Rep. Paul Tonko (D)
New York 21st District
As readers of its novelist laureate William Kennedy know, Albany is within living memory an antique city. Its solid row houses show its 19th-century prosperity. Its once-teeming lumberyards and railroad car shops, restaurants and hotels, have the patina of age and the accumulated grime of decades of coal smoke burned during six-month-long winters. Its history dates to 1624, when the Dutch built Fort Orange on the banks of the Hudson so seagoing ships could dock at the edge of the great gloomy forests near the confluence of the Hudson and the Mohawk—the natural crossroads of upstate New York even before the building of the Erie Canal and the New York Central Railroad. This was one of America’s early industrial centers. A few miles upriver, Troy was a steel town rivaling Pittsburgh in the 1840s, and later the leading producer of detachable collars. Cohoes, at the junction of the Hudson and the Mohawk, became a leading textile producer. Schenectady, a few miles up the Mohawk, was the site of Charles Steinmetz’s fabled General Electric laboratories (with help from Thomas Edison) and long remained a GE town. Albany was one of America’s biggest lumber towns in addition to serving as New York’s state capital.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
Albany is home to the state capitol of New York, but for a long time, it also had one of the nation’s most famed Democratic political machines, dating to 1921, when Daniel O’Connell and his brothers and local aristocrat Edwin Corning took control of City Hall. They never really relinquished it. O’Connell died in 1977 at age 91, still boss after 56 years, and his early partner’s son, Erastus Corning II, was mayor from 1942 until his death in 1983. The machine was sustained by legions of city and county employees, by a certain creativity when it came to counting votes, and by the raffish atmosphere that was found in the speakeasies of so many cities during Prohibition and lingered in Albany for decades after. Read Kennedy’s novels and you are there. Curiously, the machine made possible the transformation of Albany into the shinier metropolis it is today. Mayor Corning and Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller collaborated on a smorgasbord of civic improvement projects: the Empire State Plaza with 11,000 employees in 10 government buildings on 98 acres; the distinctive, ovoid performing arts center known as the Egg; and a renovated Union Station.
The 21st Congressional District of New York includes most of the Albany metro area: all of Albany County; Schenectady County, including Schenectady; Montgomery County, including Amsterdam, a carpet-making town until the mills moved south in 1955, rural Schoharie County, and parts of Rensselaer, including the gentrified Troy, with its bustling antique shops. It also takes in Fulton and Saratoga counties. Times have been tough here: Albany lost 5% of its population during the 1990s, Schenectady lost 6%, and Troy lost 9%. While the outer counties lean Republican, the Democratic machine vote in Albany makes this a comfortably Democratic district. Even Democrat Carl McCall, who lost every other county in the state outside New York City, beat incumbent Republican Gov. George Pataki in Albany County in 2002. Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton each took more than 70% of the vote there in 2006. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama won 64% of Albany County’s vote in 2008.
Rep. Paul Tonko (D)
Elected: 2008, 1st term.
Born: June 18, 1949, Amsterdam .
Education: Clarkson U., B.S. 1981.
Elected office: Montgomery Cnty Bd. of Supervisors, 1974-83, Chmn. 1981; NY Assembly, 1983-2007
Professional Career: NY Dept. of Transportation, 1972-74; NY Dept. of Public Service, 1974-83; Pres. & CEO, NY St. Energy Research & Development Authority, 2007-08
The congressman from the 21st District is Paul Tonko, a Democrat elected in 2008. The grandson of Polish immigrants, Tonko was born in the old mill town of Amsterdam, N.Y., where he still lives. His working-class background gave him an appreciation for the “underdog” that remains the underpinning of his political beliefs. Attracted from a young age to public service, he built his career in state government, first at the New York Department of Transportation and then as an engineer at the Department of Public Service, the state’s utilities regulator. In 1974, at age 26, he became the youngest person ever elected to the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors. He was elected board chairman in 1981. Tonko won a seat in the New York Assembly in a 1983 special election, and served for nearly a quarter-century. He won passage of a law requiring health insurers to cover most mental illnesses and another requiring social services workers to report all cases of suspected child abuse to the state. But he exercised his greatest influence over state energy policy, serving as chairman of the Assembly’s energy committee from 1992 to 2007, when he resigned to accept an appointment as head of the state’s Energy Research and Development Authority.
|Paul Tonko (D-WF)||171,286||(62%)||($753,520)|
|James Buhrmaster (R-C)||96,599||(35%)||($504,378)|
|Phillip Steck (Ind)||7,965||(3%)||($552,513)|
|Paul Tonko (D)||15,932||(40%)|
|Tracey Brooks (D)||12,166||(30%)|
|Phillip Steck (D)||7,498||(19%)|
|Darius Shahinfar (D)||4,002||(10%)|
His tenure there was short-lived. When Democratic Rep. Michael McNulty announced in October 2007 that he would not seek an 11th term in the 2008 election, Tonko began exploring a campaign to succeed him, and entered the race the following May. By then, the primary had already taken shape around two front-runners, Phil Steck, an Albany County legislator, and Tracey Brooks, a former regional director for New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both enjoyed a head start raising money. Brooks won the backing of the powerful women’s fundraising group EMILY’s List and other national women’s campaign groups, along with high-profile endorsements from U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan and former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro. But most of the local Democratic establishment lined up behind Tonko (McNulty remained neutral). Tonko won two important union endorsements, from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the local Service Employees International Union, as well as the backing of the state’s Working Families Party. With few differences between the candidates on major issues, the local support likely made the difference. Outraised and outspent by both Brooks and Steck, Tonko sailed to victory over both. He finished narrowly behind Brooks in her home base of Albany County, but won with huge margins on his own turf in Montgomery and Schenectady counties.
In the general election Tonko faced Republican Jim Buhrmaster, a Schenectady County legislator who hoped that his appeal to independents might help him overcome the huge registration advantage for Democrats in the district. But it was too tall an order for a seat Democrats have held since the 1950s. Tonko won with 62% of the vote. Buhrmaster received 35%, and Steck, who ran as an independent, received 3%.
Tonko got seats on the Science and Technology Committee and the Education and Labor Committee. He says he wants to focus on the issue he knows best, energy policy.