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Politics 101: Scott Trees is in it to win.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

The Teacher Learns

An unlikely candidate in the 127th district gets a real-life lesson in politics

 

Siena economics professor Scott Trees’ political career started when a student told him to “shut up and do something about it.”

“I was teaching a class, and I routinely call up newspaper articles and talk about them,” Trees explained. “I spend five minutes talking about an article in every class. So I threw up an article on economic policy, and some kid in the back who had me in the fall raises his hand. And he said, ‘Dr. Trees, are you going to get angry again? It seemed like you are getting worked up.’ I asked, ‘Does that offend you?’ He said, ‘When are you finally going to do something about it?’ I said, ‘I teach. I’m making you better citizens. You might be able to hold office one day.’ And he told me, ‘That is a cop-out. It’s not the same as doing something.’ ”

That was the same week that Assemblyman Dan Hooker, who represents the 127th district, announced he would not seek reelection.

“That’s what made me say, ‘I’m gonna do this.’ I watched people do things I really don’t like, and you e-mail them, call them, go to rallies, and I finally thought, ‘Why are you trying to get them to do the right thing? When I can do the right thing?’ ”

The 127th district, made up of parts of rural Schoharie, Greene, Dutchess and Columbia counties, traditionally been represented by Republicans—which means, Trees insisted, that the district has been underrepresented in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.

“We are a forgotten district, and part of that is Dan Hooker’s fault,” said Trees. “This guy did nothing. He so marginalized himself that he couldn’t work with anyone. He couldn’t even get a second from his own party. We elect Dan Hooker the super-conservative and send him to the Assembly, and then we wonder why we don’t get anything done. The reality is, I will have a much better time than my opponent because of my party.”

Trees, who has his bachelor’s from Princeton and his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Notre Dame, knew his race in the Republican-heavy 127th was not going to be easy. Trees was warned that the rural district would be a slog for an academic and a Democrat. “When I first started running, people said, ‘Wow! You are a Ph.D. from Siena! You can’t tell anyone that. Play it down!’ It’s funny, [the] people that told me that were wrong. They were wrong. People want to discuss issues.”

He said that during his time as a professor he realized more and more that “politicians need to shut up and listen. There are so many experts in these communities that need answers.”

Yet, thanks to a number of gaffes caused by inexperience, his campaign did not start with the momentum he would have wanted. There were the county committees he should have met with before launching his campaign but didn’t, the issues he focused on that didn’t go over well; and even the fund-raiser for himself that he missed.

But then, Trees decided to walk across his district, a district that stretches from Schoharie County through Greene and Columbia counties, all the way south to Dutchess. And Trees was born without hands or feet. What could have been the greatest challenge in his campaign became a boon, and his walk started to get his campaign the attention it needed. Trees has now been endorsed by party heavies Eliot Spitzer, Chuck Schumer and Michael McNulty.

“The party has now recognized me,” said Trees. “They have no clue whether I have any staying power and whether I resonated or not. There is a learning curve. We were meeting people, talking issues, and we didn’t realize we should have run over to the Democratic power and really put a pitch on to get them excited. That’s really happened recently, and we are rolling now.”

Trees said the people of his district are not stuck to parties, and he said they don’t simply want change: “They want answers!” he said. He noted that, although there is a conservative bent in his district, Eliot Spitzer has the support of a great many on both sides of the aisle.

Trees also said that his district is very diverse and that, while there are some larger issues that are important to all parts of his district (like property taxes, school funding and gas prices), “there are microeconomies throughout the district that have their own issues that aren’t known by anyone else. Chenango had major flooding, but in Easton all they know is 88 had a hole in it. Schoharie has the Gilboa dam. Go down to Greene County and they are facing building a jail. Jump to Saugerties and Ulster and they are talking about building casinos.”

Last week, Trees, the unlikely candidate who forgot his own fund-raiser, took the stage in front of an impatient crowd at a rally for Kirsten Gillibrand that featured Bill Clinton. And Trees delivered one of the most stirring speeches of the event.

“I think I’m gonna win the damn thing,” Trees told Metroland, “but if we lose, writing a book is going to be one the first things we do. We could have used a book in this campaign to avoid some of our false starts. I think it would be a scream! A tell-all sort of book!”

And just what would he recommend in his book? Lawn signs not in the standard blue and red; attention-getting events like his walk; and stickers like his, which say, “More Trees Less Bush.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


What a Week

Congressman Kickass

Documentation about a domestic-violence call made at the home of U.S. Rep. John Sweeney (R-Clifton Park) was released this week, after a nearly yearlong court battle involving three local news outlets and the state police. According to the report, Sweeney’s wife called 911 and told the operator that Sweeney was “knocking her around.” The police responded, and no charges were pressed. The Sweeney campaign has claimed that the document “is a concoction by our opposition.” However, the story would have broken in December of last year—far away from the election season—had the state police complied with the Freedom of Information Act.

