These are hectic days for political reporters. Not a week goes by these days without a Member of the House from either major party deciding to call it quits. Last weekend, Rep. John Linder of Georgia became the 20th Republican Member to announce he was not seeking re-election this fall. Like about all the House Republicans who are either stepping down or seeking another office, Linder represents a securely Republican district that in all likelihood will remain in GOP hands. (Of the 20 GOP-held seats that are open, in fact, only one — the Chicago-area seat of five-term Rep. and U.S. Senate nominee Mark Kirk — stands a good chance of flipping to the Democrats).
Yesterday, the most unusual exodus so far occurred when Rep. Eric Massa (D.-NY) announced he was not running again after only one term. Massa is a 20-year Navy veteran, a protégé of retired Gen. (and ’04 Democratic Presidential hopeful) Wesley Clark, and decidedly leftist Democrat who opposed the health care proposal that passed the House because it was not a single payer measure. Massa made his stunning announcement after being informed that the House Ethics Committee was looking at charges he had sexually harassed a male staffer.
“When someone makes a decision to leave Congress, everybody says everything,” the freshman lawmaker told reporters, “I have health issues, I’ll talk about it [later].” (Massa, who has denied the charges influenced his decision, suffers from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was hospitalized in December).
Whatever the reason of this never-anticipated departure, Massa’s 29th District is one Democrats clearly fear will flip back to the Republican representation it had from 1986 until Massa’s upset election over GOP Rep. Randy Kuhl in ’08. Even before the incumbent said he wasn’t running, area Republicans had recruited Corning Mayor Tom Reed to take him on.
New York sources I talked to could not come up with a name for a heavyweight Democratic contender to run. In addition, Reed is sure to find himself with strong competition for nomination by the time of the July filing deadline (the primary is in September). Among the names mentioned to run are Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks (who is also considered a possible lieutenant governor candidate), State Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, and State Sen. Cathy Young, who is almost always characterized with adjectives such as “gorgeous,” “eloquent,” and “charismatic.”
“And you could not call any of those three ‘liberal,’ says historian David Pietrusza, who knows all things New York. This is significant because the district, which includes New York’s Southern Tier and is home to Corning Glass Works, has more often than not sent Republicans to Congress who are anything but conservative. From 1959 until he was appointed to the Senate in 1968, the district was held by liberal GOPer (and in his later years, anti-Vietnam War leader) Charles Goodell (father of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell). He was succeeded in the House by James Hastings, who was enough to Goodell’s right to get the Conservative Party ballot line. After ten years in Democratic hands, the district in 1986 went back to the GOP in the form of Rockefeller Republican Amo Houghton and, when he retired in ’04, it was won by Kuhl, a member of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership.
The next congressman from the 29th is very likely to be a Republican and more conservative than his or her recent predecessors, a sign that, in Bob Dylan’s words, “the times they are a changing” — even among New York Republicans.