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Brett Sommer is an unorthodox politician. He doesn't spend a lot of time at fund raisers, he answers questions directly and until recently, he was waiting tables at TGIFriday's to supplement his income as a a teacher at a Catholic high school.
And in his first-ever race, he captured about 40 percent of the vote against a 26-year incumbent congressman.
Sommer, a former Western New York delegate for Sen. John McCain, waged a grassroots campaign on a shoestring budget against John LaFalce, and stunned poll watchers by not rolling over and playing dead on Nov. 7. With the campaign behind him, Sommer continues to teach Global Studies at Cardinal O'Hara High School in the Town of Tonawanda and says he is trying to restore some sort of normalcy to his family life. But that doesn't mean this is the end of his political career, Sommer says. Instead, he's watching the doors open before him, and he's looking to see which entrance will serve him best. He agreed to discuss those future plans, as well as the lessons he learned, in this Q&A.
Q: First of all, how did you get involved with running for Congress? What factors were involved?
A: The factors were, obviously, running John McCain's campaign. I think I made a name for myself amongst the politicos in the area with how much media I was able to garner from some of the little political tricks I was able to do, like having the ballot sued. It made (the Bush delegates, including Erie County Republican Chairman Bob Davis) mad, but afterward I think they were impressed with the job I did, how hard I worked. And it was partially me. I asked a few people who was running against John LaFalce. No one is? Well, why not me? I'll give him a run for his money. And apparently the word got back to the chairmen, and they didn't have anyone who wanted to take on the giant, so they asked and I said, yeah, what the heck.
Q: What do you have to do as a relative unknown to run against someone who's been in office for 26 years?
A: The toughest thing was to raise money, especially when you're not a wealthy person yourself. John, over the years, has made a lot of friends, and his friends aren't all Democrats. He's got friends who are wealthy Republicans, whom he's spread out some of the goodies to, and that's politics.
You try to take out your opponent's base, and that is what he's done over the years--he's co-opted a lot of rich Republicans with some government contracts and makes it so they don't want to give. I've heard stories that there's a small vindictive streak there, that if people were to give to one of his opponents, he would make sure that if they had business in front of them it wouldn't be heard. It's politics; not the way it should be, but it is. Because you can't raise as much money, there becomes this lack of credibility.
Q: Your campaign cost about $20,000. Did that small war chest prevent people from taking you seriously?
A: Of course, even among the journalists--the people who aren't supposed to be making determinations for who's credible and who's not. My editorial interview with the Niagara Gazette was a joke because the managing editor Terry Shaw was--he had this smirk that was almost a lack of respect, which I didn't encounter with any of the other papers. People think if they haven't seen a TV commercial, then you're not a real candidate, so there's all sorts of problems compounded by not being able to raise $100,000. You have to combat that by running a grassroots campaign. But to beat LaFalce, you need money. I think we got as far as we could get on the amount of money we had.
Q: By the same token, Chris Collins had all the money in the world in 1998, and you still ended up with as high a vote percentage as he did.
A: Bad candidate. Chris wasn't willing to do grassroots. While he's nice one-on-one, I don't think he's ever comfortable with the whole political schmoozing thing. I was much more comfortable. And if you spend money, it has to be wisely, and I wasn't very impressed by Chris' advertising campaign. It was very negative. He never told anybody why they needed to vote for Chris, he just said why John was a bad person. I feel that if I had half of Chris Collins' money, I could have beaten John LaFalce this year, even in a presidential election year.
Q: Gore easily carried New York, and Hillary manhandled Lazio. Did you see those Democratic voters vote right across party lines across the ballot?
A: Bush was never here, he made no effort for New York State. The race here was the Lazio/Clinton race, and the Democrats did a fantastic job of getting out their vote. In Niagara Falls, you had the DelMonte/Daly race and, once again, the Dems did a fantastic job of pushing out their vote. In a presidential election year, you tend to get more Democrats than Republicans. It's a fact of life. It's tough to get them to break the line, but we were actually able to do that. We had very good numbers where we were obviously plucking off Democrats.
Q: What were the reasons for that crossover appeal? Was it the strength of your platform or a general discontent with LaFalce?
A: I think it was the fact that I'm a school teacher, that I'm a regular person and not a professional politician. I think people like that. I'm not a rich guy, and I thought that played very well. There were a lot of people who liked the idea of a regular person running for Congress, and there were a lot of people who wanted change also.
