Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) has not faced serious opposition since winning a 1997 special election to fill the Staten Island seat vacated by ex-Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.).
Democrats are hoping that changes in 2006.
They do not have a candidate yet. But Democrats are planning on using Fossella’s identification with President Bush on Social Security to put his working-class district in play.
“Until Fossella comes out and says privatization is off the table and that he will not support any plan that cuts Social Security benefits, his constituents cannot be sure where he will stand,” said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
At the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, the GOP turned to Fossella to tout Bush’s plan to save Social Security for future generations.
Fossella was a natural pick. The Staten Island Republican, who was only 35 years old at the time, is the great-grandson of the late Rep. James O’Leary (N.Y.), a New Deal Democrat.
Fossella introduced convention delegates to a grandmother and granddaughter from New Jersey who appeared via satellite to discuss candidate Bush’s plans to reform Social Security.
“To me, the most important part of the governor’s plan is the lock box to protect current surpluses in the trust fund,” said Sally Brenner, a retired grandmother from Pennington, N.J.
Today, the Social Security surplus is gone, Bush’s progressive indexing proposal includes benefit reductions and Democrats are hoping they have found a silver bullet to unseat Fossella.
Brenner, who has been an active volunteer on Republican campaigns in the Garden State for years, supports Bush’s first-term tax cuts and his plan to create personal retirement accounts for Social Security recipients.
But in an interview Monday, she said she is “disappointed” that the government, on Bush’s watch, has returned to using money from the Social Security trust fund for general spending, and she opposes Bush’s progressive indexing proposal.
“The people who have paid in the most are going to be cut back,” she said. “It doesn’t really seem fair to me. … Maybe if they had kept the lock box they would not have to do that.”
Brenner does not live in Fossella’s district. But Fossella’s opponents are hoping that Brenner’s views are shared by senior citizens in Staten Island and Brooklyn.
For months, In This Together, a union-backed nonprofit group, has been pressuring Fossella to renounce Bush’s proposal to extend the life of Social Security through personal accounts and progressive indexing of benefits.
The group, which has been tabling at the Staten Island Ferry terminal, has knocked on more than 10,000 doors in the 13th district, written more than 700 letters and printed 1,000 signs that ask: “Where’s Vito? Rep. Fossella: Defend Social Security,” according to Alex Navarro, a spokesman for the organization.
At present, Fossella is taking a “wait-and-see” approach on Social Security, said his spokesman, Craig Donner. “We want to see which plan, if any, holds the promise of guaranteeing the long-term solvency of Social Security.”
Fossella has cooled on personal accounts.
“He can support a plan that has them or a plan that doesn’t have them,” Donner said. “Personal accounts don’t get to the heart of the problem. They are much less important than the meat and potatoes of how you guarantee Social Security’s solvency.”
Donner said Fossella is “skeptical” of “progressive indexing,” a plan Bush floated at an April 28 press conference that could result in a reduction of benefits for all but the poorest 30 percent of recipients.
Although Fossella has recalibrated his stance, the DCCC is keeping up the Social Security drumbeat.
“Whether there is a final vote or not, people are going to know where their Congressman stood on this issue,” Feinberg said.
Caryn Alagno, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the GOP is keeping a “close eye” on the seat but does not expect Fossella to be vulnerable in 2006, pointing to his comfortable re-election in 2004 when he captured 59 percent of the vote.
“At least Republicans are putting forward ideas,.The Democrats are the staunch party of ‘no,’” she said.
Democrats face an uphill climb in Fossella’s district.
The 13th district, which was carried by Bill Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000, gave Bush 55 percent of the vote in 2004.
As of March 31, Fossella had $136,110 in his campaign account.
Democrats have yet to find a candidate who will commit to the race, despite recruitment efforts by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), the DCCC chairman, and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the Minority Whip.
Two possible Democratic candidates are New York City Councilman Mike McMahon and state Assemblyman Mike Cusick.
McMahon, who chairs the council’s panel on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, is seen by local observers as being more visible than the Albany-based Cusick.
Cusick, who has garnered the support of the state’s Conservative Party in the last two elections, opposes abortion rights. “I am considered pro life,” Cusick said, a potential asset in the culturally conservative district.
Cusick, who is up for re-election in 2006, would have to give up his Assembly seat to challenge Fossella, a decision that Cusick is not yet prepared to make.
McMahon could make the run without giving up his council seat. But he is waiting until after November, when he is up for re-election, to make a decision.
The Staten Island Advance reported earlier this month that a third potential candidate, state Sen. Diane Savino, decided not to run for Congress in 2006, preferring to run for re-election.
But some national Democrats say it is unclear whether Savino has made a final decision, a view reinforced by Scott Levenson, Savino’s political consultant, who said she is “likely to run for re-election” but added “never say ‘never.’”
“We believe that if she were to enter this race, she would be a very formidable candidate,” Levinson said.
Local observers think the race may turn on Social Security.
“I suspect Social Security reform along the lines that the president would like to achieve would be a poor sell on Staten Island and would open up an opportunity for Democratic opposition,” said David Birdsell, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College in New York. “Absent a strong challenge on Social Security, this doesn’t look like a candidacy that would be at risk, and you would have to give Fossella a strong lead today.”