July 30, 2003 News & Opinion » Featured story

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Chasing Amo 

Congressman Amo Houghton finally faces the music

Republican Congressman Amo Houghton never wanted to represent Rochester, and according to his critics in Monroe County, he doesn't.

            Houghton fought like hell to preserve the integrity of his rural, Southern Tier district in 2001, when redistricting threatened to add portions of Monroe County to his territory or eliminate his district, the 31st, altogether.

            "The people in Rochester are fine people, but we don't need to adopt their problems," he told a group of Corning business leaders at the time, according to an April 30, 2001 article in the Democrat and Chronicle. "The thing we have to do is protect ourselves."

            Toward that end, Houghton marshaled an array of resources to keep the rural district he'd served since 1987 intact. Those efforts included campaign contributions to Republican leaders in Albany, direct lobbying of the same, radio ads, and a petition drive that attracted Democrats and Republicans alike to the moderate Republican's cause.

            The "Save Our District" campaign was only partially successful. Houghton retained his district --- now known as the 29th; New York lost two districts in the process --- but not the predominately rural character that previously defined it. While he kept Cattaraugus, Allegany, Steuben, Chemung, Yates, and Schuyler counties, he lost Chautauqua County and portions of Cayuga, Seneca, and Tompkins counties.

            Most significantly, large portions of Ontario and Monroe County were added to his district. This area includes Canandaigua (the site of his new district office), Gates, Chili, Henrietta, Rush, Pittsford, Mendon, most of Brighton and Perinton, and a sliver of Penfield.

            Now over six months into his term representing those Monroe County towns, Houghton has failed to make much of impression on elected officials in the northern portion of his district --- that is, if you don't count negative impressions.

            "The general impression I have is he doesn't know where the Town of Gates is," says Gates Town Supervisor Ralph Esposito, a Republican. Though he notes that a Houghton staffer called once regarding an ongoing issue the town is having involving Post Office drop boxes, Esposito says "that's the only contact I've had with his office. He hasn't visited personally or contacted me personally or anything.

            "If you honestly said, 'Am I impressed with Congressman Houghton?' At this point, I would say, really, not at all," Esposito continues. "I think he's made a minimal effort to meet his Monroe County constituents, and that's unfortunate."

            "I don't know him very well," says Henrietta Town Supervisor Jim Breese, also a Republican. "I've met him once --- there was a reception held for him at Oak Hill that I was invited to."

            Asked if he was satisfied with the amount of contact his constituents have been able to have with Houghton, Breese says, "Well, he has a big district. I wish we could see more of him, but I don't want to criticize him yet for that. I think he's been in Henrietta once, that I know of, but I wasn't here when he was here."

            Brighton Town Supervisor Sandy Frankel, a Democrat, says a Houghton staffer informed her that the congressman has been in Monroe 20 times since he inherited parts of the county last fall, but says, "to my knowledge, he has yet to come to Brighton."

            Given that Brighton contains, by her estimate, approximately 30 percent of the population of his new territory in Monroe County, "one would have thought that positive outreach would have occurred," Frankel says.

            "I had heard positive things about Amo Houghton from people in his former district, from Republicans and Democrats alike who consider him a friend and have been very supportive of him as their congressman," she continues. "I was expecting that we in Brighton would have received the same kind and level of interest as new constituents, but that hasn't happened."

            Concerned by this lack of contact, Frankel says she has taken the initiative to try to set up a town meeting at which Brightonians will have an opportunity to meet their new congressman.

            Perinton Town Supervisor James Smith declined to comment on Houghton, saying he didn't "have enough experience" with the congressman to do so yet. (Bill Carpenter of Pittsford, Steve Hendershott of Chili, and William Udicious of Rush --- all, like Houghton and Smith, Republicans --- did not return calls seeking their take on their new representative in Washington.)

            Mendon Town Supervisor Jeanne Loberg, also a Republican, had positive things to say about Houghton's involvement in her town.

            "I don't have that much contact with Mr. Houghton," she says, "however, I will say that he met with me one-on-one to discuss some issues we have here in the Town of Mendon, and was very, very helpful." (The matter involves funding Houghton is seeking on behalf of the town, Loberg says; she declined to be more specific.) Loberg says her meeting with Houghton was arranged by Republican state senators Jim Alesi and Mike Nozzolio.

