A grassroots candidate seeks a “miracle” in the 23rd District.
State Route 3 runs through New York’s 23rd Congressional District from Hannibal on the west end near Lake Ontario to Plattsburgh on the shore of Lake Champlain that forms the state’s eastern border with the Vermont.
From Hannibal, it takes about an hour and a half to drive to Watertown (population 27,310, which makes it one of the district’s largest towns). Drive another 115 miles east from Watertown, and State Route 3 crosses a bridge and becomes known locally as River Street. There’s a pizza shop on the right as you cross the intersection with Main Street. Just past Church Street on the left, in the former location of a Nice ‘n’ Easy convenience store, is the main headquarters of the Doug Hoffman for Congress campaign.
Friday afternoon, two campaign staffers and a handful of volunteers were manning Hoffman HQ, stuffing envelopes, answering phones and handing out yard signs to supporters who occasionally dropped in. Unless you were already aware of the news surrounding the Conservative Party candidate in this three-way special election, you’d never suspect that this building in Saranac Lake, N.Y. (population 4,908) was Ground Zero for one of the biggest political stories of the year.
Just a few weeks ago, Doug Hoffman never would have suspected such a thing. The candidate has expressed astonishment that his underdog campaign against two major party opponents has suddenly made him the hero of conservatives nationwide. “I would have laughed in disbelief,” Hoffman said in a Sunday column for the New York Post, describing a few of the most recent developments in the campaign.
Thursday morning, Hoffman was endorsed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey in an event at the campaign’s office in Watertown. Then he traveled to Syracuse for an afternoon press conference where he reciprocated by endorsing the flat tax, a policy long promoted by Armey, who is now chairman of FreedomWorks.
By the time Armey and Hoffman appeared in Syracuse, rumors were already swirling and, within a few hours, the buzz was confirmed when Hoffman unexpectedly picked up the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican Party’s 2008 vice-presidential candidate. That day, the Hoffman campaign raised $116,000 in online contributions.
Things were happening so fast that plans for a sit-down interview with Hoffman on Friday were canceled between the time I left Watertown and the time I arrived in Saranac Lake. An aide phoned to explain that producers for the Neal Cavuto show had just called and the candidate was on his way to Albany for a 4:30 p.m. appearance via satellite on the Fox News Channel program.
Still, I kept driving until I reached 111 River Street. There is a story behind the building that now serves as Hoffman HQ. It was in the summer of 1964 at this location, then a Mobil station, that Doug Hoffman took a job pumping gas. His father had abandoned the family when Doug was 10 and, as the second-oldest of four children, his income was needed to help his mother pay the bills.
Such is the symbolic meaning of the headquarters site, while the meaning of the campaign to elect Hoffman — now a successful executive for a major accounting firm — has now become apparent to everyone who pays attention to politics.
The Nov. 3 election to replace longtime Rep. John McHugh, a Republican appointed by President Obama to be Secretary of the Army, has especially drawn the attention of conservatives in recent weeks. That’s mainly because the New York GOP leadership picked liberal state assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava as their candidate, sparking a struggle that pits the Republican establishment against grassroots activists — “a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” as Hoffman calls it.
Given his hardscrabble upbringing, Hoffman’s sympathies are clearly with the conservative grassroots. He was able to get a college education only because his excellent academic record in high school inspired local businessmen to establish a scholarship fund to assist him. Joining the National Guard also helped, and he served a total of six years in Guard and Army Reserves before finishing his enlistment as a staff sergeant. Shortly thereafter, already married with two young children, Hoffman completed his MBA at the University of Connecticut and returned home. At age 27, he became controller — that is to say, the chief accountant — for the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee, responsible for a multimillion dollar budget.
Memories of that Winter Olympiad, particularly the U.S. hockey team’s gold-medal upset of the heavily favored Soviet squad, is something of a touchstone for the Hoffman campaign. Speaking Thursday to supporters in Waterstown, the candidate echoed ABC sportscaster Al Michaels’ famous words — “Do you believe in miracles?” — when he said, “We’re going to create a miracle on Nov. 3… That miracle starts today.”
The surprise endorsement by Palin? The stupendous outpouring of online donations? A nice start, by any measure, but with Election Day now barely a week away, Team Hoffman knows they’ll need hard work to defeat both the GOP candidate Scozzafava and the Democrat, Bill Owens.
More than anything, one source with the Hoffman campaign said, they’re concerned about the army of election operatives that labor unions and the ACORN-connected Working Families Party — which has ties to both Scozzafava and Owens — will bring into action in the final week of the campaign. To counter that threat, the source said, they’re sending out a nationwide call for grassroots volunteers to come to the 23rd District and provide “boots on the ground” for Hoffman.
In his Post column, Hoffman declared himself one of those “mad as hell” ordinary citizens who have protested at Tea Party rallies and town-hall meetings, and concluded by saying that this election in upstate New York is far more important than mere partisan politics: “This is a fight for our children’s future. It’s a fight for America.”
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