By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009
HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. -- For the Republican Party, the long road to a comeback winds through the hills, small towns and dairy farms of Upstate New York and runs smack through such places as the Halftime Sports Bar and Grill, where Mark Hansen was recently nursing an afternoon beer.
Hansen, 44, is a registered independent, though his parents are Democrats and he has brothers who are "die-hard Republican" members of the National Rifle Association. He is worried about the area's faltering economy, and ticks off the names of all the factories that have closed in recent years.
Hansen likes President Obama so far. "I think he's doing a good job. He's quick on his feet," he said. And while he is critical of the bank bailout money that went to corporate bonuses and chief executives who fly on private jets, Hansen is hopeful that the just-passed economic stimulus plan can jolt the economy here. "I think it's a good idea," he said, "but there's got to be more watchdogging."
Winning over independents such as Hansen is crucial to the two candidates who will vie in the March 31 special election for the 20th District congressional seat, vacated last month when Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to the Senate.
This region, mostly surrounding Albany, should be about as favorable terrain for a comeback as the Republicans could hope for. There are about 70,000 more registered Republicans in the district than Democrats -- and just as many registered independents as Democrats. The congressional seat had been in GOP hands for decades, until Gillibrand scored an upset victory here in 2006, when Democrats regained control of Congress. She won as a conservative Democrat who said her family kept two guns under the bed, and she received a perfect rating from the NRA.
But this generally conservative, gun-loving district, filled with hunters and sportsmen, lately has been defying past trends. Gillibrand was handily reelected in November, and Obama beat Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) here in the presidential election. Hillary Rodham Clinton also did well here in her Senate campaigns.
And this year, the Republicans are dealing with two other factors that scramble the traditional calculus: Obama's popularity, and the economic stimulus bill, which many people are hoping will bring money and jobs.
Republicans have placed their comeback hopes on James Tedisco, one of the most familiar faces in the area; he is the minority leader in the state assembly and was first elected to the legislature in 1982.
Tedisco gained national prominence by helping defeat then-Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's plan to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. He also was the first politician to publicly call on Spitzer to resign or face impeachment when he became ensnared in a prostitution scandal.
The Democrats have selected first-time candidate Scott Murphy, a businessman and venture capitalist who moved to the area 13 years ago to be near his wife's family. He gained political experience working for the governor in Missouri. Like Gillibrand, he calls himself a strong supporter of gun rights.
While they crisscross the huge district -- which covers about 55,000 square miles -- Murphy has been touting his support of the Obama stimulus plan, and hammering Tedisco for declining to say whether he would have joined House Republicans who voted unanimously against it.
"If I'd been there, I would have voted for it," Murphy said during a visit to a Hoosick factory that manufactures energy-saving insulating window panels. "It provides middle-class tax cuts -- we desperately need that."
In an interview at the factory, Murphy said: "I just don't understand why Assemblyman Tedisco, who's been in government for 25 years, can't decide what he thinks about this bill."
Tedisco is treading carefully with the stimulus plan, recognizing that many people in the district support it.
"Look, this has been voted on and signed by the president," he said in an interview at Synder's restaurant, in the town of Halfmoon. "I'm not going to get into this game of answering his hypothetical question."
Tedisco added: "I wish I was there on the floor. I wish I was there in the caucus" to have offered amendments to make it better.
It is uncertain whether the issue is gaining traction -- few people interviewed here said they have focused closely on the race. But several local officials, including Republicans supporting Tedisco, have said they are looking forward to receiving the stimulus money for long-neglected road and water projects.
The Albany Times Union newspaper recently ran an editorial under the headline "Take A Stand, Mr. Tedisco," which said: "That Mr. Tedisco would suggest that his position on what just might be the most contentious issue in Washington is a 'hypothetical question' raises serious questions about his qualifications to serve in Congress."
At Snyder's restaurant, and elsewhere in Halfmoon, opinions about the stimulus plan were more divided. Self-described Republicans were mostly opposed to it, out of concern about adding to the deficit and what they called "pork" projects -- several mentioned a potential high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. But those calling themselves independent were willing to give the stimulus the benefit of the doubt.
"I watch the news. My feeling is, it's necessary," said Norman Goldman, a retired state government worker who was enjoying a plate of eggs and toast at Synder's. "It's unprecedented," he said. "I just hope it works."
Speaking of the stimulus package, Goldman said, "Bush and the Republicans gave us the banking thing. It's hard to believe how ideologically they can be against the stimulus, given the shape the nation is in. Leading economists and others say this is the thing we need to do. I would have urged any of my representatives to vote for it."
However, Bruce Tanski, who owns Snyder's and also works in real estate, had a different view. "I'm a die-hard Republican," said Tanski, who has known Tedisco for 20 years and is supporting him. "I think the stimulus bill is a joke because a couple of years down the road, our money is going to be worth zero."
Among the district's many independents, the Republican brand still remains problematic. And Tedisco, in the detailed and glossy literature his supporters have been handing out, touts all of his accomplishments in the state legislature -- but never once does the word "Republican" appear.
"I don't see myself necessarily as a Republican," Tedisco said. "I see myself as a public servant, of the Republican affiliation."
Murphy has been playing up his nontraditional candidacy, as a businessman who has created jobs in the private sector. He has been bringing in big-name Democrats for endorsements -- such as Gillibrand and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who also carried the district. And he is hoping that Obama's popularity can last through one more election.
"People are looking for some leadership. I think President Obama is providing that," Murphy said. "The Obama excitement is still in the air."