Kathleen C. Hochul today transforms a potentially sleepy coronation of Jane L. Corwin as congresswoman for the 26th District into a major contest involving two well-known political women.
As Hochul, the Hamburg Democrat and high-profile Erie County clerk, travels to Geneseo this afternoon seeking support from her party's leaders in the seven-county district, she ignites a struggle expected to command millions of dollars in campaign spending, as well as potential national attention.
Her move also clarifies the local political scene, since she is rejecting a challenge to County Executive Chris Collins, who is expected to seek re-election this year -- the contest that many Democrats on the county and state level preferred she wage.
When questioned Friday afternoon at a St. Patrick's luncheon in the Buffalo Irish Center, Hochul would not elaborate except to acknowledge that attending the Geneseo event signals her intention to compete in the May 24 special election.
Democrats from across the seven-county district are scheduled to interview her and six other interested candidates today, and Hochul is expected to formally announce and be approved in the coming week.
She also is expected to gain the support of the Working Families Party when it meets Sunday.
Hochul's signal that she would take on Corwin, the assemblywoman from Clarence who has won the Republican endorsement for the vacant seat, prompted an opening volley from Nicholas A. Langworthy, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party, who attacked her for "raising taxes and fees" and labeled her a longtime politician.
"While Jane Corwin has spent 36 years in the private sector helping to create jobs," he said, "career politician Kathy Hochul has spent her life doing everything she can to advance her own political career."
Hochul's move represents one of the final pieces of the electoral puzzle resulting from the Feb. 9 departure of Chris Lee, a Clarence Republican who resigned after a gossip website revealed the married congressman was soliciting dates on the Internet.
It clears the way for County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz, who Friday reiterated his strong inclination to challenge Collins this year.
"I have the experience and history to step into the role of county executive," Poloncarz said while also attending the Irish Center event. "I'm not happy with the way the incumbent has raised taxes [and] cut services, and [with] the vindictive way in which he conducts himself."
Though Collins is expected to be well-financed as he seeks a second term, Poloncarz said he believes he can raise at least $1.25 million for his effort.
Hochul's exit from the county executive contest also opens the door for Assemblyman Dennis H. Gabryszak, D-Cheektowaga, who has been speaking with party leaders about the race. Poloncarz emphasized Friday that he believes an intraparty contest between them will not help the Democratic cause.
"It's certainly not in the best interest of the party to have a primary," he said. "It takes away from the time and energy we need to say why Chris Collins will not be re-elected."
Though Republicans interviewed various potential candidates, they appeared committed to Corwin from the outset. She impressed GOP leaders with her ability to self-finance her campaign and to snare the Conservative and Independence parties' lines, as well as with a conservative voting record in the Assembly expected to appeal to a Republican-dominated district consisting largely of suburban and rural voters.
This week, Corwin won the backing of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, with Andrew J. Rudnick, Partnership president, calling her "hands-down the best candidate the business community can hope to see in this seat."
Some local and state Democrats are not embracing Hochul's entry into the race with open arms.
Several sources say Leonard R. Lenihan, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, would much rather see her challenge Collins, especially after internal polls showed her faring well against him.
Statewide Democrats preferred that she concentrated her resources and energy on a county executive race they saw as much more winnable.
"Nobody wants her to run this race," one statewide Democrat said recently.
Several other top Democrats also are known to have counseled Hochul against entering the congressional race. They point to Corwin's advantage in money, three lines on the ballot and registration in a district with about 27,000 more Republicans than Democrats.
Hochul has received little encouragement from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the panel charged with electing Democrats to the House of Representatives. While skeptical of her ability to win in such a tough district, they and other Democrats also express concern in the event she wins.
They point out that reapportionment most likely will eliminate one Western New York seat in the House and that Hochul might wind up in the unenviable situation of being placed in a Democratic district now represented by Louise M. Slaughter of Fairport or Brian Higgins of Buffalo.
But Hochul has been actively raising money, is encouraged by the potential for split votes by the presence of minor party candidates on the ballot and is buoyed by her 80 percent vote in her 2010 re-election as clerk.
Jack Davis, the Clarence industrialist who ran for the seat three times as a Democrat, is collecting petitions to run on an independent line again this year, as is Iraq War veteran David Bellavia of Batavia.