Politics & Policy

Paterson to NY-29: Drop Dead

The governor deems that a congressman for western New York is optional.

Remember Rep. Eric Massa (D., N.Y.)? It’s understandable that you may not want to remember the Tickle-Me Congressman, and his scandalous departure is receding further into history; it has been a full six weeks since he resigned from Congress.

His former seat in the House of Representatives has remained vacant since March 8, and while it’s not uncommon for a district to have no representation for a few weeks after a death or unexpected resignation, Gov. David Paterson hasn’t even declared a vacancy. Under New York law, upon being notified of a vacancy, the governor is supposed to issue a proclamation for a special election to be held between 30 and 40 days thereafter. However, state law does not specify how soon such a proclamation must be issued.

#ad#In short, the earliest that voters in western New York, including the southern suburbs of Rochester, could see a special election would be late May, leaving the seat empty for 75 days; a 40-day gap would leave it empty for 85 days. District residents, local officials, and the local press have repeatedly asked the governor’s office when he is going to make the proclamation, and have received no clear answer. After initially pledging to “call it as soon as possible,” the governor’s office issues endless “<a href="http://www.buffalonews.com/2010/03/09/982287_paterson-wont-commit-to-special.html" target="_blankcall it as soon as possible,” the governor’s office has issued endless “no final decision has been made yet” statements. If Paterson drags his feet through the remainder of the year, the district would go unrepresented for nearly ten months, or 301 days.

Tom Reed, the Republican mayor of Corning, had already announced his intention of running for Congress against Massa this year before the Democrat’s resignation; he instantly became the consensus GOP candidate for a special election. But he and his campaign have been left waiting. “We were expecting an announcement that Friday,” says Reed’s campaign manager, Joe Sempolinski. “If he had announced it then, the most likely election day would have been April 20. . . . That’s the kind of delay we’re talking about at this point.”

This would be the third special House election in New York State in this cycle; the previous two were announced and held relatively quickly. Kirsten Gillibrand, who represented the 20th district, resigned from the House when she was appointed senator, replacing Hillary Clinton, on Jan. 26, 2009; a special election was held just two months (64 days) later, on March 31. John McHugh of the 23rd district resigned on September 21 to become secretary of the Army, and the special election for his seat was held on November 3, just 43 days later. The 111th Congress has seen ten vacancies; in nine of these cases, the date of the special election was established almost immediately, and the longest any district was without representation was the 140 days for California’s 32nd district, between Hilda Solis’s February 24 resignation to become labor secretary and a July 14 special election.

“There have been serious votes since the resignation,” Sempolinski says. “On the health-care bill, people wanted to express to their representative how they thought he should vote. You’re hearing a lot of talk about ‘No taxation without representation.’ There’s a lack of constituent services, no one standing up for our local interests. We’re frustrated. Whether it’s Tom Reed or someone else, people deserve a choice, and they deserve to have a member of Congress.”

#page#Sempolinski says there is bipartisan frustration with the delay. However, when the Democratic county chairmen from across the district selected their candidate for the special election, their statement didn’t quite contain a full-throated demand for an election to be held as soon as possible: “It’s clear that a special election would prove to be very expensive, particularly considering so many counties in the 29th district are already struggling financially. Similarly, we cannot disenfranchise military voters who are currently serving overseas; we must take appropriate steps to make sure their votes are counted. Governor Paterson is rightfully taking these concerns into consideration and we believe he will make a decision that reflects what’s best for Southern Tier/Finger Lakes New York.”

#ad#As noted, the objection — on paper — is cost. That cost is put at $700,000, in a state with a proposed budget of $134 billion in 2010.

“To use that as an excuse is, to me, missing the big picture,” Sempolinski says. “Of course, the expense is an issue in a state with a very serious budget crisis. But even the staunchest fiscal conservative believes in the fundamental functions of government, and there aren’t many more fundamental functions of government than holding elections.”

Reed begins the race with a healthy head start, in a district with a R+5 score in the Cook Partisan Voting Index. (In 2008, John McCain won the district by about 7,000 votes.) On paper, the Republican would have a solid advantage in any special election, leading some to suspect that Paterson’s delay has a partisan motivation. (The New York State Young Republicans put together a short satirical video, with an animated Paterson telling congressional Democrats he doesn’t know how much longer he can hold off the voters in upstate New York and leading them in the chant, “Screw you, taxpayers!”)

Republicans inside the Beltway are aware of the increasingly abnormal delay, and they have objected. However, they are treating the issue with caution, as they don’t want Paterson to try to paint the issue as one of Washington’s butting into a state decision. They do note that if there is not a special election, the district’s voters will endure one of the longest vacancies in modern politics.

Sempolinski says that Reed and the campaign staff are encouraging locals to contact state lawmakers and Paterson’s office. But it remains to be seen how much political pressure can be brought to bear on a governor who already endures a public disapproval rating that ranges from the low 60s to the low 80s.

Perhaps when you’ve been accused of witness intimidation and obstruction of justice, as Paterson has, complaints that you’re obstructing the democratic process don’t stand out that much.

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.

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