New York 24: Upstate New York’s Open Seat Remains a Democratic Target

by Stuart Rothenberg August 10, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

While most of the residents of Cooperstown, N.Y., have been more interested in the Hall of Fame induction ceremony and the summer weather, Otsego County political junkies have been captivated by the developing race to fill the seat of retiring Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R).

Boehlert, a moderate Republican and the chairman of the Science Committee, often drew conservative primary opposition throughout his career. But after he won renomination, he generally coasted to re-election.

With Boehlert out of the picture, Democrats are upbeat about their chances, citing a strong nominee and a favorable environment, including likely November landslides for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and gubernatorial hopeful Eliot Spitzer.

The 24th district is a Republican-leaning seat that includes all or part of 11 counties. The district, which roughly resembles the letter “j,” stretches from northern New York through Utica, down to just north of Binghamton and back north until it ends west of Syracuse.

President Bush carried the district by about 3,000 votes (1 percent) in 2000 and by a more substantial 17,000 votes (6 percent) in 2004. But despite that increase, almost everyone I talk to about this year’s Congressional race sees it as competitive.

What makes this contest so unusual is that both parties have exceptionally good candidates.

Republican Ray Meier, 53, served as city attorney in Rome, N.Y., before his election to the Oneida County Legislature. He served there for five years before being elected Oneida County executive. He held that office for another five years.

In 1996, Meier, a graduate of Syracuse University and Syracuse University College of Law, was elected to the New York state Senate, where he represents Oneida and two other counties not in the 24th district. He chairs the Social Services, Children and Families Committee.

Democrat Michael Arcuri, 47, is the Oneida County district attorney and has served in that office since he was first elected in 1993. A graduate of the State University of New York at Albany and New York Law School, Arcuri announced his candidacy for Congress a few weeks before Boehlert announced that he would not seek a 13th term.

Both men are poised and articulate. Each has a healthy respect for the other. Meier is confident, well-versed in government and politics, and seems a bit more mature. Even critics note Arcuri’s good looks and personable style.

Arcuri, who will run on the Democratic, Working Families and Independence party lines, presents himself as a moderate who is “similar to Boehlert.” Like the retiring Republican, he opposes Bush’s position on federal funding of stem-cell research, is pro-choice, favors increasing the minimum wage and opposes a ban on gay marriage. He says he differs from his party on issues such as a constitutional amendment on flag burning (he’s for it) and gun control (he opposes new restrictions).

Meier is a mainstream Republican, which puts him somewhat to Boehlert’s right. He’s more socially conservative than the outgoing Congressman or Arcuri — Meier favors research on adult stem cells but opposes research on embryonic stem cells — which should allow him to appeal to those conservatives who couldn’t stomach Boehlert. He is running on both the Republican and Conservative lines.

The question is whether Meier can hold all of the moderates who backed Boehlert. His asset in that quest is his personal style.

Arcuri has hired politically savvy Howard Wolfson to handle media, but for survey research he has retained Utica-based John Zogby, a controversial pollster who often is portrayed as nonpartisan but handles a few candidates from time to time.

Meier’s team is top-tier down the line, with Dave Sackett of the Tarrance Group doing polling, Paul Curcio of Stevens Reed Curcio and Potholm handling media and Dan Hazelwood doing mail. Even more important is that John Konkus, who has worked for Boehlert for years, has left the Congressman’s staff to manage Meier’s race.

Arcuri’s lack of a legislative voting record is likely to be an asset, since Meier may not have the ammunition he needs to define the Democrat as a liberal. Meier, in contrast, has a long political record that gives Arcuri something to shoot at. Of course, Arcuri’s record as district attorney could well be an issue if Republicans find a case or two they can use to discredit him.

Arcuri’s campaign has taken a few recent hits in local newspapers, which reported that he had received contributions from two businessmen under investigation by the FBI, including one who had spent more than two years in prison for mail fraud and conspiracy charges in California.

The Democrat’s campaign quickly returned the contributions, but took criticism for keeping two contributions from employees of the controversial businessmen. One of the employees, a paralegal, contributed $4,000 even though she had never met Arcuri. Late last week, those contributions were returned as well.

Democrats cite their gains at the local level and the public’s dissatisfaction with the direction of the nation in arguing that winds of change are blowing through the district. Republicans counter that Meier’s legislative and executive experience translates into an important advantage in the race. They say he has a far broader knowledge of issues and more experience talking about the various roles of government.

Arcuri needs to win Oneida County convincingly, since Meier is expected to hold the other more Republican areas of the district. But since Meier and Arcuri share Oneida as their base, the Democrat can’t assume he will carry the county.

If the national political environment were completely neutral, the GOP almost certainly would retain the seat. And Arcuri would have an almost impossible task against Boehlert, if he were seeking another term. But the open seat and the possible Democratic surge in the state and nationally make this a very competitive race. Meier still has an edge, so a Democratic win there definitely would mean GOP control of the House is in deep trouble.