Rep. Chris Lee (R)
New York 26th District
The destination of the Erie Canal, the great state engineering project that made New York the Empire State, is Lake Erie. The final 100 miles of the canal passed through the rolling countryside of western New York when it was scarcely settled, except by American Indians. In some ways, the region has a Midwest flavor. People speak not in the pungent accents of New York City but in flat Midwestern tones. The economy, based originally on farming, was dominated by heavy industry by the late 19th century. The land was settled mostly by New England Yankees, with cultural folkways quite different from those of New York City. Later, they were joined by Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants who came to work in the factories of Buffalo and Rochester. For most of its history, western New York had an economy more prosperous than that of the rest of the country, as you can still see in the solid houses and schools, stores, and factories built to weather the upstate winters. But in the past three decades, economic growth has lagged behind the rest of the nation. Many of Buffalo’s factories have closed, and the large Delphi plant in Lockport—where the locks of the Erie Canal are near Main Street—had major cutbacks following the company’s bankruptcy in 2005. Rochester’s premier industries, Eastman Kodak and Xerox, have fallen on hard times and laid off thousands of workers.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 26th Congressional District of New York covers much of western New York. About half its people are in the suburbs of Buffalo in Erie and Niagara counties. It extends from the city limits of Buffalo to the city limits of Rochester and includes Rochester’s northwestern suburbs. In between is rural and small-town territory. One of them is Attica, scene of a terrible prison uprising in 1970. Politically, this is ancestrally Republican country, based on upstaters’ general distrust of Democratic New York City. But as economic growth has lagged, upstate New York has trended toward the Democratic Party. The 26th District still leans Republican, however. It was one of six New York districts that voted for Republican George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004, and it was one of four New York districts that voted for GOP presidential nominee John McCain in 2008.
Rep. Chris Lee (R)
Elected: 2008, 1st term.
Born: April 1, 1964, Kenmore .
Education: U. of Rochester, B.A. 1987; Chapman U., M.B.A. 1997.
Family: Married (Michele); 1 child.
Professional Career: Microtek Lab, Sales operations mgr., 1990-92, Dir. of sales, 1993-94; Enidine, Inc., Sales, 1995-97, Dir. of international sales & marketing, 2000-02, Gen. mgr., 2003-07; Pres., Automation Group, 2003-07
Amid a nationwide financial crisis, New York Republican Chris Lee arrived in Congress in January 2009 as a freshman legislator with a unique background managing a multinational machinery company. Nine months into his first term, Lee’s business sense has evolved into a political acumen that has caught the eye of party leaders who say his pragmatism makes him a rising star.
|Chris Lee (R-Ind-C)||148,607||(55%)||($2,220,960)|
|Alice Kryzan (D)||109,615||(41%)||($1,206,640)|
|Jonathan Powers (WF)||12,104||(4%)||($1,183,545)|
|Chris Lee (R)||Unopposed|
“Chris is a superstar in the freshman class,” said Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, where Lee serves. “For a freshman, his grasp of financial issues is superb. His questions are thoughtful, and he can be principled, but he’s not overly partisan. He’s respected on both sides of the aisle. I expect he’ll be in leadership one day if he wants, or in leadership on a committee.”
Lee grew up in Tonawanda, N.Y., near Buffalo, where his father owned a small business that manufactured machine components. The youngest of four children, he says he was probably the least likely to go into politics. That distinction belonged to his older sister, who became an aide to former New York Republican Gov. George Pataki. Lee studied economics and finance at nearby Rochester University. Drawn to the burgeoning information technology industry in the early 1990s, Lee headed west after graduation to take a job in California, then the nation’s IT epicenter. He eventually rose to sales director for Microtek Labs, an engineering testing facility. He also got his M.B.A. from Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
During the same period, the small machine shop that Lee’s father had founded was changing. Lee moved back east in 1995 to help out with fast-growing Enidine Inc., which was developing into a multinational corporation specializing in transportation automation. Lee oversaw its expansion under the new name International Motion Control. Having developed markets in Asia and Europe, the business was sold in 2007 to ITT Corp. Lee left the company with the twin luxuries of time and money to get involved in national politics.
