It was 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon just days after Chris Lee ’87 had been sworn in as the new member of Congress. In a small conference room adjoining the House Financial Services Committee, the Republican from New York’s 26th District was thinking about the debate taking place among committee members in the next room.
Under discussion was the release of the second installment of funds—about $350 billion—for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, known to policymakers by its acronym, TARP, and to most Americans as “the bailout.” Lee was not pleased with the discussion so far.
Josh Shapiro ’95, now in his third term as a Pennsylvania state legislator, has earned a reputation in the capital of Harrisburg as an effective leader on behalf of legislative reform.
Named “Best State Legislator” by Philadelphia magazine in 2007, and one of the Philadelphia Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” groundbreaking young professionals for 2008, the 35-year-old Democrat has started his political career with a splash.
As a freshman at Rochester, he planned to be a doctor, but found much more enjoyment—and success, he says—as a student senator, as student body president, and in his political science courses, than in his pre-med studies. In his junior year he took a major step toward his new calling when he participated in the Semester in Washington program directed by Richard Fenno, now a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus.
He returned to Washington after graduation and worked as a staff member on both the House and Senate sides, eventually becoming chief of staff to congressman Joe Hoeffel, whose district included Shapiro’s hometown of Abington, Penn.
Shapiro believes his popularity stems from his record of “putting aside the politics of the moment,” working with both parties, and, during his second term, using his high profile position as cochairman of the Speaker’s Commission on Legislative Reform to require greater accountability among Pennsylvania’s state representatives.
Philadelphia magazine cited both his ethics and his political courage, adding “he’s been one of the leading voices for cleaning up the way things work in Harrisburg.” Among the changes: Few perks for legislators and more public disclosure of legislative deliberations.
In speaking of his goals for his third term, Shapiro notes, “I’ve worked very hard on ethics and reform. I want to build on that.”
An accomplished Buffalo businessman, Lee had arrived in Washington with no legislative experience. But his background set him apart from the majority of freshman congressmen and women, and was a main reason the House Republican leadership tapped him for a seat on the Financial Services Committee, one of the most coveted assignments in the House.
Under any circumstances, the committee is among the House’s most powerful. The past year’s collapse of the nation’s financial services sector has made the committee, which has jurisdiction over virtually all the institutions of the federal financial regulatory system, even more pivotal.
But Lee’s first meeting reflected the challenge he will most likely face throughout his term. On the one hand, his plum assignment puts him at the center of financial policymaking—particularly in the areas of small business and credit card lending that he considers vital to his western New York district’s suburban and rural, solidly middle class constituency.
On the other hand, because the 111th Congress consists of a 256–178 Democratic majority, the realities of party politics threaten to place Lee on the sidelines.
Veteran congressman and committee chairman Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, had introduced the bill, including 75 pages of restrictions and qualifications regarding the use of the remaining bailout funds. The Tuesday afternoon meeting, Lee noted, would not include a mark-up, the process by which committee members, including those in the minority, offer amendments to the bill.
Chris Lee ’87 is the latest Rochester graduate to serve in Congress. Here’s a look at some others.
Meyer Jacobstein: A member of the Class of 1904, Jacobstein moved to New York City before his senior year and graduated from Columbia. He returned to Rochester as a faculty member in the Department of Economics from 1913 to 1918, when he began a career in community and political affairs. He was elected as a Democrat to the 68th Congress in 1923 and served three terms. After Washington, D.C., he settled in Rochester, where he continued to play a prominent role in community activities. He died in 1963.
Kenneth Keating ’19: Elected as a Republican to the House in 1947, Keating served six terms representing upstate New York until 1959, when he was elected to the Senate for one term. He was elected to the New York State Court of Appeals in 1965. In 1969, he began a distinguished career in the U.S. State Department, serving as ambassador to India and as ambassador to Israel. He died in 1975.
Samuel Stratton ’37: The mayor of Schenectady from 1956 to 1959, Stratton was elected to Congress in 1959, beginning a 15-term career in the House. During his 30-year career, the Democratic congressman represented five different districts from his home base of Amsterdam, N.Y.
The unrevised legislation, he added, would likely arrive on the House floor for an up-and-down vote the next day. The $350 billion measure, Lee declared, “was just sprung on us.” When it reached the House floor, he joined 166 colleagues in voting against it.
Until this past year, Lee had not thought much about running for elected office. An economics and finance major at Rochester, Lee worked in information technology and later earned an MBA before joining the Enidine Corp., a Buffalo manufacturer of shock-absorption and motion control devices that was founded by his father, Patrick Lee, in 1966.
For more than a decade, Chris Lee helped Enidine (and later its parent company, International Motion Control, or IMC) to expand globally. In the fall of 2007, as chairman and CEO of IMC, Chris Lee oversaw the sale of the company to ITT Corp.
