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Local Sam Stratton-Daniel Button race for Congress drew national attention 50 years ago

U.S. Rep. Sam Stratton reacts to a congratulatory phone call on Tuesday night, Nov. 3, 1970, as his sons Brian, 13, and Kevin, 17, look on. Credit: Provided
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U.S. Rep. Sam Stratton reacts to a congratulatory phone call on Tuesday night, Nov. 3, 1970, as his sons Brian, 13, and Kevin, 17, look on. Credit: Provided

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While political campaigns had always been a part of life for young Brian Stratton, he could tell there was something special about the 1970 race for Congress in upstate New York’s brand-new 29th District.

“It was not lost on me, even though I was only 12, just how important that year was,” said Stratton, whose father, Sam, would post a convincing victory over Albany newspaperman Daniel Button to earn his seventh of 15 trips to the U.S. House of Representatives. “It seemed like a make-or-break election. My father always had a lot of energy, but I could tell that summer and fall he really went into overdrive.”

Both Button, a Republican, and the elder Stratton, a Democrat, were incumbent Congressmen suddenly pitted against each other for a House seat due to court-ordered redistricting. The campaign drew national attention as it was the only congressional election that year in the country with incumbents squaring off as opponents. Another unique aspect of the race was that Stratton was a Democratic hawk, supporting most of Republican President Richard Nixon’s policies on Vietnam, while Button, often referred to as a “peacenik,” wanted the U.S. out of Southeast Asia.

Stratton, a Yonkers native who moved to the area as an infant, began his political career in 1950 as a member of the Schenectady City Council. He became Schenectady mayor in 1956, then defeated Schenectady County Republican chairman Walter Shaw in November of 1958 to win his first trip to the U.S. Congress in what was the old 32nd District. By 1970, he had a serious edge in political experience over Button, who surprisingly left his job as executive editor of the Albany Times Union in 1966 to run for Congress and win as a Republican. He won again in 1968, but two years later was matched up against Stratton in the redrawn 29th Congressional District.

Brian Stratton, who served as mayor of Schenectady from 2004-2011, spent most of the summer of 1970 at the family home in the Maryland suburbs without his father. Sam was in upstate New York campaigning.

“It wasn’t a whole lot different from how he operated normally, because he was always on the go,” said Brian Stratton. “We didn’t see him too much that summer. But two weeks before the election we came up here and you could tell the campaign was a huge deal. Everybody was focused on that race. It was quite a fun time politically.”

While Sam Stratton rang doorbells, shook hands and smiled a lot, Dan Button was a much more reserved individual who simply preferred to address the issues. That was enough to help him shock the political establishment four years earlier and again in 1968, but not enough to derail Stratton in 1970.

Nancy Button Nathan, Dan’s eldest daughter, was a recent college graduate and a newlywed in the summer of 1970. She says her father got into politics to fight against corruption in Albany County, but by 1970 his biggest issue was the Vietnam War.

“My father campaigned as a dove throughout most of that time and his idealism led him to be honest about Vietnam, and he hoped that would carry the day,” said Nathan, who served as Button’s campaign manager in 1968. “But it didn’t. I think like most politicians who lose, he asked himself later in life what he could have done differently. But I don’t think he would have changed anything, and I think he felt that history bore him out.”

Stratton went on to represent the Schenectady area in Congress for another 20 years, while Button never again ran for political office. While today’s political climate may make the Stratton-Button campaign of 50 years ago seem tame, for that time it was quite a pitched battle.

“I never got the impression that there was any animosity between the two,” said Roger Mott, Stratton’s son-in-law and his longtime chief of staff in Washington, D.C. “It was intense, however, and Sam was more intense than usual during that campaign. Sam sometimes befriended people he ran against, but I don’t think he and Button ever got close. It wasn’t personal. They just disagreed on the issues, particularly Vietnam.”

The New York Times ran a big story about the Stratton-Button campaign on Oct. 1, 1970, painting Stratton as “tall and trim with a flashing smile,” while describing Button as “quiet, chunky, wears glasses and tends to go about his business with a minimum of fanfare.” During the summer and fall of 1970, the two men met in face-to-face debates on 16 occasions, including three times on television and once on radio. Even the most ardent Button supporter would agree he wasn’t the personable politician his opponent was.

“Daniel Button was a good congressmen who took care of the people in his district and he was a candidate who was against the Albany County Democratic machine,” said Paul Van Buskirk, a former city administrator for Cohoes and Button’s campaign manager in 1970. “He had a good way about himself, but he wasn’t the outgoing person like Stratton was. Stratton was great in a crowd and Dan was more of a one-on-one person.”

That’s an opinion Button himself would have agreed with. He told reporters after losing the 1970 election that for him to try to match his opponent’s style would have been a mistake.

“It would have been psychologically wrong and foolhardy to appear to try to catch up and do his thing, rather than my thing, because I wouldn’t do his thing naturally, instinctively or well,” Button said.

While the political realm wasn’t an easy fit for Button the way it was for his opponent, he did pull off a public relations stint on his first entry into the political arena that helped him orchestrate his huge upset victory over the Albany Democrats in 1966. Nathan, who lives in Maryland and was a producer at NBC and CNN before recently retiring, remembers her father literally taking steps to become a more engaging candidate.

“He walked the perimeter of his district in his first campaign and that helped him come out of his more reserved personality,” she said. “He did eventually become more comfortable campaigning, but he was never the natural politician that Stratton was.”

