The Green Papers
The Green Papers

Notes on a Special Election for Congress
that's gotten far too much attention

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson Staff
Tue 14 Apr 2009

Two weeks ago as I type this, there was held a Special Election to fill the vacancy in the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from the 20th Congressional District of New York State, a vacancy caused by the appointment- by New York Governor David Paterson- of Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (Democrat) to fill yet another vacancy: in this case, that in the Class 1 United States Senate seat vacated by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton when the former First Lady and unsuccessful contender for the 2008 Democratic Party Presidential Nomination vacated it in order to become U.S. Secretary of State.

Mrs. Gillibrand herself had first won election to the lower chamber of the Congress of the United States in 2006 by defeating a Republican incumbent, John Sweeney, who had originally seemed unbeatable but then- as the '06 campaign wore on- found himself more and more enmired in political quicksand consisting of a number of (albethey relatively minor) indiscretions bordering on scandal (questionable funding of ski vacations, reports involving Sweeney having attended a college frat party going into the wee hours- and, then, more seriously: Sweeney's seeking guidance from the House Ethics Committee as to how best to handle the fact that he once had had connections to an associate of Jack Abramoff [he of the lobbying scandal that pretty much ended the career of one-time Republican House leader Tom DeLay of Texas] and, finally, a domestic disturbance at his home).

In the context of the overall Midterm Congressional Election victory posted by the Democrats that year, it is clear that it can be said that- as could have been said about quite a number of freshman Democrats coming into Congress after '06- Mrs. Gillibrand had won the seat: yet it can also be fairly said that Congressman Sweeney, just as clearly, had lost it. Congresswoman Gillibrand went on to win re-election this past November and, again, she is now- of course- to be addressed as 'Senator Gillibrand'.

This Special Election was destined (doomed? [;-)]) to garner inordinate media attention (unusual for a Special Election in a rather obscure Congressional District) from the get-go. The former occupant, Senator Gillibrand, had, after all, succeeded a political legend- not to also mention a Democratic Party "legacy"- in now-Secretary of State Clinton; thus, there would have been more interest than usual in who might now hold Gillibrand's former House seat in any event.

But then there is the manner in which Gillibrand happened to be elevated to the Senate and its ramifications for New York State politics and- while the phrase "New York State politics" no longer commands the attention (though it still continues to accrue the derision) that the Nation (or, at the very least, its legion of "Politics junkies") once gave it back when New York was still the largest State in the Union in population (though it has not been so for more than four and a half decades now), a time when the Governor of New York was automatically a presumptive contender for the presidential nomination of his Party (whichever Party that might happen to have been)- the mess that has become the David Paterson Administration (as a result of which, nobody is seriously considering him a potential President of the United States!) has become something to watch, if only in the manner that we still hear- during rush hour traffic reports on the radio- about "rubbernecking" in the lane opposite that in which the horrific accident has actually occurred.

Perhaps David Paterson could not have easily avoided such a mess, no matter what: for he had been elevated himself- in this case as a Lieutenant Governor succeeding to the Governor's Chair- as a direct result of what has to have been one of the most unseemly (if not the most unseemly) departures of a Governor in American History, that of one-time rising star Eliot Spitzer- a crusading State Attorney General newly elected Governor- who, had it not been for his passion for so-called (ahem!) "escort services" (as in "the bull serviced the cow"- or, in this case, it was the other way round, I suppose [;-)])- might very well have been an old-fashioned Governor of New York seriously considered, "old school", as a future President. Instead, Spitzer only illustrated that- yes, boys and girls- it is possible to earn degrees from two (count 'em- 2!) prestigious Ivy League universities and still be stupid.

His successor might have risen far above this morass upon so acceding to the office and, indeed, Governor Paterson started off rather well-- but then Hillary Clinton was appointed (and confirmed as) Barack Obama's Secretary of State, leaving a U.S. Senate seat ripe for the appointment and, with the whole Rod Blagojevich-Ronald Burris-"this thing is %&#$ing golden" Senate appointment debacle in Illinois being played out to its ignominious conclusion, it might have been expected that nothing bad could possibly come out of this appointment in New York (one must assume that- given what had just transpired out there in "The Land of Lincoln"- it would have well served any Governor filling just such a vacancy in the Senate [for there were several of these being made at just about the same time- for Joe Biden's seat and that of Ken Salazar, as well as that of Hillary Clinton] to remain well aware that- greetings across the shadows of Time to Abbie Hoffman, et al.- "the whole World is watching")... but then came Caroline Kennedy, y'know, and Paterson leaving another Democratic Party "legacy" twisting in the wind until, in a rush, came Caroline's clumsy withdrawal (though it was not nearly so clumsy as Paterson's entire handling of this appointment) and the appointment of Congresswoman Gillibrand.

Complicating this whole thing was who Mrs. Gillibrand was and is- a Democrat, yes, but a Democrat who was elected (over, as I've already noted, a scandal-tinged [if not tainted] GOP Congressman) in what is, in the main, a predominantly Republican Congressional District: by very definition, Gillibrand was not ever going to be what one normally thinks of when one sees the designation "(D-New York)" after one's name (she had started her political career as an aide to Republican then-U.S. Senator Al D'Amato ["Senator Pothole" himself], fergod'sake!) and the immediate reaction to her elevation to the upper chamber of Congress from many New York Democrats- particularly those who, like Governor Paterson himself, hail from downstate (read "New York City and its nearby suburbs [Nassau County on Long Island, lower Westchester County]")- was not the most enthusiastic, to say the least, and some of it was downright negative (for instance, Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy- widowed by random gun violence and most vehemently opposed to Gillibrand's record re: Gun Control- publicly stating she was "going to have to Primary her" [that is, challenge Gillibrand for the Democratic nomination in the upcoming 2010 Special Election for the Class 1 seat by seriously challenging a potential endorsement of Gillibrand by the Party State Convention next year and, thereby, forcing a competitive Democratic Primary that Fall, although such a challenge has not yet been actually engaged])- although downstater Class 3 U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer strongly urged his fellow New York Democrats so consternated to "give [Gillibrand] a chance".

