Washington is broken and the nation is heading in the wrong direction, say the two candidates for the open seat in the 21st Congressional District. But they differ in how to fix the problems they have identified.
Republican candidate James Buhrmaster wants less government regulation and lower taxes and says he has the skills, developed through decades of running a small business, to be effective in Washington.
Democratic candidate Paul Tonko wants government to help people and thinks he can hit the ground running on ways to move the country away from its dependence on fossil fuels.
Both are seeking the seat of U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty, D-Green Island, who is retiring in January after 20 years.
Heeding the public’s call
Tonko was CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority when he heard McNulty’s announcement to retire. At the time, he had no thought of running for Congress himself, saying he was focused on keeping with his agenda at NYSERDA.
However, as time passed and the field of candidates grew (at one point, there were 11 Democrats), Tonko said “more and more people suggested I look at it.”
In April of this year, he listened to his supporters and announced his candidacy, resigning from NYSERDA. He became the sole Democratic candidate following the September primary.
Buhrmaster said he also decided to enter the congressional race at the urging of family and supporters.
“They told me to look at it. They said we need another businessman there,” he said.
Buhrmaster is president of Buhrmaster Energy, a fuel oil business based in Glenville that opened in 1913. He said that he doesn’t need the job of congressman but that he wants the job “because we aren’t representing the people, and I don’t want to leave a tax-and-spend legacy for my four children and six grandchildren.”
He added that he also enjoys public service, citing years of involvement with the Boy Scouts, the Boys & Girls Clubs and the YMCA.
Tonko and Buhrmaster both have deep connections in the 21st District, which covers portions of Fulton, Rensselaer and Saratoga counties and all of Albany, Schenectady, Schoharie and Montgomery counties.
As an assemblyman, Tonko, 58, represented Montgomery County and portions of Schenectady County for 25 years. He has been in public office since 1975, first representing Amsterdam’s 1st Ward on the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors. He was elected to the state Assembly in 1983. He resigned from the Assembly in July 2007 with one year left in his term to take the NYSERDA position as former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s appointee.
Buhrmaster, 62, is serving a second four-year term on the Schenectady County Legislature, representing Glenville and Niskayuna.
Both congressional candidates are championing the message of change in Washington, and both call themselves energy experts. But there the similarities end, according to the candidates.
Buhrmaster calls himself “fiercely” independent, and he points to his voting record in the county Legislature as proof. He has voted with majority Democrats on issues in opposition to other Republicans.
“I will vote for the people, not with the party. My answer is what I think is right for them,” he said.
Buhrmaster points to his business experience as a distinction from Tonko. “I am on the end that does it, and I am not on the side that creates regulations that hurt businesses,” he said.
When Buhrmaster entered the race, many assumed that a Democrat would easily take the seat. The 21st District has 50,000 more Democrats than Republicans and has been in Democratic hands for a half-century. McNulty held it for 20 years. Sam Stratton, D-Schenectady, held it for 30 years prior.
Buhrmaster, however, believes that he has a shot because of the large number of independent voters — approximately 90,000 — who can tip the election either way.
Since the primary, Buhrmaster has set his sights on Tonko, a formidable opponent. In campaign ads, he has attacked Tonko as a “career politician” — a phrase that has gained a negative connotation — and has tried to link him to Democrats who have done wrong, such as U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel and Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio of Queens.
Rangel is undergoing an ethics investigation by fellow lawmakers, while Seminerio was charged with taking more than $500,000 in illegal payments over the past eight years from entities doing business with the state.
“People want to see a change. With my opponent, there will be no change,” Buhrmaster said. “Congress is a forum where I can make changes.”
Tonko dismisses the “career politician” charge, saying, “if you do your job and you do it well and you help people and your community, and you are sensitive and listen and you empathize with their message, that is a plus. Many people assume a career; it is how you perform in your career that matters.”
Buhrmaster said he and Tonko differ on energy policy — Buhrmaster favors drilling for oil in Alaska and on the continental shelf, and he also wants to expand geothermal and hydroelectric capabilities.
Tonko supports the development of green power, sources of power not connected to fossil fuels, and reducing the carbon footprints of vehicles and buildings.
If elected, Tonko says he would take the area’s strengths and create a high-tech mecca, linking area research and educational institutions with start-up and established energy businesses, like GE Wind Power, to create what he calls green jobs. These offer high pay and good benefits, he said.
Buhrmaster and Tonko also differ on workplace regulations. Buhrmaster does not support the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as HR 800, while Tonko supports it. HR 800 allows unions to be certified once a majority of employees have signed union authorization cards, without the need for a secret ballot.
They also disagree on Timothy’s Law, which requires small businesses to provide coverage for inpatient and outpatient mental health services. Tonko sponsored the bill. Buhrmaster calls it cost-prohibitive to small businesses.
BUSINESS AND LABOR
Perhaps the most telling difference is that Buhrmaster has the support of small business associations while Tonko has the support of unions.
Buhrmaster said while union leadership may support Tonko, union workers support him: “I am talking to working families, and they say Tonko has done nothing to limit government, taxes and regulations.”
Tonko said he supports working families “who have been ignored too long. I know the need for sound jobs with good benefits and appropriate working conditions.”
He also calls himself pro-business, saying he wants to ensure that businesses have an environment that helps them compete efficiently in a global market.
Tonko has spent less than $100,000 on campaign ads since the September primary, relying on name recognition established through years of good will and personal connections made through countless events he attended.
“When you socialize and meet people on their turf, it builds partnerships and builds relationships with their extended families,” Tonko said.
According to the September filings with the Federal Election Commission, Tonko has raised $451,467, of which $138,000 has come from political action committees. Buhrmaster has raised $351,481. He loaned his campaign $125,000 and raised $214,353 from individuals.
In many regards, Tonko is following the same strategy he followed as an incumbent in the 105th Assembly District — he is staying positive, is staying on topic and is letting his opponent do the attacking. It is a strategy that made him unstoppable in the 13 races he ran during his 25-year career in the state Assembly, when he smothered Republican candidates under an avalanche of votes.
“Accessibility is something I am proud of. The human connection is key to quality representation,” Tonko said. “The dynamic that is most important is to be a good listener.”
Tonko said that in his brief tenure at NYSERDA, he worked to “move along a lot of things. We really advanced the governor’s Renewable Task Force, we advanced efficiencies, we are leaving a solar legacy, we advanced policies from a new perspective.”
Buhrmaster said that Tonko had coveted the NYSERDA job and that when he left, he had accomplished little: “He is a political opportunist who took credit for things that were in place.”
Tonko said NYSERDA was a lure after serving on Assembly energy committees for years and was a “great place to be.” But he said the chance to be in Washington is an excellent opportunity to “formulate energy policy that this country needs.”