In the fall of 2003, Eric Massa was forced to resign as a Republican staffer on the House Armed Services Committee after he was spotted outside an event for his former boss and good friend, Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark.
Now the longtime Clark lieutenant is looking to return to Capitol Hill: this time as a Democratic Member of Congress.
Massa, a 24-year veteran of the Navy who spent several years in the late 1990s as a top aide to then-Gen. Clark — first in Panama, where Clark headed the U.S. Southern Command and later when Clark was NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe — is gunning to unseat freshman Rep. Randy Kuhl (R-N.Y.) next year.
With no other Democrats in the Southern Tier race at this early stage, Massa is considered “the best and the frontrunner,” said Steuben County Democratic Chairman Shawn Hogan. “He knows Washington and he knows his way around Capitol Hill.”
He may not have the Democratic field to himself, however.
“Eric Massa has already gotten in and hit the ground running, but it’s early and because Kuhl is so vulnerable we’ve started hearing from other Democrats who are also interested,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg. “They are taking a preliminary look at it, but are not ready to be public.”
Massa, who during the 2004 presidential campaign logged nearly 90,000 miles on his Ford Focus while coordinating veterans outreach for Clark in New Hampshire and Virginia, comes to the race with a compelling bio.
The Naval Academy graduate left his post at NATO headquarters in Brussels against his will: He had to be medevaced back to the United States in late 1998 to be treated for cancer after doctors there told him he had only four months to live.
“The good news is they got it wrong,” laughed Massa.
After his 1999 recovery from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Massa spent the following year traveling the nation, mainly on behalf of the Navy, speaking to cancer survivors, patients and their families.
Massa credits the experience with “opening [his] eyes politically” and fueling his passion to improve access to health care for uninsured Americans.
After retiring from the Navy in 2001, he bought a house in Corning, N.Y., and went to work for Corning Inc., one of the 29th district’s largest employers. Kuhl’s predecessor, former longtime Rep. Amo Houghton (R), a man Massa admires, is the former CEO and chairman of Corning.
“My positions and [Houghton’s] positions are much more alike than the incumbent and the predecessor’s,” Massa said — a factor he and his supporters believe will help him in the Republican-leaning district.
“Tom DeLay Republicanism isn’t going to wash in upstate New York, not the same way that Reagan Republicanism did,” said Erick Mullen, a Democratic media consultant who works for Clark. The veteran of several New York races is now informally advising Massa.
Massa also has something in common with many of the voters in the economically depressed Southern Tier: He was downsized from Corning in March 2002 and said he knows what it’s like to be “knocked down a couple of times.” It is one of the reasons he switched from the GOP to the Democratic Party after his departure from the Armed Services panel.
“My loyalty and friendship to and with Wes Clark got between me and the Republican Party,” Massa said.
Hogan noted that Massa had considered the 2004 race, but decided against it because “he had just switched parties” and his registration wouldn’t have “changed until seven days after the November election.”
Since Clark’s withdrawal from the presidential election in early 2004, Massa, a married, 45-year-old father of three, has worked as an international business consultant for a variety of American firms.
Massa, who pointed to Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) as a friend and mentor, is a self-described “Blue Dog Democrat.” Massa is opposed to the legalization of gay marriage but also the proposed constitutional amendment to ban it. He said he doesn’t plan to emphasize “hot button” social issues in the campaign, instead choosing to focus on health care, the deficit, and “the unrelenting exportation of living- wage jobs to China.”
“People like to demonize the term universal health care,” Massa said. “I want to de-demonize it.”
While Massa said he won’t begin fundraising until July 1 and has only “a couple thousand dollars” of his own money set aside for the campaign, in recent months he’s been quietly laying the groundwork for his Congressional bid.
A series of official announcements in the district are expected by the end of this month, and Massa has hired Joe Slade White and Co., which did work for Clark’s presidential bid, to head up his media effort and one staffer to do field work. He’s also met with DCCC officials, local Democratic county chairmen and “community leaders in both parties” and has held a series of town hall meetings throughout the district.
Massa was scheduled to appear at a fundraiser in Ontario County Tuesday night for New York gubernatorial candidate and current state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer (D), where he said he would “officially present himself as a candidate.”
For the moment, GOPers aren’t sweating it, however.
“It’s a Republican district,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti, noting that President Bush took 57 percent of the vote there in the 2004 election.
What’s more, Forti chalked up Kuhl’s closer than expected race — he took less than 51 percent against his 27-year-old Democratic opponent Samara Barend and Conservative Party nominee Mark Assini — to leaked allegations from his sealed divorce records a month before the general election. In those documents, Kuhl’s now ex-wife accused the lawmaker of pulling two shotguns on her, among other things.
“If you look at what is going on in the district at the time of the election one can understand why his numbers might have been a little lower than expected,” Forti said. He added that he’d never heard of Massa.
Earlier this spring, Barend told a New York newspaper she was considering challenging Kuhl again, but as of press time had not returned a call seeking comment. Another former Democratic contender for the seat, Jeremy Alderson, is also “testing the water,” Hogan said.
Some Democrats said the jury is still out as to whether Massa, who has never held elective office, has the heft to dethrone Kuhl.
“Certainly someone with a background like Mr. Massa is entitled to consideration,” said former Rep. Stan Lundine (D-N.Y.), whose old district used to include more than half of the current 29th. “Whether or not that’s enough to de-seat an incumbent like Randy Kuhl I have no idea.”
Lundine said he was scheduled to meet with Massa for the first time on Thursday.
As to what degree Clark will inject himself into the race, Massa said the retired general recently told him he was willing “to do whatever I can do to support you.”
“If asked, he’ll be more than happy to support my campaign with personal appearances,” Massa said.