With Republicans enjoying a slim 22-member majority in the 435-member US House of Representatives, both parties are paying close attention to seats around the nation that seem in play. One of those lies on Rochester's doorstep, with 18-year Republican Congressman Amo Houghton of Corning is retiring, clearing the field for two fresh challengers. Houghton's former district --- New York's 29th --- encompasses all or part of nine Monroe County towns plus seven other counties.
Both contenders hail from the Southern Tier. State Senator John "Randy" Kuhl Jr., a 24-year veteran of Albany, fought off a primary challenge from Monroe County Legislator Mark Assini. Assini remains on the ballot on the Conservative line but has said he will forgo active campaigning for the seat, rather than risk becoming the 29th district's Ralph Nader.
Kuhl's opponent, Samara Barend, is a 27-year-old activist who would become the youngest member of congress if elected. The former aide to Hillary Clinton gained her first political experience interning for the late Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, where she helped organize a campaign to turn state Route 17 into Interstate 86 --- something her campaign is actively reminding voters.
With no incumbent, both national parties are watching the race carefully. Clinton has already joined Barend at stump speeches in the Southern Tier. Meanwhile the Republican Party, which enjoys a three-to-two registration advantage in the district, is slated to send House Speaker Dennis Hastert to a fundraiser at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center on Monday.
Whoever is elected, the winner's national party will likely get what it expects. Barend is a moderate Democrat, while Kuhl's a conservative Republican. They differ predictably on standard social issues like abortion (she's pro-choice; he's anti-choice) and President Bush's proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (Kuhl supports it; Barend opposes it). Kuhl said recently he may not join the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership founded by his predecessor Houghton.
The race became the subject national media attention after the Associated Press Friday posted a Washington-datelined story about allegations contained in Kuhl's sealed 1998 divorce records that he threatened ex-wife Jennifer Kuhl-Peterson with two shotguns. The documents' contents were originally published by Raw Story, a left-leaning Boston-based Internet news site. Although picked up by daily newspapers from Oregon to West Virginia, the story hasn't seen much coverage in outlets throughout the district.
City Newspaper spoke to Barend, but Kuhl's campaign would not grant an interview despite repeated requests, citing scheduling concerns. Following are the stances of each candidate on some of the issues that are emerging in the district.
Both candidates agree economic development is a chief concern within the district, but each would tackle the issue differently.
"First and foremost I think that we need to pass legislation that's going to crack down on the unfair trade policies that we have right now. We need more enforcement and we should not be entering into trade agreements that are not being enforced," says Barend. Monroe County is the region hit hardest by un-enforced trade agreements in the district, she says: "This area is the third-biggest manufacturing loser in the whole country and it's because we're entering into trade agreements that are not carried out in good faith."
Kuhl takes a more cautious approach toward any action which could impede international trade. "There's no question in my mind that you have to open up markets for our companies to be able to compete in and actually expand their businesses. I support free trade," he said during a debate earlier this month hosted by R News. "But it has to be fair trade. You can't have countries undermining free and fair trade, so there may be an opportunity where you have to take the right and appropriate actions to make sure that free trade is in fact fair trade."
"When people look at economic development, they look for a silver bullet, like the fast ferry," says Barend. "But there's no one thing that's going to bring a plethora of jobs back. It's going to have to happen in concert, and in working together and in partnership. No one piece of federal legislation is going to bring all the jobs back to this area."
The two differ more starkly on President Bush's tax cuts.
Barend says she would keep them for those with incomes below a threshold of between $200,000 and $300,000, but repeal them at higher levels. "Right now, with the way that we are spending money so rampantly, there's no way we can afford these tax cuts. We have deficits at record levels," she says. "We can't afford to pay for our roads, our schools; we're cutting funding every which way and that's having a serious, detrimental impact on the quality of life in this country and on our economic state." Barend says that according to the Congressional Budget Office, repealing the cuts for those earning over $200,000 would halve the federal budget deficit.
Kuhl, by contrast, says he supports the cuts, and indicated during the debate that he'd like to see them go deeper. "You have to create an economic atmosphere; you do that by lowering taxes, by creating incentives for businesses to be here, by creating essentially a critical mass that in fact will develop job after job after job," he said. Programs that do that, like Empire Zones, Kuhl contends, really work.
The two also have conflicting ideas on health care. Kuhl favors establishing health savings accounts. "We need to be able to let people set money aside if they don't think they can afford insurance, and then utilize that when the need comes," he said.
Barend, who says she strongly opposes privatizing programs like Medicare and Medicaid, wants to allow small businesses to form health-care insurance purchasing cooperatives. She's also vigorously supported the re-importation of Canadian Prescription drugs --- going so far as to sponsor bus trips from the district to Canada --- and takes Kuhl to task for accepting campaign funds from pharmaceutical companies.