The district, which stretches up the eastern side of the state from New York City’s outer suburbs to Essex County, and sprawls as far west as Delaware County, is heavily Republican.
Congressman Sweeney, first elected in 1998, has never experienced serious trouble in his re-election bids. Two years ago, he beat his Democratic challenger, Doris Kelly, by a margin of nearly two-to-one. (Sweeney polled 188,753 votes to 96,630 for Kelly.)
Add to this the perennial difficulty of dislodging incumbents from the House of Representatives, and Sweeney’s position seems almost unassailable.
It may not turn out that way, however. To some eyes, Sweeney is vulnerable – in part because of President Bush’s low standing and in part because the congressman has been the subject of some problematic headlines on issues as diverse as his attendance at a frat party and health worries.
Democrats consider Sweeney’s seat a key New York target as they seek to cut into – and possibly overturn — the Republican majority in the House of Representatives.
Their candidate looks almost certain to be Kirsten Gillibrand, an attorney who hails from one of Albany’s best-connected political families.
Gillibrand’s polished candidacy has caused a stir in Democratic circles and that, in turn, has allowed her to set an impressive fundraising pace. According to a recent New York Times report, Gillibrand’s campaign has $511,259 in the bank — a sum significantly less than, but not dwarfed by, the incumbent’s $961,819.
Two scheduled interviews with Gillibrand for this article fell through amid confusion.
For his part, Sweeney told the Echo that he felt “very confident, very strong” about his candidacy. He did acknowledge, however, that “it’s going to be a competitive year.
“New York Republicans are not in the best of standing,” Sweeney noted, adding that Democrats have “targeted all New York Republicans. This is driven by Washington politics and the Washington Democratic Party.”
Both sides are already striving to frame the debate to their advantage. Cognizant of the president’s unpopularity, Democrats are seeking to tie Sweeney to Bush as closely as possible and thus “nationalize” the election. Sweeney, in contrast, is seeking to keep the focus on local issues.
“The president is not particularly popular at the moment,” commented Joseph Zimmerman, a professor of political science at SUNY Albany. “Usually a president can help get members of his party elected – the coattails effect. This year could be more like a reverse coattails effect.”
Sweeney asserted his independence from the administration in his interview with the Echo, noting that he had voted against the White House on a number of occasions.
“It’s not going to be enough [for an opponent] to say ‘I hate George Bush, get rid of John Sweeney,” he added. “Someone else is going to have to say how they will represent the people of this district better.”
Sweeney placed particular emphasis on the funding he had secured for the district – a figure he estimated at $367m. He also highlighted his membership of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. He and another Irish-American, Rep. Jim Walsh, are the only two New York Republicans on the committee. Walsh could also come under pressure in his re-election bid in the 25th District.
Sweeney contended that “it is not in [the New York electorate’s] interest to throw overboard the two Republicans who are on the committee.”
The Sweeney-Gillibrand battle has already become personal, despite the fact that the campaign has six months still to run. The congressman attracted unfavorable comment earlier this month when he referred to Gillibrand as “a pretty face.”
He told the Record, a Troy newspaper: “You can’t take a resume and a pretty face from New York City and say to people, this is good for you simply because we can spend a lot of money and raise a lot of money.”
“Someone should tell John Sweeney that it’s 2006, not 1906,” a former Democratic state chairperson, Judith Hope, responded.
The Gillibrand campaign has also sought to shine a spotlight upon the congressman’s links to lobbyists, even including a video on its official Web site that mocks a fundraising trip to a ski resort in Utah.
Sweeney pulled no punches in his response:
“The inference is that you are not representing the people,” he said of Gillibrand’s tactics. “She is not qualified to make that claim. She was born, bred and raised on lobbying dollars. She was sent to private school and given a very privileged upbringing by one of Albany’s biggest lobbyists.”
Sweeney was referring to Gillibrand’s father Doug Rutnick, who is a veteran of the lobbying business.