Although he hadn’t been active in party politics, Lee held appeal for local GOP leaders who thought his background in business and finance — and his ability to self-fund his campaign to the tune of $1 million — made him an attractive candidate to succeed the retiring Rep. Tom Reynolds, a powerful Republican who represented an upstate district in western New York. Lee said he was concerned about the direction the country was taking, particularly what he considered the federal government’s profligate spending. He made his pitch for the nomination by citing his record as a businessman and emphasizing his fiscal conservativism. “I was someone who’d created jobs, knows about balancing a budget, running a business, (and was) a successful exporter of products around the globe,” Lee said in a recent interview. Hoping to avoid a divisive primary, the congressional district’s Republican leaders got together and interviewed seven candidates with the idea of lending one of them their strong endorsement. Lee got their blessing, and the other hopefuls stepped aside.
Initially expected to be one of the most competitive of the year, the race took a surprising turn when the Democrats’ top prospects failed to survive the primary. Jack Davis, a local billionaire who nearly defeated Reynolds in 2006, and Jon Powers, an Iraq war veteran backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, both lost to attorney Alice Kryzan. Although Kryzan’s upset victory made the race a lower priority for the DCCC, the group continued to pour money into her campaign. But her fundraising was no match for Lee’s, who outraised Kryzan $2.2 million to $1.2 million. Criticizing both parties’ records in Washington, Lee distanced himself from national Republicans in a year when the GOP brand was especially weak in New York. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama threatened to provide Democrats some powerful coattails, but the traditional Republican lean of the district played to Lee’s advantage.
The race took on a negative tone in the final stretch. The DCCC financed a television commercial that claimed Lee had profited from selling a family-owned company to a firm that had been fined for selling secrets to China. Lee admitted to the sale but pointed out that the purchasing firm’s legal problems occurred six years earlier. Lee won a solid victory, 55%-41%, over Kryzan.
When he arrived in Washington, Lee familiarized himself with the inner workings of Congress while also seeking home-grown advice on issues. He set up “advisory boards” to collect opinions from constituents on a variety of subjects relevant to pending legislation: He asked dairy farmers about agricultural policy and talked to local physicians about health care reform. “I firmly believe the answers to our problems don’t lie here in Washington. They lie throughout the county in those who are actually living and breathing the issues day in and day out,” Lee said.
When he was barely a month into office, on February 12, 2009, Continental Flight 3407 en route from Newark to Buffalo crashed in Lee’s district, killing all 49 passengers on board and one person in the house hit by the disabled airplane. Lee immediately went to the crash site, and in the months following, worked with victims’ families to push for stronger guidelines governing pilot fatigue, which was a contributing factor in the crash. He has proposed legislation for further inquiry into pilot training procedures.
His approach to legislating is cool-headed bipartisanship. “You’re supposed to get something done,” Lee said. “It doesn’t help you to be an ideologue and sit on one side or the other. People are frustrated. They just want someone who’s actually going to do something. Truly, who cares who gets credit for it? Let’s just move the ball forward.”
Lee has reached out to senior western New York Democrats. “What I never saw was them working hand-in-hand to focus on local issues,” he said. With new regulations requiring passports set to take effect at the Canadian border near his district, Lee teamed up with Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins of the neighboring 27th District to establish a new passport office in their region, which will open in early 2010. “We’ve established a good working relationship,” said Higgins, describing Lee as a “workhorse.” Lee also joined the Upstate Caucus, a new group organized by influential Rules Committee Chairman Louise Slaughter, who is close to the Democratic House leadership. With other representatives from the area, Lee is working on a high-speed rail link between Buffalo and Albany. Higgins said his new colleague has a “practical approach to solving everyday problems” that he finds “refreshing.”
Lee’s pragmatism is evident in his votes. In early 2009, he opposed the Democrats’ economic stimulus bill, but he also bucked his own party by opposing the Republicans’ budget proposal. “When I was looking at some of the impact it had on Social Security and Medicare, I had issues with it,” Lee said of the GOP plan, noting that it capped Social Security benefits, which he worried would hurt seniors in his district. Lee has supported some Democratic ideas, including voting to renew the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and in favor of federal funding for stem cell research. On the Financial Services Committee, he’s also pushed for more transparency in financial reporting by requiring annual testimony from some government agencies. “I never want to be known that, no matter what party you’re from, that’s how you vote. It’s wrong,” Lee said. “You should be making up your own mind.”
House Minority Leader John Boehner calls Lee one of the stand-out first-year lawmakers. “Chris Lee is already an accomplished legislator who brings common-sense business experience to fixing problems here in Washington,” he said in a prepared statement. “He’s a strong voice for his constituents, and is clearly a rising star among House Republicans.”
By Jessica Taylor