The race for Congress in New York’s 26th District pits a Democrat who thinks Buffalo is rising against a Republican who thinks the sky is falling.
For proof, witness the contrast between two scenes that played out last week.
Looking out over Canalside from the plaza outside downtown Buffalo’s new Courtyard by Marriott on Friday, with the new HarborCenter rising to his left and his brownish hair flying every which way in the breeze, Rep. Brian Higgins talked a bit like a proud father.
“It’s campaign season, so I’ll say it: We had something to do with this,” said Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat whose strong-arming of the New York Power Authority provided the funds to begin the city’s waterfront boom.
But a day earlier at the Lake Effect Diner in University Heights, Higgins’ opponent laid two immaculately manicured hands, with 10 long hot-pink fingernails, out across a pile of paper that foretold doom of one kind or another, and spoke like a very worried mother.
Describing her interactions with voters on the campaign trail, Republican candidate Kathy Weppner said: “I hand them my card and say: ‘I’m running for Congress – can we talk about our debt?’ Or: ‘I think we’re going to lose our country.’ And I have to tell you, the response back is: ‘It’s already gone.’ Or: ‘You think?’ Or: ‘What are you going to do about it? You’re one person.’ ”
There you have it: two very different politicians, spelling out two very different visions that provide voters in the 26th District with a stark choice.
Higgins, 55, pledges to keep doing what he has been doing for his five terms in the House: focusing on bringing home the bacon that’s helping to grease Buffalo’s renaissance. He says a long-suffering region such as Western New York needs a member of Congress who puts local economic development first, not a tea party Republican like Weppner.
“It seems to me that she’s a person with some pretty extreme views,” Higgins said. “And sending extreme members to Congress only perpetuates the dysfunction.”
Yet Weppner, 53, a former WBEN talk-show firebrand known as “Kathy from Williamsville,” says a member of Congress should be paying attention to global matters as well as new buildings at the waterfront. She frets about the federal debt and the collapse of the dollar, and the threat from the Islamic State group, or ISIS, and illegal immigrants crossing our borders, and “Obamacare,” and Common Core, and you name it, and accuses Higgins of ignoring all the trouble. “Brian was elected to be the national problem person in Washington, the person who has to be thinking about our country as well as our constituents, because his constituents live in the country,” she said. “I think there’s been a lot of neglect with the national issues.”
Higgins represents a heavily Democratic district in a region where a Buffalo News poll last year found him to be the region’s most popular politician by far, with an almost unheard-of favorable rating of 77 percent in the City of Buffalo. He won a closely fought first race for Congress in 2004, but he quickly began piling up points with voters a year later, when he won a commitment from the state Power Authority to start spending upward of $279 million of its future profits on local economic development, with a focus on the Buffalo waterfront.
Through Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., that money helped launch Canalside, which was just the start of a development boom between lower Main Street and the Inner Harbor. And beyond that, with Higgins’ help, $120 million in additional federal funding has been used on other local waterfront projects, ranging from the Buffalo River cleanup to a new parkway along Ohio Street to a series of pocket parks at the Outer Harbor.
Higgins didn’t stop there, either. He also has been a key player in the development of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, helping secure $30.5 million in federal tax credits for Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s new Clinical Sciences Center, as well as a $19 million federal grant for the cancer center.
And when he’s not fighting to bring more money to Buffalo, it seems he’s fighting to prevent Uncle Sam from taking something away, be it the U.S. Postal Service’s William Street processing center or local Army Corps of Engineers operations or the Williamsville Social Security office.
Asked about his hyperlocal focus, Higgins said: “For the member of Congress from Buffalo and Western New York, the position is different. Rather than becoming another voice in the wilderness of dysfunction in Washington, what Buffalo needs is a vision, and a demonstrated ability to do the hard work that’s necessary to get a lot of things done.” But his Buffalo-first mindset comes at a price. While Higgins has won passage of legislation naming Buffalo’s new federal courthouse and boosting funding for the West Valley Demonstration Project, no major legislation bears his name, and his voice is rarely heard in major national debates.
Those facts are central to Weppner’s argument that she should replace Higgins in Congress. Most notably, she accuses Higgins – a member of the House Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security committees – of entirely missing the threat posed by ISIS until the Muslim extremist group captured a large swath of Iraq and Syria and started beheading Americans.
“Brian Higgins’ silence is unacceptable in the face of genocide,” said Weppner, who noted in the interview that Higgins had been briefed on the matter by military and terrorism experts for two years but didn’t speak up. “We cannot afford to have a congressman who refuses to recognize threats to America.”
Despite the depth of her concern that the ISIS extremists have said that “they’re not going to stop until their flag flies over our White House,” Weppner said her main motivation in running for Congress is the burgeoning federal debt and the threat it poses.
She points to a book called “The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System” by economist James G. Rickards, which predicts that America’s big-borrowing ways will lead to the collapse of the dollar and an unprecedented economic catastrophe.
Can it all be prevented? Weppner doesn’t think so.
“I think its too late,” she said. “I think we have spent too much money. The economy’s not going to come back with ‘Obamacare’ in place because businesses are not going to hire. They’re not going to take the risk.”
Weppner made a living, of sorts, off such statements for nearly nine years, as “Kathy from Williamsville,” warning Saturday afternoon listeners of the threats posed by Muslims and illegal immigrants and a president whom she thought might not have been born in the United States.
Weppner has filled her website with policy papers and has moderated her rhetoric. Of her past errors on the airwaves, she says: “If I said something, it usually meant I had a piece of paper in front of me from a decent source that I was quoting. … But I was on the radio for almost nine years. You can’t spend nine years on the radio and not ever say something that is regrettable.”
But there’s one thing Weppner doesn’t regret: her repeated questioning of whether President Obama was born in the United States.
Nonpartisan fact-checkers such as PolitiFact dismissed that question out of hand years ago, but Weppner said last week: “I think that was a very legitimate conversation to have.”