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Bob McCarthy: Higgins looks for change - eventually

Somewhere deep in the recesses of the Department of Political Jargon, a semi-learned person of the past invented the term “mid-term elections,” destined to dominate biannual discussions for all time.

The wordsmith theorized contests staged outside the quadrennial elections for president somehow ranked less in importance, relegating them to minor status.

But the mid-term contests of 2018 more than merit major consideration in the Era of Trump. The president has so dominated the nation’s political scene, that his performance will determine (positively or negatively) the outcome of countless legislative contests – especially in the House of Representatives.

That leads many in the House to look forward, especially following Wednesday’s stunning announcement by Republican Speaker Paul Ryan that he will retire at the end of his term. He said he wants to spend more time with his family. Others speculate he’s tired of trying to reconcile his past opposition to Trump with his obligation to help run a government.

Rep. Brian Higgins, the Democrat from Buffalo, is one of those watching the situation closely. “Clearly, there is a trend here, and Paul was squeezed out by his own caucus,” Higgins noted a few days ago, much in the same way former Speaker John Boehner could not please ultra-conservative Republicans back in 2015.

Higgins likes Ryan; views him in the energetic and optimistic mode of Jack Kemp, for whom the departing speaker once worked. Higgins calls Ryan “a decent fellow.”

But the congressman also recognizes the Democratic trends that polls are predicting more than a year into the Trump presidency. It could mean a Democratic majority in the House come January. It could mean a new group resembling Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania – sworn in on Thursday – comprising the “majority makers” who call for new leadership.

“There’s a lot in front of us,” Higgins said. “If the Democrats take the majority – and that’s a big ‘if’ – you’ll have these ‘majority makers,’ the first of whom is Conor Lamb who took the public position that there should be new leadership in the House.”

The congressman is not seeking Nancy Pelosi’s ouster as Democratic leader. But he does count himself as a major supporter of Rep. Joe Crowley of Queens, a leader in the New York delegation often mentioned as a future speaker.

Higgins and Crowley represent the newest version of a long alliance between Democrats in South Buffalo and Queens. It extends back to when Higgins’ mentor – the late Dick Keane – served in the Assembly and even shared a Rensselaer apartment with Crowley.

“Joe Crowley loved, loved, loved Dick Keane and became an extended part of the Keane family,” Higgins recalled.

Higgins followed Keane to the Assembly, was inducted into that crowd, and has worked in tandem with his Queens counterpart ever since.

Indeed, Higgins harkens to 2004 when fellow Assemblyman Sam Hoyt called at 6:30 one morning with news that Rep. Jack Quinn was retiring. About 20 Democrats immediately expressed interest in the congressional seat, Higgins said, just as he was eyeing a run for lieutenant governor in 2006.

But Crowley called Rep. Bob Matsui, then head of the all-important Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“You gotta do Higgins,” the South Buffalo guy quotes the Queens guy as telling the California guy. The DCCC then took the unusual position of supporting Higgins among the other Democrats.

“I’m in Congress today in large part because of Joe Crowley,” Higgins said, adding that many other Democrats can make the same claim and would owe him big time.

As Ryan moves on, Higgins anticipates a time of transition for the House.

Pelosi is 78, he notes. Minority whip Steny Hoyer is a year older. Crowley is 56.

“I’m enthusiastic about Joe becoming the future leader of the House,” Higgins says, “whenever that happens.”

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