By any reasonable measure of Capitol Hill hypocrisy, it does figure that a Republican congressman who listed "values" as the No, 1 reason to reelect him last fall would spend his free time trolling Craigslist with a semi-nude photo of himself as as date bait.
There was something so predictable about the news that New York Congressman Chris Lee resigned abruptly Wednesday, after it was revealed that the "proud husband and father" had somehow found his way to the "women seeking men" corner of the Internet.
Let’s start by getting a clear read on this self-described "fit, fun classy guy." Though he looks the fool today, Lee was actually one of the abler of the new generation of House Republicans. And he was not nearly so aggressive a moralizer as many of his colleagues.Yes, he voted as a social conservative who opposed the repeal of the discriminatory "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" rule. He backed moves to wrongheaded moves to defund reproductive health-care programs. And, certainly, there will be those who detect at least a measure of hyprocrisy in the fact that Lee was a big backer of the proposed "Student Internet Safety Act," which is was framed as a defense against internet predators.
But Lee’s primary focus was on economic issues. Indeed, the second-term congressman, who comes from a wealthy family with a background in manufacturing, was more focused than all but a handful of congressional Republicans on specific job-creation issues. he highlighted a "5 Point Jobs Plan" as the central focus of his 2010 reelection campaign and sponsored or cosponsored dozens of bills related to manufacturing and business development.
That does not mean that Lee got far beyond the usual "cut taxes, cut regulations" mantra that Republicans — and too many Democrats — have been chanting for decades. But he was more nuanced than most Republican members of Congress in his comments, especially on trade and currency policy. While Lee was generally a free trader, he argued that:"We also need to ensure that we are getting a good trade deal with China. Real action to have the yuan decoupled from the dollar is long overdue, and so is reform of China’s indigenous-innovation and market-access policies, which keep out U.S. exports."
In fact, Lee was an aggressive advocate for taking a tougher line with China and a number of other countries when it came to trade policy, a position that sometimes put him in the same camp as fair-trade Democrats such as Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Maine Congressman Mike Michaud.
The point here is not to suggest that Lee was a particularly good player on trade policy in particular or jobs policy in general. The point is that he knew his 26th congressional district, a vast stretch of western New York that has been experiencing the loss of manufacfuring jobs for decades as factories that were mainstays of small cities have shuttered and work has been outsourced.
Even if Lee did not take the appropriate positions, he understood that he needed to bow to them.
That’s where Democrats will find their opening if they hope to compete in the special election to replace Lee. The seat leans Republican — voters backed McCain over Obama in 2008 and Lee was easily reelected in 2010 — but it gave a fair-trade Democrat (small manufacturer Jack Davis) 48 percent of the vote in 2006.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will have to call a special election to fill Lee’s seat.
Cuomo should move quickly to do so. And Democrats should get this race right by getting the issue focus right. Instead of taking cues from DC about who how to pick a "safe" candidate, they should recognize that "safe" is not winning for them. There will be plenty of Republican contenders, most of them prominent players. Theoretically, an economic-populist Republican could emerge, and would in all likelihood win the seat.
But if the GOP goes with a typical apologist for all things corporate, then there is an opening for a fair-trade Democrat with an aggressive message. Jack Davis, the fiery populist who held former Republican Congressman Tom Reynolds to 48 percent in 2006, is still around. He’s run a number of times for the seat now, and will be dismissed by some; but he "gets" the economic mood of the district.As Davis’ old campaign website notes: "In ´04, ´06 and ´08, Jack ran for Congress in New York State’s 26th District. He lost the election, but his mission has not been accomplished and he is still trying to save American jobs, farms, and industries."
Another prospective contender, Jon Powers, an Iraq War vet who has worked with the Truman National Security Project and other progressive think tanks and groups, has close ties to New York’s Working Families Party, as well as the Democrats.
The WFP connection is important, as the party has focused in smart and effective ways on economic issues. It is, as well, allied with labor unions that could play a critical role in a district that has small but significant bases of union membership. No matter who the candidate is, the message must be that western New York needs to be represented by a fighter who will take on not just Republican leaders in the House but, where necessary, the Obama administration in order to change economic policies that have battered working families in the industrial centers of the Northeast and the Great Lakes region.
That makes another prospective contender, Sam Williams, especially interesting. Williams, a longtime regional leader of United Auto Workers and co-chair of the Working Families Party, who came close to running the seat in the past. His recent appointment to the state Worker’s Compensation Board might make Williams less likely to enter the special-election race. But as WFP co-chair Bob Master says: “I think he’d be a great candidate. He’s a terrific guy and he knows the issues."
And the issues — the economic and trade issues — are the key.
But Lee’s focus on economic issues, and his referencing of trade policy, were reflections of his understanding of what working families in western New York want — make that "need" — to hear from a candidate. If Democrats grab the gauntlet and do a whole lot more with the message, they could compete in this district — and potentially win a special election that could send critical signals regarding the 2012 election cycle.