Gizzi on Politics: Nov. 5-9

After Tancredo, Another Armstrong?

Declaring that I “have done all I can do in the House,” Colorado Congressman and Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo announced last week that, regardless of what happens with his White House bid, he will not seek re-election to his 6th District seat next year.

Although five-termer Tancredo’s retirement announcement caught most observers in Washington and Denver by surprise, it was not totally unexpected. In recent months, the man who is more identified than any other politician with the issue of illegal immigration had been focusing on his long-shot presidential bid and had shown very few signs of planning a re-election campaign. In addition, while Republican politicians in the Centennial State almost to a person voiced their support for Tancredo’s running again for Congress, several had privately begun to discuss potential GOP successors in the heavily Republican suburban Denver district.

One of them with probably the best-known name among Colorado conservatives spoke to me soon after Tancredo made his retirement official. “We’ve lost a little something with Tom leaving—kind of like our Rockies losing the World Series to the Red Sox last night,” said businessman William Armstrong III, a friend and longtime backer of Tancredo. Forty-year-old “Wil” Armstrong is the namesake-son of the former House member (1972-78) and U.S. senator (1978-90) who is easily his state’s most-revered conservative. Because of his standing among both cultural and small-government conservatives nationwide, the elder Armstrong has been likened to colleague and close friend Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) as a revered leader.

Will young Bill Armstrong now run for the open House seat? “I’m thinking about it very seriously,” he told me, “and I’m seeking advice and counsel, including from my father, Tom Tancredo and John Andrews [former state senate president and now head of a conservative think-tank].”

In contrast to his father—who served in both houses of the state legislature before going to Congress—Wil Armstrong has never held nor sought office and devoted his energy to varied businesses, including community banking. However, he has run campaigns, raised money for candidates and worked as a volunteer “almost my entire life.”

Armstrong freely admitted that a number of more-seasoned Republican politicians will surely try to win the district that George W. Bush carried with 60% of the vote in ’04 and Tancredo last won with 59%. Among those being mentioned are State Senators Ted Harvey of Pueblo and Tom Wiens of Colfax County and Secretary of State Mike Coffman, a much-decorated veteran.

Districtwide conventions will be held next June, and if they fail to decide on a nominee for Congress, a primary will be held in August. Armstrong said that if he makes the race, the fund-raising and competing against opponents with long experience will be a grueling undertaking. That’s why he told me, “I’ll make a decision shortly.”

Remake of The Stratton Story?

Sometimes, races for open seats are like those for the Diet (parliament) in Japan, where seats are passed on to family members from generation to generation and the last two prime ministers are the son and grandson of past prime ministers respectively. Just as William Armstrong III is the front-running Republican in Colorado’s 6th, the Democrat most talked of to win the now-open 21st District (Greater Albany) in New York is Brian Stratton, son of the late, still fondly remembered Rep. (1958-88) Sam Stratton (D.-N.Y.).
Last week, Rep. Michael McNulty (D.-N.Y.), a vigorous opponent of having U.S. troops in Iraq, announced he is giving up the 21st District seat he has held since the elder Stratton retired 20 years ago. At 60 and a polio survivor, former state legislator McNulty, has “appeared less mobile in public,” according to the Associated Press. Within hours of McNulty’s decision, the person most speculated about as his heir in the heavily Democratic district is Brian Stratton, now running for re-election to his second term as mayor of Schenectady. Although Stratton recently told reporters, “I’m surprised how much I’m enjoying it [being mayor],” local observers are quick to point out that his father also served as mayor from 1956-59 before challenging the Albany Democratic bosses—Mayor Erastus Corning II and party leader “Uncle Dan” O’Connell—in 1958 and beating their hand-picked candidate for Congress in the primary. In both 1972 and ’82, the elder Stratton faced unfavorable redistricting and both times he roared back to defeat incumbent House members.

Although Brian Stratton’s views on national and international issues are not known, Sam Stratton was, as Congressional Quarterly once noted, “one of the last of the Cold War liberals—a labor Democrat who believes in wage-and-price controls, but remains ferocious in his opposition to communism and his support for a strong military. He is one of the Pentagon’s most combative spokesmen in Congress and a tireless critic of civilian budgeteers who meddle with military planning.”

Along with Brian Stratton, Democrats mentioned as candidates for the seat include Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, State Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari, State Sen. Neil Breslin, Tracey Brooks, Albany regional director for Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.), Albany County District Attorney David Soares, and Albany Common Council President Shawn Morris.

“The Republicans do have a chance to make more than a token challenge,” reports political pundit Marie Horrigan, “if they can draw one of a handful of political veterans said to be considering the race. They include State Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco and State Rep. George Amadore.”

Thomas J. Meskill, R.I.P.

Although he was not a down-the-line, good-as-Goldwater conservative, Thomas J. Meskill was the most successful conservative Republican office-holders in postwar Connecticut politics.

That was basically what I felt about Tom Meskill upon learning that the former House member (1966-70), governor of Connecticut (1970-74), and federal judge had died of a heart attack October 29 at age 79. Along with State Welfare Commissioner Henry White, as governor he pioneered “tough love” welfare reform that emphasized workfare over handouts, and he pushed for a one-year residency requirement for relief recipients that was later struck down by courts nationwide. Meskill, in fact, vetoed a measure passed by the Democratic-controlled state legislature changing the name of the “Welfare Department” to the “Department of Human Resources.” Welfare was welfare, he maintained. He was the last Republican statewide official to publicly voice his opposition to abortion, and he fought a state income tax throughout his governorship. Assuming the statehouse with a $260-million deficit, when Meskill left office, his state had a $65-million surplus.

The son of a New Britain Republican town chairman, Meskill graduated from Trinity College in Hartford and the University of Connecticut Law School and served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. After a few years in private law practice, he was elected mayor of New Britain in 1961 at age 33 and, in his second try, went on to unseat Democratic Rep. Bernard Grabowski in 1966. In that campaign, Meskill ran as a strong conservative, attacking Grabowski’s support of what he called the “boondoggles” of the Johnson Administration, including the War on Poverty.

Based on his record in Congress, Meskill was the favorite of conservatives for governor in 1970 and easily won the nomination over liberal State Senate GOP Leader Wallace Barnes. That fall, he defeated Democratic Rep. (1958-70) Emilio Daddario to become Connecticut’s first Republican governor in 16 years.

In one of his last acts as President in 1974, Richard Nixon named retiring Gov. Meskill a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd District. The liberal American Bar Association gave him its lowest rating, “Not Qualified,” and this prompted a protracted Senate confirmation battle.  After becoming President, Gerald Ford sent Meskill’s nomination back to the Senate.  Meskill was confirmed in 1975 and went on to become chief judge before assuming senior status in 1993.