New Member of the Week: Rep. Buerkle gets to work as ’12 looms

Come 2012, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) may be haunted by more than her vote for Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget.

Buerkle won her Syracuse-based district by one of the closest margins of 2010. Her predecessor, one-term Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei, told supporters he is “strongly considering” another run. And Buerkle’s first-quarter fundraising — $65,000, for a total of $110,000 on hand — put her at the bottom of the GOP freshman class. 

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Buerkle has also moved beyond the largely fiscal platform she touted as a candidate. 

She told the Syracuse Post-Standard in January that she believes global warming has not been “scientifically” decided. 

That month, she also co-sponsored House legislation to end federal funding for abortion services and spoke at the annual March for Life rally on the National Mall. 

Her actions reminded locals of 1989, when, as a nurse and a young mother, Buerkle led and spoke for anti-abortion rights groups that demonstrated outside of Planned Parenthood and a gynecologist’s office in Syracuse. 

In the Post-Standard, one anti-abortion rights activist in January praised Buerkle for making waves “so quickly” in her term. But the rest of the district may not be as friendly. 

Republican James Walsh, who held the seat for nine terms until 2008, is anti-abortion rights but kept a lower profile on the issue.

In recent years, the district has become increasingly Democrat, favoring Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) over President George W. Bush, 50-48 percent in 2004, and President Obama over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) 56-43 percent in 2008.

Redistricting may also change the seat. New York is due to lose two congressional districts due to reapportionment, and analysts predict one loss will come from combining two of the several upstate districts that are held by the GOP.

Though not the most overpopulated in the region, the district is still above average by 48,838 constituents.  

Buerkle attributes her success against Maffei — “an uphill battle” — to a strong grassroots coalition and the national attention brought by an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. 

Former GOP Govs. George Pataki of New York and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts also joined her on the stump. 

Though the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is already targeting Buerkle for her support for the Ryan budget, she says she does “expect to be reelected.”

“When I first got into this in January of [2010], the pendulum hadn’t begun to swing,” she told the Post-Standard. “And people looked at that, and they looked at how much money Dan Maffei had, and they said, ‘It’s going to be impossible.’” 

“[But] to be honest with you, it never occurred to me that we couldn’t win.” 

To run for Congress, she left a 13-year career as an assistant attorney general for New York,  representing the state on behalf of Upstate Medical University. 

A former nurse, she made repealing healthcare reform a cornerstone of her campaign in 2010, but also acknowledged feeling torn about cuts in  the Ryan budget, which she supported. 

“On an intellectual level we can say we need to stop spending money we don’t have. But on an emotional level, when people come into your office all day long, they have legitimate programs — legitimate needs and causes,” she said. 

When asked if she considers herself a conservative ideologue, she demurs. 

“I don’t know who portrays me as that,” she said. “I think they’re not looking at what I’m doing down here. I would beg to differ on that characterization.” 

During recent recesses, many New York Republicans from centrist districts faced anger from constituents over their budget votes, but the Post-Standard described Buerkle’s town halls as “polite.”

Not so in the nearby 26th district, where tomorrow’s special election will hint at the challenges Buerkle faces to win reelection in 2012. 

The seat is more conservative than hers, but could go to Democrat Kathleen Hochul.

The contest is widely viewed as a referendum on the GOP’s approach to Medicare reform, and Republican assemblywoman Jane Corwin was expected to win until backlash over the Ryan budget grew and her lead in the polls dropped.  

Buerkle, who serves on three committees and seven subcommittees, says she’s been too busy to follow these developments. 

She serves on Oversight and Government Reform, Foreign Affairs and Veterans Affairs, and chairs a subcommittee on veteran medical care. Her  avid interest in policy, she says, keeps her “quite busy.”

“I’ve carried over an ability to work within the government system — to run an office efficiently,” she said. “I enjoy the committee assignments so much that I don’t think about the downsides.”  

That commitment to efficiency was tested last August, when then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) agreed to appear with her at a $500-per-plate fundraising luncheon in Skaneateles, a village in the Finger Lakes region. 

The event was on the same day as her daughter’s wedding, and Buerkle managed to make both.