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How lowly lawmaker became a GOP headache

Over Halloween weekend, New York state assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava morphed from a rosy-cheeked Republican mom to a political figure of speech.
Image: Bill Owens  Dede Scozzafava
Democrat Bill Owens, left, and Republican Dierdre Scozzafava debate in Plattsburgh, N.Y., on Oct. 23. A week later, Scozzafava defied her party by backing Owens instead of the Conservative Party candidate.Todd Bissonette / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Over Halloween weekend, Dede Scozzafava morphed from a rosy-cheeked Republican mom to a political figure of speech.

"My name's a verb now," she said.

A little-known state assemblywoman with moderate Republican views and a mouthful of a surname, Scozzafava's bid for an open seat in New York's 23rd Congressional District drew trash talk from conservative leaders hoping to purge her from the party, mash notes from White House-dispatched Democratic suitors that included Bill Clinton, and the unblinking gaze of political professionals fascinated by her role as the problem child for a dysfunctional Republican Party.

Even as she now hopes to return to her normal life of local politics, laundry and choir practice for next month's big performance of Bach's Christmas Cantatas, the political forces that swept her up have not entirely let her go. Last week, while watching a news show about the next sharply contested Senate Republican primary in Florida, her parents reported that one of the commentators asked whether the moderate was in peril of getting "Scozzafaved."

On Friday morning, Scozzafava -- pronounced SKOZE-uh-FAV-ah -- parked her navy blue Buick behind her modest office a few hundred feet from Main Street's aluminum sculpture of a Pep-O-Mints roll, the monument to Life Savers founder E.J. Noble, who was, before Scozzafava, the most prominent citizen to come out of this rural Adirondack town along the Oswegatchie River.

At her desk, with a fuzzy elephant face down on a bookshelf behind her, she recalled the exhausting end days of her campaign. Violet semicircles hung below her teary eyes as she recounted how Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and other conservative leaders excoriated her for less-than-orthodox positions on gay rights, abortion and organized labor. Her nose reddened as she recalled her abrupt exit from the special election to replace John M. McHugh, whom President Obama had appointed as secretary of the Army earlier in the year.

The conservative movement's third-party candidate, Doug Hoffman, expected her support but, she said, the newcomer accountant "had no integrity." Plus, the Democrats were so nice! They called. They sympathized. They made her feel good about tossing her support to Bill Owens, who -- with her help -- became the area's first Democratic representative in more than a century.

"Oh, someone left chocolates for me!" she said, picking up a present from her aunt and uncle. Her GOP family has been less supportive. And she warns that what happened to her will happen to candidates like her.

Attack ads by Club for Growth
In the summer, Scozzafava and her husband, Ron McDougall, a local labor leader, retreated to their summer house at the end of a dirt road on Sylvia Lake. The place has no TV reception -- a good thing, she said, given all the attack ads against her funded by the Club for Growth, the anti-tax group backing Hoffman. Still, she wasn't entirely isolated. She heard through friends that Palin insinuated she had been "anointed" by a "political machine" because county chairs handpicked her as the nominee. Beck denounced her as "ACORN-supported" and an "Obama-Lite Republican." Former House majority leader Dick Armey's group FreedomWorks mobilized against her. She said she heard conservative robo-calls in the district describing her as a "child killer," a "lesbian lover" and a "homo."

"It was organized," she said.

Scozzafava was, on occasion, her own worst enemy. She didn't raise much money nor did she inspire ranks of volunteers and canvassers to do much for her. When a Weekly Standard reporter followed her to her car one night with a question about abortion, her husband called the cops.

On the evening of Oct. 29, she and her husband drove to Sackets Harbor Brew Pub to watch the pre-taped debate she had just completed. The bartender reluctantly changed the channel on one screen away from the World Series pregame. Her aide rang to say former governor George Pataki, who had encouraged her to run, was going with Hoffman.

The next day, she tried to keep her spirits up at events, but the betrayal by Pataki, who is mulling a Senate run, stung. Around 6 p.m., she and her husband pulled over at a Stewart's convenience store on the rainy drive home from her Watertown campaign office. An aide called with dismal poll numbers. For hours, they sat, with Scozzafava staring at the windshield wipers going back and forth. Her husband counted the people using the convenience store's ATM to pass the time. Mostly, she just cried.

That night at the lake house, sleep wouldn't come, and she leafed through old Newsweeks without processing the words and prayed for perspective. At 7 a.m. on Halloween, her spokesman left her a voice mail: What did she want to do next? She called back hours later on the way to campaign headquarters and told him to draft a statement announcing her withdrawal from the race.

Soon after, triumphant releases rolled out of conservative press offices. Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, immediately transferred the party's financial support over to Hoffman, who placed no condolence call.

