While New York Gov. David Paterson’s (D) performance in office has been widely panned, his timing in three House special elections this cycle has been impeccable.
Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) resigned his 29th district seat more than a month ago, but Paterson still has not acknowledged the vacancy nor issued a date for a special election. State law gives the governor latitude to announce a vacancy, but when he does, a special election must be called.
According to sources in Washington, D.C., and the Empire State, Paterson has good relations with the New York delegation as well as the offices of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and he leveraged those key relationships to get good advice on the timing of the special elections.
In the case of the 29th district vacancy, if Paterson were to call a special election today, Democrats would likely lose the seat. Their candidate, an unknown former CIA employee who had been living in Washington, is just beginning to get a campaign operation together and the political climate continues to be difficult for Democrats.
Paterson initially told reporters that he would call a special election to fill Massa’s seat “as soon as possible” but has since backed off. In a March 31 statement, his office raised concerns about “the financial impact that a special election could have on the county level.” A spokeswoman said no final decision had been made yet and reiterated that point to Roll Call again this week.
Democrats in the district say they would prefer to avoid a special election, also citing the costs involved. And one local Democratic source told Roll Call, “I wouldn’t hold my breath,” waiting for the governor to call a special, adding that there is a strong likelihood that the November general election will be the only contest to decide who the next Member from the 29th district is.
That has Republicans squawking about Democrats’ stalling tactics. Former Corning Mayor Tom Reed, the Republicans’ consensus candidate for Massa’s seat, has been publicly calling on the governor to call the election “forthwith,” but to no avail.
It’s hardly a coincidence that Democrats will benefit if Paterson chooses not to call a special election.
Paterson has “done a good job of reading the tea leaves with the delegation,” according to one New York Democratic consultant, who noted that the exception was the governor’s handling of then-Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand’s appointment to the Senate early last year.
But Paterson handled Gillibrand’s open seat extremely well. She resigned her House seat on Jan. 26, but the governor didn’t declare the vacancy until Feb. 23.
That extra month allowed Democrats to find their candidate, businessman Scott Murphy, and get him up to speed and ready to go against state Assembly Minority Leader Jim Tedisco (R), who started the race with significantly higher name recognition. Murphy won the March 31 special election with 50 percent of the vote.
Last fall, Republican Rep. John McHugh vacated his 23rd district seat to become President Barack Obama’s secretary of the Army. The GOP Congressman resigned on Sept. 21, Paterson only took eight days to announce the vacancy that time and set the election to coincide with the regularly scheduled Nov. 3 elections.
After a popular state legislator passed on the race, Democrats quickly sorted through a list of others to find attorney Bill Owens, who won the November special election with 48 percent over Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. The GOP nominee,
Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, received almost 6 percent even though she dropped out late in the race and endorsed Owens.
Emily Cadei contributed to this report.