            "I was very impressed with the fact that he would take the time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about my problems," she says.

            As for Houghton's contact with the non-elected citizens of Mendon, Loberg says Houghton "probably has not made his name known."

            "But then again," she adds, "he is new. I'm not sure how often he gets up to this area. I've been to two different meetings that he has held with certain individuals. But getting down to the common man, boy, that's difficult in his position."

Loberg is referring to the difficulty she feels any representative in Washington would have in trying to meet ordinary citizens, given the size of congressional districts and the fact that representatives must spend so much time in the capitol. But she inadvertently echoes a sentiment voiced by Houghton's most vocal critic in Monroe County: Republican County Legislator Mark Assini of Gates. Assini is, thus far, the only Republican in Houghton's district to announce that he will challenge the 76-year-old congressman should he decide to seek another term in 2004.

            "We need to redefine the direction of the congressional district," Assini told the D&C last April. "You must be able to walk amongst kings and not lose the common touch."

            Given his immense wealth (recently estimated by various media at $445 million) and political stature, Houghton could be considered a modern-day king of sorts. (He served as chairman and CEO of Corning Glass Works --- the company his family founded in the mid-1800s, now called Corning Inc. --- for 22 years, and is one of the wealthiest members of Congress.) But Assini's criticisms of Houghton, though tinged with class consciousness, are primarily political.

            Houghton was one of only a handful --- albeit an influential handful --- of Republicans to oppose President George W. Bush's most recent tax cut. "I find it interesting that a man who has millions of dollars... would not allow those of us, including myself, who struggle from day to day and have been laid off and were looking for work, to have the tax relief that would help our families," Assini says.

            Houghton is also a supporter of affirmative action, which Assini opposes. "Here's a man who belongs to Augusta --- which opposes affirmative action, will not allow women on the golf course or in the club, and only has just a scant of minorities in the club --- but yet he is a big supporter of affirmative action," Assini says. "I don't know how he squares that."

            Indeed, Houghton's personal circumstances and voting record would defy any political observer's attempt to peg him into an ideological hole. He spoke out and voted against giving George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq, but the ex-Marine is no dove. In the last two years, he voted against amendments that would have prohibited the funding of new "earth penetrator" nuclear weapons and space-based national missile defense programs.

            Houghton is pro-choice. When the House voted on a bill to make killing a fetus during the commission of a crime a federal offense, he voted against the measure. Abortion rights advocates consider such legislation a not-so-subtle effort to undermine the legal framework supporting a woman's right to choose.

            They feel similarly about efforts to outlaw so-called "partial-birth abortions," but when a bill banning the rare procedure reached the House floor, Houghton voted in favor of it. "Some of my pro-choice friends were aghast at that," he said in a recent interview with City, "but I just thought it was a crazy medical procedure to do it. It doesn't mean I'm not pro-choice.

            "I can't cherry-pick my votes," he continues. "I've got to vote all the time down here. So somebody says, 'I don't like this, I don't like that, I don't like something else,' and I say, 'You may be right.' I don't know whether that's right or not, but I have to make a decision, as I do on all the votes, and therefore I'm exposed to the klieg lights."

Houghton has taken a lot of heat for his political positions, but he takes such criticism in stride.

            "The only thing I can ask is, look, you may not agree with what I'm doing, but I hope you understand that I'm not trying to flimflam anybody," he says. "I'm not trying to do it for political purposes. I'm doing this because I really believe something. And if that isn't good enough for you, then you've got to bounce me out of office.

            "I say to the people, 'Look, I'm not a professional politician. I didn't grow up that way. I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a legal craftsman,'" he continues. "The only thing is that I have had some business experience and I have lived in that area [the Southern Tier] for a long time."

            Houghton says he's becoming more comfortable representing the Monroe County portion of his district, though he's got some homework to do.

            "It's not that I didn't know [Monroe County] before, but I knew it really from a business standpoint, and also personally, because I had a lot of personal friends up there," he says. "But I didn't know too much about the political [aspects] and demographics, and I didn't know too much about bus terminals and light ferries and issues like that, so that was new."

