WASHINGTON – For a generation of voters in central New York, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert is the only congressman they have ever known.
Now the 12-term Republican is retiring, and taking with him a legacy of the "Rockefeller Republican" — moderate in ideology, and in many cases, bipartisan in politics.
In November, voters will decide who the next best fit for the 24th District will be — Republican state Sen. Ray Meier, with more conservative credentials than Boehlert, or Democrat Mike Arcuri, the Oneida County district attorney who says it's time for a change. Neither candidate faces a primary challenge.
"Even though Boehlert was Republican, he represented a moderate constituency — he's probably one of the last of the moderate Republicans," said Charles Evangelista, chairman of the Ontario County Democratic Committee. "If you apply that to the success of being re-elected time after time, that gives you a pretty good indication of the makeup of this district."
Meier, who is running for the seat with Boehlert's blessing, acknowledges that this is going to be one of the most competitive races of the midterm election. "I think both parties look at it being competitive and an opportunity for them," he said.
The district, which starts in the Adirondack region of north-central New York, then swings down through Utica westward through to Auburn and Geneva in the Finger Lakes region, is about 40 percent Republican, 30 percent Democrat and 30 percent unaffiliated. President Bush took this district 53 percent to 47 percent over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, and 48 percent to 47 percent over Vice President Al Gore in 2000.
In representing the region, Boehlert voted for the war in Iraq and backed the Bush tax cuts.
But the Republican edge here can hardly be compared with the conservative vigor of the country's red states, and Boehlert, who favors abortion rights, has always been known for taking positions alongside Democrats on issues like the environment, gun control and the minimum wage. He was named the sixth most liberal voting member among Republicans in the House by National Journal in 2004, and typically faced very tough challenges from the conservatives in the GOP base during the primaries.
"People up our way are pretty darn independent, particularly over who represents them," Boehlert said in an interview.
This has not been lost on national Republicans and Democrats, who are making this seat a priority. Most recently, Sen. Hillary Clinton threw her political weight behind Arcuri in an e-mail to 250,000 Democratic donors.
"[Arcuri's] victory is absolutely key to our chances of taking the House of Representatives," the June 27 e-mail reads.
"He is a very strong candidate with a very strong career of fighting crime," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "He shows with his record that he can be an effective advocate for middle class families and taking this country in a new direction."
Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Washington-based election tip sheet The Rothenberg Report, said this district race, though competitive, still resides in the "leaning Republican" column because of Meier's strong support as a state lawmaker and the make-up of the district.
"I think he's going to be difficult to beat," said Gonzales.
Meier, who is expecting a boost this week from a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney, points to a decade in the state Senate where he worked on welfare and health care issues as well as job growth and fiscal conservatism. He said that will give him an edge over Arcuri.
"My opponent has never held any elected office except for district attorney," he said. "I think I bring to the table the kinds of skills you need to be an effective congressman."
Meier also said he can get the crossover vote, particularly by talking about "bread and butter kinds of issues. ... People want to talk about jobs, the price of gasoline, health care."
But Arcuri and his supporters say the New York Legislature is one "of the most dysfunctional" in the country, and may not be the most worthy launching pad into the U.S. Congress.
Arcuri, who was elected 12 years ago as the first Democratic district attorney in Oneida County in 40 years, said the tide of public sentiment is against Republicans this year.
"I think things are going so badly that maybe we need a different approach," he said. "Maybe we have had enough of career legislators. Let's take a look from a different perspective."
"I don’t know what he'll bring differently to the table," Evangelista said of Meier. Arcuri, on the other hand, is "not a traditional politician," but a law enforcement official whose service to the community "transcends politics."
Arcuri has entered the congressional fray at a time when "people are essentially fed up with the way things are," he added.
Blake Zeff, spokesman for the New York State Democratic Party, said Arcuri is "strong, very popular, very well known," and will benefit from having at the top of the ticket both Clinton and state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who is running for governor and is way ahead in the polls.
"The top of the ticket in New York is very strong while the GOP ticket is very weak — meaning our turnout should be much better," Zeff said in an e-mail.
The national Democratic Party launched an attack on Meier in late June, criticizing him for shooting down a bill to increase the minimum wage and calling him a "rubber stamp" for Republicans who oppose a minimum wage hike.
"This is going to be an issue in Congress this year no doubt," said Emanuel.
Meier's campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee say that argument doesn't float.
"The minimum wage is a topic that a lot of people aren't talking about here," said Meier campaign manager John Konkus. "The New York minimum wage is already much higher than the national minimum wage."
Ryan Moses, spokesman for the New York Republican Party, said the minimum wage issue won't play in an area that has lost jobs, particularly in small businesses, over the years. He said Meier's assistance to local business through tax incentives and other efforts hasn't been lost on voters. Meier has nothing to be ashamed of regarding his minimum wage vote in the state Legislature, he added.
"If anything, it helps him," Moses said.
As for the coattails of Clinton and Spitzer, Moses said it sounded like Democratic "bluster."
"New Yorkers are ticket-splitters anyway," he said. "If not, then a Republican would never get elected here."