Democrat Paul Tonko reached a new milestone in his 30-year political career Tuesday night with a decisive victory in the 21st Congressional District race.
The Amsterdam native outpolled Republican James Buhrmaster by nearly 16,000 votes — 44,814 to 29,218 in unofficial results. He will succeed U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty, D-Green Island, who is retiring Jan. 1 from the seat he held for 20 years.
Sam Stratton, D-Schenectady, held the seat for 30 years before McNulty, when it was also known as the 23rd Congressional District.
Tonko, 59, will be sworn-in Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., said spokesman Beau Duffy.
“It’s a good feeling. It’s a night that looks like a sea change for me,” Tonko said at a victory party at Mallozzi’s in Rotterdam. “The first thing I will do in Washington is get the best committee assignments to help the community.”
At the GOP headquarters at Glen Sanders Mansion, Buhrmaster said a victory was not “in the cards” in a tough year for Republicans. He said the residents he talked to on the campaign trail expressed a distrust of bigger government and spending, but that did not translate into votes.
“I’m certainly disappointed because the public is not going to get a change. They’re going to get a career politician in Washington,” he said.
Buhrmaster would not rule out running again for Congress in two years. He is currently a Schenectady County legislator.
Tonko began his political career in 1974 at age 26 when he was elected to the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors. In 1983 he left the board after winning the 105th Assembly District seat.
While in the Assembly, Tonko served as chairman of the Energy Committee until 1992 and was considered an expert in the field. He also was a member of standing committees on Agriculture, Transportation and Education. Some of his key legislation included the College Tuition Savings Program and Timothy’s Law, which requires health insurers to cover mental illness. He also sponsored the Northeast Dairy Compact.
Tonko served as assemblyman until June 2007 when he resigned to become chief executive officer for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. NYSERDA is a public benefi t corporation provides funding for the research of energy development.
The appointment seemed to end his political career, which covered 34 years. But eight months later, Tonko re-entered the political arena. He took the advice of friends and supporters, resigned as NYSERDA chief and became one of nine Democrats and two Republicans running in the 21st Congressional District.
From that moment, political pundits considered Tonko the race’s frontrunner, based on his strong name recognition and his extensive connections in the community. The joke was that Tonko never missed a chicken dinner event as an assemblyman and that he was on first-name familiarity with thousands of people.
Tonko proved his popularity by defeating four other Democrats in the September primary, tallying 3,000 more votes than his next closest rival out of approximately 32,000 cast.
After winning the Democratic primary, Tonko faced Buhrmaster, who had himself just defeated Steven Vasquez in the Republican primary. Buhrmaster, 62, is president of Buhrmaster Energy and is in his second four-year term on the Schenectady County Legislature.
Buhrmaster spokesman Josh Hills credited Tonko for engaging the Republican in a series of debates throughout the district during the race. “When you look in the past, when frontrunners have been confi dent of winning, they have ducked out of debates with their opponents,” he said.
During the campaign, Buhrmaster sought to paint Tonko as a life-long politician beholden to special interests while calling himself an independent. He called his campaign grass-roots based, as reflected in campaign donations that came primarily from individuals.
Tonko also received contributions from individuals, but he also received nearly $200,000 in contributions from political action committees, mostly belonging to unions. Hills said Tonko had some agenda items that appealed to teachers and health care unions, hence their involvement in the race.
Both candidates spent Election Day getting out the vote. Tonko voted early at a school in Amsterdam, had lunch at a church in Cohoes and went campaigning door to door.
Buhrmaster voted at St. Joseph’s Parish in Glenville, attended a luncheon, visited some businesses and spent the day making phone calls.
Tonko called the race with Buhrmaster “a battlefield. It gets tense at times. I am just happy I ran a positive campaign. People want to hear about a positive campaign.”
Hills said Buhrmaster ran an energetic campaign but in the end the district’s political demographics worked against him. The district has 25,000 more Democrats than Republicans. Still Republicans saw opportunity in the district based on the large number of voters not registered to a major party.
“X, Y and Z had to happen for us, which didn’t, and this whole economic downturn didn’t help us at all,” Hills said. “There is also an anti-Bush and anti-Republican sentiment that didn’t help us.”
Buhrmaster would have benefitted from a presidential candidate who did better in the district, Hills said. Republican presidential candidate John McCain lost statewide.
Buhrmaster also faced fundraising challenges, Hills said. “The issue of raising money was a hard thing to do. We had hoped to do better and it didn’t happen,” he said.
Buhrmaster raised $456,421 as of Oct. 22, of which $195,000 came from personal loans. Tonko raised $517,451, which includes a $3,000 loan he made to his campaign.
Both candidates spent about equally, accumulating expenditures of slightly more than $800,000. “It wasn’t expensive,” Hills said.
In total, all candidates spent nearly $2 million on the race, factoring in expenditures leading up to the September primary.
Hills said the September primary set back Buhrmaster’s campaign financially but at the same time energized the Republican base and got people interested in his campaign.