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ANALYSIS By David Staba

Tom Reynolds isn't running for Congress, nor is the man widely considered his most likely replacement in the House of Representatives.

After a weekend mulling what he called a "historic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," state Sen. George Maziarz told the Niagara Falls Reporter on Monday that he will not seek the Republican nomination for the seat representing New York's 26th Congressional District. Reynolds held the seat for almost 10 years before announcing on March 20 that he will not seek a sixth term.

By choosing to stay put, the six-term Republican state senator made it more likely that a prominent Democrat, Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul, will join a field that already includes three announced or highly probable candidates from her party alone.

Maziarz, who stood a few feet from Reynolds during last week's news conference, said his decision had nothing to do with leaving his post in the Republican-controlled state Senate, or with the prospect of serving as a freshman member of what figures to be a shrinking GOP minority in Washington, D.C.

Instead, Maziarz said it was a family choice, made after long discussion with his wife, Beverly.

"Beverly and I were up all night Saturday and into Sunday talking about it," Maziarz said. "Her heart's not in it, and if her heart's not in it, mine's not in it, either."

While Reynolds acknowledged the shifting political climate in announcing he would leave the House at the end of the year, Maziarz said another comment by the congressman had a greater impact on his own choice.

"When Tom, at his press conference, said he hardly knew his grandchildren, that brought home how difficult that lifestyle is," Maziarz said.

Maziarz, who has represented most of Niagara County outside the city of Niagara Falls in the upper house of the New York State Legislature since 1995, was immediately dubbed the front-runner to replace Reynolds by GOP leaders across the vast 26th district.

The announcement that Reynolds will retire at the end of the year created headlines across the country, from The New York Times to Politico.com. Maziarz's decision will create a sizable wave locally.

Given his experience in Albany and the connections that come with, his name recognition across Reynolds' district, which envelops much of Maziarz's Senate territory, and his fund-raising track record, the Republican line was clearly his for the asking.

It was certainly no coincidence that Maziarz was standing a few feet to the right of Reynolds when the latter made his retirement public in a Williamsville fire hall on Thursday.

Or that Reynolds' first words after stepping to the podium were "George Maziarz and I have been traveling through the district," before joking that the reason for the news conference was to present an oversized check to the Main Transit Fire Department.

At least a half-dozen other congressional hopefuls spent the weekend waiting for Maziarz.

In his own party, sources said Assemblyman Jim Hayes of Amherst, White House assistant political director Nick Sinatra of Kenmore, U.S. Army veteran David Bellavia of Batavia -- who won a Silver Star in Iraq and wrote a book about his experiences there -- and Buffalo attorney Michael Powers would all consider running, but only if Maziarz deferred. On the Democratic side, two-time Reynolds challenger Jack Davis has yet to announce his intentions, but has been sounding very much like he plans another bid. Jon Powers, another Iraq veteran, has already declared his candidacy and received the endorsement of several county committees, including Niagara's. Alice Kryzan, an environmental attorney from Amherst, has also been campaigning.

Sources in both parties said Maziarz would have had better prospects of winning the seat than Reynolds would have had of keeping it.

Like Maziarz, Hochul was surprised by Reynolds' announcement and said she is assessing her options, particularly with Maziarz out of the picture.

"It's clearly an opportunity that I'm going to look at seriously," she told the Reporter. "I need to take some time and consider all the factors."

Hochul's entrance would alter the dynamics of the race significantly. She is the only Democrat in the current group of possibilities who has ever won an election and boasts a much deeper political resume than any prospects from either party, having worked for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and served on the Hamburg Town Board before succeeding David Swarts as Erie County Clerk when he became commissioner of the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

"She would be ideal," said one 40-year veteran of Democratic politics in Niagara County. "The party would be crazy not to get behind her if she wants to run."

Hochul -- whose husband, Bill, is an assistant U.S. Attorney in Buffalo who led the prosecution in the Laborers Local 91 case -- won a full term as county clerk last fall by a 2-1 ratio, despite a landslide victory by Republican Chris Collins in the county executive's race at the top of the Erie County ballot.

She also deftly parried an aggressive, but ultimately unsuccessful effort by GOP challenger Bill O'Laughlin to connect her with former governor Eliot Spitzer's hugely unpopular proposal to give driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, turning the issue to her advantage.

