Too Kuhl for words a freshman's road trip to small-town America

PHELPS, N.Y. — Republican Rep. John “Randy” Kuhl faces stiff competition for his town-hall meeting when he rolls into Phelps, N.Y., on a recent bright and sunny May Saturday.

Midlakes High School is holding a barbecue for the Little League. Philips Mercantile, a local department store co-owned by the mayor, scheduled its customer-appreciation day for today. Compounding Kuhl’s trouble, says Gordon LeRoy, 91, is the fact that no one heard about his visit.


“Not that I’d go,” LeRoy says. “I’m a Democrat.”
LeRoy sits with his buddy Ken Maines, 64, the only other Democrat in town, in the Astoria Caf� enjoying the 75-cent-plus-tax coffee. “I don’t like that he’s working out of Corning and coming up here,” LeRoy says. He’s even less pleased when he learns that Kuhl’s election sent him even farther south, to Washington, D.C.

Kuhl, 62, has a long legislative history in New York state that people remember. He started in the state Assembly in 1980. Six years later, he was elected to the state Senate, where he moved through the ranks to become assistant majority leader. He served on the Agriculture, Education and Transportation committees, important issues to western New York. They also remember his race in 2004 to replace retiring Rep. Amo Houghton (R), who held the seat for 10 terms.

The race turned nasty when Democrat Samara Barend’s campaign manager released Kuhl’s divorce records to the press. The records alleged that in his marriage Kuhl “drank excessively, hustled women at the bar” and once brandished two shotguns and threatened to shoot his wife at a dinner party at their home.

Throughout the controversy, Kuhl refused to comment on his divorce, and — the Wild West reputation notwithstanding — Kuhl won the overwhelmingly Republican 29th District race and headed to Congress. Now he’s on a monthly road trip of town meetings in a district that contains the rural Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes and northern suburbs of Rochester, N.Y.

Town Supervisor Carmen Orlando has a few pointed questions for Kuhl just in case no one shows. He’s concerned that trips to neighboring Canada will now require passports, and Orlando’s not happy with the hefty fee.

“Yes, let’s be vigilant, but don’t punish me,” Orlando says.

Finally, Kuhl arrives, and Orlando is now joined by City Council members Doris Day and John Dole, who stand to greet him. Tall, dapper and dressed in a cool blue suit, shirt and blue tie with a conservative gray print, Kuhl shakes hands and drops a thick stack of papers with an emphatic thump on the table.

He assures Orlando with a smooth, practiced delivery that says he’s answered this question several times before and that the new requirement won’t even be implemented until 2008. More important, he says, are “the Real IDs,” a border-security measure that sets a standard for driver’s licenses or other state IDs intended to thwart terrorists.

“Civil libertarians won’t like the Real IDs,” Dole says.

“Oh, sure,” Kuhl says, with a who-cares shrug of his shoulders. Now Dole, a bit more confident, asks, “What about gas prices? Is the petroleum industry inflating the cost of fuel?”
Kuhl rubs his finger above his left eye, pauses and dramatically picks up the clipped stack of paper, which turns out to be the recent energy bill, and flips the pages in Dole’s direction.
“Here’s the answer,” Kuhl says. “There’s not a great recognition of what we do in D.C. The president has been trying to get this passed for four or five years.”

His supporters nod their heads as he lists the many ways he sees to save energy: expanding daylight-saving time, drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and the use of alternative fuels.

A few more star-struck Kuhl supporters pop in. Kuhl embraces and is kissed by a large woman in red, who beams at his every word. Now Kuhl is on a roll: the bankruptcy bill, millionaire mansions and Social Security. He’s got the statistics and the solutions.

Kuhl’s aides check their watches in the hallway. Next stop, Pittsford, a suburb of Rochester, and it’s a half an hour away. But Orlando asks Kuhl, “What’s it like to be a congressman?”

Now it’s Kuhl who’s star-struck as he describes a meeting between freshman Republicans and the president, held in the Cabinet Briefing Room. He sounds amazed that he was hearing about national issues such as Social Security from Bush himself.

“I stood eyeball to eyeball,” says Kuhl. “He’s sincere. His plan [60 stops in 60 days] was to start a grassroots effort. He wanted to get people to contact their representatives.

“The president said to us, ‘I’m not going to present a plan. We saw what happened with Clinton and healthcare. It has to be bipartisan from Congress.’”

Kuhl grins when he tells how Bush kiddingly said to them, “‘You guys think Social Security reform is hard. Wait until we get to Medicaid.’”

