My interview this week is with Dan Lamb, the Democrat who’s challenging Republican Richard Hanna in New York’s 22nd district (formerly the 24th). You can find it here.
The conversation brings up an interesting question for citizens: How do you judge an incumbent’s record? The incumbent Congressman Richard Hanna has established for himself a political identity as a moderate—as The Post-Standard once called him, in a feature piece, “Central New York’s man in the middle.” Lamb’s campaign, however, has tried to portray Hanna as far more to the Right.
Is Lamb’s characterization fair, and how well will it stick, given the apparent consensus that Hanna is willing to buck the Republican establishment on a number of issues? I pushed Lamb on this question, and read to him a list of Hanna’s positions and actions which suggest he differs from the Republican mainstream in Congress—for example, he refused to sign Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge, and was one of only seven House Republicans to vote against defunding Planned Parenthood. Lamb countered that Hanna’s image has been skillfully crafted by positions taken at the margins. But on the big spending and tax issues, and the big votes, Hanna has been a reliable foot soldier for the Right.
One of the votes—two votes in fact—that Lamb focused on in my interview to prove his point was Hanna’s support for the Ryan budget, which included a voucher plan for Medicare.
In a Utica Observer-Dispatch piece on the race, Hanna noted that he had problems with the budget bill, but that “You have to start someplace.” And this is the difficult part in considering an incumbent’s record. Hanna did vote for the bills, but votes also have contexts. In this case, it was known that the plan would fail in the Senate. Perhaps his vote was driven by a desire to get something started (though the current Congress doesn’t give much hope of progress beyond a start). Lamb wants us to focus on the yes votes as a definitive statement of where the Congressman’s true preferences lie—and true, a vote is a vote. But as I suggested last week in a post on the Al Stirpe-Don Miller State Assembly race, the way a legislature works is complicated, and just as it’s difficult to assess a legislator’s effectiveness, it can be almost equally difficult to get a good read on the kind of influence a legislator is trying to have on the chamber by a simple tally of votes.
No doubt, candidates can spin the interviews they give, and they do, but I think if you listen to the interview with Dan Lamb, and then listen to the forthcoming interview with Richard Hanna (still being scheduled, but I’m reasonably confident it will happen), you’ll have a pretty good handle on where each candidate is coming from. Listen and decide.