"One man who did call me was Bill Owens," she said. "He didn't ask for an endorsement, he just said, 'I hope you're doing okay.' "

Unbeknown to Scozzafava, the kindly gesture was the first salvo in a White House-orchestrated initiative to win her endorsement. "I did speak to her because she's a friend," said June O'Neill, former chairwoman of the New York State Democratic Party, who became the White House's in-district point person. "And she had just made the difficult decision to pull the plug on her own campaign."

According to a White House official with knowledge of the courtship, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel assigned the mission to his political director, Patrick Gaspard, who months earlier floated the idea in the State Assembly of Scozzafava running as a Democrat and now asked allies to console her.

At Gaspard's request, Andrew Cuomo, the state's attorney general, rang her up and told her that he, too, had known the political depths. In 2002, his insurgent primary challenge for governor collapsed, but now, he told her, he was on top again.

"You're probably the next governor," Scozzafava said she told Cuomo.

After she hung up, another incoming call. "It's Chuck Schumer," she mouthed to her husband. They both shrugged. Do the right thing! was the Brooklyn-born senator's message. "She had to be convinced that her endorsement was make or break, and I believed it was," Schumer said.

At 4 p.m., Scozzafava and her husband met with O'Neill and Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat also dispatched by the White House. At Mullin's Family Restaurant, where the menus read, "It's All Good," Scozzafava listened to her onetime rivals for about 15 minutes, as they discussed the precedents for a Republican dropping out of a primary to endorse a Democrat, the risks and the rewards. Israel told her that if she decided to make that move, he would make sure that the local Democratic leaders embraced her.

"We would be delighted to have you," he said, according to the source.

Scozzafava's black Nokia phone vibrated nonstop. She rarely picked it up, except for family or close friends. She called the publisher of the Watertown Daily Times to convey her private support for Owens. She received a text informing her that former president Bill Clinton was trying to reach her, but she wasn't returning any messages. Her husband tried to resume normal patterns -- even buying candy and greeting trick-or-treaters at their home. Scozzafava sat alone in his Chevrolet Silverado pickup.

On Sunday morning, after her first good night's sleep in days, Scozzafava went to choir practice at the First United Methodist Church of Gouverneur. Somewhere during her singing of "I went down in the valley to pray," she said she decided to endorse Owens. As practice let out, the district buzzed with an editorial in the Watertown Daily Times revealing her calls in support of Owens. Around noon, she returned a call from Sheldon Silver, the powerful Democratic leader of the New York State Assembly, who had called at the White House's behest. He told her there'd be a place for her in his conference if she wanted.

After church, Scozzafava went to O'Neill's house, where a draft endorsement was already waiting for her approval. "She had written a little bit and I revised it," Scozzafava said. The former candidate then taped two robo-calls supporting Owens. As she left, O'Neill mentioned that Owens was campaigning nearby and would like to thank her personally.

Of course, the Watertown paper had a reporter on site to capture that meeting, and O'Neill pushed forward with another request: Would Scozzafava show up for a rally with Vice President Biden the next day? Scozzafava had reached her breaking point. She went home to change into her sweats, turned off her phone and went to play pickup volleyball at a local gym.

'Coca Cola Cowboy'
Owens won the race by three percentage points, with Scozzafava, whose name remained on the ballot, drawing five points -- and the enduring enmity of conservatives.

"There is a great song called 'Coca Cola Cowboy' and I believe that's what we have here. She was a Republican as long as it enhanced her electability," said Armey, reached while petting a goat at his Texas ranch. "My guess is she made a deal with Chuck Schumer or the White House that will eventually show itself to us."

In Gouverneur, the parlor game speculates about possible prizes for Scozzafava and other moderates who play the spoiler. When Scozzafava's husband returned to Mullin's restaurant for a post-election labor meeting, members asked him when he and his wife would be moving down to Florida for the cushy job the government had secured him with publicly funded General Motors.

"Brothers and sisters," a confounded McDougall told them, "I'm not going to Florida."

Scozzafava, who was stripped of her Republican leadership position in the New York State Assembly on Monday, says she has no regrets and even leaves open the possibility of running for the seat again as a Republican. She sees herself as a champion of local expertise over ideological purity.

"How can Sarah Palin come out and endorse someone who can't answer some basic questions," Scozzafava asked. "Do these people even know who they are endorsing?"

Those conservative forces now descend on Florida, where former House speaker Marco Rubio, who on Monday received the endorsement of the Club for Growth, might shove aside centrist Gov. Charlie Crist, who was once on John McCain's short list for running mate. And Scozzafava has a warning.

"There is a lot of us who consider ourselves Republicans, of the Party of Lincoln," she said, her face now flush. "If they don't want us with them, we're going to work against them."