VERONA BEACH - Republican committee members from the southwestern corner of the sprawling 23rd Congressional District met Thursday with the nine hopefuls for the GOP nomination for the seat being vacated by Army Secretary-designate John McHugh.
The hopefuls - Andrew Bisselle of Westport, Bart Bonner of Watertown, Gary Cooke of Port Henry, Matthew Doheny of Alexandria Bay, Douglas Hoffman of Lake Placid, Josh Lynch of Waddington, Paul Maroun of Tupper Lake, Dierdre Scozzafava of Gouverneur and Ronald Uva of Oswego - met individually with roughly 50 Republican committee members from Madison, Oneida and Oswego counties to introduce themselves and outline their positions on a variety of issues. Each hopeful gave a brief prepared speech, then answered questions from the committee members during a session open only to the GOP officials.
At the end of the evening, the candidates met as a group during an open session and answered three questions put to them by Franklin County GOP Chairman Jim Ellis. The questions - about balancing the federal budget, earmarks and the expected Democratic candidate, state Sen. Darrel Aubertine - highlighted the similarities among the nine.
All of the candidates agreed that the federal government needs to take immediate, dramatic steps to balance the national budget by curbing spending. Money saved by cutting government spending should be returned to the taxpayers, who are struggling to meet their personal financial obligations even as the government digs ever deeper into their pockets, they said.
Politicians need to "take their cues from the American people" and learn to live within their means, Lynch said.
"Families live within a budget; why can't government do so?" Bisselle agreed.
The candidates did demonstrate some differences on the question of earmarks - appropriations in the federal budget requested by individual lawmakers for specific projects within their home districts. While all the candidates agreed that the current system needs fixing, they disagreed on the value of the concept of earmarks.
Bonner and Bisselle called for a ban on all earmarks, with Bonner saying their real purpose is to enable incumbents to win re-election. But the others said some earmarks finance worthwhile projects and programs that otherwise would not get funded. The key is to make the process more transparent so voters can decide if the earmarks are being used appropriately, they said.
When Ellis closed the evening by asking if the candidates were ready to take on Aubertine, he was answered with a resounding, unanimous "yes."
Although the GOP is expecting Aubertine to be the Democratic nominee, the senator has not yet confirmed that he is interested in the seat. Democrats who have said they are interested in their party's nomination include Michael Oot, who ran against McHugh in November; Dan Francis of Watertown, who ran against McHugh in 1994; John T. Sullivan Jr., a former assistant state attorney general based in Watertown; and Daniel J. French, a former U.S. attorney for the northern district of New York.
Democrats are accepting resumes from potential candidates until July 17, after which the selection process will begin, according to Oot.
Thursday's Republican gathering was the second of four scheduled forums intended to give a broad cross-section of the GOP input into the candidate selection process, said Ellis, who is coordinating the gatherings. The nine hopefuls met Tuesday with roughly 50 GOP committee members from Hamilton and Fulton counties and will meet next week with committee members from the remaining six counties in the 23rd District in forums in Gouverneur and Plattsburgh.
Once the forums are over, the 11 county committee chairs will meet, then take their recommendation to a meeting involving committee members and state and local Republican elected officials from the entire congressional district, Ellis said.
The process is a marked contrast to the method in which Assemblyman James Tedisco was chosen to run in a special election to fill the vacancy in the neighboring 20th Congressional District that was created when Kirsten Gillibrand was named to the U.S. Senate. Tedisco, who was chosen after a single meeting of the county chairs with little input from rank-and-file party members, lost the contest to Democrat Scott Murphy.
Committee members who attended Thursday's forum said they were pleased with the process.
"I think it's a good process," said Oswego County GOP Chairman George Williams. "It's about time," he added, acknowledging that previous GOP candidate selections have been kept within a very small group of party leaders.
"This is the way our search should be," said Janice Hedgdon, a committee member from the city of Oneida.
Henry Wojtaszek of Niagara County, the state GOP committee's upstate coordinator who sat in on Thursday's forum, said he was very impressed with the process and was "confident we're going to get a good result."
Committee members interviewed after the forum agreed they thought the process would produce a strong contender, although they were reluctant to say which hopeful they thought would make the best candidate.
"It was very gratifying to see so many well qualified individuals," said Tom Kopp, a committee member from the Madison County town of Sullivan. "Any one of them could do the job."