bit, but I don't have anything against him or for him. He's not a part of this election. This is between me and Scott Murphy—if he wants to run against Rush Limbaugh, let him put him on the ballot."
I also asked Tedisco whether he thought Limbaugh was a valid spokesman for the Republican party.
"I think every citizen in the United States of America is a valid voice for whatever they want to be," he said. I asked again.
"Not of my thought, because I'm my own self, an independent thinker."