‘Just a force’

No one ever had to suggest to Sam Stratton that he should be more outgoing. Jim Murphy, a Catholic priest and peace activist, was among many Democrats who opposed the Vietnam War and wasn’t about to support Stratton. Still, he liked him.

“He’d get on a bus in downtown Schenectady, take it to Albany and on the way he would introduce himself to everybody on the bus,” said Murphy, who lives in Scotia. “Then he’d get off in Albany and take the next bus back to Schenectady and introduce himself to all those people. He was just a force, a very likable person, and we knew he couldn’t be beat. I supported Button, who I knew and I thought was a very good guy and a good congressman, but there was no way a Republican was going to beat Stratton.”

There was also no way that another Democrat was going to primary the incumbent that year and be successful, but according to Murphy, putting up an opponent within the party as an alternative to Stratton’s hawkishness was the right thing to do. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor Ed Fox, who lived on Dean Street in Schenectady, was the man who mounted the challenge. On June 24, 1970, he was soundly defeated by a 5-1 margin.

Murphy, who ended up serving in the Schenectady County Legislature, was a big Fox supporter, as was Don Ackerman, another Democrat who couldn’t support Stratton.

“I don’t think Ed ever thought that he could actually win, but he felt like it was important that a statement be made,” said Ackerman, who is currently writing a book on the history of Schenectady politics. “Vietnam was an all-consuming issue, and we felt like there had to be a Democratic candidate who would support the antiwar movement. I remember meeting Sam and talking to him, and being very impressed with him. He had a great reputation, but it was just his hawkishness that we couldn’t get past.”

While Stratton may have supported Nixon’s “Peace with Honor” exit strategy when it came to Vietnam, he wasn’t a politician who fit neatly into any one category and often earned the label of maverick or independent. After serving in World War II in the U.S. Navy, he voted for Henry Wallace, a member of the Democratic Party’s left wing, instead of President Harry Truman in 1948.

“I can remember him telling us once how he had to go Hobart and talk to college kids about why we’re in Vietnam,” said Brian Stratton. “I can remember my two older sisters arguing with him at the dinner table. What he wanted was an honorable peace. Politically, he was in the middle of the road, and I think his beliefs were formed by his own upbringing and his World War II experience. I was too young to have that kind of conversation with him in 1970, but I know that he bicycled through Europe when he was a teenager before the war, and he was in the Pacific with [Gen. Douglas] MacArthur during the war.”

Stratton was a longtime member of the House Armed Services Committee before deciding not to run for re-election in 1988 due to failing health. He died in 1990 at the age of 73.

“He was not really a smoker that I remember, and he ran between three and six miles every day,” Brian Stratton said of his father. “He maybe had one beer now and then. But he was fueled on black coffee, chocolate bars and donuts. He had so much energy, but it was very sad that he didn’t get to enjoy his retirement, and amazing that a guy who was in great shape and had such vitality would die at 73.”

Along with his political career, Stratton had short stints teaching philosophy on the college level at Union and RPI. He had earned his own undergraduate degree at the University of Rochester and went on to get a master’s in philosophy from Haverford and Harvard.

“Sam was very focused and an innately smart guy,” Mott said of his father-in-law. “He quit Harvard Law School after a month because he didn’t want to sit around and read books for another three years. But he did love to read, so he was an egghead in that way, but he also had this incredible warmth and charm when he met people. He also had an incredible memory for names that served him very well.”

He also was a TV personality in the 1950s, supplementing his meager income as mayor by playing Sagebrush Sam, a harmonica-playing cowboy who introduced westerns and other movies.

“He had already become familiar to a lot of people because of Sagebrush Sam before he got into politics,” said Brian Stratton, “and I think being an adjunct at RPI and Union helped him learn how to communicate with people. He was popular and got along with members of the other party.”

‘No ill will’

Button was born in Dunkirk in western New York, and was educated at the University of Delaware and Columbia University, where he got a master’s degree in journalism. His newspaper career started at the Wilmington Morning News and The Associated Press before moving to the Albany Times Union in 1960.

“People were stunned when my father announced he was running for Congress in 1966,” said Nathan, “and after editorializing against what he thought was the corrupt Albany Democratic machine he had to run as a Republican. He had five kids, he wasn’t a lawyer and a lot of people thought he was nuts to quit his job and go into politics. But in some way he felt like he was meant to do this, or something like it. He was tired of just writing about the corruption and favoritism in Albany County. He wanted to do something about it.”

Other than briefly contemplating a run for the Albany mayoral office in 1993, Button never tried for elective office again. He worked for the Arthritis Foundation and the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York State, and in 2003 wrote a book, “Take City Hall,” about Albany politics. A longtime resident of Delmar, he died in 2009 at age 91.

On election night, Nov. 3, 1970, Button conceded the race at 9:55, going on television from his Albany headquarters to offer Stratton his “congratulations and best wishes.” Minutes later, from Stratton headquarters near the corner of State and McClellan streets in Schenectady, the winner was also on TV to thank Button for his “generous and splendid statement,” and “hard-fought” campaign.

“Because this has been my toughest and hardest fight, perhaps it’s the biggest thrill,” said Stratton, who finished with 128,017 votes to 65,339 for Button. “I am tremendously pleased with the margin. I didn’t think it would be anything near this big.”

According to his daughter, Button was a very gracious loser.

“He didn’t take it as a personal rejection at all,” said Nathan. “He was very disappointed to leave because he loved being down in Washington and felt like serving in the U.S. Congress was a great opportunity and the honor of his life. But he felt no ill will when he lost.”

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