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Sign of the times: A growing partisan divide crowds out politicians like Chris Jacobs

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Chris Jacobs

Congressman Chris Jacobs announces that he will not run for re-election in front of Old County Hall in Buffalo Friday, June 3, 2022.

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WASHINGTON – Tension filled the House chamber on May 5, 1994. Lawmakers from both parties wanted to ban assault weapons, and lawmakers from both parties disagreed. And those who wanted to kill the proposed ban were ahead by one vote – until Rep. Jacobs changed his mind.

Flipping his vote from a "nay" to a "yea," Rep. Andrew Jacobs, an Indiana Democrat, paved the way for the bill's passage by a 216-214 vote. Thirty-eight Republicans, including the minority leader and two lawmakers who represented Western New York, voted for the gun ban. Seventy-seven Democrats, most of them from rural areas, opposed it.

Jacobs went on to win re-election that fall and left Congress when he chose to retire years later. So did Rep. Jack Quinn of Hamburg and Rep. Amo Houghton of Corning, two of the seven New York Republicans who voted for that assault weapons ban.

Nearly three decades later, Rep. Chris Jacobs, an Orchard Park Republican who is unrelated to the Indiana Democrat with the same last name, changed his mind on an assault weapons ban, too. Like his namesake, he flipped from a "nay" to a "yea" – but the similarity ended there. So, too, apparently, will his political career.

Chris Jacobs lost the backing of Republican leaders across his district. What's more, he proved how hard it is for lawmakers in this hyper-partisan era to buck their party even once and still survive.

"I think we have a real problem structurally with our parties in that if you are not 100% loyal to the party orthodoxy, you are annihilated," Jacobs told The Buffalo News Friday while announcing that he was abandoning his bid for re-election in New York's newly redrawn 23rd District. "I mean, how many pro-life Democrats are there in Congress right now? There's one and he's fighting for his political life in Texas. So I think that it's very different on both sides from years ago, and I don't think that's a good thing."

Chris Jacobs' concern echoed across the political world this weekend, as observers from both parties marveled at how quickly his political career came undone just because he wanted to do something about guns.

"This is really sad," tweeted David Axelrod, the Democratic messaging guru who helped Barack Obama get elected president in 2008. "A @GOP Rep from the Buffalo-area, scene of one of the recent, gruesome mass shootings, entertains an assault weapons ban, and is promptly excommunicated by the party and driven from office."

Similarly, Quinn was shocked that Jacobs could be pushed out of his race for re-election in just a week by political pros who previously backed him.

"It was like something I never saw before," Quinn said.

Yet it's also a sign of the times – which, Quinn said, are much different than when he served in the House from 1993 to 2004.

"The day when you could argue an issue politely and professionally, and then go have a cheeseburger and a beer and talk (with a political opponent) about your kids – that's gone," Quinn said. "And that takes away the whole reason of why we are sent to Washington, which is to debate and to discuss."

Much has been said and written over the years about how and why America's two major political parties have ceased to allow room for dissent and compromise. Some blame gerrymandering, which makes many of the nation's congressional districts sharply partisan enclaves where incumbents live more in fear of primary opponents than general election challengers. Others blame the advent of partisan media and social media, which allow conservatives and liberals to choose their news and miss out on a lot of what the other side is saying. Then there's a theory called "The Big Sort," in which author Bill Bishop argues that Americans are choosing to move to communities where people believe what they do.

Whatever the reason, there's no doubt that Democrats and Republicans, both in Congress and across the country, stand increasingly far apart.

A Pew Research Center study this year found that in Congress, the two parties are more separated ideologically now than they have been in 50 years. Whereas there were 160 moderate Democrats and Republicans in the House in 1972, Pew found that there are only about two dozen today.

Meanwhile, in the general public, there's a growing trend of simply hating the other party. According to the American National Election Study, the amount of respect that partisans have for the other party fell by about half between 1980 and 2016.

On the local level, all of this translates to a my-way-or-the-highway approach to bellwether issues like gun control. Joe Sempolinski, the Republican chairman in Steuben County, said Jacobs' decision to endorse an assault weapons ban and other gun control measures simply runs counter to what many voters in the Southern Tier – the largest part of the 23rd District – believe.

"People here are very protective of their constitutional rights, and the right to bear arms is one that people take very seriously in rural areas," Sempolinski said.

Houghton got a pass from voters when he supported an assault weapons ban not just because the times were less partisan, but also because people in the Southern Tier knew and respected him, Sempolinski said. Whereas Houghton was elected to Congress eight years before he cast that vote, Jacobs is a newcomer to the majority of 23rd District voters who live outside of Erie County.

Even so, the fact that Jacobs could be hounded out of Congress by his fellow Republicans shook Anthony H. Gioia, a longtime GOP fundraiser, former ambassador to Malta and friend of the Jacobs family.

"This is really bad for the Republican Party and our country that it has come to this: that we're the only country in the world that has the kind of gun laws that we have and the only country in the world that has as many gun deaths as we have and you've got to support that to be considered a Republican," Gioia said. "I mean, it's as bad as the Democrats are on abortion."

What's more, Gioia said, America's growing partisan divide broadcasts weakness to the world at a time when the nation should be projecting strength to rivals like Russia and China.

"We're a better country than this," he said.


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Related to this story

The move from a coalition of business groups that is typically more likely to weigh in on areas such as taxes and regulations came the same day Gov. Kathy Hochul surrounded herself with state and local government leaders to sign 10 bills that enact sweeping new controls in New York State ranging from age limits on purchase of military-style weapons to banning the purchase of body armor for civilians.

The bill would raise the minimum age for purchasing assault rifles from 18 to 21, ban high-capacity magazines and strengthen requirements that gun owners store their weapons safely. The measure passed by a 223 to 204 vote, and Jacobs was one of five Republicans who supported it.

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