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In wake of Sandy, campaigning politicians walk thin line

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks with Deborah

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) speaks with Deborah Brenner, co-owner of Cafe Portofino in Piermont, during a visit to the town to view the devastation from Hurricane Sandy and to thank all the local leaders for their recovery efforts. Brenner's restaurant, which is on the waterfront, has been shut down until it can be restored. (Nov. 4, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

More than 100,000 people across the Hudson Valley are still without power, riverfront communities in Westchester and Rockland counties have been inundated by floodwaters and people are lining up for gas and dry ice to keep food from spoiling.

It's not exactly a great time to go knocking on doors, pressing the flesh for votes or staging campaign fundraisers.

With the general election on Tuesday, incumbent politicians and their challengers know they are walking a fine line as they try to balance active campaigning against participation in recovery efforts.

"Any smart elected official, whether they are running for office or not, the first priority right now is what they can do for their constituents to help them through this terrible time," said Evan Stavisky of the Parkside Group, who works mostly with Democrats. "If your first thought is about how this will affect the election, that's not smart politics."

For candidates who are challengers -- as opposed to incumbents -- the situation is especially complicated, political consultants say.

"It's a delicate walk to seek attention at times like this, unless you're an incumbent executive clearly in charge of damage recovery," said Bill O'Reilly, a GOP consultant who is advising several candidates this election cycle. "But for the average candidate running, all you can do is try to be helpful, while otherwise staying out of the way. This is no time for Machiavellian campaign schemes."

All of that is just fine with voters like Shawn LaPerch, a 34-year-old construction worker from Yonkers. The last thing he wants is a politician to come knocking. He lost power in the storm and has been staying with his mother, whose car was damaged by a bough falling out of a tree. On Thursday, LaPerch was waiting in line to get gas for his generator.

"They should all be out in the streets, helping clean this mess up," he said. "So they know what's really going on."

Stavisky pointed out that it isn't the first time New York's electoral process has been disrupted by disaster. He recalled the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that prompted a postponement of the state primary and effectively ended most political campaigns.

Stavisky said it is unlikely that TV ads and mailers from candidates will be pulled before Tuesday's election, as they were after the Sept. 11 attacks. Most campaigns already have bought airtime and sent out their mailers, Stavisky said.

He praised President Barack Obama's decision to tour New Jersey with Republican Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday instead of coming to New York City, where a presidential visit could put a drain on city police and other resources needed for recovery.

"He's focused first and foremost not on showing up for the photo op, but on actually working with the governors in the affected states to ensure that the disaster response is operating properly," Stavisky said.

Tony Sayegh, a Republican political consultant, said he expects some elected officials, including Obama, to leverage the recovery efforts in their favor, but said they should be wary of upsetting voters by "politicizing" the disaster.

"They're all going to be walking on pins and needles until the election," he said.

Some campaigns scaled back their efforts in the aftermath of Sandy, canvassing only neighborhoods that weren't hit hard by the storm, canceling phone banks and postponing fundraising activities. But as Election Day approached, politicking of a sort revved up again, with candidates staging events that blended campaigning and recovery efforts.

On Sunday, Democratic U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Harrison) and other local candidates visited the United Way call center in White Plains and downtown Piermont to praise volunteers and survey damage. Gillibrand and the others said they'd effectively suspended their campaigns. "I've been focusing solely on disaster relief for the past five days," Gillibrand said.

But, of course, the politicians also have been meeting potential voters throughout their travels in their respective districts. Gillibrand shook hands with United Way volunteers, never mentioning the election but nonetheless making contact with constituents.

Gillibrand faces Republican candidate and attorney Wendy Long on Tuesday; Lowey is on the ballot against Rye Town Supervisor Joe Carvin.

Lowey said she sought to cancel her election night party, but district leaders implored her to go ahead with it anyway because they wanted a celebration in tough times. So, asking her supporters to bring food and other supplies that her campaign could then donate to local groups, Lowey said she'd tone down the festive aspect of the evening. "We'll call it a gathering," she said.

U.S. Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-Bedford), who faces the biggest challenge of her political career from Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney, has been especially active, preparing before the storm and touring damaged areas across the Hudson Valley since the storm hit.

Maloney has criticized Hayworth over what he called a lackluster response to tropical storms Lee and Irene last year. This time, Hayworth took care to get out in front on recovery efforts.

Days before Sandy hit, the freshman lawmaker sent a letter to Obama in support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's request for a federal disaster declaration ahead of the storm. Her staff enthusiastically distributed the letter and other correspondence to federal officials.

"As you know from press updates, the congresswoman and our legislative team have been in constant contact with federal, state and local officials, as well as emergency organizations and utility companies, to make sure we are prepared to help them throughout the storm and during recovery," Terence Michos, Hayworth's spokesman, said in a recent email.

Hayworth's campaign postponed a star-studded fundraiser headlining former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and former New York first lady Libby Pataki, scheduled for Thursday night. The event has been rescheduled for Monday at noon.

Maloney sent out a news release to supporters on the day after the storm that praised the work of first responders and offered condolences to victims. The next day, however, his campaign sent another email asking for money to keep his TV ads on the air.

"We're really under the gun here," Maloney's campaign said in an email blast seeking last-minute funds. "If there's any chance you can help us out, now's the time. In a few hours, there'll be nothing more we can do to reach voters on TV."

Some elected officials have been critical of delays in restoring power to storm-weary residents.

After initially calling a news conference last week to lambaste utility companies over the projected seven- to 10-day span projected for the completion of repairs, state Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson) hastily canceled the event and said he would spend the day touring affected areas instead. The GOP lawmaker still took a swipe at the utilities.

"This is absolutely unacceptable. Ten days is too damn long," he said in a fiery news release. "At the highest level I am asking the utilities to heighten expectations and do whatever it takes to make the solution a matter of hours or days, not weeks. We have seniors and families that simply cannot go that long without adequate shelter."

Ball is facing a major challenge from Democrat Justin Wagner, a lawyer from Croton-on-Hudson who has criticized him for allegedly ignoring the needs of towns and villages in his district, which includes Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties.

Wagner's campaign issued a statement in response to Ball's criticism of the utility response, pointing out that he also lost power in the storm at his Croton-on-Hudson home.

"But I'm thankful my family and I got through the storm safely, and our thoughts are with the Con Ed and NYSEG workers who, from what we can tell, are working around the clock to get the lights back on for the more than 80,000 residents in the district who are without power," the statement said.

With John Dyer

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