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The Accidental Candidate for Congress | News

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The Accidental Candidate for Congress

GREECE, N.Y. - Freshman Rep. Chris Lee from the Buffalo suburb of Clarence is the New York version of a safe Republican member of Congress.

Lee is facing only token opposition from Democrat Phil Fedele of the Rochester suburb of Greece, who is not actively campaigning in the race for the state's 26th Congressional District seat.

Lee credits his outreach to constituents with helping him to avoid becoming a target for Democrats.

He's also shied away from partisanship. He follows the Republican line on important policy issues without attacking his Democratic colleagues.

Instead, Lee's joined with Democrats to push bipartisan legislation such as a new law requiring additional training and oversight of regional airline pilots, which was introduced in response to a commuter airline crash in Clarence several weeks after he took office.

"All the other nonsense that goes on in Washington I could care less about. It's going out and doing the right thing and if that's resonated with the people in my district I'm pleased about it," Lee told WGRZ-TV in an interview at his district office in Greece, located - ironically - just a few hundred yards from his opponent's residence.

The 26th district stretches from the northeast suburbs of Buffalo to the western suburbs of Rochester and dips south to Livingston and Wyoming counties.

Two years ago, there was a fierce three-way fight for the Democratic nomination among Alice Kryzan, Jack Davis and Jon Powers for the open seat created by the retirement of Republican Rep. Tom Reynolds.

This time around, Lee's opponent is 71-year-old retired teacher Fedele, who describes himself as "an accidental candidate.''

Fedele, who last held office as a Monroe County Legislator in 1995, explained to 2 On Your Side that early this year he agreed to have his name placed on nominating petitions, merely to hold the spot until Democrats found a suitable opponent for Lee.

"But as it turned out, it didn't happen," said Fedele, who agreed to keep his name on the ballot when no Democrat stepped forward to run.

"No one should run unopposed," he said.

There was one condition, however: His wife of 48 years, Loretta, made Fedele promise to spend less $5,000 so his campaign would stay below the threshold that requires filing a finance report with the Federal Election Commission.

Loretta Fedele already is handling the bookkeeping for two other campaigns and didn't want to have to take on a third one, especially a campaign for Congress.

"Being a treasurer in a federal election is much more cumbersome and troublesome and exacting than being a treasurer in a local race," Mr. Fedele said.

$5,000 isn't nearly enough to wage an effective congressional campaign.

There's no money for a staff, let alone an office, which is why the nerve center of this particular campaign is the couple's home.

"I have a kitchen and a living room ...one is the main office and one is the holding area," Fedele said with a laugh.

There's not even enough money for lawn signs, although Fedele does have boxes of them from 20 years ago stashed in his garage.

"I've debated whether I should put them out,'' said Fedele of the signs, which feature a photo of a youthful looking 50-something Fedele in the early 1990's. However, friends are divided whether putting them out would constitute false advertising.

Fedele had also entertained the idea of inexpensively modernizing them.

"In fact part of the plan was to get bumper stickers made that said "US Congress" and just stick them on the signs," he explained. "We've got a couple weeks so we can still stick them up, but I'm not sure we're going to do that," Fedele said.

Although Fedele is not actively campaigning, he's a serious student of national issues.

"I'm a progressive Democrat and a liberal Democrat,'' Fedele said. He's a supporter of President Barack Obama but complains that the president allowed Republicans to drive the debate over health care reform. He supports the administration's position on tax cuts, allowing the lower rates to expire for singles with incomes over $200,000 and couples earning more than $250,000. He also supports the President's pitch for billions of dollars more in stimulus funding.

Fedele has a daughter who is an Army colonel and has served two tours in Iraq, but he never supported that war. His daughter also expects to serve a tour in Afghanistan next year, said Fedele, who is willing to support Obama's war policy there until late next year. After that, Fedele said, "I wouldn't give a dime.''

Of his daughter's involvement in a war he doesn't support, Fedele said, "It's her duty and she's going to do it and we're proud of her. She's achieved a lot, but at the same time, her aside, it's a bad war."

Members of Congress are supposed to be most vulnerable to a successful election challenge while serving their first term.
But Lee, a 46-year-old businessman who won with 55 percent of the vote in 2008, represents a seven-county Republican-leaning district in a year when polls indicate the political climate favors the GOP.

Thus, the candidate has not been knocking on neighborhood doors, nor does he plan on spending anywhere near the $2.2 million he spent on the 2008 campaign. Lee raised $1.38 million through Aug. 25 and had $757,670 remaining, according to his most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission. He declined to estimate how much of his campaign cash might be donated to other Republicans facing tougher races.

National Republicans are hoping to pick up as many as six to eight of the state's 29 House seats, adding to the two currently held by Lee and Rep. Peter King of Long Island. For Lee, that would bring about a welcome end to the lonely pairing that he refers to as "the King and I.''

Click on the video icon to watch the story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Scott May.

This story contains reporting from Brian Tumulty of the Gannett News Service Washington Bureau.


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