To Buffalo-area television viewers who have been infected by the outbreak of campaign ads, the race for Congress in the Southern Tier pits an obese, corrupt Republican against a far-out hippie Democrat from Ithaca in what seems to be one of the hottest contests in the country.
But in reality, the race for Congress in New York’s 23rd District pits a slimmed-down conservative who’s tryin to move to the center against a fed-up liberal who’s doing the same in a contest that’s no longer seen as one of the nation’s most competitive.
Rep. Tom Reed, the formerly obese former tea partier from Corning, is now highly favored to win a third full term in his race against Martha Robertson of Dryden, a Tompkins County legislator who’s haunted by the “I” word – Ithaca! Radical liberal egg-headed Ithaca! – even though she doesn’t live there.
With a Democratic president languishing in the polls and Republicans coming on strong nationwide, the Rothenberg Political Report on Wednesday dropped the Reed-Robertson contest from its list of competitive races, just as the Cook Political Report had done earlier.
But you wouldn’t know it by watching TV in the Buffalo area, where Reed and Robertson have been bashing each other to a pulp thanks to the $5 million they raised back when political types thought this race was like Ali-Frazier.
So who are candidates, beyond the caricatures?
They’re two politicians trying to move beyond their pasts.
In his fourth year in Congress, Reed is a new man, both literally and politically. Thanks to gastric bypass surgery a year ago, he’s 110 pounds slimmer. And while tea party rallies were a routine part of his schedule in his first House race four years ago, Reed has worked to find ways to appear to be moving to the center while remaining a rock-ribbed conservative on budget matters.
He’s now a member of the “No Labels Caucus,” which aims to steer the nation past the blue-red divide, and the proud author of a new law that aims to improve hospice care as well as a bill that’s passed the House that’s intended to create “manufacturing innovation hubs” across the country.
Reed acknowledged that there’s been “some evolution” in his approach to his job.
“I think our reputation as somebody who’s willing to sit down and talk to people, both sides of the aisle, is starting to percolate throughout the House in particular, and also the Senate,” he said.
Reed has earned a reputation for openness, too, throughout the sprawling 23rd district, which stretches from the Chautauqua County beaches of Lake Erie all the way to Ithaca. Reed has spoke to constituents at 148 town halls in four years, and is the only local member of Congress who regularly does so.
There are some areas, though, in which Reed is uncomfortable with compromise, particularly regarding the budget. Not only did he side repeatedly with Republican votes that led to last fall’s government shutdown; in addition, he voted again earlier this year against raising the federal debt ceiling.
That approach to fiscal policy draws a harsh rebuke from Robertson.
“He voted not to pay our bills, to default on the full faith and credit of the United States, because he didn’t get his way,” Robertson said.
Asked if he would do that again, Reed said: “I’m not one of these people who says he will never vote for a debt ceiling increase. I will do that so long as we’re taking steps to solve the underlying root of the problem” – namely the federal deficit.
Fiscal discipline has been one of Reed’s calling cards since his first days in Congress, and he’s in a place to do something about it: the Ways and Means Committee, which writes the nation’s tax laws.
The trouble is, Reed has not been all that fiscally disciplined himself. The Buffalo News reported last year that he had been late in paying property taxes 38 times over nine years – and he even accidently paid one of those bills with campaign funds before correcting the mistake.
In addition, Reed continued to use his law firm’s name while he wound down his practice in his first years in Congress, despite ethics rules that appear to bar that practice.
Robertson has made much of Reed’s mistakes, focusing a campaign ad on them and saying Reed needs to “come clean” with voters over his errors.
Asked about those errors, Reed repeatedly said he “accepts responsibility” for his mistakes, but he also sounded like a man with few regrets.
“I’ve never run and said I’m perfect,” he said, adding that he never perceives of himself as a “bad person.”
Robertson sure thinks Reed has plenty of room for improvement. After enduring a seemingly nonstop ad barrage from Reed that aims to portray her as a “far-out Ithaca liberal” – one ad even features her driving a VW minibus across a psychedelic backdrop – the mild-mannered former teacher and nonprofit executive is downright angry.
“His entire camp consists of attacking me for a city I don’t even live in,” said Robertson, who actually lives 11 miles northeast of Ithaca. “Plus he’s attacking 60,000 of his own constituents. I’ve never heard of a congressman attacking his own constituents.”
Then again, just as Reed seems to be trying to work around his tea party past and his ethical issues, so too is Robertson trying to move beyond an image that she herself unintentionally helped to create.
Early in her campaign, for example, she held a fundraiser with 1960s icon Peter Yarrow of “Peter, Paul and Mary” fame – who became infamous in the nation’s capital in 1970 when police charged him with inappropriate contact with a young girl.
Then there was the old video in which Robertson lauded the merits of a Canadian-style single-payer health-care system, hardly a popular idea in a House district where Republicans have an advantage of several points in voter enrollment.
Beyond that, a Robertson campaign ad this summer showed pictures of Reed back in his chubby-cheeked days, which Reed portrayed as an attack on the overweight – not a small constituency in the Southern Tier or anywhere in America, really.
Robertson – who now supports Obamacare with tweaks to make it better – dismissed those episodes as distractions, but Reed insists that they show something troubling about her.
“Martha represents an extreme ideology to me,” Reed said. “She doesn’t fit the district.”
Reed has done all he could to promote that message, saying, incorrectly, that Robertson favors the SAFE Act and the conversion of NRG’s Dunkirk power plant with natural gas. In fact, Robertson voted against the controversial Cuomo administration gun control when the Tompkins County Legislature weighed in on the issue. And while, unlike Reed, she opposes fracking, she not only has come out in favor of the NRG conversion, but also carries the endorsement of the union at the plant.
While Reed and Robertson are in sync on those issues, they diverge entirely on economic philosophy, with Reed a solid believer in cutting taxes and regulations and Robertson vowing to be a champion of higher wages and economic equity.
“I felt strongly that the middle class are just not getting represented” by Reed, she said. “The wealthy and the special interests are getting represented.”
The wealthy special interest called the campaign ad industry appears to be doing well, too, judging by the number of Reed and Robertson ads that have flooded the Buffalo airwaves.
But the number of ads betrays a hard fact: political pros in Washington and the Southern Tier agree that Reed has the momentum in the race.
“Reed has proven to be stronger than expected, and I think Robertson has been not as strong,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. “And on top of that, the national environment has proven to be difficult for Democrats.”
In addition, Robertson hasn’t performed as well on the campaign trail as Reed’s 2012 opponent, Nate Shinagawa, said Jim Twombly, an associate professor of political science at Elmira College.
“In terms of the media, she’s been everywhere,” said Twombly, a Democrat. “But I just don’t get the sense that she’s personally been as many places as Shinagawa was.”