Syracuse, N.Y. - Will would-be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have a majority of ten, 20 or 40 when the new Congress meets next January? This assumes Democrats get what they’re hoping for: an electoral wave that topples the Republican majority on Nov. 7.
If the wave develops, one place you’ll be able to spot it is here in upstate New York.
The 'Senior Appropriator'
But are the Democrats mistaken if they think that their wave will be powerful enough to overcome such a well-entrenched incumbent as Rep. James Walsh?
Walsh, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee –- “New York’s senior appropriator” as he calls himself -- brings millions of federal dollars home to New York's 25th congressional district.
Since his first election in 1988, he has never won by less than 55 percent.
In language that would appall fiscal conservatives, Walsh calls himself “an absolute believer” in earmarks –- items in spending bills designated to help a particular congressional district. And he especially defends New York earmarks, whether they’re for Syracuse or for Carnegie Hall in New York City or for a harbor project in Buffalo.
The family business
Politics is something of a family franchise for him: Walsh’s father served as mayor of Syracuse for eight years and Walsh’s brother and sister are both elected judges in Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse. His congressional district is the latter-day version of the one that his father represented from 1973 to 1978.
“People have given us their trust and we’ve honored that trust,” Walsh said.
Enter the competititon
In Onondaga County, the most populous county in this district, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry won 54 percent of the vote in 2004. Yet no Democrat even bothered to run against Walsh.
But this year Democrat Dan Maffei is running and evoking the wave year of 1974, when Democrats thrived on the Watergate scandal to gain 49 House seats.
“It’s essential we have some sort of a wave to increase people’s awareness, particularly progressive voters’ awareness, that there is a congressional race and a real campaign here,” Maffei said in an interview at the Little Gem Diner in Syracuse Monday night.
He added that “Hillary (Sen. Hillary Clinton) and (gubernatorial candidate Eliot) Spitzer being on the ticket is a great help.”
“The idea that Jim Walsh can’t be beat has become a self-fulfilling prophecy – he can’t be beat if nobody runs against him,” said Maffei. “The reason Walsh does so well is because a lot of his constituents don’t know how he votes.”
Rating the incumbent
So how does Walsh vote?
Last year, he supported President Bush 86 percent of the time on roll call votes on which the Bush administration took a position. He’s also voted:
• For a private-school voucher program in the District of Columbia;
• For a constitutional amendment to outlaw same-sex marriages;
• For federal court intervention in the Terri Schiavo case;
• For the Medicare prescription drug entitlement;
• Against federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
And unlike first-term Republican Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington state, who switched from voting against federal funding to voting for the override of Bush’s veto of it last month, Walsh stuck with his initial position and voted ‘no’ on the veto override.
Walsh advocates federal funds for medical research using umbilical cord stem cells, not embryos.
Yet Walsh has weathered Democratic assaults for the past 18 years.
And, as many Republicans do this year, he emphasizes his bipartisanship. “I’m not considered to be a terribly partisan person and Appropriations is not a real partisan committee,” he said Tuesday. “It’s more of an ‘us appropriators against the world’ kind of thing.”
He even has kind words for Sen. Clinton. “She and I work very well together,” he said. Asked if he thinks Clinton has done a good job for Onondaga County, he replies, “I do.”
Battle for the majority
Walsh dismissed Maffei as “a carpetbagger,” adding “he has spent a lot of time with the Washington press trying to sell them on the competitiveness of this race. But he has not broken through here. People don’t know who he is…. This is a guy who knows nothing about this district.”
Maffei, who, at age 38, is 21 years younger than Walsh, grew up in Syracuse before going to Washington to work for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y. and on the staff of the House Ways & Means Committee.
He acknowledges that Walsh does have greater name recognition than he does.
“He was better known before he was born,” he says, alluding to the power of Walsh’s family name in Syracuse.
Maffei makes a persuasive case that the Democrats must defeat Walsh and other long-established GOP incumbents if they are to give Pelosi a healthy majority in the new Congress.
“I’ve never heard of one of the sea change elections, whether it was 1994 or 19974, where there weren’t a number of incumbents who lost who people had never thought were going to lose,” he noted. “And Walsh is a very ripe target.”
Unlike many Democratic candidates this year Maffei is not guarded about saying he’d support the resolution introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and other anti-war Democrats that would cut off funding for the Iraq deployment – with an exception for funds needed for “the safe and orderly withdrawal” of U.S. troops. “I would support that resolution,” he said flatly.
“What signal does that send to our enemies, who are many and very dangerous?” wondered Walsh when he was told about Maffei’s support for the cutoff.
Walsh had potential U.S. enemies and his own constituents in mind Monday at what used to be a GE facility in Liverpool, N.Y. where Lockheed Martin now designs a new mobile air defense system to replace the Patriot missile.
Walsh helped arrange $375,000 in Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) money – an earmark -- to help Lockheed Martin convert warehouse space into engineering facilities.
On Tuesday Walsh starred at another event, the opening of a senior citizen housing project in Cicero, just north of Syracuse, to highlight the $1.7 million HUD money that he helped get to make it possible.
While Walsh was celebrating the dispersal of taxpayer money, 200 miles away, Maffei was on the Upper East Side of Manhattan Tuesday to raise money at a fund-raiser with fellow upstate New York House candidate Michael Arcuri, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Rep. Charlie Rangel.
As of July 1, Maffei had about $200,000, a third as much cash on hand as Walsh had, a sign that some Democratic donors don’t yet see this race as optimistically Maffei does. And the DCCC hasn’t designated Maffei as one of the 34 Democratic challengers in its “Red to Blue” targeting program to win GOP seats.