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The race for Amo Houghton’s seat


A glance at New York's 29th congressional district reveals a stark lack of symmetry. At the bottom --- etched in bold, nearly straight lines --- lies a block of rural counties, stacked four wide along the Pennsylvania border.

Extending from this, like a hand grasping northward, a crooked, zigzagging piece of the district reaches toward Rochester, stopping at the city limits.

Competition to inherit the district from retiring Congressman Amo Houghton, R-Corning, is predictably fiercest within his own party, which enjoys a substantial majority among registered voters in the district. This month's primary pits Houghton's favored successor, state Senator John "Randy" Kuhl Jr., against Monroe County Legislator Mark Assini. Democrats also have a primary, albeit a lopsided one: 27-year-old Samara Barend had raised about $171,000 compared to $1,200 by opponent Jeremy Alderson, according to a recent report in the American Prospect.

Though both Assini and Kuhl have insisted that the 29th district is a unified region, a division between the rural Southern Tier counties and the suburbs and exurbs of Greater Rochester could be the biggest factor in the election.

"A representative from Rochester will be obligated to deliver the goods to his own constituents, whose needs are frequently at odds with ours," wrote Bob Rolfe, a retired Corning Leader reporter and editor, in a May Leader op-ed column.

Assini responds to suggestions of a regional divide by hammering on one of his biggest themes: job creation. That's "the first and most important issue we're facing," he says, adding that the problem is the same across the district. Taking a shot at Kuhl's 24 years as a legislator in Albany, Assini places the blame squarely on state government.

"The main reason we are the highest-taxed state in the nation is because we have a state legislature that is frankly the most dysfunctional in the United States of America," says Assini, citing a recent Brennan Center report.

Through Campaign Manager Ira Treuhaft, who cited scheduling problems, Kuhl declined to be interviewed for this article: "We're pretty full right now," said Treuhaft.

Both men, however, advanced the same solution for economic growth at a recent debate in Elmira; both want the Bush administration's tax cuts made permanent. Indeed, the candidates appear to differ very little on most issues, according to media accounts of the campaign. If anything, the primary has been a race to the right. If the winner of the Republican primary is elected in November, it will likely mean another transformation of a moderate Republican seat to a conservative one.

Assini may have the edge if the district's voters truly want conservatism. The state's influential Conservative Party endorsed him. And according to the congressional newspaper The Hill, The Club for Growth --- an anti-tax organization working to defeat Republicans it considers too moderate --- was expected to do the same.

In June, The Hill quoted Club Executive Director David Keating as saying, "We definitely wouldn't endorse Randy Kuhl." But Keating told City Newspaper Friday that the group hadn't yet endorsed in the primary.

Kuhl, meanwhile, appears to be running a campaign based heavily on endorsements. More than 30 of the 40 press releases posted on his campaign's website tout endorsements he's received both from politicians --- from Houghton to the sheriffs of several Southern Tier counties --- and organizations, ranging from the National Rifle Association to the Greater Rochester Association of Realtors.

Only three releases address legislative issues: one calls for the Bush tax cuts to be made permanent and another for support for the president in the war on terror. A third voices opposition to proposed higher fees for gun owners.

By contrast, Assini's site is packed with information about his stands on issues, mostly related to economics. Indeed, the accountant comes across as almost wonkish with his "5-point plan" for boosting the district's economy. He calls for reforming Medicaid, creating insurance pools for small businesses, expanding Foreign Trade Zone 141 (in Monroe County), repealing the so-called "death tax," and enforcing trade agreements.

The first two points are among Assini's favorites to talk about.

"The biggest financial burden on this state and on the counties and on taxpayers in the state is the Medicaid program," he says. New York spends more than California and Texas combined, Assini notes.

He cites a Medicaid study by the Public Policy Institute: "What they found was that in this state, it's the hospital lobby groups, the hospital unions, it's the special-interest groups that are driving services that are not needed," he says.

Assini supports a plan suggested by Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli, calling for federal funding to go to counties rather than states.

"I'd like to see the counties manage the eligibility requirements for Medicaid," he says. "Nobody knows better the nuances of the doctors, the hospitals, and the nurses than the local community, and specifically the local government."

Small businesses need the ability to pool insurance, says Assini. "By doing that, they can get the purchasing power that the big companies have right now," he says.

Pool size limits are the product of a strong insurance lobby, says Assini. "There's a stranglehold right now that exists by insurance companies," he says. "Introducing competition in innovative ways is absolutely essential. I'm a free-market person. The way to beat prices is to introduce competition."

Assini sticks staunchly to his free market ideology, even when it leads him to disagree with current administration policies. Specifically, he's critical of a ban on importing prescription drugs from Canada.

"I think the FDA needs to get off the dime and recognize there's a real need in this country for affordable pharmaceuticals," he says. "I'm a conservative Republican: I believe in free markets. There's no reason to put a barrier up to Canada for re-importation. If we allow re-importation, you will see drug prices drop in this country."

Primary info

Registered Republicans who live in New York's 29th Congressional District can vote in the September primary election. Voting hours are noon to 9 p.m. Information: Monroe County Board of Elections, 428-4550.