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Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (Source: NYS Assembly)
Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (Source: NYS Assembly)

Dede Scozzafava: A different kind of Republican maverick

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This week, North Country Public Radio is profiling the three candidates vying to replace Congressman John McHugh. The best known of the three is Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, a veteran Republican from Gouverneur. Scozzafava has been a fixture in the region's political life for a decade, and her family has deep ties in the North Country. When she won the GOP nomination this summer, Scozzafava was widely viewed as the front-runner. Her moderate views seemed like a perfect fit in a district that has been trending Democratic. But as Brian Mann reports, Scozzafava's campaign sparked a fierce conservative backlash.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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A couple of weeks ago, Dede Scozzafava traveled to Saranac Lake to talk with a group of voters organized by the local chamber of commerce.  She looked tired but relaxed and confident.

This was a veteran North Country politician, meeting with people she's known and worked with for years.

"I'm an independent voice," she said.  "Today, there's a lot of discussion on a lot of issues and it gets drowned out in partisan rhetoric.  And at a time when we should be making critical decisions, we shouldn't be yelling at one-another."

In an era when the political parties are often at each others' throats, Scozzafava won re-election to the Assembly for a decade embracing this kind of middle road.

In 2007, when other Republicans were pounding away relentlessly at then-Governor Eliot Spitzer, Scozzafava reacted to one of his speeches this way.

"He really stressed a theme of all of us working together.  I come away from that speech invigorated and ready to get to work," she told NCPR.

Some of Scozzafava's views do put her well outside the Republican mainstream.

She's pro-choice, she supports President Obama's economic stimulus plan, and she voted twice to legalize same-sex marriage, which she describes as a civil right.

"At first I was leaning toward civil union," she said.  "But the more I spoke with them the more I understood that that's not equal.  That's almost like, "Well, you're almost there, but we can't do it because there's political pressure against it."

Scozzafava's backers say this kind of stance shows her political courage.

Teresa Sayward is a Republican assemblywoman from Willsboro, who also supports gay marriage.

"It was courageous for all of us," Sayward said.  "We're all from conservative, traditional areas.  A vote like this could have meant losing our seat."

But Scozzafava's centrism infuriates movement conservatives who view her brand of bipartisanship as a kind of sell-out.

National groups like Club for Growth have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on attack ads targeting Scozzafava.

And media figures like Glen Beck and Sean Hannity have used their radio shows to discourage Republicans from voting for her.

"This is one of these races where you don't want the establishment Republican candidate elected," Hannity said.

Even local Republicans who back Scozzafava's campaign concede that they're uncomfortable with many of her views.  Jim Ellis is GOP chairman in Franklin County.

"I disagree with your stand on abortion, I disagree with your stand on gay marriage," he said.

Ellis says he backed Scozzafava and opposed conservative candidate Doug Hoffman out of loyalty to his party.

"I have a responsibility to look after the responsibilities of the Republican Party," he  pointed out.  "I just do what I have to do."

Through the summer, Scozzafava tried to refocus the campaign away from this ideological firestorm--back on her personal popularity, her ties to the region.

Her folksy, personal down-to-earth approach to politics worked in the past, winning her easy re-elections even as her political views drifted to the left.

"My grandfather came over from Italy," she said, who says she learned her work ethic from his struggle to create local businesses.

Scozzafava married a union activist and together they raised two kids in Goveurneur, where she served as mayor.

In 2003, while still in the Assembly, she launched her own business venture with a brother: Tom Scozzafava.

They created a new chain of retail stores to serve the region's rural towns.  Scozzafava also built a track record in Albany as someone able to leverage money and resources for constituents.

In 2002, she appeared at an event in Newton Falls, in southern St. Lawrence County, after the local pulp mill was saved with the help of taxpayer subsidies.

"Quite frankly, this is an emotional day," she said.  "God bless each and every one of you."

Republican leaders were counting on this deep track record to help Scozzafava win a seat in Congress.

But relentless attacks from the right and the left have clearly thrown her off stride and muddied her image with voters.  Here's pollster Steve Greenberg with the Siena Research Institute.

"She is trying to hold onto the Republican base and is not so far being particularly successful," he said.

In the heat of the political campaign, Scozzafava has also been forced to wrestle with the declining fortunes of her family's business.

Many of those retail stores (Wisebuys and Hacketts) have closed and the company she helped to found is deep in debt.

"To this day, I do not regret investing just about everything I had in the North Country economy to try to create jobs," she said.  "And I'm hopeful that it's going to be able to continue in some form or fashion."

With her poll numbers sagging, Scozzafava appeared this week at the campaign headquarters of her opponent, conservative Doug Hoffman.

Looking weary and no longer at ease, she demanded that Hoffman agree to debate her.

"If you don't have the poltical courage to face the constituents directly in open forum, what kind of courage are you going to have when you go to Washington," she said.

With less than two week to go in this race, Scozzafava's campaign has acknowledged being outspent on TV ads.  And she faces a growing storm of conservative criticism.

With less than two weeks to go, it's unclear whether Scozzafava can shift the focus back to the strengths, the track record and the personal ties that have made her a winning politician.

"I've taken six, eight weeks of criticism on a lot of things," she said.  "I'm not waffling.  And guess what? The best revenge is to win in the end."

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