29 October 2008

Tonko vs. Buhrmaster: the 21st Congressional District (N.Y.)

A frequent correspondent has occasionally chided me for neglecting local politics in my blog. My usual answer is that this isn't a local-politics blog. I like to imagine that people from all over the country might randomly discover it, and what would they make of news on the city or county level? It would be relevant, however, to discuss the juncture of local and national politics in a Congressional election.

I live in the 21st Congressional District of New York State. This is a blue district in a blue state. Only two men have represented it over the past fifty years, Samuel Stratton from 1959-88 and Michael McNulty from 1989 to this year. McNulty is retiring at the end of his term after a career most notable for a minor scandal in which he temporarily wielded the gavel from the Speaker's chair last year and used it to announce a vote result contrary to the actual tally.

Paul Tonko won a five-person primary to become the Democratic nominee and the favorite to succeed McNulty. Tonko is considered an expert on energy issues and was president of the New York State Energy & Research Authority before running for Congress. He has been a county supervisor and a state assemblyman during his political career.

Tonko was an early advocate of single-payer health insurance and "believes health care is a right, not a privilege." He boasts of a strong gay-rights, anti-discrimination record. He claims to have "saved hundreds of jobs" by persuading the Beech Nut company to retain facilities in our area. He has a position paper advocating a "comprehensive energy policy" emphasizing innovation and efficiency. He wants to expand the Housing Energy Assistance Program to help people with their heating bills this winter, and makes the usual calls for "green jobs." He intends to improve efficiency standards across the board, expand the availability of public transportation, and get tough with Big Oil.

The Democrat doesn't have much to say about Iraq except to say he'll "work to bring the troops home ... as soon as possible" and give them top-flight health care. "I believe that a continued American presence in Iraq is not in the best interest of the Iraqi or the American people," Tonko emphasizes.

On immigration, Tonko demands increased resources for Border Patrols, but is most concerned with the needs of local agriculture. "I believe that we must widen the legal avenue for our
farmers to be able to attract seasonal workers," he writes in a one-page position paper, "People come to this country illegally because there is a real demand for their labor. I believe that we need to create avisa program that matches the demand for labor with the supply of highly
motivated workers who want to work hard to support their families."

The Republican nominee is Jim Buhrmaster, who won a two-person primary. He's the heir and president of Buhrmaster Energy Group, a family-owned business dating back to 1913. Buhrmaster claims that this gives him "first-hand experience dealing with the challenges that small businesses face." While Tonko emphasizes political experience, Buhrmaster brandishes his resume of civic and business group memberships.

As you might expect, Buhrmaster contrasts the businessman's expertise with the "career politician's" alienation from economic realities. "Jim will bring a small businessman’s perspective to Congress, and use his private-sector experience to create jobs, find long-term solutions to healthcare and Social Security, and fight for permanent tax relief," his website claims. He "wants to modernize and streamline government programs to make them more efficient," resulting in tax savings.

Buhrmaster knows he's in a blue district, so he stresses that "Both parties in Washington are responsible for the problems we face today because both parties have been unwilling to do what is right for the taxpayer." But in some ways his is a typical Republican campaign. His commercials caricature his main opponent as "Taxin' Tonko." He shares the persistent Republican belief that reducing taxes will restore the American economy. But he doesn't go overboard on other issues.

He summarizes foreign policy thusly: "We all have the same goal: bringing our troops home. But Jim doesn’t ever want them to have to go back. We need to continue to support the brave men and women of the military, and provide them every tool they need to get the job done right the first time, and the only time."

A third candidate on the ballot is Phil Steck. He received the Independence Party endorsement before the Democratic primary, which he lost to Tonko. He remains the official Independence candidate, but has chosen not to campaign.

Tonko has raised more money than Buhrmaster so far, according to the Open Secrets website. Contributions from political action committees form a larger share of Tonko's warchest than Buhrmaster, while the businessman has put more of his own money ($195,000) into the effort than Tonko ($3,000). The Democrat's largest contributors include labor unions, the American Dental Association, and Ostroff-Hiffa & Associates ("a New York based government relations and communications firm that assists companies, corporations, trade associations and individuals in their dealings with New York State government" --i.e. a lobbying firm). The latter is Tonko's top contributor at $5,600, while the Price Chopper grocery chain and Hannay Reels Inc. (a hose and cable reel manufacturer based in the town of Westerlo) have each given more than $9,000 to Buhrmaster.

It hasn't been an enthralling campaign. Neither Tonko nor Buhrmaster is a star in the making. I suppose I'll vote for Tonko only because I despise Buhrmaster's taxophobia and the notion that governments should be run like businesses, but I'll do so with no great enthusiasm. Watch their commercials and see if you'd have any.

Here's Tonko.

And here's Buhrmaster.

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