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Corwin preaches a business approach to government Quiet Republican isn't above playing political hardball

When former New York City Mayor Ed Koch came to town last year to stump for his Albany reform agenda, one of the first people he called out was Assemblywoman Jane Corwin.

The words "enemy of reform" were barely out of Koch's mouth before the normally cautious and guarded Corwin was on the phone looking to set Koch straight.

What followed was a spirited exchange with a Koch aide in which a livid Corwin threatened to sue the former mayor's reform group.

"He was wrong," she said. "He was challenging my integrity, and that's why I reacted so strongly. I was really angry because what he was doing did not allow for an adult conversation."

That's the Jane Corwin people rarely see.

In public, the Republican candidate for Congress comes across as bright but cautious, savvy but restrained, a conservative businesswoman eager to avoid the muck and mud of Albany politics.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb of Canandaigua will tell you there's another Jane Corwin.

"Her demeanor is quiet but I'll tell you, she's tough as nails," Kolb said.

Kolb likes to tell the story of Corwin, the ranking Republican on the Assembly Corporations Committee, taking on Committee Chairman Richard Brodsky, a loud, tough-talking New Yorker known for his abrasive personality.

More than once, they found themselves on opposite ends of an emotional debate, often over legislation Brodsky viewed as pro-consumer and Corwin saw as anti-business.

"Richard is a strong personality, and if you don't speak loudly, he'll walk right over you," Corwin said. "I wasn't going to let that happen."

While Corwin preaches a business approach to government, the Clarence Republican isn't above playing bare-knuckled politics.

She won her Assembly seat in 2008 by defeating freshman Republican Michael W. Cole and making an issue of his well-known indiscretion -- that he spent a night in the Albany apartment of a legislative intern.

Cole claimed that nothing inappropriate happened, but he was nevertheless censured by the Assembly, a fact Corwin was quick to exploit in a campaign flier.

Critics say her willingness to play hardball reminds them a lot of her close friend and political mentor, Erie County Executive Chris Collins.

The two also share one other label -- conservative.

Some suggest "stridently conservative."

Ask her about role models and she's quick to mention Ronald Reagan.

Ask her about Albany and she points to her role in the Republican minority, where success is often measured by how much bad legislation is stopped, not how much good legislation is passed.

Assembly colleagues say an even better gauge of Corwin's success is the behind-the-scenes constituent work that often goes unnoticed.

In 2010, she teamed with Assemblyman Jim Hayes, an Amherst Republican, to push for a new state rule giving special-education students in high school an additional year of athletic eligibility.

Corwin was driven by the plight of one of her constituents, a disabled student she felt had been wronged by the state, Hayes said.

"She has a very determined passion for doing the right thing," he said. "She has a limited view of the role of government, but she also has a deep concern for the very real needs of her constituents."

By all accounts, Corwin is not your typical lawmaker. Lobbyists say she's not part of the "Albany scene" -- the fundraisers and dinners that are prevalent in the capitol -- and Hayes insists she's not "particularly ego-driven," even though many of her colleagues are.

"I'm a fiscal conservative but I'm also conservative by nature," Corwin said. "I quite honestly tend to be a more of a private person, more on the cautious side."

One of her closest friends in Albany, Assemblywoman Annie Rabbit, an Orange County Republican, says she and Corwin grew close despite vastly different backgrounds. Rabbit's a bar owner; Corwin's a former business executive.

"I think what people don't know is that she's nice, really nice," Rabbit said. "She doesn't have a harsh view of people. Behind closed doors, there are a lot of my colleagues I wouldn't say that about. And you can't fake nice."

Corwin grew up in a family where hard work was everything. Her father, Wilbur D. Lewis, helped found the Talking Phone Book in the late 1960s, and over time he and his family built it into a company with 700 employees.

Growing up, she worked out of the family garage, delivering phone books door-to-door, and later on proofread pages while working the midnight to 8 a.m. shift.

The message was simple. Work hard and good things will happen to you.

"If you ask anyone who's got a family business, it's kind of like the fifth child in the family," Corwin said. "It was what we talked about at breakfast in the morning and what we talked about at dinner at night and everything in between."

The fact that she chose business as a career was hardly a shock. She got her bachelor's degree from the University at Albany, her MBA from Pace University and spent four years working as a financial analyst on Wall Street.

It was during her days at Pace that the former Jane Lewis met Philip Corwin, a fellow MBA student.

"When I first met her, she'd have nothing to do with me," Corwin said.

Corwin persisted, and when they finally crossed paths outside the classroom, at a Manhattan bar, he bought her a drink.

"I remember thinking, 'this girl's a winner'," Corwin said. "She's smart. She's very much on the ball. She knows what she wants to do."

They were married a few years later and, in 1992, returned to Western New York to join the family business, where he served as chief financial officer and she served as secretary-treasurer.

During that time, Corwin oversaw a business plan that increased sales 1,200 percent and helped her family's lifelong dream of competing successfully with the region's monopoly phone companies.

"They were in this to do battle with the big guys," said Gary Schober, a lawyer for the company and a Corwin friend for 20 years. "It was David vs. Goliath. This was an important mission for each member of the family."

Looking for a way to give back after the family sold the business in 2004, the Corwins formed a private foundation that funds children's charities. Among its causes is childhood diabetes, a disease close to Corwin's heart.

"I have a niece who has diabetes," she said. "I saw the struggles she was having and so many people like her."

Family is not something Corwin feels comfortable discussing in public. She seems genuinely reluctant about exposing her three kids -- Melanie, Kellie and William -- to the limelight that comes with having a parent in elective office.

Even worse, perhaps, is the increasing amount of time she spends away from her husband and kids, not to mention the simple joys in her life, like playing golf, reading American history and attending her son's travel hockey games.

And yet, she insists on climbing one more hill, a passion she no doubt acquired from her late father.

"He never shied way from a challenge," Corwin said of her run for Congress. "If he didn't know something, he'd go find out. He was very much a self-made kind of guy. There was never a challenge too big for him."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com