Davis made the 2006 race uncomfortably close for Reynolds, spending $2 million of his own money to boost his name recognition in the area that connects the suburbs of Buffalo and Rochester and envelops the primarily rural areas in between.

Revelations about Florida Rep. Mark Foley's illicit correspondence with teenaged pages, which surfaced barely a month before Election Day, raised questions about whether Reynolds, then the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, acted quickly and decisively enough in making House leaders aware of the situation.

A clumsy attempt to defuse the controversy by staging a press conference with children of his supporters surrounding him backfired badly, with footage of the fiasco landing in the lead slot on "The Daily Show," not a spot generally coveted by Republicans.

The freak October ice storm that blacked out most of Western New York enabled Reynolds to call on his White House connections, then take credit for the remarkably speedy response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. While the storm is widely credited with saving Reynolds in 2006, Davis' inability to capitalize on the opening created by the Foley scandal -- or to articulate a position on issues other than his personal windmill, free trade -- doomed his challenge. Having $5.2 million to spend didn't hurt Reynolds, either.

Things weren't looking much easier this time around if Reynolds decided to run for a sixth term.

Recent allegations that the NRCC's former treasurer embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars while Reynolds headed the organization were already providing fodder for Democratic hopefuls.

Davis suggested that if he did run, he would spend up to $3 million this time, while adding a strident stance on immigration to his anti-free trade platform.

Powers, whose early campaigning has focused on his opposition to the Iraq war, has already received financial support from Internet-based groups opposed to the war, such as moveon.org.

Along with the national Democratic Party, those organizations largely sat out the 2006 race, in part because Davis -- who was a Republican until shortly before his 2004 political debut -- showed little interest in courting them.

Reynolds' close relationship with President George W. Bush's White House, particularly former political adviser Karl Rove, made him attractive from a national perspective. Last week's developments may have lessened national interest in the race, one Democratic source with connections to the party's upper echelon said.

"The national party and Internet organizations were going to target Reynolds," the source said. "With him out, there's no big prize for them in this race."

Powers will continue to receive outside support, based on his anti-war platform. An entrance by Hochul could also attract the national spotlight, given her local profile, experience working in Washington, D.C., and connections in the state Democratic Party.

Since roughly one-third of the district's population lives in Erie County, Democratic leaders there will have the largest say in who gets the party's endorsement. While Hochul is a favorite of Chairman Len Lenihan, the Erie County party has gladly accepted Davis' donations since his last run.

Any Democrat would face daunting institutional challenges in a district whose boundaries have been shifted by the Republican majority in the state Senate to favor GOP incumbents. The most recent change came after the 2000 census, when districts represented by longtime Democrats John LaFalce and Louise Slaughter were merged, leading to LaFalce's retirement.

The gerrymandering left a 26th District comprised of 41 percent registered Republicans, 31 percent Democrats and the rest registered to third parties or as independents. Compounding that statistical shortcoming, any sort of Democratic Party machinery is virtually nonexistent in several of the district's rural counties, which are even more heavily Republican.

Not that the party infrastructure in Erie, Niagara and Monroe counties offers a tremendous amount of support to Democratic candidates, either.

Only five of the 19 Niagara County legislators caucus together as Democrats, with other party members choosing to organize with the Republican majority.

In Erie County, the party somehow managed to lose the county executive's race last fall, despite a clear numerical advantage and the fresh memory of the fiscal meltdown triggered by the outgoing Joel Giambra, a Republican.

At least Erie County Democrats were able to field a candidate, unlike their counterparts in the Rochester area, where the GOP has dominated the legislature for more than a decade and incumbent executive Maggie Brooks ran unopposed last fall.

Back in Niagara County, Maziarz's decision abruptly stopped a political carousel that had barely started turning. Republican Chairman Henry Wojtaszek had said he planned to run for state Senate if Maziarz took a shot at the House. Democratic Assemblywoman Francine Del Monte was receiving pressure from party leaders in Albany to challenge for the vacant seat.

Del Monte, who told the Niagara Gazette late last week that she was comfortable in the Assembly, would be even more unlikely to challenge Maziarz.

Instead, the state Democratic Party will increase its focus on another Western New York state Senate district, the one to be vacated by the retiring Mary Lou Rath. Possible candidates there include heavyweight boxer Joe Mesi and Amherst Town Councilman Dan Ward on the Democratic side, with Erie County Legislator Michael Ranzenhofer the probable Republican nominee.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 25 2008