New York Trading Down

“I had to make a decision to stick my neck out and, well, here I am.”

That’s what Doug Hoffman — certified public accountant, small businessman, and former Republican Town Chairman of Lake Placid, New York — told me when he returned my call on Friday. In saying he was going to “stick my neck out,” the 59-year-old Hoffman explained that he had decided the day before to seek the nomination of the New York Conservative Party for Congress in the Empire State’s soon-to-be vacant 23rd District.  

With nine-term Rep. John McHugh (R.-N.Y.) set to resign as soon as the Senate confirms his nomination to be secretary of the army, a special election will be held to replace him sometime this year. The Democrat long considered the party’s best bet at capturing the district for the first time since the Civil War, State Sen. Darrell Aubertine, stunned party leaders by opting not to run. Now Democrats will choose from eleven lesser-known contenders.

Last week, a conclave of Republican chairmen from the 11 counties in the 23rd District met at a Potsdam (N.Y.) restaurant and tapped their congressional candidate: liberal State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, who is pro-abortion, backs same-sex marriage, and whose voting record in Albany is rated 15% on a scale of 100 by the New York Conservative Party.

“She’s a very nice lady who is too liberal,” is how State Conservative Chairman Mike Long characterized GOP nominee Scozzafava, adding that she would “never” be permitted to carry the ballot line of the Conservatives.

Enter Doug Hoffman, one of eight other Republicans who wanted the GOP nod to succeed McHugh and was passed up for Scozzafava by the “gang of eleven.”  As he told me, “a lot of folks said I should run on the Conservative line because they were discouraged with the candidate the [Republican] party picked.  You might call this ‘tough love’ for the Republicans.”

As for differences with Scozzafava, Hoffman said: “Where do we start?  I’m pro-life and against gay marriage.  I’m for less spending and regulation by government.  And I’m a private sector guy — have been since I went to work in a gas station in high school to help my Mom pay the mortgage.”  

Shades of the Buckley Brothers!

In many ways, Hoffman’s talk of “tough love” for Republicans is not unlike that of the late William F. Buckley, Jr., back in 1965 when he became the first-ever nominee of the fledgling Conservative Party for mayor of New York.  Although liberal GOPer John Lindsay emerged triumphant in the race, Buckley’s strong showing (13.4% of the vote) against the two major party candidates demonstrated that the Conservative Party was a force in New York politics.
Five years later, Buckley’s older brother James made history when he rolled up 40% of the vote on the Conservative Party line  for U.S. Senator and overcame liberal Republican incumbent Charles Goodell and liberal Democrat Richard Ottinger.  
To be sure, many of the candidates who have carried the Conservative banner for other offices have had neither the stature nor the ability to attract money that William or James Buckley had.  Thus, they have not fared well.
But along with being the lone “small-c” conservative in a race where the Republican and Democratic Party candidates are sure to both be liberal, Doug Hoffman’s situation in 2010 is very much akin to James Buckley’s in 1970 in another important way:  the Conservative Party candidate is one with substance, contacts, and resources.  
Like James Buckley, Hoffman is a successful businessman whose accounting and financial planning business has thirteen offices (“six of them in the 23rd District).  At a time when National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Tex.) says the leading criterion for GOP House hopefuls should be a record as a “community leader,” the Conservative Party hopeful has long been active in community affairs and is a past member of the Adirondack Economic Development Corporation. The U.S. Army veteran and grandfather of four has an MBA from the University of Connecticut.
Will he dip into his own pockets to jump-start the campaign, I asked Hoffman.  “You bet,” he replied, “Whatever it takes to achieve what I believe in, I’ll do.”  He is also expected to unveil names of well-known pollsters and campaign operatives to run his third-party bid.
As the NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay wrote letters to the local papers in the district hailing Scozzafava as a good choice, supporters of Hoffman told me in no uncertain terms that many noted Republicans in the district would soon break ranks for their man (who has been on his town’s GOP committee for fifteen years and also served as chairman).  Again, the similarities to Buckley in 1970 are recalled:  scores of local party leaders and a number of elected officials could not stomach the liberal Goodell and openly worked for the Conservative nominee (who was not even permitted under party rules at the time to contest Goodell for nomination at the state convention).  Gary Lee, Tompkins County GOP chairman at the time and later a congressman, recalled how after he became the first county Republican leader to announce for Buckley, then-Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller “called me at home while our family was having dinner and chewed me out royally!”
Today, there is no powerful figure such as Rockefeller nor even a daunting GOP organization in New York to chew out those party leaders who will go for Hoffman.  Whether he goes all the way and repeats Buckley’s historic performance of thirty-seven years ago will surely be one of the major political stories of 2009.