Defeated in the 2010 Republican wave by conservative Ann Marie Buerkle, Democrat Dan Maffei got his revenge with a win over Buerkle in November. He returns to Congress in a similar Syracuse, N.Y.-based district. A former senior congressional staffer, Maffei was a well-known figure in Washington even before he ran for office.
Maffei was born in Syracuse, the son of social workers, and grew up a self-described “nerd” who wrote computer code after school to make extra money. Maffei (pronounced Muh-FAY) earned three Ivy League degrees, from Brown University, the Columbia School of Journalism, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He briefly worked as a reporter for a local television station. In 1996, Maffei went to Washington to pursue a career on Capitol Hill, working as press secretary to Sens. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y. He then spent six years as a press aide to the Democratic minority on the House Ways and Means Committee, where he forged a relationship with the panel’s ranking Democrat, Charles Rangel of New York.
In 2006, few observers gave Maffei much of a chance when he launched a campaign against nine-term Republican Rep. James Walsh. But his anti-Iraq war focus, coupled with the favorable national climate for Democrats, provided the ingredients for a near-upset. Maffei fell short by fewer than 3,500 votes.
Flush with cash from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Maffei was set for a rematch in 2008. Then, in January 2008, Walsh unexpectedly announced that he would not run for reelection. Maffei avoided primary competition but weathered criticism over the generous campaign contributions he accepted from Rangel while Rangel was under investigation for tax fraud. Maffei defended the contributions and declined to return them. Outraised almost 6-to-1, GOP nominee Dale Sweetland, a farmer and former Onondaga County legislator, proved unable to replicate Walsh’s success. Maffei defeated him, 55 percent to 42 percent.
During his first stint in the House, Maffei emphasized his moderate stripes and nonideological pragmatism. He fought to include billions of dollars for school construction in the Democrats’ economic stimulus bill and also sought to direct funds to his district for “green jobs” and high-tech development.
The sluggish economy and the rise of the tea party endangered House Democrats in the 2010 midterms. Maffei faced a strong challenge from Buerkle, a Republican assistant state attorney general and former nurse. Buerkle highlighted the candidates’ different approaches to health care and the war in Afghanistan. During an October debate, Buerkle attacked the Democrats’ health care overhaul and said it would require 16,000 new employees at the Internal Revenue Service, a charge that Maffei said was fiction. Maffei tempered his support for the law by saying it was only a start toward fixing a system headed for disaster. The race was too close to call on Election Night, but Buerkle squeaked out a victory during the recount by 648 votes.
In his rematch against Buerkle, Maffei tried to take the offensive on health care, criticizing Buerkle’s vote to repeal the 2010 law. In one of his ads, he used anti-Washington rhetoric: “Although he wasn’t there long, he saw what was wrong with Washington.” The two candidates clashed over the minimum wage, with Maffei supporting an increase and Buerkle arguing that less regulation will lead to higher wages. And while Maffei pushed for investing in high-speed rail in Upstate New York, Buerkle deemed the program too costly. Maffei led early in the polls and outraised Buerkle, but she was buoyed by an ad blitz from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The district still leaned Democratic, which gave Maffei a slight advantage. In the end, he won back his seat.
Gregg Sangillo contributed to this article.