Again, this whole recent New York State political "soap opera" also served to ratchet up the, to begin with, no little interest- outside of New York, mind you!- in the potential outcome of the 31 March Special Election.

But what finally raised the overall interest in this race to an even higher pitch- perhaps one that only Portuguese water dogs can hear- was the timing: for this was considered, by what amounts to the Certifying Board of National Political Punditry (with whom- alas!- I myself have no cachet), to be the first true "referendum" on President Obama and his policies on a variety of issues. In this, these denizens of Media Pundits Unite were joined (in what has to be one of the oddest cases of "strange bedfellows") by such as the Republican National Committee- for the Republican Party seems to have had this vision of, in possibly winning back this seat for the GOP, its resurgence in the very face of the recent "beatdowns" they have suffered at the hands of a Democratic Party it, the once-mighty Republican juggernaut, had once so "beat down" with the Contract with America back in its more halcyon days immediately following '94.

Of course, this is all just so much nonsense!

The New York 20th is, as I've said, a predominantly Republican Congressional District. The GOP Congressman now-Senator Gillibrand defeated back in '06- John Sweeney- was first elected eight years earlier when most of this District was still New York's number 22 and the man Sweeney succeeded was none other than one Gerald B.H. Solomon, himself a legend among conservative New York State Republicans. Back when this District was essentially the old New York 29th, Solomon defeated Congressman Edward Pattison- a "Watergate baby" Democrat (that is, one who politically benefited from the "hit" taken by the GOP in the 1974 Midterm Federal Elections as a result of the resignation of President Richard Nixon the previous Summer) who himself had defeated a long-time Republican incumbent; this was in the 1978 Midterms and, thus, Solomon was to be to the Northeast what Newt Gingrich, also first elected in those same Elections, would become nationally- a living embodiment of what was back then, in the two years before Ronald Reagan was elected President, referred to as "the new Right".

That Congressional District (Gerald Solomon's 29th- which became the 24th in the 1980s before becoming John Sweeney's 22d and now the 20th) happens to also contain, at its core, what is now the 43rd New York State Senate District- until relatively recently, the seat of one Joseph L. Bruno, who was once the Republican leader in that upper chamber of the New York Legislature and whose service in the State Senate stretched back into the 1970s (Bruno even has a Minor League Baseball stadium in Troy, NY named after him- the home of the Tri-City ValleyCats of the 'Short season' New York-Penn League); meanwhile, the Republican candidate in the 31 March Special Election (oh, yeah... almost forgot what I was actually writing about in this piece [;-)]), Jim Tedisco, is the Republican leader of the New York State Assembly.

In other words, this area of the State has been the very epicenter of New York State Republican Party power!

Simply put: read my print-- New York's 20th Congressional is a REPUBLICAN District!

Got it?-- Good!

Therefore, whatever comes out of this election (for the final result is still undetermined as of this typing), we can know two things for certain:

  1. This Special Election can hardly be construed as a "referendum" on President Obama's Administration, for:
    • in order to have the truest reading on just such a thing (and, even then, one cannot completely discount the late U.S. House Speaker "Tip" O'Neill's dictum that Politics is local), you need to have a by-election somewhere where the Major Parties have, historically, been competitive (even where one Party has won more than the other)
    • you can't have such a "referendum" on a Democratic national Administration in a Congressional District so obviously unfriendly to Democrats as a general rule (indeed, when it comes to the New York 20th, Politics is local!)
  2. If, despite the above caveats, one nevertheless still insists on seeing this Special Election as just such a "referendum", then- by very definition- it is President Obama and the Democrats who have already won it (for a legislative leader of the predominant Party in a Congressional District locked in a two-week-long returns-counting dogfight for its U.S. House seat can only mean one thing: that the dominant Party is in serious trouble, even in its own "backyard").

But, even having said this, *I* would certainly hesitate before either so strongly declaring that the Republican Party in the Northeast is on life support (should the Democrat, Scott Murphy, come to be certified the victor) or so loudly declaiming that "the GOP is back, baby!" (should Tedisco, instead, be declared the winner). In reality, this Special Election has already proven to be something of a "wash" (even accepting my 2. above, if only for sake of this particular argument: did we, somehow, not already know that Barack Obama had won a recent election?) and it is still far too early in President Obama's term of office to be at all suggesting that the political landscape coming out of the 2008 General Elections has so boldly- where not also so suddenly- changed.

However, in the end, all that those of us who- to borrow freely from the words of keyboardist George Duke in the early 1970s Frank Zappa film 200 Motels- carry around the most recent edition of The Almanac of American Politics wherever we go so that "everyone thinks we know what's happ'nin'[!]" can do is sigh rather heavily whilst rolling our eyes as we hear and read all the drivel that has been said and written- and, or so I am sure, which shall yet be said and written- about this particular Special Election and its (alleged) meaning within the broader plain that is National Public Opinion: for Parties and Pundits alike will continue to spill out their tea before drinking it in order to check out the leaves, regardless of what *I* might think of such augury.

Meanwhile-- hey!-- what's up with that election for the Class 2 Senate seat up there in Minnesota? ;-)

Modified .