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Paradigm Shift

The race for the 20th Congressional District challenges expectations

Limousine Liberal” was a phrase constantly thrown at Kirsten Gillibrand by the John Sweeney campaign two years ago during their fierce battle for the 20th Congressional District seat. But during this election cycle, that phrase is not likely something Gillibrand, now the incumbent, is going to hear from her Republican opponent, Sandy Treadwell.


Because Treadwell, according to some pundits, has “more money than God.”

Treadwell, a wealthy recipient of a blind trust and the grandson of a founding executive of General Electric, has an image crisis to overcome this election. Democrats and Republicans alike joke that Treadwell has “never worked a day in his life.”

That assertion is inaccurate, as Treadwell wrote briefly for Sports Illustrated and served as secretary of state under George Pataki. He was also chairman of the New York Republican Party.

New York Post writer and talk-show host Fred Dicker repeatedly has shown open contempt for Treadwell, referring to him as “insular, elitist and ideologically anemic.” Dicker has also perpetuated an anecdote about Treadwell not being sure what to do with the paycheck he received as secretary of state. Some Republican pundits point to Treadwell’s time as Republican Party chair as a time of decline for the party, and some blame Treadwell.

The campaign Treadwell has run so far has not delivered the attack-dog politics some had expected to erupt early on in the race. Instead, so far things have been fairly cordial—besides some wrangling over debates.

Treadwell has demanded debates with Gillibrand in 10 locations around the district, as Gillibrand did during her race with Sweeney. Gillibrand, however, never got the debates she requested, as Sweeney kept putting them off until it was too late.

This time around, Gillibrand has accepted only three debates. The Treadwell campaign has confirmed only one debate.

Treadwell spokesman Peter Constantakes said, “At this point in time we have agreed to one joint debate. We have called for not debates, but town-hall-type meetings in all 10 counties of the district so as not to only hit all the areas of the district but so people can ask questions. It’s similar to what she called for in 2006.”

“Kirsten is in Washington Monday through Friday,” said Gillibrand spokeswoman Rachel McEneny. “So it would be almost impossible to do 10 debates. We have decided to go through three major media outlets: the Post Star, Times Union, and the Poughkeepsie Journal. We think media-driven debates are the right forum to reach all the people of the district, not candidate-controlled debates.”

The only jointly confirmed debate will occur Oct. 23 and is sponsored by the Times Union and WMHT.

Meanwhile, Gillibrand representatives have voiced concern as of late that Treadwell is a bit of an amorphous opponent.

Treadwell has not given a rundown of where he stands on issues on his Web site. Some pundits wonder if he aims to remain flexible on certain issues so he can endear himself to very distinct parts of the large district.

Constantakes counters: “We have had a number of articles on the Web site that deal with detailed issues. Sandy has been out through the district talking to people, and throughout he has commented on stories and challenged the congresswoman on her votes in Congress. Her saying his positions aren’t on his Web site is kind of meaningless.”

In another interesting twist, pundits were miffed when Treadwell did not immediately begin running hard-hitting attack spots against Gillibrand as soon as primary season was over. Treadwell has instead run commercials focusing on energy policy.

In 2006, the race between Sweeney and Gillibrand got ugly early and stayed that way till the end.

While Treadwell’s image problems might lead the Gillibrand camp to think they are facing a cakewalk, the fact remains that Treadwell, who has bypassed public funding and is financing his own campaign, can throw intimidating sums of his own money into the race. And the district still has an overwhelming number of registered Republicans.

It is expected that the campaign will be one of the most expensive congressional races waged this year. From April 1 to June 31, Treadwell spent $635,000. Gillibrand spent $214,000.

Both candidates have millions of dollars in their campaign coffers, and it is likely that local television stations will benefit greatly from ad buys.

Although Treadwell faces an identity crisis, Gillibrand has one of her own. As a “Blue Dog” Democrat, Gillibrand has straddled the fence between Democrats and Republicans. Gillibrand upset her liberal supporters this year by voting for H.R. 6304, the FISA Amendments Act that gave telecommunications companies retroactive immunity for their role in government spying on American citizens.

The Gillibrand camp points out that she has brought home money to her district while addressing issues important to the constituents of her rural district, like dairy subsidies, home heating and fuel prices.

Despite all the money being thrown around, there are those who think Gillibrand has become far too iconic and popular to be unseated by Treadwell. And because of her star status as a working mother and politician, Gillibrand will be setting the terms not just for the debates, but for the campaign.

“The congresswoman has a job,” said McEneny. “We will get to all 10 counties. She looks forward to sharing her vision, and what she has accomplished since she was elected with her constituents. And we look forward to the debates.”

—David King

What a Week

Oh, the Humanity!

In the face of the current state of the American health care system and the ongoing health care debate, Americans may have a hard time empathizing with the French, who are facing cuts to their national healthcare system. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has cut funding for half of the country’s 165 physiotherapists at the National Baths of Aix-Les-Bains. As a result, the physiotherapists have gone on strike. Sarkozy has begun to take on France’s state sector industries, which have regularly scared away attempted cuts by previous French leaders. In a recent speech, Sarkozy recently pointed out that there are 721 French diplomats in the former colony of Senegal, which only has a population of 12 million—while there are only 271 diplomats in India. “How is that normal?” Sarkozy asked.

