Paul Tonko resigned effective immediately Friday as president and CEO of the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority, freeing the Democrat to run for the 21st Congressional District seat, local party officials said.
He is expected to announce formally next week, said Schenectady Mayor Brian U. Stratton.
Tonko would not confirm a bid for Congress during a phone interview Friday afternoon. “I will be sharing my thoughts on my future plans with the people in the relative future,” he said.
Tonko issued a statement Friday, stating “I have informed Governor Paterson that I have tendered my resignation to the NYSERDA board effective immediately. After a long career in state service, I am looking forward to a new challenge.”
He retired as the popular assemblyman from the 105th Assembly District last year after 24 years to become NYSERDA head.
His resignation means he likely will run for Congress, said Bethany Schumann-McGhee, chairwoman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee and a Tonko aide for 10 years.
Tonko was prevented from openly seeking Democrat Michael McNulty’s congressional seat by an executive order signed by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer. The order banned directors, executives and senior officials from starting up a political run while serving the state in a paid capacity.
Tonko said his decision to resign from NYSERDA was difficult, adding he was proud to have led the agency and its staff.
Mayor Brian U. Stratton said he would “absolutely support Paul” in his candidacy. Stratton had considered a run for the seat once held by his father but said he wanted to remain mayor of Schenectady.
“I hope it is true. He becomes the only tier one candidate in the race. He is a proven leader and a strong, energetic and proven representative we need in Washington. Much of the success I was able to achieve in the first years of my administration was due to his strong representation in Albany,” Stratton said. “He knows what it is all about.”
Schumann-McGhee said Tonko’s name immediately surfaced when McNulty announced in October he would retire after 20 years in office. But Tonko persistently refused to say whether he would seek the seat.
Schumann-McGhee said Tonko brings a big advantage to the race: “Paul has a great name recognition and very good record in state and local government.” Nevertheless, she said, Tonko “has some significant ground to cover for fundraising.”
He would have to start raising money from scratch in a bid for Congress, as federal law prevents him from using the $100,000 he collected through his Assembly campaign committee. As of Friday, he had not filed a notice with the Federal Election Commission establishing a committee to raise funds.
Candidates may have to spend at least $1 million to wage the expected Democratic primary this summer.
The Schenectady City Democratic Committee has already endorsed Tonko for the seat; the county committee is expected to follow suit when it meets shortly.
Schumann-McGhee said the Montgomery County Democratic Committee may break with tradition and endorse a candidate when it meets next month. She would not say whom the committee would endorse, but Tonko is expected to be a heavy favorite.
The Albany County Democratic Party will screen Tonko today.
The other Democrats in the race are John Aretakis, 47, of North Greenbush; Tracey Brooks, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton; Lester Freeman, the city of Albany’s equal employment opportunity officer; Darius Shahinfar, an Albany attorney and former aide to Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand; Phil Steck, Colonie Democratic chairman; and Arthur Welser, a licensed broker with Real Property Enterprises in North Greenbush.
The two Republicans are James Buhrmaster, 62, president of Buhrmaster Energy Group, based in Glenville, and a Schenectady County legislator; and Steven Vasquez, 33, of Ballston Lake, a self-described Tech Valley entrepreneur who started an electronics company called ReQuest.
Democrat Gary Mittleman, former Plug Power CEO, withdrew from the race this week, citing the fundraising difficulties and an inability to achieve his agenda if elected.