            Asked what he can do to address Rochester's specific needs, he says, "I don't know if I can concentrate on Rochester, although that obviously is probably the key part of the whole district, because of the people concentration and the wealth and the activity and the reputation."

            Houghton talks in general terms of "developing the economic muscle and the critical mass which is necessary to bring the whole district back." He's particularly concerned about the area's loss of population --- the same trend that nearly erased his district from the political map two years ago.

            He notes that when his predecessor in the old district, Democrat Stan Lundine, served in Congress, New York had 39 representatives in the House. "I haven't been in there 20 years, and now there are 29," Houghton says. "So, if in another 20 years, we're down to nine, that's not very good."

            What can Houghton do to reverse that trend? "Now look," he says, "I don't have the answers at all, and all I'm going to do is to say to the university people, the business people, the medical people, the economic development people: 'Somehow, we've got to try to tie our district together or an area up there together, because other areas are doing it, and they're gonna eat our lunch.'

            "So what can we do?" he continues. "I've got a lot of ideas, because I was in business for 35 years, but I don't want to try to superimpose my ideas on Rochester. I don't know enough about it. But I want them to know that I will do anything possible to sort of bring elements together, so that we can crisply understand where we're at, where we've been, and what the future might look like if we do something and if we don't do something."

            In his interactions with his Monroe County constituents thus far, Houghton says, "Everybody --- I won't say everybody, I mean, there's some people that haven't been so great --- but most everybody's been very, very nice to me. You couldn't ask for a better reception or a more thoughtful group of people."

Houghton's Monroe County constituents may be thoughtful, but whether those constituents --- particularly those enrolled in his party --- think the way this pro-choice, pro-gay rights politician does about the contentious topics of our times is questionable, to say the least.

            "I don't think his positions on [Iraq, taxes, abortion, and gay rights] are reflective of the Republicans in Gates at all," Esposito says. "We're certainly a blue-collar, middle-class community; you know, family-oriented and those kinds of things. His positions probably would not reflect the majority of my constituents."

            Asked if she felt Houghton's views on Iraq and tax cuts are reflective of her constituents', Loberg says "probably not."

            "As far as tax cuts are concerned, I must admit I don't agree with him on that and I don't agree with him on the war in Iraq," she says. "However, that doesn't mean we always have to agree. He's more moderate than I would like, but that doesn't mean I'm gonna run him out on a rail. I can't agree with everybody all the time."

            Breese takes a similarly diplomatic approach to the subject. "His voting has been, perhaps, a little different than we might expect here," he says. Houghton's votes on Iraq and tax cuts "are not representative of people in my area."

            "Now, does that make him a bad person?" Breese adds. "Not necessarily. He's got to balance a lot of different kinds of concerns. He's probably a little more on the moderate side than I would like, frankly. But would I vote for him if he ran next year? I don't know. We'll have to wait and see what comes up next year."

Lately, it seems as though nearly every Republican politico in Monroe County is wondering the same thing: What will Amo do next year? Specifically, will the septuagenarian congressman retire?

            Houghton is playing the retirement card close to his vest. Asked if he'll seek another term, he says, "I'm planning [to run] at the moment. I'm not going to make that decision until next year. I don't have to and I don't want to [decide now]."

            If he decides not to run, several potential contenders are waiting to jump into the fray. In the southern portion of the district, Rick Snowden, a Hornell businessman, and State Senator Randy Kuhl of Hammondsport have expressed strong interest in succeeding Houghton.

            But in Monroe County, the list of potential candidates reads like a Who's Who of Republican leading lights: County Executive Jack Doyle, State Senator Alesi, County Legislator Assini, and Bill Smith, Majority Leader of the Monroe County Legislature.

            Doyle, Alesi, and Smith did not return calls seeking comment on Houghton. Likewise, two other potential contenders are being coy about their interest in running for his seat.

            Republican County Legislator Sean Hanna of Webster recently bought a house in Mendon. Though he told City he's done so to be closer to Avon, where he recently assumed the position of regional administrator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, he's privately trumpeted the fact that the move will allow him run for the 29th District seat in the future.

            County Democrats have long suspected that transportation authority chairman Bill Nojay is positioning himself for a run for elected office. They cite his personal appearances in television ads promoting Rochester Central Station as indicative of this ambition.

