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Hochul outstrips peers in fundraising; Congresswoman boasts large war chest, thanks in part to support from lawyers

Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul, D-Amherst, has established herself as a fundraising powerhouse, collecting more campaign money in the last six months of 2011 than Rep. Brian Higgins and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter combined.

Leaning heavily on lawyers, retirees and unions, Hochul amassed a war chest of $587,292 by the end of the year -- even after spending $1.44 million on the special election campaign in which she won election to the House in New York's 26th District in May.

Hochul's fundraising totals put her in a strong position in a re-election year when reapportionment will reshape her district and that of Western New York's other three House members.

The same can be said about Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning. He collected $495,222 in the second half of last year and, after paying off debts from his 2010 campaign, was still left with $435,944 in the bank.

Nevertheless, Hochul's prodigious fundraising stood out, in part because of her heavy reliance on donations from lawyers -- while her husband serves as U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York.

For the year, Hochul collected $184,225 from lawyers and law firms, which amounts to nearly 8 percent of the money she raised.

According to an analysis of federal campaign finance data by the Center for Responsive Politics, no other Western New York House member collected more than $32,500 from any one special interest.

Democrats frequently get more money from lawyers than any other special interest; in fact, Higgins, D-Buffalo, did as well.

But there's one difference with Hochul. She's married to William J. Hochul Jr, the federal government's top prosecutor in Western New York.

Buffalo News reviews of the U.S. attorney's actions and his wife's fundraising have found no clear signs of undue influence.

But she has accepted donations from some lawyers with business before the federal courts in Buffalo, prompting local tea party activist Mike Madigan to charge in several blog posts that the situation amounts to a 'pay-to-play' scandal.

Asked if there was not an inherent conflict in Rep. Hochul raising money from lawyers, her spokesman, Fabien Levy, said: "I don't know where you see the conflict Kathy is a lawyer, she has a lot of lawyer friends, and if they're willing to support her efforts, we're happy to have their support and the support of other Western New Yorkers and New Yorkers across the state."

Hochul also received a significant sum of money from seniors, which Levy attributed to the prominent role that the Medicare issue played in last May's special election, in which she defeated Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, R-Clarence.

About three-quarters of Hochul's money came from individuals, and a similar percentage came from within New York State.

Reed also got about three-quarters of his money from New York State, but more than half came from political action committees.

And Reed -- the founder of the House Marcellus Shale Coalition, which aims to promote natural gas drilling in the region -- got more money from the oil and gas industry than any other special interest.

Nearly 4 percent of his money came from the oil and gas industry, but Reed said there's no quid pro quo between his support of hydraulic fracturing and his campaign contributions.

"That's not me," said Reed, who went on to acknowledge that "some people may have been attracted [to donate] because of the positions I've taken."

In addition, while energy interests gave Reed more money than any other industry, several other industries gave him nearly as much.

And the percentage of money that those industries gave Reed pales in comparison to what Hochul got from lawyers and what Slaughter got from labor unions.

Public sector, transportation, industrial and building trades unions combined to give Slaughter nearly 30 percent of her campaign money last year. Her heavy reliance on unions explains why more than three-quarters of her money came from political action committees, which labor unions and other special interests create to funnel donations to politicians.

Asked to comment on Slaughter's funding from unions and political action committees as well as her comparatively weak fundraising totals, Slaughter's office instead responded only with a statement from the congresswoman that did not address those issues.

"I'm been proud that the majority of my individual support comes from hardworking New Yorkers who, like me, understand that there's much more to be done to rebuild our local economy and make sure our workers can compete on a level playing field," Slaughter said.

Slaughter proved to be the weakest fundraiser among the four local House members last year, and she went into the election year with the smallest war chest: $362,753.

Higgins, in contrast, has more than $500,000 in hand.

He got significant sums from lawyers, unions and contractors. But only about a third of his money came from PACs, and 98 percent of it came from within New York State -- far more than Slaughter, Hochul and Reed, whose in-state totals ranged from 71 to 77 percent.

One of the most significant figures in Higgins' campaign finance report came on the expenditure side, where he spent $14,000 on the services of Patricia Lynch Associates, a powerful Albany lobbying firm, in the fourth quarter alone.

Former Assemblyman Paul Tokasz is a partner with Lynch's firm, and Higgins is working with him on an issue that's critically important to all four local House members: redistricting.

The state will lose two of its 29 congressional seats this year because of population changes, and with much of the state's population loss occurring in the west, the region's congressional districts are about to be reshaped -- and one may even disappear.

Asked for an explanation of Higgins' decision to hire an Albany lobbying firm, Higgins' office responded with a statement that said: "The congressman and Mr. Tokasz are working all-out to ensure that Western New York maintains its voice in Congress."