'Lady From Syracuse'

“The lady from Syracuse” is how pundits and Republican operatives in Washington, D.C., and New York State referred to Ann Marie Buerkle for much of this campaign year. Until early October, the Republican nominee in New York’s 25th District (Syracuse) was on almost no one’s screen and Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei appeared a cinch for re-election.

Buerkle had an impressive personal story—a nurse who put herself through law school, a past assistant state attorney general and a single mother of six (and grandmother of 11). But aside from an appointed stint filling a vacancy on the Syracuse City Council and subsequent defeat for a full term (“I was attacked for being too pro-life”), conservative GOPer Buerkle had slim political experience when she took on Maffei.

That Buerkle emerged as a strong contender in the twilight of the race was particularly surprising because she raised only $675,000 compared to the incumbent’s $2.7 million. Only in the final weeks before November 2 was she able to run television ads in the four-county district.

Working out of an old-fashioned storefront headquarters (“next to a nail salon”), Buerkle drove to all 43 towns in the district, spoke to Kiwanis and Rotary luncheons and whatever group would have her. Soon she recruited “the Buerkle Brigades,” enthusiastic volunteers who licked envelopes, made phone calls and did all of the campaign chores that many modern consultants consider antiquated. In a concession to high-tech politics, Buerkle’s team also used Twitter and Facebook to get their message out.

“What really made the difference for us were the grass-roots efforts—the volunteers,” Buerkle told me two weeks ago, as she was clinging to a lead of about 500 votes when the counting of absentee and provisional ballots began. “We had a ground game that no one could have paid for. No money could buy what the volunteers had done in terms of toil and elbow grease.”
And, she quickly added, “that early ‘Race of the Week’ feature in HUMAN EVENTS sure helped, giving us our first taste of national coverage when no one outside the district gave us a chance.”

Running as an unabashed conservative on the themes of “smaller government, lower taxes and getting government out of our lives,” Buerkle overcame Maffei’s margin in Onondaga County (Syracuse) by comfortably carrying suburban Wayne and Monroe Counties. As the counting continued after November 2, Buerkle’s lead alternately dipped and rose but she never lost her edge of 500-700 votes out of more than 200,000 cast. On the day before Thanksgiving, Maffei conceded defeat and Ann Marie Buerkle was certified as U.S. representative-elect. Her victory brought the GOP’s net gain in the House to 63 seats, with New York’s 1st District the lone House district race to remain undecided as of late last week.

Most Conservative Since St. George

Although the Empire State has elected a number of Republican Congresswomen in recent years—Susan Molinari (1989-2000) of Staten Island and Sue Kelly (1994-2008) of Westchester County come to mind—they have been for the most part moderates. To find a female House member from New York as conservative as Buerkle, one has to go back to Katherine St. George, the feisty Republican congresswoman who represented Orange County from 1946-64.

To this characterization, Rep-elect Buerkle pleads “guilty as charged,” and cites her hard-line stands against big government and spending as well as her opposition to abortion under any circumstances except to save the life of the mother.

But in accepting the label of conservative, Buerkle also points out, “I’m a strong believer in the Constitution. That’s where my philosophy and views on most issues are coming from.” For example, when I asked her what she thinks about the controversial idea of abolishing the Department of Education, Buerkle replied without hesitation: “It would be nice. Education is not anywhere in the Constitution, so it is not a duty of the federal government. I said throughout the campaign that people back in our congressional district know what’s good for educating their children, so we should let them keep their tax dollars instead of sending them to Washington.”

Along those lines, Buerkle would like to have an audit of every government agency by a private firm to determine its efficiency and cost effectiveness. As she put it: “Government can’t streamline itself. Only a private group can. And we’ve got to end this mentality of ‘If I don’t spend it, I’ll lose it.’ That rewards waste.”

Would she repeal Obamacare? “Absolutely,” replied Buerkle, “And if we can’t, remember that the House has the power of the
purse and the defunding can happen right here. Part of the healthcare bill requires the hiring of nearly 15,000 new IRS agents. A good way to start the defunding it is not to use tax dollars to create those new positions.”

To pursue her goal of shrinking and defunding government programs, the freshman congresswoman is pursuing a spot on the House Appropriations Committee. Those assignments have yet to be made, but one thing is very clear: Whatever path her career in Congress takes, Ann Marie Buerkle will be remembered as much more than “the lady from Syracuse.”