Before last week’s allegations of sexual misconduct, a diagnosis of cancer, and strong words for Rahm Emanuel, Rep. Eric Massa had less nationwide name recognition than Peyton Manning’s backup.
Massa, a former Republican, was a rookie Democrat congressman representing a conservative New York district. He was ready to close the door on a short congressional career that had been three years in the making when he announced March 3 that he would not run for reelection due to a reoccurrence of cancer. Then, as rumors of sexual harassment complaints against him swirled, Massa said Democrats forced him to retire because of his projected ‘no’ vote on health care. He followed that with an awkward story of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel approaching him in the congressional shower, yelling at Massa over a budget vote. The White House denied the encounter.
Bob Recotta, a reporter for The Corning Leader in Corning, N.Y. where Massa resides, has been covering the congressman since he first declared his candidacy for Congress in 2005. Recotta said Massa’s never been afraid to speak his mind and step on toes, but he can’t recall Massa ever changing a story like he has in the past week — though Recottta added none of Massa’s stories have been challenged like the one above above.
“I’ve never seen him change his story, I’ve never seen him flip flop, I’ve never seen him do what he’s done over the last week,” Recotta said. “While his demeanor hasn’t changed, his behavior definitely has.”
Massa spent 24 years on active duty in the Navy only to have his career cut short by non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which he was able to beat. Campaign stories from his two runs for office (the first in 2006 was unsuccessful) paint him as the energizer bunny, although an Esquire headline from 2007 seems once again apropos: Eric Massa, the Angry Citizen.
“He can be as tenacious as a bulldog when he thinks he’s in the right,” Recotta said.
Recotta said he wasn’t surprised when Massa announced last week he was retiring, but the bizarre stories of sexual misconduct that have leaked since did catch him off guard.
“I think at this point, we’re all kind of looking at each other saying, we don’t know what to believe,” Recotta said.
Neither, Recotta thinks, do his readers.
“There was a lot of support in the beginning when the cancer story first came out,” Recotta said, but added the most he’s heard since is that people feel for Massa’s family.
Despite many being unhappy with Massa’s support for a single payer healthcare system and his call for an end to the war in Afghanistan, people still respected Massa, according to Recotta.
“Up until last week, when he said something, they knew he was going to stand by it,” Recotta said. “I think the people trusted that Eric was going to tell them the truth.”
Recotta himself is taking the reports in stride.
“I guess I’ve been in the business long enough to know that just because I’ve covered someone for five years doesn’t mean I know them,” Recotta said. “He always seemed like a standup kind of guy.”