The Most Divided House District in New York

by Stuart Rothenberg November 20, 2013 · 9:18 AM EST

Last month I wrote about a handful of interesting Democratic House candidates I had recently interviewed, but I did not include Martha Robertson, who is challenging GOP Rep. Tom Reed in New York’s 23rd District.

Most of those Democrats either had no record or seemed prepared to run as pragmatists. And while Robertson also offered platitudes about bipartisanship, it was not hard to see that she was the most progressive of the Democrats I met that week.

Robertson’s liberal views aren’t all that surprising considering the district’s partisan and ideological polarization. The single largest bloc of Democratic votes comes from Tompkins County, a Democratic bastion that includes the city of Ithaca and both Cornell University and Ithaca College.

Tompkins was the only county in the state that went for Barack Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

Robertson, 62, is serving her fourth term in the Tompkins County Legislature, where Democrats now have an overwhelming 12-to-3 advantage. She has chaired the body since early 2010, and I imagine she reflects the views of Democrats in that county.

As my colleagues and I started to go over Robertson’s bio in the meeting, we noticed a gap right after college, so we asked about it. She responded that she went to California, “just like everyone else did.” It was an instructive comment.

We discussed her background, accomplishments and issues. When I asked the county legislator about fracking and energy (given the district’s proximity to Pennsylvania, where an energy boom is under way), she looked at me and said natural gas was “not her favorite fuel.”

The smile on her face suggested that she understood how odd that sounded. Though I had not been aware that people had favorite fuels, I asked what her favorite fuel was. “Conservation,” she replied, quickly adding “renewable energy,” as well.

I hadn’t realized it at the time, but Robertson, who admitted to me that she has voted to raise taxes every year she has been in the county legislature, has been a leader in the fight against fossil fuels.

When I asked her about any differences she had with her own party, the Democratic county legislator said that she disagreed with those (including the president) willing to consider adopting a “chained CPI” to calculate Social Security cost-of-living adjustments, and she opposes linking student loans to money market fund rates.

In other words, she finds some in her party too willing to compromise with Republicans.

Reed, on the other hand, is a conservative Republican who served as mayor of Corning before winning election to Congress in 2010, a year when any reasonable candidate with an “R” behind his name had a pretty good chance of winning.

Two years later, in a competitive political environment, Reed survived an unexpectedly serious challenge from Tompkins County Legislator Nate Shinagawa, a Democrat, by 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent, a margin of about 10,000 votes out of more than 265,000 cast.

Critics of the congressman, including some who are in his own party, portray him as politically clumsy.

Democrats cried foul when Reed, who serves on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee but has been late paying his own taxes, used a campaign check to pay property taxes on a vacation home. But the congressman subsequently corrected the mistake, and the Office of Congressional Ethics ended its inquiry.

“Reed said he kept campaign checks and personal checks in the same folder at the time, and accidentally used the wrong check to pay the tax bill,” wrote Jerry Zremski of The Buffalo News.

National Journal rated Reed as the 179th most conservative member of the House in 2011 in ratings released in February 2012 — hardly a conservative firebrand. But he was more conservative than five of the six in his New York House Republican delegation that year. Richard Hanna (232nd most conservative), Chris Gibson (229), Nan Hayworth (220), Michael G. Grimm (226) and Peter T. King (217) all had less conservative voting records. Only Ann Marie Buerkle (15th most conservative) was more conservative. Buerkle and Hayworth were defeated in 2012.

Reed and freshman Rep. Chris Collins were the only two New York members to vote against the compromise that reopened the shut-down government in October. But Reed was one of only 85 Republicans to join with 172 Democrats to support the partial extension of the Bush tax cuts on Jan. 1.

This is a very narrowly divided district. Barack Obama beat John McCain by a single point in 2008, while Mitt Romney beat Obama by a single point four years later. Romney’s total vote in the district, 137,317, according to calculations done by CQ Roll Call, was almost identical to the 137,669 votes that Reed drew last year.

Robertson had already raised $437,527 as of her Sept. 30 Federal Election Commission report, ending the quarter with $375,323 in the bank. Shinagawa didn’t file his first FEC report until the end of the first quarter of 2012, only seven months before the election. He had a mere $95,205 in the bank at that point.

But Reed, who ran a less-than-scintillating race in 2012, is coming out of the blocks in much better shape this time. His Sept. 30 FEC report showed that he had already raised more than $1.2 million for his re-election, and he ended September with $911,882 in the bank. He is more engaged this time, GOP observers say.

Moreover, Reed won’t have to introduce himself to parts of his own district this time, as he had to when his district was redrawn before his 2012 race.

Neither nominee looks like a perfect fit for the district. But part of that follows from the very different views about government held by Republican and Democratic voters in New York’s 23rd. Robertson is a credible challenger, but she starts at an obvious disadvantage. And if Reed can minimize her margin in Tompkins County, Robertson’s prospects will sink.