Most of the assets from the sale were absorbed into the Patrick P. Lee Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2005 that had pumped several million dollars into education and research initiatives related to cancer prevention and mental illness. Active as a member of the foundation’s board, Lee was helping oversee the organization’s course for expansion to become one of the largest foundations in western New York after the sale of the family business.
But he was looking for an opportunity to explore a greater passion: Helping to revitalize the region through changes in federal policy. That opportunity came in March 2008, when Republican Rep. Tom Reynolds announced his retirement from the House seat he had held since 2002.
In November, Lee decisively defeated Democrat Alice Kryzan, a Buffalo-area environmental attorney, by a 55 percent to 40 percent margin, becoming the first Rochester graduate elected to the House since New York Democrat Samuel Stratton ’37 retired from the House in 1989.
Based in the suburbs of Buffalo, Lee represents a district that stretches from the eastern edges of Buffalo to the western suburbs of Rochester.
His victory was one of the few bright spots for Republicans in 2008. Moreover, Lee goes to Congress as one of only three Republicans in the 29-member New York State delegation.
Gerald Gamm, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science, says the composition of the delegation marks the culmination of a dramatic political shift that has taken place in New York over the past 30 years. Once solidly Republican, the state is now awash in blue.
The trend has extended well beyond New York’s borders.
“There isn’t a single Republican representative in all of New England,” Gamm notes of the 111th Congress.
Yet the scarcity of Republican members from the northeast may be a silver lining for Lee, Gamm says. “Lee could be a pivotal figure for the Republicans, because to regain the majority, they’ll need to gain seats in the northeast.”
As his first congressional session gets under way, however, Lee is focusing his efforts on an economic agenda that he hopes can achieve bipartisan support and bring measurable results to his district.
A promising development, Lee says, is the formation of the Upstate New York Congressional Caucus. He credits neighboring congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), whose district includes the cities of Rochester and Buffalo, with establishing the 11-member bipartisan caucus, which promises to leverage the region’s political power to address significant economic problems.
The group is wasting little time in outlining its priorities. For example, Lee joined all the other 10 members of the caucus in supporting the use of federal funds from President Barack Obama’s stimulus proposal to build a high-speed rail system linking Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and New York City.
He also finds common ground with caucus members on the need to preserve and take advantage of western New York’s significant water resources. With access to two of the five Great Lakes that together provide 20 percent of the world’s supply of fresh water, the region has an economic opportunity that other areas of the nation lack, Lee says.
“New York’s strength in water resources could rebuild the entire regional economy,” he says, noting that protecting those water resources also presents a national security issue.
Lee says his highest priority is supporting the economic sector based in manufacturing, which he argues is also critical to national security.
“If we don’t maintain and develop our manufacturing capabilities,” Lee says, “we won’t be able to remain a superpower.”
For Lee, the issue goes beyond the fact that manufacturing jobs have traditionally paid well.
“We need the intellectual property that goes with the manufacturing,” he says, pointing to the University as well as to several other research universities in western New York as factors that distinguish the region from many other areas of economic hardship.
As with high-speed rail, education and technology projects could potentially be funded with federal stimulus dollars. If such projects come to pass, new congressmen such as Lee could see benefits as well, says Richard Niemi, the Don Alonzo Watson Professor of Political Science.
And although most Americans profess to disdain “earmarks”—the legislative provisions that bring federal money to projects in individual districts—almost every voter is impressed with a representative who brings federal money home. The ability of Lee to bring the benefits of stimulus to western New York “will affect his ability to serve the district and get reelected,” Niemi says.
But Lee’s approach to the stimulus proposals also reflects his economic philosophy. Shortly after his swearing-in, Lee was tapped by second-ranking House Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia to serve on the congressional GOP’s Economic Recovery Working Group.
He is the only freshman representative in the group, which Cantor established in response to Obama’s call for ideas for economic stimulus from both political parties. Alongside other members of the group, Lee supported a stimulus bill that was heavier on tax cuts and lighter on spending than the stimulus bill that ultimately passed the House—without Lee’s vote—on January 28.
While the fault lines that divide most Democrats and most Republicans on tax and spending policies will continue, Lee says his task is to continue to make his arguments patiently and persistently in forums like the GOP’s Working Group, and to stress that his philosophy is grounded in experience.
“I’m a local businessman,” says Lee. “I’ve created jobs and met a payroll.”
As for working with the president, Lee was optimistic on that January afternoon.
“President Obama has been very open to hearing new ideas,” he says. “So we’re going to make sure he hears them all.”
Karen McCally ’02 (PhD) is an associate editor of Rochester Review.