Rep. Brian Higgins (D)
New York 27th District
With its massive 1920s skyscraper City Hall overlooking the Niagara River and Lake Erie, Buffalo declares itself to be a city of substance. But it has gone through some rough times in recent decades. The butt of jokes about the snow that piles up at the eastern end of Lake Erie and that supposedly keeps it immobilized half the year, Buffalo also can claim credit for building a heavy industrial base in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as America’s No. 1 grain milling center and as a major steel producer. Today, the area still benefits from cheap hydroelectric power, but the Lackawanna steel mills are shuttered, and grain milling waned after the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in the 1950s. Buffalo has been eclipsed economically by the bigger Great Lakes industrial cities of Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago, and its architecturally bold downtown skyscrapers are overshadowed by the high-rise horizon of Toronto, not many miles away. Buffalo was the nation’s 15th-largest city in 1950 when it had a population of 580,000. By 2007, it was 69th-largest, with a population reduced by half to 273,000. Surrounding Erie County, once well over 1 million, had 910,000 people in 2008. Right across Buffalo’s Peace Bridge is the richest part of Canada, the golden horseshoe from Niagara Falls through Hamilton to Toronto. But Buffalo’s hopes of becoming Toronto’s back office have faded, and New York taxes are still high enough to leave Buffalo at a serious competitive disadvantage. Local boosters have criticized state capital powerbrokers for lavishing excessive attention on New York City as the state’s economic engine. And, to add insult to injury, the Buffalo Bills franchise in the National Football League has moved some of its home games to Toronto. Still, Buffalo retains some considerable assets: a high-skill labor force and inexpensive real estate, including a gentrified and handsome waterfront on a now-cleaner Lake Erie, and some impressive cultural institutions.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 27th Congressional District of New York consists of the eastern and southern two-thirds of Buffalo, plus most of the Erie County suburbs east and south of the city, from working-class Cheektowaga and Lackawanna to higher-income Hamburg and Orchard Park. The 27th also includes Chautauqua County, which is sufficiently rural to harbor some black bears and also is the famed birthplace of a movement to promote high-minded discourse. It was there that a training camp for Methodist Sunday school teachers was founded in 1874, attracting some 25,000 people to educational talks and inspirational lectures from the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Jennings Bryan. The rounds of summer lectures continue today. Although some Buffalo suburbs are Republican, this district is solidly Democratic. But as Buffalo struggles, it has become politically volatile. In 1992, Buffalo gave third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot 28% of the vote, his best showing in a central city anywhere. In 1994, Democrat Mario Cuomo lost Erie County to Republican George Pataki in the governor’s race. In recent contests for president and statewide offices, Buffalo and Erie County have been solidly Democratic.
Rep. Brian Higgins (D)
Elected: 2004, 3rd term.
Born: Oct. 6, 1959, Buffalo .
Education: S.U.N.Y. Buffalo, B.A. 1984, M.A. 1985, Harvard U. M.P.A. 1996.
Family: Married (Mary Jane); 2 children.
Elected office: Buffalo City Cncl., 1987-93; NY Assembly, 1998-2004.
Professional Career: Chief of staff, Erie Cnty. Leg., 1994-98; Lecturer, Buffalo State College, 2000-03.
The congressman from the 27th District is Brian Higgins, a Democrat elected in 2004. Higgins grew up in Buffalo, the son of a skilled tradesman who was prominent in local politics, serving on the Buffalo City Council and later as commissioner of the New York State Workers Compensation Board. His mother was a schoolteacher. Higgins graduated from Buffalo State College and later got a master’s degree from Harvard. A political junkie, he launched his career in government with staff jobs in the Erie County sheriff’s office, the state Assembly, and the county Legislature. In 1993, after six years on the Buffalo City Council, he ran for county comptroller and lost. In 1998, he was elected to the Assembly and served three terms. In a district crowded with unionized workers, Higgins often reminded voters that his father and uncle were bricklayers and he stressed his Irish immigrant heritage.
|Brian Higgins (D-WF)||185,713||(74%)||($850,357)|
|Daniel Humiston (R-Ind)||56,354||(23%)||($190,451)|
|Harold Schroeder (C)||7,478||(3%)||($3,635)|
|Brian Higgins (D-WF)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (79%), 2004 (51%)
A House seat unexpectedly opened up in 2004 when Republican Rep. Jack Quinn announced he was retiring after 12 years in Congress. Nancy Naples, a former Merrill Lynch executive in Manhattan and a popular local figure with strong name recognition, quickly wrapped up the Republican nomination, while five Democrats battled for their party’s nomination. Higgins was the favorite of local and national Democratic leaders, organized labor, and the Buffalo News, which called him “an unusually productive member of a largely dysfunctional legislative body” in Albany. He won the primary with 44% of the vote. In the contentious general election, Higgins reminded voters that Naples supported many of President George W. Bush’s policies, including his handling of national security. He criticized Republicans for shifting the tax burden from the rich to the middle class, and promised that he would make health care more available and that he would protect Social Security benefits. Naples criticized Higgins for supporting tax increases in Albany. Higgins won 51%-49%. Naples took 57% of the vote in Chautauqua County, which cast 20% of the district’s votes. Higgins won 53% in Erie County. It took 16 days of recounts and a court challenge before Naples conceded the nearly 3,800-vote victory.
In the House, Higgins established a centrist voting record, and after spending his first years securing his hold on the seat with an array of mostly successful efforts for his district, he was rewarded with a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee in 2009.
Higgins got $42 million for local projects in the 2005 highway bill and he helped to eliminate toll barriers on Interstate 90 in Buffalo. He helped to broker an agreement with the New York Power Authority for local financial aid, including waterfront improvements, in exchange for its long-term right to operate the Niagara Power Project. The issue strained his relationship with Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter in the adjoining district, who disagreed with his strategy. In 2008, he won a change in policy from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that resulted in 2,700 homeowners in Buffalo’s floodplain being released from having to pay flood insurance premiums. He also demanded changes by the Social Security Administration to eliminate a nearly two-year wait for local appeals of disability claims.
On national issues, Higgins’s support for the USA PATRIOT Act, which gave law enforcement enhanced powers in terrorism investigations, and his opposition to a deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq led to complaints from some liberals. But those positions may have been a net plus for him in the district. Republicans wanted to try to defeat Higgins in 2006 but couldn’t come up with a credible challenger. Higgins initially got the endorsement of local conservative leaders, but the state Conservative Party chairman overruled it. Still, he won 79%-21% against Assistant District Attorney Michael McHale. He appears safe, at least until redistricting, when he likely will join Buffalo leaders in seeking to unify the entire city into a single district. However, western New York as a whole could lose a district in the 2010 census, which would add a high degree of volatility to redistricting in that region.