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Quinn’s Exit Opens Door for Democrats

In an announcement that took both parties by surprise and creates a golden pickup opportunity for Democrats, Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) announced Monday that he would retire at the end of the year rather than seek a seventh term in his Buffalo-area seat.

Quinn, 53, said he simply felt it was time to go home.

“It was the [family] plus the amount of time spent in the job,” Quinn said in an interview Monday. “This job is 24/7, and the travel back and forth really makes it difficult to do much of anything else.”

Quinn’s news set off a scramble in both parties to succeed him and put his Democratic-performing district immediately into play.

While a raft of local officials are being discussed as possible candidates, the most intriguing name floated by Republican insiders Monday was that of Jim Kelly, the Hall of Fame quarterback who played for the Buffalo Bills.

Quinn’s son, prosecutor Jack Quinn Jr., may also be interested in the seat.

But the Congressman’s announcement was so sudden and unexpected that party leaders in Washington, D.C., and Buffalo could not predict who would emerge as candidates — or who would be the frontrunners.

“Nobody’s got a leg up right now,” said Robert Davis, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party.

No matter who the candidates are, Quinn’s retirement is a gift to Democrats. His largely blue-collar district would have given Al Gore a 53 percent to 41 percent win over George W. Bush in 2000, and it is one of the most Democratic districts in the country now held by a Republican. Quinn prospered as a moderate, pro-labor Republican who frequently broke with his party’s leaders.

“We’re very excited,” said Leonard Lenihan, Erie County Democratic chairman. “Today is simply a day to congratulate Congressman Quinn on a great career and to say we’re confident of taking this seat back.”

Coming on the heels of moderate Rep. Amo Houghton’s (R-N.Y.) retirement announcement earlier this month, national Democrats sought to paint Quinn’s decision as a black eye to National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), who represents a district that abuts Quinn’s and Houghton’s.

“Tom Reynolds’ New York colleagues are sending him a message by abandoning the right-wing Republican House and giving Democrats a strong advantage in our campaign to win a new majority,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.).

The list of would-be Democratic successors is headed by two state Assemblymen: Brian Higgins and Paul Tokasz, the Assembly Majority Leader. Higgins, who has served in Albany since 1999, is seen as the likeliest to jump into the fray.

Other potential Democratic candidates include West Seneca Town Supervisor Paul Clark; former state government lawyer and 2002 nominee Peter Crotty; Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, who ran the Buffalo office of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.); and attorney Mark Poloncarz, who is Western New York coordinator for Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign.

Republicans have an equally long list of potential candidates, led by Erie County Sheriff Pat Gallivan.

“I think if Pat Gallivan wants it, it’s his,” said a prominent New York Republican.

Gallivan, according to sources, has already begun meeting with party leaders to discuss making the race.

Erie County Comptroller Nancy Naples is mentioned as the next most likely Republican to run. Davis, the county GOP chairman, said both Gallivan and Naples are proven votegetters in a Democratic county. Naples, who spent 20 years working on Wall Street, is also considered a potential self-funder in the race.

Other possible GOP contenders include Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, who is eyeing a race for governor in 2006; the deputy county executive, Carl Calabrese; and former New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco, who was defeated after one term in 1998.

Quinn said his son, a prosecutor in the Erie County district attorney’s office who graduated law school last year and was admitted to the New York state Bar in March, is also thinking about running and could say something as early as today.

But the Congressman said that Jack Quinn Jr. had yet to decide as of Monday afternoon.

“That’s for him to answer,” Quinn said. “As a father … I’d be crazy if I didn’t tell you he’s a great guy. I think he’s got what it takes to do the job.”

Another potential Republican dream candidate is Kelly, the former football star. Kelly, who lives in the Buffalo suburbs, has been active in Republican politics, helping Gov. George Pataki (R) in his re-election bid in 2002 and aiding then-Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) in Western New York during his unsuccessful Senate bid four years ago. Kelly, who appeared with President Bush last week at an event with first responders in Buffalo, has contributed to Quinn’s campaigns in the past, and to Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), son of a Hall of Fame football coach. He is also said to be close to Reynolds.

But Ann Brooker, marketing director for Kelly Enterprise, the football hero’s multi-faceted business operation in Williamsville, N.Y., said Monday that she would be surprised if Kelly was interested in running for office right now.

Both party leaders in Erie, where the majority of the district lies, said they hoped their organizations would coalesce around a single candidate after consulting with their counterparts in Chautauqua County, which has the rest of the 27th district turf. But there remains the very real possibility that both parties could see primaries for the seat on Sept. 14.

Quinn becomes the 29th House Member and 19th Republican this cycle to announce his intention to depart. In the last cycle, 46 House Members chose to move on, and several others were defeated in re-election bids.

House Republican sources said Quinn had been mulling the possibility of leaving Congress for several months but that he had not given his colleagues any indication recently that he was leaning toward retiring.

Quinn’s decision came as what one aide called “an unpleasant surprise” to House Republican leaders, especially Reynolds.

“Jack Quinn is not only my district neighbor by chance, but my friend by choice, and all of Congress will miss him dearly when he’s gone,” Reynolds said in a statement.

Quinn did not inform Reynolds or other members of the leadership of his plans until just before his news conference Monday morning, and senior GOP lawmakers and aides privately expressed shock at both his decision and his failure to give them any advance notice.

“I really wanted to give my staff in both cities and my family first notification,” Quinn said. “The Speaker was my first call this morning and Tom Reynolds was my second.”

In addition to compiling a consistently moderate voting record, Quinn has also been one of the most reliable Republican union allies in the House. He is one of only a handful of GOP lawmakers with a strong relationship to organized labor and has regularly encouraged his party leadership to be more solicitous of union support.

“His roots were within the lunchpail crowd,” said Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), a close friend of Quinn’s. “He was as much tied to his local labor leaders as he was to the national or international leaders and he was proud of that.”

That union support has sometimes led Quinn to clash with the Republican leadership, particularly when he has advocated raising the minimum wage and voted against free-trade agreements, including NAFTA, trade promotion authority and normalizing trade relations with China.

Quinn actually flirted with the idea of leaving the GOP to become a Democrat or an Independent in May 2002, when it looked as though the new New York Congressional map might combine his district with that of then-Rep. John LaFalce (D).

Quinn eventually decided to remain a Republican, though he did publicly express “frustration” with the redistricting process, which he likened to “performing surgery while on horseback.”

Although the Quinn vs. LaFalce map never came to pass, and LaFalce ended up retiring after being paired instead with Rep. Louise Slaughter (D), Quinn was described by friends as being less than satisfied with the final district lines.

While Quinn was able to win easily under the new map 2002, sources said the lawmaker felt New York GOP leaders — particularly Reynolds — could have done more to strengthen his district.

Though Quinn does not serve on any exclusive committees, his departure will open up the chairmanship of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on railroads.

Asked whether he planned to stay in Buffalo full-time after retirement, Quinn said, “I have absolutely no plans. This was really sort of fast-moving. I wouldn’t rule out anything.”

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