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Reynolds feels political itch but wants flexibility in life Former congressman may work as lobbyist or political strategist

Thomas M. Reynolds was dipping into his bowl of chicken noodle soup in a Kaisertown tavern recently when a former Buffalo police officer asked for help with a state pension problem.

Reynolds retired from the House of Representatives in December and has not held state office since 1998. But he couldn't help himself. He took out a pen, made some notes and promised to get back to the ex-cop.

"That comes from running for office since I was 23," he chuckled. "I always thought casework was everything. At the end of a 35-year run, it's what I consider to be most important."

That's how it has always been for the former Concord councilman, county legislator, assemblyman and congressman. And now, for the first time since his rookie election in 1973, Reynolds' name is absent from the roster of area elected officials.

His political itch, he confessed, must be scratched in some new way.

"I realize I've got a lot of experience and knowledge stored up there," he said. "I've just got to figure out what to do with it."

Reynolds' departure ranks as no ordinary political retirement. For the last 15 years, he was the region's "go-to guy" for access to state and federal government, the governor and even the president.

A 1996 story in the Sunday magazine of The Buffalo News gave him the title "Mr. Clout." When local mayors or county executives -- Democrat or Republican -- needed former Gov. George E. Pataki, they sought out Reynolds.

Ditto for when George W. Bush occupied the White House. Reynolds was a gatekeeper. And as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, he presided over the GOP effort to elect more of their own to the House of Representatives. But that all came crashing down under his watch with the loss of 29 seats and the 2006 Democratic takeover.

Reynolds still commands a national reputation as a political strategist, making frequent appearances on network television shows. But he points to many government accomplishments for his constituents:

*Helping secure state aid for renovating Ralph Wilson Stadium.

*Helping preserve Buffalo's Richardson Complex.

*Helping secure funding for the new Burchfield Penney Art Center.

*Helping gain state dollars for rebuilding Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

*Most of all, he cites helping save the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station while in Congress.

"For 15 years, there probably wasn't a decision in the community I wasn't part of," he said.

In a two-hour interview with The News, Reynolds reflected on how his life will change after a long tenure in such lofty heights. He has just returned from several weeks in Florida, has no new job lined up and has no plans except to reacquaint himself with a family that often got lost in the whirlwind.

"I want some flexibility in my life to catch up with my grandchildren and see my own kids once in a while, too," he said.

Reynolds, 58, acknowledges lobbying or political strategy could be in his future. He dismisses as "been there, done that" the suggestion that he become state Republican chairman.

Still, with almost $1.3 million left in his campaign accounts, Reynolds could emerge as a major financial force in local and national politics.

And nobody who knows him doubts that, given his passion for the "game," he will find some entrance back to the political arena.

"He'd strangle you during the day and then that night go out to dinner with you," observed Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan, a onetime adversary in the County Legislature. "He's a tough, partisan Republican to the core. But in the end, he represents the best there is in politicians."

Reynolds' career blossomed in the County Legislature, the only office he says he ever "planned." The others, he said, just "happened."

Lenihan recalled the late 1980s, when he was the Legislature's majority leader and Reynolds led the Republicans. Democrats, though, were divided, and Reynolds' GOP votes often factored into the political equation.

"I had to go to Tom to see what we could pass that day," Lenihan said. "So he was calling the shots even when he was in the minority."

Later, Reynolds was elected minority leader of the Assembly -- becoming a close Pataki confidante.

And in Congress in 1998, he was the first freshman in 100 years appointed to the key Rules Committee, quickly rising to a top leadership position.

Then there was the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City. Reynolds traveled with House security personnel who spoke into wrist radios and assigned him a code name, while police cruisers whisked him through the streets of Manhattan.

"Not bad for a kid from Springville," he quipped at the time.

Reynolds earned political stripes by finding Republican candidates who could win. As the former Erie County Republican chairman, he helped Jack F. Quinn Jr. go to Congress and recruited Nancy A. Naples to successfully run for county comptroller.

He championed the election of Erie County's Dennis C. Vacco as attorney general in 1994 -- a major political coup -- and presided over the 2004 election of three more Republicans to the House.

But as much as anyone, Reynolds recognizes the ebb and flow of politics. Millionaire industrialist Jack Davis came within 12 percentage points when he challenged Reynolds for Congress in 2004; within only four points in the 2006 rematch.

Some say that Reynolds, linked to an increasingly unpopular Bush and caught up in the sex scandal engulfing former Rep. Mark A. Foley of Florida, survived only by securing an emergency declaration from the White House after the October Surprise snowstorm of 2006.

Did he back out in March of 2008 because he saw Davis and his millions coming again? Or did he, like 29 other Republican incumbents last year, see more trouble ahead?

"Every two years, there's a gunfight duel and someone coming along who says they're faster at the draw," he said. "There were a lot of guys who thought they were tougher and faster. But I had a record of 16-0."

The former congressman still bristles over the 2006 election, including a contentious endorsement meeting with the Editorial Board of The News. (The newspaper endorsed neither candidate). He was criticized for not doing enough to stop Foley from acting overly friendly to male pages in the House and criticized further for discussing the matter in a news conference at Daemen College while surrounded by children of his supporters.

The bottom line for Reynolds is that the House Ethics Committee cleared him of wrongdoing.

"I don't know what I could have done differently in conveying what I saw to the speaker [of the House]," he said. "I certainly was not prepared for dealing with this as a national story other than telling what and when I knew it."

Reynolds often speaks of the County Legislature, treasuring relationships with Democrats such as former Legislators Roger I. Blackwell and Michael A. Fitzpatrick, along with former Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve.

And while Hillary Rodham Clinton emerged as the Democrat Republicans loved to hate during her tenure as New York senator, Reynolds cultivated a close relationship.

"We respect each other," Clinton said back in 2003. "And he makes me laugh. He's got a great personality."

Climbing through the ranks, Reynolds could fight the fight while reveling in a camaraderie he said produced results, but he laments the personal politics he says dominate the modern game.

He recalled a previous generation of politicians like former Sen. Bob Dole and the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who "did right for America" by working together in a 1993 commission studying Social Security.

"I wish those days could come back," he said, "but I'm not sure they can."

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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