Elections 2012

Buerkle reflects on upbringing, family in 24th Congressional District race

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Democracywise, an SU-based website with stories from political reporting students.

For U.S. Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, talking to voters is at the heart of her work in Congress.

“It’s what we owe the voters,” said Buerkle, R-Onondaga Hill. “They deserve to have access to their representatives as their elected officials.”

Buerkle, 61, represents the newly drawn 24th Congressional District. She faces Democrat Dan Maffei of DeWitt, who lost the seat to Buerkle in 2010, and Green Party candidate Ursula Rozum of Syracuse in the Nov. 6 election.

The 24th Congressional District replaced the 25th because of constitutionally-mandated redistricting. The new district covers all of Cayuga, Onondaga and Wayne counties, and the western part of Oswego County, including the cities of Fulton and Oswego. As of April, the district has 409,462 voters, according to the New York State Board of Elections. Of them, 35 percent are Republicans and 34 percent are Democrats. More than 20,000 voters are registered with the Independence Party and 960 are Green Party members. About 23 percent of voters are unaffiliated with a party.


The race is a rematch of the 2010 campaign, in which Buerkle edged out Maffei by 648 votes. The 2012 race is just as close. A recent Siena Research Institute poll, a nonpartisan group, showed Buerkle and Maffei each drawing 43 percent of likely voters. Rozum had the support of 7 percent and another 7 percent of voters were undecided.

In her re-election campaign, Buerkle argues the Affordable Care Act, often called “Obamacare” in a label now adopted by President Obama, hurts multiple groups. She also maintains tax rates should stay as they are now instead of increasing – as Obama has proposed – for families making more than $250,000 a year. And she casts herself as anti-red tape in a direct pitch to small-business owners. As a mother of six, she has often emphasized family-values in her campaign. Those who work closely with Buerkle say she is accessible and enjoys face-to-face interaction with constituents.

Buerkle, the third oldest of five children, attended elementary and high school in Auburn. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Le Moyne College in 1977 and a law degree from Syracuse University in 1994. In experiences that helped shape her political views, she worked at her parents’ grocery store and grew up with a sister who had multiple sclerosis.

The 2010 Congressional race against Maffei was her first victory in politics. In the late 1980s, she twice ran unsuccessfully for the Onondaga County Legislature and lost a bid for Congress in 1988. In 1994, Buerkle was appointed to the Syracuse Common Council but lost her re-election try. She has also worked with two Syracuse anti-abortion groups, Friends for Life and Operation Rescue.

Buerkle’s critics and competitors call her extreme – a characterization she strongly disputes. For example, a recent Maffei criticized Buerkle’s co-sponsorship of a bill that called for a permanent ban on federal financial support for abortion. The Maffei ad accused Buerkle of agreeing to redefine rape to exclude women who had been drugged or minors who had been victims of statutory rape. In an intense exchange between the two campaigns, Maffei stuck by his criticism and Buerkle, who said she had forced a change in the bill to drop the redefinition of rape, blasted the ad and Maffei’s campaign as “wrong, desperate and pathetic.”

Buerkle serves on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, in which she is the chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Health.

In her freshman term, Buerkle has voted on more than 140 bills. Her first vote was to repeal the Obama administration’s centerpiece overhaul of the health care system. Buerkle has authored 17 bills, including a bill enacted into law last year that requires each Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility to have a policy on reporting and tracking sexual assaults.

Of the 16 remaining bills that she’s authored, 14 have been referred to a House committee or subcommittee and two have moved to a Senate committee, her website says.

In a measure with local connections, Buerkle recently introduced a resolution in the House calling for Libya to cooperate with U.S. authorities who still haven’t closed the investigation of the 1988 bombing that killed 270 people when Pan Am Flight 103 from London exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. The explosion killed 35 Syracuse University students returning from studying abroad and five other people with ties to Central New York.

In an experience that shaped her views toward government’s relationship with small businesses, Buerkle started working in her parent’s grocery store, the Mohican Market, in Auburn when she was in the sixth grade. That, she said, taught her the value of hard work and of the challenges facing small businesses.  It gave her, Buerkle said, an “understanding of what the private sector goes through when they want to build a business or grow a dream and it’s not an easy road.”

As an adult, she employed her parents’ work ethic as she put herself through law school while raising six children. She would get up at 3:30 a.m. every weekday and study until 6:30 a.m., she said. Then she would wake her kids up and get them off to school. “I was just determined to make it work,” said Buerkle, “and it did.”

Much of her views about health care and disability rights, Buerkle recalls, were inspired by her sister Mary Colella, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 12. Mary Colella taught her about courage and determination, Buerkle said.

“She first learned to use her left hand after her right hand became too weak,” Buerkle said. “And then she learned to paint with her mouth after she lost the use of both of her arms. So it doesn’t get any more courageous than that.”

Mary Collela eventually became a quadriplegic. Mary, wheelchair and all, was the maid of honor at Buerkle’s wedding. Mary Collela died during Buerkle’s first year of law school. As tribute to her, on July 26, 2012, Buerkle introduced the Mary Colella Autoimmune Disease Awareness Act. The bill is in the Subcommittee on Health. It would create one information source to share federal agencies’ research on autoimmune diseases and distribute the information to healthcare providers so they can better treat their patients.

In her campaign, Buerkle stresses her multi-faceted career as a nurse and an assistant New York attorney general.  At New York City’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital’s trauma unit, she took care of gunshot and stabbing victims, she recalled. Her nursing skills, she said, serve her well in Congress, “Nurses are problem-solvers,” Buerkle said. “They’re people who care deeply about other people. They’re very interested in finding solutions through communication.”

As an assistant state attorney general, Buerkle represented SUNY Upstate Medical University for 13 years. She also donated her time and experience as a pro bono attorney for the Central New York Women’s Bar Association as an advocate for Vera House, a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

A dominant characteristic is Buerkle’s commitment to her beliefs, say those close to her. Buerkle’s younger brother, Tom Colella, a retired colonel in the Marine Corps, helped Buerkle in her 2010 campaign. Buerkle never compromises her values, Tom Colella said. “She does not back down,” said Tom Colella. “She takes a stand. You know what she stands for. She doesn’t play games.”

Buerkle’s mother Sadie Colella said her daughter’s strong will and determination is much like Buerkle’s father, who worked hard to make sure his kids had a better life growing up than he did as a child. “She’s like her dad. They’re leaders and they’re bright and they get along with everyone,” said Sadie Colella, 91, who held the Bible for Buerkle’s swearing-in ceremony and keeps a photo of the event on her fridge in Auburn.

As she campaigns for re-election, Buerkle stresses her availability to constituents. Her campaign has dubbed Maffei as “D.C. Dan” in ads to imply that, after a career as a staffer before serving one term himself in Washington, Maffei is not deeply rooted in Central New York — a criticism that Maffei strongly disputes.

Steve Kimatian, the GOP vice chairman for the city of Syracuse, consults Buerkle at least a couple of times a month. Buerkle, he said, is always available and is responsive to calls and questions. “She’s been able to represent our district’s voice,” he said. “She’s been very articulate about that.”

For her part, Buerkle emphasizes her connections to constituents. She regularly gives her cellphone number out to voters. “I still have the same cellphone number and the same cellphone I had before I even decided to run for Congress,” she said. Sometimes she can’t take the call, Buerkle said, but she often returns them herself.

She cites her record of keeping in touch with constituents: 21 town hall meetings in 21 months and more than a dozen public forums either online or by phone.

“If you’re going to represent a district,” Buerkle said, “you need to be willing to stand in front of them and let them know where you stand on the issues.”

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