Race revs up to fill vacant western New York House seat

By Neale Gulley

BUFFALO, New York (Reuters) – The race for western New York’s 26th Congressional seat, left vacant by Republican Chris Lee’s abrupt resignation after shirtless pictures of him surfaced online, likely won’t include much mention of that scandal.

That’s largely because both major party candidates are women who are distanced from the dirt, political analysts say.

Local Republican leaders selected state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin within two weeks of Lee’s resignation on February 9, while Democrats last week picked Erie County Clerk Kathleen Hochul.

“Two women as major party candidates puts even more distance between Lee and either candidate. It makes the scandal particularly irrelevant to the race,” said James Campbell, chairman of the political science department at the University of Buffalo.

Instead, the candidates are campaigning primarily on job creation in the once industry-rich region.

Five candidates in all are running to fill Lee’s term, which ends in January 2013. The election will be held May 24.

Lee, who had just begun his second term, resigned hours after his photograph — shirtless, flexing before a mirror — turned up on a gossip website. E-mails from Lee were published as well in which the married father appeared to be soliciting the attentions of a woman on the website craigslist.com.

But those developments did not scar the local party, Campbell said. “It was such a personal scandal. It’s hard to assign any party to it.”

Corwin, a wealthy executive who took state office in 2008, has the funding and clout to win in the district, which tilts Republican, Campbell said.

Since World War II only two Democrats have represented the district, which encompasses a large rural area along with parts of Buffalo and Rochester. According to the state Board of Elections, there are roughly 148,000 registered Democrats to 174,000 Republican voters in the district.

“The question is whether national Democratic money will come in to support Hochul,” Campbell said. “If not, I think her prospects are pretty poor.”

But Hochul spokesman Fabien Levy noted the Democrat was reelected county clerk last year with 80 percent of the vote.

Her campaign is largely grass-roots and will rely on contributions from constituents, while Corwin is getting both national help and using her own money as well, he said.

“She thinks she can buy the seat,” Levy said. “We on the other hand think Kathy getting out there and talking with voters will do the trick.”

Of the three other candidates, industrialist Jack Davis has run three unsuccessful campaigns for the seat. He is well-funded and has name recognition, Campbell said.

He previously ran as a Democrat and is running this time on the Tea Party line after failing to win Republican backing.

Davis could split conservative votes and act as a spoiler in the race, Campbell said.

“It’s in the Democratic Party’s interest that he run and split up the Republican Party,” he said.

The founder of a company that manufactures components for solar panels and television screens, Davis has said he would invest at least $3 million of his own money in the race.

Also running are independent David Bellavia, an Iraq war veteran, and Green Party candidate Ian Murphy, an editor at a local online magazine, although a local media report this week said Bellavia may have failed to file all the necessary paperwork to qualify.

Democrat Hochul has been the target of nationally funded television ads criticizing her voting record and tax hikes she helped enact during 13 years as a town board member in her hometown of Hamburg, outside the 26th district.

While Hochul has been criticized over the residency issue, Chris Lee’s predecessor in the seat, Republican Tom Reynolds, also lived outside the district prior to his election.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton)

Race revs up to fill vacant western New York House seat