One to Watch

CORNING, N.Y. -- Samara Barend, a 26-year-old congressional candidate in New York state, is barreling along in a Buick Rendezvous on a recent Friday when “an even bigger SUV,” as her campaign spokesman-cum-driver, Don Weigel, put it, nearly sideswipes her car.

Barend looks shaken, but it's not the first time she's had a mishap on the campaign trail. On the morning of January 22, 2004, Barend was on the same highway -- a four-lane expressway, Route 17, designated the “Future I-86” -- on her way to New York City to meet with Abigail Disney, past president of New York Women's Foundation, when she got into a “horrible accident.”

“I hit a pothole, and my car was completely totaled,” Barend says.

Somehow, she persuaded the ambulance driver to drive her to Monticello, New York, where she got on a Greyhound bus and rode to New York City. Her lunch in an Upper East Side restaurant was a success: Disney donated $2,000 to her campaign. But that night, Barend went to Corning Hospital and discovered that she had a concussion.

“I had no idea,” said Disney. “Well, you know she's tough. She's going to have to be.”

The 29th District, which runs from the southern-tier region along the Pennsylvania border to suburban Rochester, has been strongly Republican since 1860, says Caleb Rossiter, an American University professor who ran as a Democrat for the seat in 1998 (and got trounced by incumbent Republican Amo Houghton). In 2000, George W. Bush won 53 percent of the vote, his “strongest district in the state,” according to The Almanac of American Politics.

A Democrat last won a congressional race here in March 1976. Stan Lundine, who eventually became New York's lieutenant governor, won in a special election after James Hastings was convicted of mail fraud.

“It's hard for me to see whether any Democrat could win. I know it's possible but, to be honest, I was lucky,” Lundine says.

For the past 17 years, the seat has been held by the 77-year-old Houghton, the only former CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Corning Glass Works) to serve in the House. Houghton announced on April 6 that he wouldn't run again and has endorsed a Republican state senator, John R. “Randy” Kuhl Jr., 61, a veteran of New York politics, according to Houghton's chief of staff, Bob Van Wicklin.

Barend has her own track record. As a Capitol Hill intern, she helped write sections of a transportation bill that sought to upgrade Route 17 into an interstate, an age-old dream of southern-tier economic-development mavens. After the bill was passed, $50 million in federal funds was funneled into the district. In addition, she has fancy donors, seven full-time staffers, and is, as we know, hardheaded.

Barend's campaign headquarters on East Market Street is filled with the usual debris: cardboard pizza boxes, dusty keyboards, and bags of “Plastic Patriotic Bunting.” Unlike most campaign offices, though, this one is located in a former Community Bank with two vaults, sealed by 7-and-a-half-inch steel doors. And, unlike most neophyte candidates, she's raised a hefty amount to stash there: $171,000.

Indeed, Barend has more money than all of her opponents combined. Kuhl has $84,000, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filing. Mark Assini, the favored candidate of the anti-tax organization Club for Growth, has raised $62,000. Jeremy Alderson, a lefty Dalton School graduate and former nightclub performer known as “Joshua the Stripping Philosopher,” has raised $1,200. (The field will be narrowed after a September 14 primary.)

Barend's list of supporters reads like the New York Post's Page Six. Hillary Clinton counseled her on entering the race. Howard Dean named her a “Dean's Dozen” candidate. Individual donors include Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a nonpartisan organization that advances women's leadership; Swanee Hunt, former ambassador to Austria; Daniel Glickman, new president of the Motion Picture Association of America; and pollster Celinda Lake.

“Aphalt and concrete had never been my passion growing up,” says Barend, sitting at a rest area along the highway she helped build. She's wearing a pinstriped suit and has dark hair and liquid brown eyes that give her a southern European look -- gh, as she explains, she comes from sturdy German-Czech stock.

A track-and-field star in high school, Barend used to get exercise and diet advice from her dad, Harold, the owner of a health club, Energetics Inc., in Vestel, New York. Then, in the mid-1990s, IBM and other large companies pulled out of the area, leaving small-business owners like her father in the lurch. He closed Energetics in 1996.

The area is still depressed. The per capita income in Steuben County was $27,058 in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce -- well below the statewide average of $35,878. Another indicator of economic duress -- child abuse -- plagues Chemung County, which has the state's highest rate, according to the state Office of Children and Family Services.

“I decided to become engaged in politics to figure out how to make the area more competitive economically,” Barend says. “It seemed to me that all the money was going to New York City.”

To that end, she took a job as an intern for U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in June 1996, and, shortly afterward, met him at a hotel banquet.

“I told him how badly I wanted to get the economy going. He said, ‘Look into the southern-tier expressway. Get me a memo by 5 o'clock tomorrow.' As I was leaving the hotel, I thought, ‘Is he joking?' I saw him getting into his limousine, and he pointed his finger in the air and said, ‘I want that memo by 5 o'clock!'”

With the help of the late senator's public-works adviser, Alexandros Washburn, she tracked down a 1955 New York State Department of Transportation map that showed a proposed highway route.

“The map had been ignored,” explains Washburn. “The senator thought that's why the southern tier missed out on economic development while the rest of the state prospered.”

That afternoon, Barend turned in a three-page memo -- and waited. For weeks. Finally, she saw Moynihan in the hallway and mentioned the report. It was obvious he'd never seen it. “He stormed back into his office and said, ‘I want that memo!' I felt a sense of poetic justice,” she explains. “At the same time, I stood close behind him -- out of fear.”

And while still “a slip of a girl -- 18 or 19,” as a senior legislative assistant, Arnold Kupferman, describes her, she worked on the T21 bill, which was passed in June 1998 and appropriated billions into U.S. transit projects, including a chunk for the southern tier.

If Barend wins in November, she'll be the youngest women ever elected to Congress, says Erin Vilardi, a White House Project research coordinator. Voters are anxious about Iraq and the economy, experts say, and these issues may help propel Barend into office. As Josh Kurtz writes in Roll Call, she's “moved from the longest of long shots and become one of state and national Democrats' favorite upset possibilities.”

DeWayne Lucas, an assistant professor at Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, explains, “In general, people here are supportive of our troops in Iraq. But there are a significant number of war dead. And people are asking themselves, ‘Is it a safer world now?'”

In addition, Steve Pigeon, former Erie County Democratic Party chairman, says people in rural areas are looking “skeptically at what they got out of Congress.”

No wonder people like Susan Myers, a Republican legislator in Allegany County, admire Barend. Her success in upgrading the highway has helped bring the district businesses, jobs, and even a freight line missing since the Gulf War.

“It's wonderful to hear the train whistle again,” says Myers.

As Barend explains, “This is an area where people have lacked hope for a long time. That's what my campaign brings: a glimmer of help. Well, more than a glimmer. A big ray of light.”