By: Brian Tumulty
Gannett Albany Bureau
Freshman Democratic Rep. Kathy Hochul faces the daunting assignment this year of trying to win re-election in the most Republican congressional district in the state.
Her redrawn western New York district - now known as the 27th - has about 8,000 more Republicans than it did before redistricting, with the GOP edge over Democrats at 35,355.
As reconfigured, the district is based in Erie County but includes the Monroe County towns of Hamlin, Wheatland, Rush and Mendon, as well as areas in surrounding counties such as Orleans, Genesee, Livingston and Ontario.
Hochul was sworn in June 1, 2011, after winning a special election to fill the seat vacated by Republican Chris Lee. The race received national attention because she won in a GOP stronghold by campaigning against a proposal by House Republicans to transform Medicare from a guaranteed health benefit for seniors to an insurance premium support program.
She has spent her first year in office emphasizing the constituent service skills she honed as Erie County clerk by helping Social Security recipients get benefits they were previously denied and helping veterans get approval for medical services and disability coverage.
The 53-year-old attorney says she's brought $800,000 in additional federal payments to western New York through those two programs.
Earlier this month she intervened on behalf of a Lockport man who was turned down by the Department of Veterans Affairs for coverage of life-saving surgery on his aorta.
"We got on the case and we didn't stop until he got the surgery he needed," she said. "Those are the ones that make you feel good about what you are doing because you are affecting people's lives in a way that matters."
Hochul said she's worked to help farmers navigate the federal bureaucracy, persuading the Labor Department to allow farmers to apply for guest worker permits online rather than on paper.
Hochul plans to remind voters of her service-oriented record and her independence from Democratic leaders on key votes.
She notes that she voted for the Keystone Pipeline and a proposed balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, and voted against trade agreements with South Korea and other countries.
Hochul said she's well-known among Erie County voters, who elected her county clerk, and among voters in the town of Hamburg, where she served 13 years on the Town Board.
The new congressional district includes all of 20 towns in Erie County and part of Amherst, which means 42 percent of the registered voters live in Erie. And 38 percent of the registered Republicans live in Erie, which she claims is a plus because of her nonpartisan reputation there.
"Even though they are Republican on paper, they are people who voted for me before," she said.
Hochul still owns a house in the town of Hamburg. She moved to Amherst last year to run in the special election because Hamburg wasn't then part of the congressional district.
In a fortunate twist for her, Hochul was unable to sell the Hamburg house. When the new district lines came out, she took it off the market with the intention of moving back because her current residence in Amherst is not in the new district.
Republicans will select their candidate in a June 26 primary.
The contenders are Chris Collins of Clarence, a 62-year-old former Erie County executive and small businessman, and David Bellavia of Batavia, a 36-year-old Iraq War veteran and author working on his second book.
Bellavia said in a telephone interview that he's offering a more detailed platform than Collins on taxation, energy and education reform.
"It's got to be positive and it's got to have detail," Bellavia said.
He's telling voters he would replace the 2010 health care reform law - referred to as "Obamacare" by many Republicans - if it's repealed or the Supreme Court declares it unconstitutional.
Bellavia would continue requiring insurers to cover pre-existing conditions, but he would let patients choose between getting coverage from community cooperatives and picking coverage options a la carte from private insurers, the way people do when buying car insurance.
He also would allow interstate competition among insurance carriers.
Collins said he offers primary voters "a very different résumé" because he's spent 36 years in the private sector creating companies and jobs.
"I've got a lot of credibility and experience in the private sector," Collins said. "I know tax rates are too high." He favors lowering the top tax rate to 25 percent.
Collins said his record as county executive in Erie from 2008 through 2011 shows he knows how to bring business efficiency to government and how to balance budgets.
Each Republican is anxious to be the one to face Hochul in the general election.
"I think she's done a terrible job," Collins said. "She is someone who even today won't admit she's a Democrat."
Orleans County Republican Party Chairman Edward Morgan endorsed Bellavia in the primary, but thinks the general election is winnable for either Republican candidate.
Morgan expects a hard-fought campaign because Hochul is "a very personable person."
"I've met with her several times," Morgan said. "She's a very likable person, easy to talk to. But when she goes to Washington she's on the wrong side of the fence, as far as I'm concerned."
Ontario County Republican Party Chairman Jay Dutcher agreed.
"You may find a particular candidate personally appealing, but you have to look how they vote when they are in Washington," said Dutcher, who works as chief of staff to Republican Rep. Tom Reed. "If they would like to see (former House speaker) Nancy Pelosi take back the gavel again, then it would be appropriate to vote for Mrs. Hochul. But if you would rather have leadership that is going to lower taxes and cut spending, then I think they would want to vote for one of the Republican candidates, whoever prevails in the primary."
Ontario County Republicans have decided not to endorse either Collins or Bellavia before the primary.
"A June primary allows you to have a vigorous debate," Dutcher said. "Voters decide, and then the candidate still has sufficient time to organize, fundraise and get out there for the general election. We like the June primary. We think it's good for the voters and good for the candidates."
Hochul said she's visited all parts of the district multiple times since her election, holding 15 town halls and another 15 roundtable discussions with senior citizens, farmers and veterans.
That's an advantage for Hochul going into the general election, according to Livingston County Democratic Chairwoman Judith Hunter.
"We've never had anyone who took the 'representative' part of the job description to heart," Hunter said. "She is in our county all the time. Quite frankly, we've had a run of representatives who saw their constituency as the national Republican Party and that they didn't have to do the groundwork with constituents. Kathy is a constant presence. We are as likely to see her on our Main Street as we are to see a neighbor."
Ontario County Democratic Chairman John Hurley said he's heard comments from around Hochul's district that she's visiting areas her predecessors hadn't visited for a long time.
Hurley said that bodes well for the November election.
"Once they meet her, she knocks them dead," he said. "Face to face is the deal-closer."