A Land of Opportunity for Democrats
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Dan Maffei orders decaf at 10:30 a.m., and that's probably a good thing. A youthful-looking 40, he seems to have nervous energy to burn, tapping his feet and fidgeting as he talks local politics and tells the tale of how he first decided to run for Congress.
Maffei met Capitol Briefing this morning at Freedom of Espresso, a funky-looking coffee shop in the trendy and cosmopolitan Armory Square neighborhood that was originally called Federal Espresso until Federal Express sued the owners over the name. The neighborhood is nice enough as it it, but Maffei thinks it could be even better with the right decisions and resources. That theme of untapped potential also runs through Maffei's explanation for why he ran for the House in 2006 and is running again this year.
Maffei says he started seriously considering a run after a reporter mentioned to him that the 25th district was the only one in the entire country where Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won in the 2004 presidential race and Democrats didn't even have a congressional candidate on the ballot (Walsh was unopposed that year).
To Maffei, that fact encapsulated the problem that Democrats had in upstate New York and other regions of the Northeast; the Syracuse area was ripe for the party's picking at the local and congressional level, but Democrats weren't trying hard enough. In local towns like nearby DeWitt, voters would consistently back Democrats for president, Senate and sometimes governor, but they would still elect Republicans to the state legislature and local offices in odd-year elections.
Now that tide is starting to turn, as Democrats have captured more low-level offices in the last few years, including some in DeWitt in the 2007 elections. "Suddenly this once-Republican town is voting Democratic in off-years," Maffei said.
"Though the area is shifting to the Democrats, it's still a very moderate area," Maffei adds, making the case that the same is true elsewhere in the Northeast and around the country. "The difference has been where the national [Democratic] party has gone and to a certain extent the state parties."
Like the former reporter and press secretary he is, Maffei spits out facts and anecdotes quickly, and he rattled off a number of races in the region that showed political advantage tipping to Democrats over the last few years, including a key 2004 win in a state Senate race. But back in 2005 and 2006, challenging Walsh still looked like a foolish proposition, and Maffei makes the point that he was definitely not recruited by national Democrats to make his run. Instead, he recruited himself. "I'm a walk-on," he says.
Why did that 2006 race end up so close, given that Walsh is a local institution? Several local landmarks are the fruits of earmarks the incumbent has brought home over the years, and Walsh's picture hangs in a prominent spot on the wall of the Irish pub where Capitol Briefing had dinner last night. (The food was excellent, by the way.)
But in Maffei's telling, while Walsh remained personally popular and in line with the district on local issues, his aligntment with Republican policies on national issues helped erode his support. In particular, Maffei cited Walsh's support for trade agreements like CAFTA and for the Iraq war as points against the incumbent.
Those are still big topics of discussion as Maffei campaigns again this year, along with energy costs, high property taxes and, above all, the economy. The loss of manufacturing jobs has been difficult for the Syracuse region, even as new jobs have popped up at several large local hospitals and at Syracuse University. In fact, Maffei said, many local companies are hiring but are having trouble finding the skilled, educated employees they need because many young workers with college degrees are moving elsewhere. They should be staying here, he maintains, working at high-tech jobs and spending their money in Armory Square's ethnic restaurants and boutiques.
At one such local shop, a handmade jewelry store called Way Off the Beaten Path, Maffei asked the owner, Angelique Mango, what help she needed to improve her business. Mango didn't mention trade or taxes, but instead referenced classically local issues -- crime and parking.
"People don't feel safe coming down here," Mango said, complaining about the "vagrants and crackheads" in the neighborhood at night. "And the parking tickets! Who is the parking ticket Nazi here?"
Standing on a busy street corner after visiting with Mango, Maffei said that the problem Syracuse had was that there were several desirable neighborhoods, or "dots" on the map, like Armory Square. But the space in between them was often a "no-man's land" of parking lots and undeveloped property, just as parts of upstate New York are on the upswing while others have fallen behind.
"We've got to connect the dots," Maffei said. "It's a good analogy for the whole region."
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