Primary Race Sucks Air From N.Y.'s 29th District Race

A storm is brewing in the 29th Congressional District in New York, a region that has generally enjoyed political calm for 18 years under the stewardship of Republican Rep. Amo Houghton (search), who is retiring this year at the age of 78.

While Republican state Sen. John "Randy" Kuhl (search) has been called the "heir apparent" to the Houghton seat,  Monroe County Legislator Mark Assini (search) has emerged as a thorn in his side, and considering that the primary isn’t until September, forecasters predict a long, hot summer in this southwest region of upstate New York.

"Right now, the primary is where the competition is," said Nathan Gonzales, analyst for the Rothenberg Political report.

Enter Samara Barend (search), a Democrat hailing a laundry list of party endorsements and even a nod from former presidential candidate Howard Dean. Barend is leading the race for the Democratic nomination and refuses to concede the district to the Republicans, though it has been solidly in the GOP corner for years.

Calling Houghton a classic liberal Republican — he was one of the handful of Republicans who voted against the war in Iraq — Barend said his popularity indicates this district wouldn’t have him any other way.

"Houghton is arguably one of the most liberal Republicans in the Congress," Barend told "This district is hungry for independence."

Houghton, who formed the Main Street Partnership (search), a coalition of moderate GOP members and organizations, has nonetheless endorsed Kuhl, who has been in the New York State Assembly for 24 years, and already represents many of the residents of the 29th district.

"Randy has the experience and stamina to stand up well here in the restless atmosphere in Washington," Houghton said in April. "He has a sense about loyalties, about issues, about what is significant for this part of upstate New York."

The 29th District has been called "one of the nation’s forgotten stretches of territory," by the Almanac of American Politics, bringing this upstate area mixed blessings over the decades. Miles of dairy farms, wine vineyards and even Indian reservations, plus its proximity to the Great Lakes (search), offers tranquility and beauty not found closer to the urban centers.

But this region has been isolated by poor interstate access, making it unattractive for new business. More recently, the Internet bust hit this district, which hadn’t kept up with the rest of the country on the economic upswing, particularly hard. Thousands of jobs were lost from Corning (search), Houghton’s family business and one of the world’s leading providers of high technology components.

Each candidate in this race frequently raises the specter of job and population loss, the state’s high tax rates and high Medicaid (search) burden, one of the highest in the nation.

For Assini, current leadership is to blame.

"Amo is a very nice man, if you meet him he is a very charming man and a kind man, but we will disagree as much as two human beings can disagree," particularly on tax cuts, he said. "It’s the same type of scenario with my opponent Randy Kuhl. We represent two different types of the Republican Party. I am from the Republican wing of the Republican Party, and he is from the land of bigger government."

Assini beat out three other hopefuls for the Monroe County GOP Committee endorsement in May, and they agreed to drop their bids. Now, Assini is going on the offensive, hoping to diminish what many perceive to be Kuhl’s lead, particularly in the influential southern tier counties in the district.

"If we get into a pure issue debate, he will lose because he is part of the problem," said Assini, who blamed Kuhl for a controversial vote to raise state tax rates to pay for the state budget shortfall in 2003.

Kuhl dismissed these claims, and told that his record bears out that he has voted for tax cuts most of his career, and that the 2003 state tax hike will be phased out at the end of the fiscal year. He said Assini had raised taxes, too, as recently as last year in Monroe County. As far as experience goes, he added, Assini is sorely lacking.

"I won’t go into negative campaigning," he said, pointing to a score of pro-business and tax relief measures he has supported over the years. "I have actually been the people’s servant here for the last 24 years. What do I bring to the race? Experience."

Meanwhile, Barend, who is a 26-year-old community activist, hopes to parlay her successful campaign in the late 1990s to convert Route 17 into Interstate 86 into a congressional victory.

She said voters are tired of insider politics, and are looking for a fresh, independent voice. "Folks here are not feeling the greatest sentiment for Albany politics right now, the state is mired in high taxes and businesses are leaving," she said. "They need someone who is going to work their heart out."

Though this district has more Republicans than Democrats — it voted for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush over former Vice President Al Gore 53 to 43 percent in 2000 —  at least one candidate is representing the far left.

Jeremy Weir Alderson (search), a radio talk show host and advocate for the homeless, said he is "a fighting Democrat" with more substance and experience than Barend, whom he called "the Republican-lite candidate." Despite what he calls "disgraceful" rebukes from party insiders, Alderson is now collecting the necessary 1,200 signatures to get on the ballot.

The competition between Kuhl and Assini, however, has escalated to the point where Washington organizations are looking to jump in to assist. The conservative Club for Growth (search), a wealthy donor organization, is polling right now to see if Assini needs their help.

"[Kuhl] is completely unacceptable," President Stephen Moore told If the Club jumps in, than the Main Street Partnership, which has endorsed Kuhl, will be there to help, said executive director Sarah Chamberlain Resnick.

"We would clearly prefer it to be a clean race," she said. "The Club, they love to go in and muck it up. If that happens, then we will have to go in."