Q: Now LaFalce is in for another two years. The rumor is that LaFalce may retire, and George Maziarz will make a run for his seat. How do you see that situation developing?
A: I think right now there are two likely contenders, one from Erie, one from Niagara County, and they're both fantastic men. Obviously, there's George, who is a good friend of mine and has been a big help in the campaign.
He has a proven track record of bringing home the bacon from Albany. I think there's an interest there, but I don't know--we never really talked about it at length. The other is (Erie County Executive Deputy) Carl Calabrese.
Carl has a lot of support in Erie County. He has a sterling reputation in politics, which leaves me between a rock and a hard place since they're both my friends. There's been talk of me running again in two years, but I won't do that without financial support. I can't do another 'no money' campaign. If the committee are going to target this seat and raise me the money, then I would strongly consider it--though I still might not run. It's really had a detrimental effect on my daughter. She's very happy to have her daddy home again. It was hard on the wife, too, but she didn't miss me as much as my daughter did.
Q: Would you be making waves if you tried to leapfrog Maziarz or Calabrese here?
A: If I get the backing, I get the backing. Both gentlemen have given me a lot of credit for doing as well as I've done, and both realize I've exceeded expectations and I'm a viable candidate. If I get the nomination, because I want the nomination, I think Maziarz and Calabrese would have no problem with that. Sometimes, you've got to take a shot in politics. Waiting for things to be safe isn't always the best way to win.
Q: Now that the campaign's over, is there anything you would have done differently, or something that would have restructured the way you approached this?
A: My regrets are that--in such an important race--we couldn't get the sorts of coverage that we needed to get, the free media. It bothers me that the media stands around and talks about how we need campaign finance reform--like the Gazette, again. They write how horrible it is and how we need campaign finance reform and how money shouldn't be the determinant if you should win. Then you get interviewed by the editorial board, and that becomes the sole determining factor of whether you reap the endorsement. It's the same with TV. Channel 4 never did one story on me until Election Night.
Q: That's when they stuck the camera in your daughter's face on the 11 o'clock news.
A: Yeah, when I exceeded expectations! We couldn't get them to show for one damn thing. We wanted to talk about Niagara Falls--especially Niagara Falls. Unfortunately, the media spends more time chasing around house fires than they do the positions of the candidates. We tried to get John to do a debate, and if the TV stations would have helped us out, we would have gotten one. I give Channel 7 a lot of credit for their small candidates' forums, but I think the media has to do a better job of covering the races, and not two weeks beforehand. The story that John LaFalce did not get endorsed by the UAW for the first time in 26 years got no coverage except for WLVL and your story in the Tonawanda News. The Buffalo News, WBEN, the TV stations--nothing. The way you get coverage is by advertising and raising a lot of money, which is unfortunate.
We lament the fact we have an uninformed electorate, but we held a press conference, and instead of a press conference, one of the local stations ran Barbra Streisand's last concert.
Take a look at this area. We have some serious issues. Even the Niagara Falls Reporter did an endorsement and didn't even talk to me. Is it because I didn't advertise? Newspaper advertising doesn't work in politics. Just look at Andy Ligammari.
Q: So say you decide not to run for Congress in two years. Is that the end of the short, happy political career of Brett Sommer?
A: Niagara County is already courting me, they already want me to run for something. I'd prefer not to say now, because I'm not prepared to make the announcement. But I do live in North Tonawanda, and there are citywide and legislative races coming up.
Q: How do you respond to the allegation that you ran for Congress as a puppet of George Maziarz?
A: Everyone has this perception that George runs everything, which is unfair. I think George does a great job, and I agreed with the Niagara Gazette in that I think they should redistrict the Falls, because he would do a great job helping Niagara Falls. There's this perception that King George controls the sun, the moon and the stars. George didn't even know I was running. He got the phone call from Bob Davis.
Q: Finally, you never took a leave of absence from teaching during the campaign. How have your students-- and the faculty--reacted to all of this?
A: I think the kids are happy because I'm still their teacher, but they're disappointed because they knew it meant a lot to me. I've gotten more compliments from their parents saying their children never paid attention to what was going on in the world until now. The kids were into it, and hopefully some of them will now be interested in politics. It was a good learning experience for them, it was a good learning experience for me.
It was a good experience for my wife--she learned how to mow the lawn and rake leaves.