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QUINN PLAYS THE PARTY GAME ASTUTELY

It's time for the Annual Jack Quinn Column.

OK, maybe we missed one over the past year or two, so this entry might qualify as biannual. But it's an official Politics Column requirement to occasionally check in with the Republican congressman from Hamburg to examine why he not only survives but prospers in his overwhelmingly Democratic district.

What prompts the 2001 edition of the column was Quinn's address at Canisius College Monday evening as part of the William H. Fitzpatrick Chair of Political Science Lecture Series. Since 1962, the lecture has attracted some of the nation's top political figures. And with a topic of "The Decline of Traditional Party Influence in American Politics," we couldn't resist.

Of course, the congressman digressed a bit in light of the events of Sept. 11. And his tales of coded telephone calls and congressional briefings in secret settings indicate just how serious the situation was viewed in Washington on that dark day.

But his independence from the GOP hierarchy was clearly something he was itching to discuss. And while Quinn has always moved in a quasi-Republican, quasi-Democratic world, his Washington stature has evolved to where his unique status within the GOP no longer must be discussed in whispers. Indeed, Quinn took the podium at Canisius and proudly shouted it to the world.

"Why does it surprise anybody when voters get apathetic and don't go to the voting booth?" he asked Monday night. "The process has gotten itself to the point where it's not about what people want to hear, but what the parties want them to talk about."

Quinn occupies the unique status of representing the most Democratic district held by a Republican in the country. He also won re-election to a fifth term in 2000 with 68 percent of the vote.

"In national elections, we see Republican candidates in the primaries running to the right, and the Democrats running to the left," he said. "Then in the general election, everybody can't run fast enough to get back to the middle -- where I believe the country and Western New York are."

That's why Quinn has proven a vexing figure for GOP leadership over the years while leading the charge on hiking the minimum wage or voting for the Child and Family Leave Act. When he first ran for Congress in 1992, he would mention Bill Clinton's name more than George H.W. Bush's. And by the time former Assemblyman Fran Pordum posed his toughest challenge in 1996, Republican Quinn couldn't scamper fast enough from then-Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Last year at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Quinn was the star of a spectacle designed to unite Republicans and organized labor. While the rest of the GOP nodded politely and smiled stiffly through the affair, James Hoffa Jr. was bear-hugging Quinn.

He was among his own.

"Buffalo is probably the most unionized city in the United States -- about 28 percent," Quinn said Monday. "It doesn't come as a surprise to me that since I represent these people, I do things they think are important."

There have been problems along the way. His 1998 vote to impeach President Clinton infuriated labor leaders here and nationally. A group of previously friendly Irish-American Democrats, of all people, practically demanded his head on a platter.

But he has more than survived, and following Pordum's unsuccessful try in 1996, no serious Democratic challenge has ever materialized.

That brings us back to Quinn's Canisius lecture. With tons of money, his good guy persona and all the advantages of incumbency, Quinn probably must no longer worry about survival. He might even be ready to flex some muscles in Washington.

"With the House and Senate so split right now, that's an indication of how the country is split," he said. "So with the difference of only a few votes, five or six votes can change the outcome -- and more and more members' ability to not vote along party lines. They can vote their conscience.

"The political reality is that when we head back to Washington this week, a group of five or six moderate Republicans and five or six conservative Democrats can have influence," he added. "And I think the national parties are taking note of that."

A few years ago, the Annual Jack Quinn Column asked why the congressman just didn't get it over with and become a Democrat. Life would be easier.

But it's apparent that Quinn is satisfied right where he is. He has influence in Washington and keeps on winning in Buffalo. Still, he knows that Reps and Dems alike train their eyes on him after this year's Republican defection by Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont.

"I like to walk into the Democrats' cloakroom every once in a while, because I like to keep the Republicans guessing," he quipped at Canisius, "particularly after Jeffords."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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