Finally, Kuhl winds down and heads to his massive black SUV, and to the last stop of the day. He climbs into the passenger seat, checks his BlackBerry and fiddles with his XM radio as his aide starts to drive. “I can listen to anything. If I want, I can listen to Fox News, NASCAR and football games. I’m all wired, so it’s hands-free.”
As the SUV moves past farmland, he’s wired all right, as he continues a stream of information on laws and policy, the “Dear Colleague” letters he has to read, his vote against cuts in Medicaid. Next: his views on economic development. Venture capital. He’s a wound-up wonk without the benefit of caffeine. (He admits that today he managed “half a sub, a diet soda and a couple macadamia cookies.”)

Perhaps a change of subject.

So is it easier getting dates now that you’re a congressman?

After a stunned silence and a slight laugh, Kuhl says, “I haven’t had a date since I’ve been in Congress. I have zero social life. I still haven’t seen the sights. I saw the cherry blossoms when I was driving through.”

His new life consists of long hours (often 7 a.m. to midnight), meetings with constituents or lobbyists, committee meetings, markups, fundraisers to help pay off election debts, and, in between reading every policy bill that comes along, his 322-mile round trips home.

Kuhl is revved up. He’ll talk about meetings with Reps. Deborah Price (R-Ohio) and Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) and big-time lobbyist Haley Barbour. Environmental issues. Local landfills. His co-sponsoring of the Jessica Lunsford bill.

It appears that nothing’s personal.
How about his three sons? Any liberal Democrats in the bunch?
Now the motor slows down.

“My oldest son graduated from law school,” Kuhl says. “My second son graduated from Harvard and works in movie production, and my youngest son is working in Albany for a state senator. None of them has a liberal bone in their bodies,” he says proudly. (And if he himself had a liberal Democrat moment, “I wouldn’t recognize it if I did.”)

Kuhl is even less scripted when he talks about his new life.

“There isn’t a day that I don’t appreciate that I’m there to have the opportunity to serve. It sounds hokey. You pinch yourself and ask, ‘Am I dreaming?’” Kuhl says. “During the inauguration, I made the observation to [Rep.] Sue Kelly [R-N.Y.], ‘It’s great to be part of history.’ It’s not that my name is glorified. I looked around and thought, ‘This is where the world’s future is.’ Or when [Ukrainian leader Viktor] Yushchenko addressed a joint session of Congress to thank us, I wished everyone could experience this.”

Now outside the Pittsford Town Hall, Kuhl will take one more question. In Congress, Kuhl has snared three committee seats, Agriculture, Education and Transportation, with the help of Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), when most freshmen only get two seats.

“I’ve known him for 15 years, and I know him to be upright and honest,” Kuhl says. “He’s helped me. Do I owe him? No. If he’s done something wrong, well, then. …”

Somehow the subject gets changed. The Pittsford Town Hall basement is packed. Kuhl spends the first few minutes bantering with the crowd and gives them his e-mail address, but, perhaps seeing the look in their eyes, he says, “I’m not here to argue or debate or to defend anything. I’m here to listen to you.”

Kuhl grows redder and rubs the sides of his nose with his fingers with each question. The crowd is not only not Republican but it’s as if a convention of supporters wandered into the town meeting. He moves closer to a pillar nearby in case he needs to dart behind it.

He thumps down the energy bill on the table behind him, but this crowd isn’t impressed and isn’t listening when he says how much reading he has to do. They ask him if he supported drilling in ANWR. Along with the general questions: Tell us why the tax cuts favor the rich? What about Pell grants? What about $400 billion for war? How can you protect us from acid-rain pollution from central Ohio? What about the reduction in veteran benefits?

They outline what they see as the essential wrongness in just about everything the administration does, with facts and statistics to back up their points. The question isn’t just about the energy bill, but why “the government didn’t look at the Green River in Colorado as a resource for oil?”

In a battle of wonks, Kuhl is outnumbered.

Only once does he give an opinion (or throw a piece of diversionary meat), to a woman concerned about the United States’ renewing its stockpile of nuclear weapons.

“We don’t need new nuclear weapons,” Kuhl says.

He visibly brightens when one man stuffed into a pair of high-water khaki pants tells him global warming is a myth and a woman in a wheelchair thanks him for his support of a bill about arthritis.

A hungry, tired, no doubt cranky Kuhl walks out of the meeting. If he’s dejected, he doesn’t show it. After all, Kuhl is too cool to get riled by a bunch of liberals. He has reading to do.