ROCHESTER – Louise M. Slaughter never fit the mold of a typical Buffalo pol.
A woman representing Buffalo in Congress? Unheard of.
Neither did she satisfy other “requirements” – ethnic, Catholic, pro-life and a product of Democratic Headquarters.
And nobody disputes that when she claimed a new Buffalo-Rochester seat in 2003, some locals needed a translator to decipher her native Kentucky drawl.
But the stranger that reapportionment thrust upon Buffalo and Niagara Falls not only survived but prospered. As she returns to her Rochester base following the third redistricting of her career, the congresswoman says she recognizes the economic doldrums still facing the region. And she acknowledges the challenge of representing an area with its glory days in the past.
Still, she leaves hopeful about Buffalo’s future.
“I seriously love that place,” she said last week during an interview in her downtown Rochester office. “The architecture, the people and the vitality there are just so wonderful. It’s a pretty remarkable town.”
The redistricting and subsequent election leave Democrat Brian Higgins and Republican Chris Collins to represent Buffalo and Erie County.
Those close to her confide that Erie County’s in-your-face politics sometimes frustrated Slaughter.
Like other outsiders, she had to master tiptoeing through various factions of the local Democratic Party as well as ethnic and neighborhood rivalries she didn’t fathom.
But the outsider whom everyone eventually knew simply as “Louise” never wallowed in the morass. Without ever embracing Buffalo politics, she breezed through five congressional elections against long forgotten opponents while rising to top leadership in the House.
Not that Slaughter was ever oblivious to the politics around her. She now says she never worried about it. When pressed, she said she doesn’t care to talk about it.
“I just put my head down and worked,” she said. “I knew the people knew that I genuinely cared about where they lived and what they do.”
At 83, Slaughter in November survived the toughest political challenge of her long career by defeating Republican Maggie Brooks after reapportionment brought her district solidly around her home base of Monroe County.
Brooks, the Monroe County executive, faced Slaughter with high poll ratings, support from national Republicans and lots of money.
Further, Slaughter broke her leg in a Manhattan accident on April 2, forcing her to confront inevitable questions about her health and age, as well as false rumors of serious illness she said were planted by Republicans. She easily won re-election.
“I sure did,” Slaughter said, as if to emphasize her victory in spite of financing from Super PACS sponsored by Karl Rove, the Koch brothers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“I don’t want the Koch brothers running America any more,” she said. “I think this country is for sale. These millionaires and billionaires ... and the idea that corporations are people. Corporations are not people.”
Slaughter said her accomplishments for the Buffalo area included helping to save the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, developing the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and gaining federal assistance for projects at companies like Praxair as top local accomplishments.
“The economy has always been my first priority,” she says. “Once you get that done, then you can talk about education and health care.”
But as someone who rarely paid homage to the process, Slaughter failed to cooperate with her Western New York colleagues, according to some.
Higgins quietly feuded with her at times, though she downplayed any perception of a rift.
And her battle with former Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, over a proposed transportation center for downtown Rochester assumed legendary proportions.
“Nobody ever heard of it or wanted it,” she said of the doomed proposal that eventually grew a $250 million price tag. “It was a disaster.”
“Reynolds and I were not the best of friends by any means,” she added.
Most insiders point out that Slaughter never earned a close ally in Mayor Byron W. Brown either, especially after reports at one time hinted at Brown’s interest in her congressional seat.
“The mayor and I had a cordial relationship” is all she will say about Brown, though she remains critical of the city’s administration of some programs sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
No Buffalo politician even dented the folksy Southerner who has degrees in microbiology and public health. The congresswoman also conquered an unnatural district cobbled by Albany reapportionment back in 2000 that connected part of Rochester to Buffalo by way of a thin line along the Lake Ontario shoreline. Dubbed the “earmuff district.” It was a challenge, she admitted, representing two big cities with different interests.
An early effort to join the University at Buffalo and Rochester Institute of Technology for various government grants and programs, for example, failed miserably.
“It was a grand idea that, unfortunately, went nowhere,” she said. “To put it the southern way, they didn’t cotton to that.”
If Slaughter was criticized for frosty relations with some of Buffalo’s top figures, she rebounded with praise for others.
She described former Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan as “honest and caring about good government.” She thinks County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz “will be terrific,” while former Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul of Hamburg possessed “really exceptional abilities.”
And she singled out developer Howard A. Zemsky and M&T Bank Chairman and CEO Robert G. Wilmers as businessmen who are community assets.
Slaughter leaves recognizing that Buffalo and Niagara Falls as well as Rochester still face significant economic challenges. She particularly lamented the idea that people can no longer “work with their hands” in manufacturing.
But she is also optimistic, adding the medical campus could become the “vaccine capital of the world.”
The congresswoman returns to Washington for a new term this month just as she has every January since 1987. She calls herself “older than dirt but with the constitution of a 50-year-old,” and seems ready to prove it.
“This last Congress was the most unproductive in the history of the country,” she said. “There were votes against women one after another. And the tone deafness of it; I really worry about my country.”
She says Washington has changed since when she collaborated with other upstate congressmen like Frank Horton, Amo Houghton and John McHugh.
“It’s not the same. It’s frightening,” she said.
She also returns with advice for President Obama.
“I want him to be stronger and much tougher,” she said. “I said to him once: ‘You could be Franklin D. Roosevelt if you try.’”
And Slaughter offered her own advice to those who ask – as many do – how long the octogenarian will continue serving in Washington.
“They’ll have to carry me out,” she said.