Tenney’s cash, clout crashes hopes of others

U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-New Hartford), center, speaks to the press at a rally held in her honor at her campaign headquarters where Eric Trump, right, stumped for her in New Hartford, N.Y., Tuesday, October 23, 2018. Tenney is running for reelection against Democrat Anthony Brindisi of Utica, N.Y. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)

Shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesday, the annoying music piped in to fill what would have otherwise been silence came to a halt. On the other end of the line was U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney, currently of the Utica region, speaking during one of her aptly named “Tele-Town Hall” meetings with constituents.

Tenney was tending to her current duties in District 22, which covers a portion of Central New York and the Southern Tier. It also includes the cities of Rome, Cortland and Binghamton — all centers that have suffered greatly during the 40-year decline of upstate New York.

Many of those residents’ worries were similar to ours here. How does the U.S. stop rapidly rising gas prices? Why does Washington continue to overspend in its annual budgets? Can anything be done to stop inflation, particularly for senior citizens?

Unsurprisingly during the call, the Republican pinned most of the blame for these problems on the Democratic party — in the nation and state. Calling both President Joe Biden and Gov. Kathy Hochul “irresponsible leaders,” she seeks an “all of the above” energy policy that includes renewables and fossil fuels in light of the crisis in Ukraine.

“Russia uses energy as a weapon,” Tenney said, noting prices at the pump are likely to continue upward.

She was sympathetic to all the callers, but seemed to lack — for the first 45 minutes — something the current district Rep. Tom Reed took pride in while previously heading the Problem Solvers Caucus: finding common ground.

Over the last month since Tenney announced her intention to be a candidate in the newly drawn 23rd Congressional District, she has taken on a role of tourist while meeting residents and visiting some of the significant attractions in the region. Tenney, who has not yet established a residency within the boundaries, continues to gain momentum from here to Chenango and Broome counties — more than three hours away.

On Wednesday, state Conservative party leaders added their endorsement to a candidate who is barely known by many here. “I am excited to have Claudia as our representative in Congress,” said Chautauqua County Conservative Committee Chairwoman Anna Wilcox. “Claudia has been shown to have strong Conservative positions and we in Chautauqua County strongly support her in her re-election efforts.”

Tenney’s campaign coffers that top $1.2 million seems to have scared others away, especially those who have homes here. Additionally, she quickly received the backing of both U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik from northern New York, who is the third highest-ranking House Republican, and former President Donald Trump.

What party member wants to challenge that?

Last summer, once Reed made it known he would not seek re-election, Steuben County’s Joe Sempolinski announced he would seek the seat. Sempolinski was no stranger to Chautauqua County and understood the dynamics and needs we have here. His drive, thanks to Tenney, has stalled.

Another potential candidate, much lesser known, never had a chance. Dunkirk-Fredonia native George Burns left the area when he turned 17 to serve in the military, retiring from service in 2002.

He’s no politician, but he’s about as loyal an American as you will meet. With the assistance of Dunkirk resident Richard Titus, he has put together six editions of the book, “No One Forgets: Our Fallen Heroes,” with much of his own money. It documents hundreds of county residents who died while serving their country during war.

It was the compiling of those books that made him think about the prospect of representing this region. “The country and world is hanging by a thread,” he told the Chautauqua County Republican Committee on Feb. 28. “Fair or not, all of this happened on their watch. We in the Western New York rural counties sell ourselves short.

“Why not send someone to Washington from Fredonia? … We are regular people in this district. Many live paycheck to paycheck.”

Burns’ pitch, which he says was interrupted after a five-minute presentation to the committee, included what he called a Great Reset that includes truth, faith, prayer, traditional two-parent families and “an appreciation by our children of the true cost of freedom.” Once he concluded his remarks, he said he received some applause.

On March 1, however, Burns learned the committee that told him to hurry up followed the leads of other Republicans in the Southern Tier. But no one from that room called to let him know of the decision.

As a novice to a high-stakes game of politics that Tenney has learned to play so well — even on a national stage, the experience brought Burns plenty of bitterness. “It is a bit discouraging to be a native son, veteran and not even being given common courtesies like letting me know the results,” he said.

Ironically, he — and Sempolinski to a point — are on the outside when it comes to party loyalty. Someone who is still a visitor and learning the district has been granted the inside track.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.


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