            Asked by City in mid-March whether he had designs on Houghton's seat or any other higher political office, Nojay emphatically said "No."

            "People have been accusing me of that for 15 years, and I keep saying no, and every election cycle goes by, and low and behold, I don't run for anything," he said. He called such speculation part of the "cynical, negative, personal attacks" by Democratic Congresswoman Louise Slaughter "and her lackeys," who oppose construction of the $60 million combination bus terminal-office-and-retail complex.

            Yet Nojay's name and smiling face keep popping up in the Southern Tier. Steuben County Legislator and Republican Committee Chairman Bill Hatch mentioned Nojay as being among those interested in the seat should Houghton retire. Told of Nojay's comments in March, Hatch says, "Nojay said he's not interested? Is that right? Well, it's funny, he was just down here a week or two ago to one of our events" (a Chairman's Club gathering at Corning Country Club).

            "Bill's approached me" about running for Houghton's seat, says Ontario County Republican Committee Chairman Rick Herman. "Bill and I have talked. I know he's interested."

            Asked to address these seemingly contradictory signals, Nojay says, "I don't think there's any inconsistency between the two things.

            "In public discussion of these issues, discussing a succession plan for a sitting member of Congress is just inappropriate," he says. "I'm not being cute or evasive or anything like that. I honestly think it is simply not appropriate to discuss that kind of issue.

            "Amo Houghton is an excellent congressman," Nojay continues. "He has served Upstate New York extremely well as a CEO of Corning, as a charitable and civic leader, and now as a member of Congress. And he has given no indication to anyone that he intends to step down, to the best of my knowledge."

            Whether they like his personal politics or not, local Republicans seem loathe to call for Houghton's head so long as he's representing such a significant portion of the county. Monroe County Republican Committee Chairman Steve Minarik, a critic of some of Houghton's recent votes, says, "As long as Congressman Houghton decides to run as a congressman, then he will have our support."

            "It's like any family situation," Minarik says. "I don't agree with my wife all the time, nor do I agree on every issue with every person I know. Congressman Houghton and I have disagreements on issues, but he's a family member, and you don't put your family out to pasture."

            Furthermore, Houghton most likely won't be taking himself out to pasture anytime soon.

            "If you do some research about Amo and his family, Amo is not going to go sit under a coconut tree in Florida in retirement," one Republican observer remarked privately. "That is not Amo, that's not his personality, and you can go back four generations in his family: They all die with their boots on."

            "People think, 'Well, he's 76, so he's gonna retire,'" the Republican says. "Let me tell you something: The guy is a bull. He can probably out bench-press me. There's no way this guy is gonna retire."

            As for Houghton's longevity, the politico points out that Houghton's mother, Laura Houghton, recently passed away. She was 102.

Houghton may be strong as a bull, but to a conservative Republican like Assini, he's also full of it.

            "I've found Congressman Houghton to be... disingenuous," Assini says. "A nice man to talk to, but what he says and what he does are usually two different things.

            "When I say it's disingenuous, I'm not saying that Amo Houghton is a liar," he continues. "I don't believe that. He's a good man. What I'm saying is that he is not being genuine with the voters. He is not a Republican. He has not voted as a Republican, yet he portrays himself as a Republican, because there is no way he would win as a Democrat in this district."

            Houghton is "a RINO," Assini says: "a Republican In Name Only."

            Assini knows he won't be able to bank on the support of his county chairman in his congressional bid. ("I do not think that there will be any credible challenge to Congressman Houghton," Minarik says, with full knowledge of Assini's aspirations.)

            "Clearly, I think the party will have to probably support the incumbent," Assini says. "And I'm saying to my party and to fellow Republicans that I can't sit by and allow our party to be represented by a Democrat. I just won't do it."

            Given Houghton's personal fortune and favorable image in the parts of his old district he still represents, few consider Assini's candidacy a credible challenge. Of those naysayers, Assini says, "I think they're going to be very surprised, because I've already been campaigning [in the Southern Tier]."

            "There are a lot of people who feel the way I do. Not a few --- there are a lot," he says. "And there are people that have been supportive of Houghton in the past that will not support him. I guarantee this.

            "I think people are going to be stunned," Assini declares. "Because even though he is 'beloved,' people have had enough."

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