N.Y. Gov. Paterson Delays Special House Election

As voters in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania headed to the polls this week for primaries and a special election to fill a vacant House seat, residents in New York’s upstate 29th Congressional District remain without a representative in Congress. The seat has been vacant since early March, when former Rep. Eric Massa (D) resigned amid allegations that he sexually harassed a male staffer.

New York Gov. David Paterson announced on Tuesday that he would call for a special election to fill the remainder of Massa’s term. That special election will be held on Tuesday, November 2, the same day as the general election to select a new representative for the district. Paterson was quoted saying that he would call a special election, “as soon as possible,” on March 9, the day after Massa’s resignation took effect. But by the end of March, the governor’s office had backed away from that statement, citing cost concerns.

“We have some serious concerns about the financial impact that a special election could have on the county level, especially because those counties are facing the same fiscal crisis that the state is facing,” Paterson’s spokeswoman said.

Under Section 42 of New York’s Public Officers law, a congressional vacancy in the last year of an incumbent’s term shall be filled at the next general election, “unless previously filled at a special election.” Under the statute, the governor may order a special election if the vacancy occurs before July 1 by issuing a proclamation 30-40 days before the election date. But in no case may a special election be held after September 19. 

Since Massa’s resignation took effect in March, Paterson could have ordered a special election to take place as early as April 13, the first Tuesday within the 30-40 day window provided by the law. With his announcement on Tuesday, Paterson has instead ensured that the citizens in the 29th district will be without a representative for nearly eight months.

Furthermore, Paterson’s order could create significant confusion for voters on Election Day. On November 2, the 29th district will feature two elections for the same House seat: one a special election to fill the remaining two months of Massa’s term; and the other a general election to fill the seat in the 112th Congress. The two elections could have different sets of candidates, and produce different winners.

Democrats are running a relatively unknown 28-year old Afghanistan veteran, Matthew Zeller, for the open seat. Zeller was born and raised outside the district, in Rochester, and reportedly lives in the Washington, D.C., area. He has family living throughout the Western New York district, but does not have the name recognition or ties to the community as the Republican candidate, former Corning Mayor Tom Reed.

Reed appears to be in a strong position to recapture the district for the GOP. The Cook Partisan Voter Index lists the district as an R+5 district, and a Republican has represented the area for 20 of the past 30 years. Reed has criticized Paterson for delaying the announcement on a special election, pointing out that special elections in the 20th and 23rd Congressional Districts were called within days of a vacancy occurring.

“In those other districts, the Democrats could add another vote for their take-over agenda in Washington, but the 29th district might choose a representative who would oppose that agenda,” Reed’s website says. “Now that someone opposed to the take-overs might win, they tell us we should wait?”

In an e-mail to HUMAN EVENTS, the Reed campaign criticized Paterson’s decision to delay the election as politically motivated, saying that the governor was using his authority in an attempt to boost Zeller’s chances at the expense of the voters.

“While we are pleased that the governor has decided to acknowledge the need for residents of the 29th Congressional District to have representation, we are disturbed by the governor’s plan,” Reed campaign manager Joe Sempolinski said. “Playing games with fundamental constitutional rights, like representation, is wrong. We call on the governor to stop the games and give the people a choice as soon a possible. Whether it is Tom Reed or someone else, the people of this district deserve a voice in Washington”

The campaign disputed Paterson’s stated reasons for the delay, namely the cost of a special election and the possible disenfranchisement of absentee voters, particularly members of the military. Sempolinski said that delaying the election actually exacerbates the governor’s concerns.

“If [Gov. Paterson] was worried about cost, why did he skip over primary day in September as a potential day for the special election? If he was concerned about military and other absentee voters, why did he come up with a plan that is so convoluted and complex that it will ensure delays in ballot printing and make disenfranchisement more likely? We are left to conclude his decision is a political one,” the campaign said.

Although New York Republicans have not been able to field strong candidates for the state’s two U.S. Senate races, the party thinks its prospects in the House races are better. In the 29th district, Democratic scandal, a relatively weak Democratic candidate, and the district’s voting history make it arguably the party’s best chance for a pick-up. The Reed and campaign and Republicans suspect that Gov. Paterson and New York Democrats know this; and are denying citizens in the 29th district representation in Congress for as long as it takes to tilt the playing field more in the Democrats’ favor.