Oil Zombies

Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi had a run in with protestors who were holding McCain signs and chanting “Drill here! Drill Now!” during the Democratic National Convention this week. The speaker paused and then responded, “Right here?” “Can we drill your brains?” Pelosi went on to call the protestors “the handmaidens of big oil” and the “two-cents-in-ten-years crowd,” referring to the amount she thinks off-shore drilling will reduce the price of gas.

The Day the Swinging Died

Capitol Region pundits and reporters lost one of their favorite subjects this week. A Slingerlands psychiatrist put in the winning bid to buy the Union Street Bed and Breakfast in Schenectady, effectively ending the run of the swinger hangout that features a sex dungeon in its basement. Owner Bob Alexson has said that he was not driven out but has chosen to move on. Alexson clearly did not consider what area columnists and anchors would be left to write about with his sexy B&B out of the picture.

For the Dogs

A Seattle woman who registered her dog to vote—a protest against the lax oversight of voter registration—had fraud charges dropped against her this week. The judge dismissed the case, sighting that the woman had already paid over $200 in court costs. The woman did not try to hide the fact that her dog was registered, and she pointed out that the dog never actually voted.

Thirsty for Change

A leading foreign-policy think tank brings together Obama advisers and diplomats to discuss the future “relevance” of the Middle East

“It’s delightful to be here with all of you, and the best news that I can bring you is that there are only 146 more days of President Bush,” said Sen. John Kerry, chair of the Near East and South and Central Asian Affairs Subcommittee. “Never in my 24 years [in the Senate] have I seen our [country’s] position as compromised, our credibility as tarnished, and the situation as complex and convoluted as it is right now.”

Kerry was one of a dozen panelists to speak at the New America Foundation’s soft launch of its Middle East Task Force, a division of the Washington D.C.-based think tank that will focus its research on America’s future in that volatile region. The three-hour discussion held last month in Denver at the Democratic National Convention was given the loaded title: “Can the Next President Make the Middle East Irrelevant?”

The answer from the panel was an emphatic “No.”

“As long as oil is relevant to us, the Middle East will be relevant to us,” said Gregory Craig, senior advisor to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and senior national security advisor to Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. “As long as religion is relevant to us in this country . . . as long as religion plays a role in our lives, and the lives of others, the Middle East will be relevant to us.” And as long as we are the de facto protectorate of Israel, he said, the Middle East will be relevant to us.

The more appropriate question, the one that Obama is prepared to grapple with if president, he said, is: “Can the Middle East be made less dangerous?”

Craig said he believes this is an achievable goal. The Middle East, though in the turmoil of warfare and profound shifts within its regional power structure, can be brought back to a relative stability if the next president embraces diplomatic and economic strategies, and reverses the eight years of American absence within the Arab-Israeli negotiations. It’s vital, he added, that the next president be engaged early and with full force in Middle Eastern issues, and not wait until his seventh year in office to engage in diplomacy—an obvious swipe at the inaction of George W. Bush in regard to Israel, and to an extent, Iran.

Craig laid out an abbreviated vision of foreign policy for an Obama administration, hinging on the war in Iraq: Obama would begin immediately to draw troops out of Iraq, roughly two brigades every month, concurrent to intensifying diplomatic measures with Iraq’s leadership and neighbors.

These neighbors would be “well-advised,” he said, to maximize these diplomatic entreaties. With Iran, the threat of economic sanctions or military action would be real and remain on the table. The Turks and Saudis, with their own sectarian issues, and the Syrians and Jordanians stressed under the spill over of violence and refugees from Iraq, all offer promise as helpful partners. The leaders of these countries, Craig said, “have the capacity to make it worse [in Iraq], but they also have the capacity to work through this transition.”

Former Congressman Mel Levine, Middle East policy advisor to the Obama campaign, said that Obama will work with Iran, trade with Iran, and welcome Iran back to the community of nations, but if diplomacy doesn’t work, economic sanctions possibly coupled with multilateral military action would be options. But conversation and diplomacy, he said, need to shape the future of American foreign policy.

“We have to engage with Islam,” Craig agreed. “Obama has made the promise that during his first year as president that he will give a major address at a Muslim capital. To begin a discussion that will lead to greater understanding, and greater dialogue.”

The past eight years have been a foreign-policy nightmare, Kerry said, and to highlight the mismanagement responsible, he told the story of meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2005.

“I went into the West Bank the morning after the elections,” Kerry said. “And he said to me, ‘You know, Senator, I know exactly what you expect of me. I have to disarm Hamas. Now you tell me how I am supposed to do that. Look around you—I have no police, I have no radios, I have no equipment. I have no ability to deliver. In fact, Hamas has more ability to deliver service in the street than I do.’ It was the single largest moment where I regretted the loss of the presidency.” Despite American rhetoric that Israel and the United States needed a partner for peace within the Palestinian ranks, Abbas was left isolated and unsupported.

“We did nothing, folks,” said Kerry. The Bush administration made demands of Abbas but offered no assistance, indicative of the style of foreign policy that has defined the tenure George Bush. He continued, “You can’t have diplomacy that is: Send your diplomats in to sit down with somebody and tell them what they have to do, and that’s the end of the discussion. And I know for a fact that is exactly what some of our high-level envoys have been told that they had to do over these past few years.”

Under an Obama presidency, he argued, this dangerous policy would be reversed. America would approach foreign policy with diplomacy and not just an understood leverage of military power.

“I am confident in our ability to take on this challenge,” Kerry said. “I am thirsty.”

—Chet Hardin

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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