People ask me, as if I knew, why Congressman Chris Gibson decided to leave the House after only three terms. Dunno. After dropping that bombshell on the first day of what will be his final term, Gibson disappeared into a black hole somewhere between Washington and his hometown of Kinderhook.
Go figure. One of the most accessible congressmen we’ve ever had in this area suddenly goes dark after issuing what might have been the most important announcement of his career. When it comes to their own particular interests, politicians can be extremely secretive.
It probably doesn’t matter a great deal whether Gibson decided to leave after six years, rather than eight, as he had repeatedly promised after his first electoral victory in 2010. Given the shelf life of political pledges, the smart money, in my cynical mind, was on his going the other way, running again in 2016 and then deciding two years later that “the job wasn’t done.” Memo to other career politicians: The job is never done, and life goes on without you.
Gibson seemed positioned for a long congressional career. In burying millionaire Democrat Sean Eldridge of Shokan, Gibson solidified a seat he won handily in 2012, even with Obama romping in the district. Two predecessors prior to redistricting, Democrats Matt McHugh and Maurice Hinchey, each served 18 years. Hinchey, 76, would still be congressman if illness hadn’t taken its toll.
While he says he’s done with Congress in two years, Gibson spoke to a future in statewide Republican politics. One Gotham newspaper took that to mean he’ll actively seek the Republican nomination for governor in 2018. Lieutenant governor with a city or suburban running mate seems to me a better bet, though as a retired Army colonel Gibson probably doesn’t see himself as anybody’s lieutenant.
The prospects for a three-term upstate Republican congressman succeeding in a statewide contest are dim. Republicans have not elected anybody to state office since George Pataki won a third term as governor back in 2002.
But then, what chance did a recently retired Army colonel running against an incumbent congressman seem to have in 2010? It may just be that Gibson, as he has demonstrated for most of his life, relishes a new challenge.
Gibson, in any event, presents possibilities for a Republican brain trust hoping for another ABC opportunity (Anybody But Cuomo) in 2018. Another election like 1994, when Pataki, a state senator, came out of the woodwork to narrowly defeat a hugely unpopular Mario Cuomo, represents a stretch, but not an impossibility. Whereas Mario had coasted to a third term, his son, present Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has shown serious slippage in stumbling to a second-term win last November.
Gibson, in presenting himself as a centrist “no-labels” Republican, did not endear himself to radical elements of his party. But so what? Elections are not won at the fringe.
Gibson’s joining a handful of rightwing Republicans in voting against Speaker John Boehner may have been an indicator. Gibson’s future is not in the House.
Though few believe it when most politicians claim that “family considerations” drive their political decisions, there may be some truth to it in Gibson’s case. As a career Army officer he was away from home a great deal, and in some very dangerous places.
Gibson, as congressman, has been a relentless campaigner, as Eldridge can well attest. It can be fairly said that if there were three people standing on a corner anywhere in the congressional district during his last campaign, one of them was likely to have been Chris Gibson.
Given his disciplined lifestyle, I doubt if Gibson will be any less a congressman over the next two years. But he probably won’t be more. His stated ambition, to be a statewide presence, will no doubt leave him even less time with his family. Those are the choices families make, hopefully, together.
Gibson’s surprise announcement left jaws agape, so the present list of would-be successors is necessarily short. An open seat in a tossup district will, however, attract multitudes.
The logistics are daunting. A congressional district has more than 700,000 people, almost four times Ulster County’s population and more than twice that of a state Senate district. Gibson’s Connecticut-sized 19th New York Congressional District encompasses 11 counties from the Hudson River north and west into the Adirondacks, across the river for a big chunk of Dutchess, all of Columbia and south to Orange and Sullivan. There is no way to get anywhere in it fast other than by helicopter. It’s an extremely diverse district. The northern Republican end, Gibson’s base, is as different from Democratic Ulster as Sullivan is to Orange.
It has been an unfortunate reality of our politics for more than a few generations that only those with considerable personal wealth or access to deep pockets and its consequent obligations can compete for high office. Gibson, a man of modest means, spent an inordinate amount of time fundraising, as do most of his colleagues.
And yet there is the lure of becoming one of a very select company, close to the seats of power, sitting in rooms where decisions are made, part of the action, recognized, lionized. Many fat cats lust for the opportunity.
Congress matters. It’s where the money is, where regulators regulate, where issues directly affecting the lives of constituents get resolved, or not. Gibson, by any fair assessment and clearly in the judgment of voters, has been an effective congressman. He was also acquiring a degree of seniority, bucking Boehner notwithstanding, which counts in every legislature. His successor will enter at the back of the line.
Gibson, now officially a lame duck, did the process a solid in announcing his intentions way early, thus giving interested parties the opportunity to consider at some length a life-altering decision for them, and maybe for us.
The following names, obvious to even the casual observer at this stage, could morph into serious candidates faster than we can say Jack Robinson.
Sean Eldridge: The losing candidate usually gets first refusal, though Eldridge’s run at Gibson didn’t make anybody forget Maurice Hinchey or even Julian Schreibman (2012’s punching bag). Eldridge says it’s early, which it is. After a grueling campaign against the Gibson juggernaut, Eldridge knows early doesn’t last long. He’s been keeping in touch with people who matter.
The county executives: I can’t put Ulster Democrat Mike Hein or Dutchess’s Republican Marc Molinaro numbers one or two. Both are up for re-election to four-year terms in November and will need to run like Secretariat to be seriously considered for Congress. It is not inconceivable that they could face each other. Hein has the population base in Ulster. Molinaro has broader experience as a legislator and greater fundraising possibilities.