Finding Amo: Legislators Wait for a Decision

Posted March 2, 2004 at 6:14pm

Two New York state legislators have begun aggressive fundraising enterprises just in case Rep. Amo Houghton (R) decides not to seek a 10th term this year.

Assemblyman Brian Kolb (R) leads the charge, having taken in $108,000 in a new Congressional account during the last three months of 2003 without spending a dime. State Sen. John “Randy” Kuhl (R) had a more modest $39,000 banked in his Congressional campaign fund at the end of the year.

Houghton plans to make his intentions known in April and appears to be raising just enough money to keep himself viable. He took in $63,000 in the last quarter of 2003 and had $57,000 on hand. But if Houghton does opt to seek re-election, he should have no problem funding his campaign. According to Roll Call’s 2003 survey of the richest Members of Congress, Houghton, an heir to the Corning glass fortune, is worth $475 million.

“I want Amo to stay,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.). “He’s a guy that’s added important aspects to the Republican majority.”

Many people thought Houghton would retire in 2002, but he fought mightily to preserve his district in the most recent reapportionment, which saw New York lose two House seats. Those same political observers thought Houghton might choose to retire this year now that he has guaranteed that his seat will survive — with a healthy Republican majority — for another decade.

Half a dozen Republicans have made known their interest in succeeding Houghton since the 77-year-old Congressman glided to re-election two years ago.

But Kolb and Kuhl have stepped up their campaign activities in the past few months, and Kolb has made half a dozen visits to Washington, D.C., to speak with interest groups and party operatives. A third Republican, Monroe County legislator Mark Assini, now says he plans to run for the Southern Tier House seat regardless of what Houghton does — and will also seek the New York state Conservative Party’s ballot line for the November general election.

Because Kolb and Kuhl would each have to sacrifice safe legislative seats to run for Congress, they are unlikely to challenge Houghton in a primary. Both claim they will patiently wait for the Congressman to decide on his future, but it is apparent that both are raring to go.

“I will wait out of respect for Amo to make his decision,” Kolb said.

Kuhl conceded that he has been eyeing the seat for a long time.

“The last six or seven years there have been rumors of his retiring,” he said. “I have made the decision if Amo retires I will run for his Congressional spot.”

Kuhl said he believes that April isn’t too late to get into the race and that he would have plenty of time to build support for the Sept. 14 Republican primary, which is likely to determine who wins the seat.

Kuhl has long been seen as Houghton’s heir apparent — especially when the district’s borders strictly followed the Southern Tier, which runs along the Pennsylvania state line. But since 2002, the boundaries have been extended north almost all the way to Rochester, leaving Kuhl with a base in the southern part of the district, Kolb with a base in the central part, and Assini with the territory closest to Rochester.

Some political observers have suggested that Houghton, who underwent treatment for prostate cancer late last year, would like to delay his decision even later than April. The filing deadline for the race — and for state legislative races — is in July.

“To tell you the honest truth, I don’t know what he’s going to do,” said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, an organization dedicated to electing centrist Republicans.

Resnick, who is close to Houghton, grew up in the 29th district and still votes there. She has also been mentioned as a possible candidate for Houghton’s seat whenever he retires. But Resnick said 2004 is not the year for her, because she is expecting her first child this spring.

While giving no hint of what his decision will be, Houghton told the Corning Leader newspaper last week that he has already envisioned what his life out of Congress will be like. He said he would continue to help the Main Street Partnership, work for the Episcopal Church and work on economic development issues for upstate New York.

Assini said he has no qualms about taking on the powerful incumbent, whom he describes as too liberal for the district.

“He’s running as a Republican simply because it’s a convenience for him,” Assini said. “He mocks his base.”

Assini also questioned the conservative credentials of Kuhl and Kolb.

“If the only reason somebody is going to run is [that] the liberal is going to step down, that tells you something about how conservative they aren’t,” he said.

A Houghton-Assini matchup could be reminiscent of what took place in the adjoining 24th district in 2002. That year, another veteran political moderate, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R), fought off a surprisingly strong primary challenge from Cayuga County legislator David Walrath, who finished just 2,700 votes out of the money.

Walrath was also Boehlert’s principal general election opponent, appearing on the ballot as a Conservative, though he lost badly.

Houghton has been endorsed by the Conservative Party in most of his elections, so it is unclear who would get its backing this year. The chairman of the Monroe County Conservative Party has already decided to endorse Assini.

Assini said he has been in touch with several conservative groups about supporting his bid, much the way the anti-tax Club for Growth boosted Walrath in the 24th.

So far, however, his fundraising has been less than robust, with $11,000 raised in the last three months of 2003 — including a $4,000 personal loan — and just $6,000 in the bank.

A Kolb-Kuhl primary would have a dynamic of its own.

The two are fairly conservative and close ideologically. But Kuhl, by serving in the state Senate where Republicans are in the majority, has had to make more compromises than Kolb that might be anathema to GOP voters, like supporting certain tax increases and voting for the state’s indoor smoking ban. Republicans are outnumbered in the state Assembly.

It remains to be seen whether a viable Democrat would attempt to jump into the race if Houghton retires. Although Houghton replaced longtime Democratic Rep. Stan Lundine in 1986, he has never received less than 60 percent of the vote, and George W. Bush would have defeated Al Gore by 10 points in the 29th district four years ago.