The buzz is on: Who will succeed veteran Congressman?

Jessica Pierce

Republicans gathered Saturday in Canandaigua to raise money for U.S. Rep. Randy Kuhl, though a major conversation piece was centered around a neighboring congressional district.

The buzz was focused on the announcement Thursday from U.S. Rep. James Walsh, R-Syracuse, that he would not seek an 11th term in November.

Kuhl’s supporters were concerned about the fact that whomever takes Walsh’s seat — Republican or Democrat — will be a freshman with far less clout.

“I am very much concerned because of his position on the House Veterans Affairs Committee,” said Ted Fafinski, a veteran and chairman of the Ontario County Board of Supervisors. “He was very instrumental in the Canandaigua VA. I’m not so sure whomever fills that position will have the influence he did, so it strikes back home.”

Fafinski and others at the gallery wondered aloud: Who will run on the Republican and Democratic lines?

“We’re hearing a lot of names being tossed around, but nobody has really come out yet as a front-runner,” said Kris Singer, first-vice chairwoman of the Ontario County Republican Committee.

The announcement has, indeed, had both parties scrambling the past few days.

Walsh’s 2006 opponent, Dan Maffei, immediately announced that he planned to seek the seat on the Democratic line. Though he has already raised a significant war chest and found the support of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he could face a primary. Other Democrats, including Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll and Fayetteville businessman John H. Rhodes, have also expressed an interest in the post.

On the Republican side, meanwhile, there are no fewer than a dozen potential contenders, from Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks and Onondaga County District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick to Assemblyman Robert Oaks, R-Macedon.

The 25th Congressional district is vast: It stretches from Syracuse to the northeastern suburbs of Rochester, compromising all of Onondaga and Wayne counties, the northernmost portion of Cayuga County and the towns of Irondequoit, Penfield and Webster in Monroe County.

The district has 150,748 Republicans, 134,906 Democrats, and just more than 100,000 blanks. Seventy percent of the district population is in Onondaga County.

Maffei has been campaigning for the upcoming election since he lost to Walsh by about 3,400 votes in 2006. On Friday, The Dan Maffei for Congress campaign announced that it had raised more than $500,000 in 2007 — a large sum considering that at this time in 2006, Maffei had only raised just over $100,000.

Also on Friday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced the race had been given top priority as one of just eight in the country to be part of its “Red to Blue” program. The program targets districts across the U.S. that the committee hopes to turn from Republican to Democratic. It offers monetary and strategic support.

Candidates earn a spot in the competitive “Red to Blue” program by topping fundraising goals and “by skillfully showing voters that they stand for change and will represent new priorities when elected to Congress,” said program Chair Chris Van Hollen, noting that Maffei is one of only 11 candidates in the first round of the program for open seats and special elections.

Maffei is a former aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Rep. Charles Rangel; he works as a senior vice president for Pinnacle Capital Management in DeWitt, Onondaga County.

In a prepared statement, he wrote, “I am humbled by the extensive support I have received throughout the community. Since the day I entered into this race my mission has not changed. This race has always been about the people I want to represent in Congress.”

On the Republican side, meanwhile, it looks like a battle could ensue.

Oaks said last week he was keeping his options open. He said that though Wayne County voters have had a significant impact in elections, he doesn’t see it as enough to take the seat. “Clearly, the likely candidates will come out of Onondaga County,” he said. “It would have to be a number of situations coming together to allow anyone from the Wayne County area to be a viable candidate.”

There is no shortage of Onondaga County contenders. Names being bandied about by political pundits include, among others: former Syracuse City Councilman Rick Guy; current Syracuse Councilman Ryan McMahon; former Onondaga County Legislative Chairman Dale Sweetland; former Assemblyman Jeff Brown; former state senate candidate Tom Dadey; former senator Nancy Lorraine Hoffmann; Former State Fair Director Peter Cappuccilli; Onondaga County Comptroller Bob Antonacci; and Walsh’s spokesperson, Dan Gage.

Walsh, 60, was first elected to represent the 25th Congressional District in 1988, following in the footsteps of his father, William Walsh, a mayor of Syracuse in the 1960s who spent three terms in Congress.

As chairman of a House appropriations subcommittee, Walsh has tremendous influence. His committee has funded veterans, housing and environmental programs. He has also been chairman of the congressional Subcommittee on the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies.

Walsh is one of 13 congressmen sometimes collectively referred to in Washington as "the college of cardinals," because of their influence on national spending policies. He has had spending oversight responsibility not only for federal veterans affairs and housing and urban development departments, but also the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and about a dozen smaller agencies.

Back at All Things Art on Saturday, Singer lamented about Walsh’s retirement. “As a ranking member of Congress, he carried a lot of weight,” she said. “It’s not only a loss to us up in this area, it’s a loss to New York state.”

She said she hopes fellow Republicans in the 25th will be able to rally behind a single candidate in the coming weeks, avoiding a primary. “It’s difficult when we don’t know who a candidate is until September,” she said. “They have a very shortened campaign season.”

Singer said she expected the 25th Congressional District to be a conversation piece at yet another GOP function Saturday night — a fundraiser for Assemblyman Joe Errigo, R-Conesus.

 “I’m sure it’s going to be on the topic at the tables,” she said.

Daily Messenger