Stompin’ Ground

Mike Stark, who used to give Albany politicians an earful, is now right at home in Virginia asking area politicians tough questions. This week the staff of Republican Sen. George Allen decided to give Stark a warm welcome—they tackled him to the floor and bashed him around after he asked Allen, “Why did you spit on your first wife?” Stark has indicated to some news outlets that he plans to press charges. Keep up to date with Stark’s politician-baiting antics at www.call ingallwingnuts.com.

On the Ballot

In addition to deciding several close congressional races, Tuesday’s elections will answer many social-policy questions posed in states around the country. Eight state ballots contain propositions about amending their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage. Missouri voters will decide whether to protect embryonic stem-cell research and ban procreative human cloning. In South Dakota, voters will decide whether to overturn the nation’s most restrictive abortion law, which was approved by legislators earlier this year.

We’re Full of Shit

The Miami Zoo is hosting an exhibit dedicated to dung. The Scoop on Poop is a traveling exhibit that invites visitors to discover the science of scat and improve their No. 2 IQ. Visitors are invited to listen in on an animal’s digestive system, learn the language of poop from around the world, examine fecal samples, view photos of animals caught in the act, and smell the stench of flowers that mimic dung to attract flies for pollination.



Starving for Attention

Party ties mean little to Republican congressional challenger vying for media coverage

In a move he knows is certain to earn him condemnation from the political party whose banner he carries, Warren Redlich, the Republican challenging Democratic U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty in the 21st district, yesterday announced his endorsement of the Republican Party’s rival in the 20th, Kirsten Gillibrand.

“To be very honest, I wouldn’t be doing this endorsement if I didn’t think it will bring more attention to my campaign,” Redlich said. “That race is sucking all the media away from me, so why don’t I say what I really think?”

It’s a struggle for attention that Redlich, who also challenged McNulty in 2004, said he’s all too familiar with.

“Last time my campaign was swamped out in the media by the Bush-Kerry election,” he said. “This time, instead of being swamped out by Bush versus Kerry, I’m being swamped out by Sweeney versus Gillibrand.”

Redlich’s nod comes less than one week before elections that will decide several close races around the country and, ultimately, whether the Democrats will take back the House of Representatives.

“I don’t agree with either of them on much,” Redlich said of Gillibrand and Republican Rep. John Sweeney. “But, I think there’s hope that she will be not corrupt, where there’s no hope for him.”

Redlich had plenty of mud to sling at his fellow party member in the 20th, but few criticisms for his own opponent. “I like him better than I like Sweeney,” Redlich said. “I think I like him better than I like Gillibrand.”

McNulty was first elected to Congress in 1988 and has maintained widespread popularity among his constituents.

Redlich operates a private law firm in Albany and never has held political office. In 2004 he received about 30 percent of the vote, the highest of any McNulty challenger, and spent about $42,000.

For his repeat challenge, Redlich has changed his campaign strategy dramatically. He’s not taking any campaign contributions and plans to spend less than $5,000 in order to avoid the report-filing requirements of campaign finance law.

“I can write a check for more than I spent last time anytime I want to, if my wife wouldn’t shoot me for it,” Redlich said. “But, the reality is, in order to really make that money worth spending, I’d have to spend a quarter million, and I can’t write that check, and I’m not going to write that check.”

Instead of purchasing television and radio advertisements, he’s using the Internet as his primary campaign media. He maintains a campaign blog to broadcast his slogan, “Stop wasting money,” a condensed version of his previous message, “Stop wasting money overseas defending rich countries.”

Although he holds a Republican title, on social issues Redlich abides by a more liberal philosophy. He is pro-abortion-rights, opposes the death penalty, supports gay marriage and speaks out against the war in Iraq, to name a few. He said he does, however, typically align with the Republican Party on economic issues.

“It’s not that I’m not in line with the Republicans, it’s that I’m not in line with either one of them,” Redlich said. “I’ve considered enrolling as an Independent before the election. I’m thinking about that, disenrolling from the Republican Party and enrolling in the Independence Party. I’m probably not going to do that, but I’m not sure yet.”

When Redlich decided to scale back his campaign spending this election season, McNulty followed that lead. McNulty said he adjusted his own reelection account and also decided not to advertise on radio and television.

Although his own reelection bid hasn’t demanded much in the way of funding, McNulty has contributed thousands to support fellow Democrats, including Gillibrand. He said he’s hoping for strong Democratic elections across the country.

If McNulty is reelected and Democrats take the majority in the House, he said his role in the House will change “dramatically.” As a senior member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, McNulty likely would become chair of one of the major subcommittees: taxation, trade, health care, human services, social security or oversight.

Under such circumstances, the new Democratic leadership likely would steer certain policy in new direction, he said.

“I think you’re going to see a different attitude toward taxation,” McNulty said. “I don’t think you’re going to see any more multi-trillion-dollar giveaways to millionaires. We’re not going to do that. When we do tax relief, it’s going to be for middle-income Americans, small businesses and family farms, the people who are struggling to make a living and support their families.”

McNulty said that if Democrats take control of Ways and Means, the committee also likely will push for a national health-care system and tougher international trade agreements with countries that lack adequate labor or environmental standards.

—Nicole Klaas

nklaas@metroland.net





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