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FIGHTING FOR A DISTRICT

From the shores of Lake Erie to the streets of Elmira, Rep. Amo Houghton is waging a campaign unlike any other in the state: an all-out, big-money effort to prevent his district from being chopped to bits.

With New York likely to lose two seats in Congress in 2002 thanks to its lagging population, the Southern Tier congressman has launched a "Save the District" campaign.

Houghton's goal is to prevent the State Legislature from eliminating his district, or from pushing its borders far into the Buffalo or Rochester metro areas.

To that end, Houghton is raising $250,000 to help preserve the state Senate's Republican majority -- which, the congressman hopes, would then preserve his Southern Tier seat. That's 2 1/2 times what former Rep. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst, pledged in a controversial effort to save his Buffalo-area seat a decade ago.

Beyond that, Houghton has started a petition campaign that aims to send 100,000 signatures to Albany, all calling for the Southern Tier district to remain intact.

"It would be very easy to chop this district up," said Houghton, a Corning Republican who says he ran for re-election this year only to try to prevent his largely rural district from being sliced and diced. "Maybe the Legislature will end up saying that's the way it's going to be, but if so, we're going to go down with all guns firing."

It's a battle worth fighting, Houghton said, because the Southern Tier deserves a voice in Congress. He said issues that are central to the district's future, such as the conversion of Route 17 into interstate highway I-86, would get lost if his district were parceled off to congressmen from upstate's big cities.

"The people in Fredonia think the way people in Ithaca do, and the people in Jamestown think the way the people in Elmira do -- not the way people in Buffalo and Rochester think," Houghton said. "There's a way of life here, and we want to preserve it and expand the opportunities. But if they divide this district up, it takes away everything we're trying to do here."

Yet it still might happen.

Census estimates show that Houghton's district has lost about 20,000 residents in 10 years, and other upstate districts have lost similar numbers. Such districts, of course, are at greatest risk of being eaten up in reapportionment.

On top of that, some Buffalo-area political players see nothing wrong with chopping up Houghton's district and cobbling part of it onto a district based in Erie County.

"I think the issues of southern Erie County are very similar to those in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties," said Erie County Republican Chairman Robert Davis. "Putting them together would not be a bad thing."

Davis said many people in the state assumed Houghton's seat might be the easiest to eliminate because Houghton is 74 and presumably near retirement.

Knowing that, Houghton makes clear that he's not going anywhere, at least any time soon.

"I'm not going to be Strom Houghton," he said in reference to 97-year-old South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. "But I'm willing to run long enough to make (the preservation of his district) happen."

To that end, Houghton recently established the Millennium Project, a state political action committee that already has contributions and pledges totaling $250,000 to help State Senate Republican candidates this fall.

Houghton said a Republican Senate is key to his district's survival, given that Democrats would surely favor urban interests in the reapportionment process.

The hotly contested Senate and the Assembly, which is expected to remain Democratic, will share the burden of drawing those new congressional lines with Gov. George E. Pataki. Work will begin after the Census Bureau announces the number of seats for each state in late December.

By helping Republican Senate candidates, Houghton is essentially expanding on Paxon's 1990 pledge of $100,000 in aid to GOP Senate candidates. Critics saw that as Paxon's attempt to buy a safe Republican seat, and Houghton faces similar criticism now.

"This just goes to show how partisan the reapportionment process is, and we actually think that's indefensible," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Houghton said his motives are much different from Paxon's, and Horner agreed. Whereas Paxon was a young congressman trying to preserve his political future, Houghton -- the millionaire scion of the family that founded Corning Inc. -- stresses that he's trying to save the district rather than his job. Horner termed that "kind of endearing."

And unlike Paxon, Houghton has enlisted Republicans and Democrats alike in his efforts.

"I am very, very committed to saving this district as a Southern Tier district," said Mark Thomas, the Democratic county executive of Chautauqua County.

Thomas stressed that he doesn't support Houghton's Republican fund-raising effort, but is fully behind the petition drive and is talking up the idea of saving the district "every chance I get."

Plenty of other people are lending their support, too. Howard Howlett, a retired General Motors official in Jamestown, is pushing the petition drive in that area. And Amanda Flaitz, a Steuben County high school student, organized a car wash in August where she collected signatures.

"Politicians go by the numbers," Howlett said. "And if we're in a district along with Buffalo, we're not going to get the same attention we do now."

Other politicians said they understand such concerns, but note that Houghton isn't exactly alone in thinking his district is treasured territory.

"I would say I feel the same way about my district as Amo does about his," said Rep. Thomas Reynolds, R-Clarence.

In the end, such feelings are irrelevant, given that the new legislative lines will be drawn by legislators from across the state. Knowing that, congressmen typically work to build good relationships in Albany, Reynolds, for example, has donated thousands to state GOP candidates over the years, and Rep. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, gave $5,000 to the State Senate Republican Committee in July.

Conventional wisdom seems to be that upstate will lose one Republican seat and the Bronx will lose a Democratic seat.

Though population losses have been greatest in Western New York, Houghton's is the only regional district frequently mentioned as endangered.

"Tom Reynolds is a very powerful member of the delegation, plus he has all these contacts in Albany from his days there, so if anyone is going to be safe, it's him," said Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon. "And remember, he drew up the district in the first place," in the last reapportionment a decade ago.

State Republicans also say they would like to protect Quinn, because they see him as something of a bonus -- a Republican who wins handily in Democratic territory.

Besides Houghton, speculation surrounds Rep. Benjamin Gilman, a 77-year-old Republican from Middletown. Under a common scenario, the state's westernmost districts would be expanded eastward, swallowing up the territory in Ithaca and Binghamton now represented by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Saugerties. Hinchey would be pushed into Gilman's territory, presumably prompting Gilman to retire.

Some of the people involved in the reapportionment process actually seem to be rooting for one upstate congressman or another to retire, though they refuse to name names.

"Retirements are good for us," said Debra Levine, the Republican co-executive director of a bipartisan task force that's collecting the data that will be used in reapportionment. "Retirements make our life a little easier."

But like Houghton, Gilman isn't going gently. The congressman has no plans to retire, said his spokesman, Andrew Zarutskie. He also noted that Gilman's district -- unlike so many others in the state -- actually gained population in the past 10 years.

With the state's older congressmen vowing to press onward, insiders predict a brutal battle over reapportionment.

The computer age will only make it tougher. Thanks to mapping software, practically anyone with a computer will be able to draw up prospective congressional maps, making the process much more wide-open than in the past.

In light of all of that, "I don't know how effective a petition drive will be," said Rep. John J. LaFalce, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat who has survived two previous reapportionments. "This is driven by politics and demographics."

If Pataki and the Legislature can't agree on a plan -- or if special interests don't like the plan they agree on -- the matter is likely to end up in the courts sometime by early 2002.

And no matter what happens, feelings are likely to get bruised. After all, jobs and careers -- and the interests of every region of the state -- are at stake.

That being the case, Reynolds said: "Reapportionment politics is the toughest form of politics I've encountered. I've seen local politics, I've seen labor politics, I've seen a lot in 30 years. But nothing is tougher than reapportionment."

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