An Upset Brewing Upstate New York ?
Maurice Hinchey has represented upstate New York’s 22nd District (formerly the 26th District) since 1993, and hasn’t faced a serious re-election challenge since he ran for his sophomore term in 1994, but as with much of the country it looks like things are different this year:
For a sense of how big the Republican wave may be on Election Day, consider a normally safe Northeastern Democrat — Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-Ulster), a liberal who’s held the seat since 1992 and never faced serious opposition.
New York’s 22nd congressional district is carefully gerrymandered for his benefit, running 180 miles from the west bank of the Hudson at Newburgh to the state-university town of Binghamton. Much of it looks like farm country, but the main employers are the state and local governments — hiring prison guards, schoolteachers, college professors and government bureaucrats.
But this year might be different for Hinchey. His challenger is George Phillips, a bright, charismatic conservative from Binghamton who knows both the Congress and the district. A former staffer for Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Phillips now teaches history at a Catholic school in Binghamton.
A recent internal Phillips campaign poll showed the gap between the two to have narrowed to seven points, 44 percent to 37 percent — with Hinchey leading, but below the 50 percent mark, a bad place for any incumbent to be.
Worse still for Hinchey, 19 percent were undecided. They’re not undecided about him (not after his 18 years in Congress), but waiting to hear more from his challenger. And so far, the more they know, the more they like Phillips.
And, Hinchey hasn’t seemed to help himself by being a party loyalist in a year when the Democratic leadership isn’t exactly popular:
Hinchey votes with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi 97 percent of the time — even though the district is hardly populated with San Francisco Democrats. He has repeatedly been judged to be one of the six most left-leaning House members. Americans for Democratic Action ranks his voting record as 95 to 100 percent on the left.
Hinchey even votes left on issues where the district clearly leans right. On taxes, he voted against reducing the marriage penalty — and he also opposes increasing the child-tax credit and argues against eliminating the estate tax, which disproportionately hurts land-rich, cash-poor residents of the district.
Some of his votes are just impossible to explain. On Sept. 9, 2004, he was one of only 16 members of the House to vote against commemorating the victims of the 9/11 attacks.
Finally, many voters have personal experiences with him — and they say he has changed for the worse.
In February 2001, when New York’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese was threatening to shutter John A. Coleman High School in Kingston, hundreds gathered in the school gymnasium for a rally. I noticed Hinchey standing by the door, glad-handing.
We’d met briefly a few times before, so I felt comfortable starting a conversation. I told him that if New York had school vouchers, the high school wouldn’t have to close. Would he consider changing his mind about vouchers?
Hinchey looked at me like I was something he had just stepped in. He said: “I’m a US congressman. Nobody tells me what to do.”
Well, actually sir, the voters do.
Already, Hinchey has ducked out on at least two candidate debates, citing “scheduling errors,” but one wonders how long that excuse will work. And, there are rumors on the internet of a high-level cross-party endorsement in the District that could really shake things up.
Taking out a long-term incumbent like Hinchey won’t be easy, but it would certainly be a sign that November 2nd will turn out to be a tidal wave. So keep an eye on this district because things could get very interesting.