DEPEW, N.Y. — Set against the national backdrop of changes to the Medicare health system and presidential politics, voters in a conservative New York congressional district also looked at more basic, street-level issues, then grabbed national headlines by sending a Democrat to Congress.
A day after doing what few thought she could, Democrat Kathy Hochul took a victory lap Wednesday.
"I'm going to go make sure that the priorities of the people in this district, a normally conservative district, are heard loud and clear in Washington," Hochul said after making the rounds among a lunchtime crowd at a suburban Buffalo restaurant. "And I suspect Republicans will be paying attention."
Democrats were certainly paying attention, taking Hochul's 47-43 percent win over Republican Jane Corwin in a special election as proof of voter discontent at the GOP proposal to turn Medicare, the government's health plan for seniors, into a voucher-like program for future beneficiaries.
"American voters had their first chance to do something about it," U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Back in the district, 84-year-old Eleanor Howard was amazed by the splash she and fellow 26th District constituents had made.
"I can't believe you're writing this down," Howard, who's not registered with any party, told a reporter who asked about her vote as she browsed a restaurant menu.
She and several others interviewed said Medicare was certainly a factor in their support for Hochul. "We need that just the way it is," Howard said.
But there were other things, too, like familiarity with Hochul's work as Erie County clerk and a feeling they could relate to her more than the Republican, a millionaire Assemblywoman.
Hochul won points with Howard by opposing a now-tabled state plan to require drivers to spend $25 on new license plates, she said.
"That's good practical stuff. I like that," Howard said. "I can relate to saving me money."
Well aware of the Republicans' 30,000-voter enrollment advantage in the district, Hochul promised to look at every issue with an eye toward what's best for the people who live there.
It was that kind of neutrality that persuaded Republican Sandy Snider of Cheektowaga to cross party lines to support her, along with being bothered at seeing her mother and aunts fret about Medicare.
"I like what she stood for," said Snider, a 46-year-old restaurant hostess. "One gentleman came in here and said, 'You know what? The other one seemed kind of snooty and Kathy Hochul seemed down to earth and with the real people.'"
Republican Dean Johnson, 60, voted for Corwin, even though he thought she'd mishandled an encounter between tea party candidate Jack Davis and a videographer Davis appeared to shove after the videographer taunted him for refusing to appear in a debate with Hochul and Corwin. The GOP tried to use the video to paint Davis as a bully.
But it backfired when the videographer turned out to be Corwin's chief of staff.
"She totally lost (credibility) by not firing the guy and distancing herself from her chief of staff," Johnson said as his wife, Audrey, nodded in agreement.
Democrat Michele Weaver, 63, a semi-retired project manager, wasn't opposed to changing Medicare, as long as it affected all segments of society equally.
"I would expect to make sacrifices in Medicare — I don't think the fact that I'm so close to 65 should exclude me," she said at a restaurant in Greece, a Rochester suburb at the eastern edge of the district. "But the most important thing is fairness. Part of what we're all feeling is it keeps coming down and coming down on the middle class."
Weaver said she worked for 35 years for a company that went bankrupt and health insurance she was promised for the rest of her life was severely cut back.
"It's just like Medicare. We think we're promised (something) forever and now it might be scaled back, and it's happening all over the place," she said.
During a stop at a restaurant in suburban Rochester, Hochul said she would concentrate on controlling the health care costs that are driving up Medicare.
"We absolutely need to get the underlying costs of Medicare under control," Hochul said, "but you don't throw the baby out with the bath water. You don't throw away a good program that is working for people, that they've come to rely on."
Hochul replaces Republican Chris Lee, who resigned in February after a website posted a shirtless photo the married congressman had sent to a woman online.
Associated Press Writer Ben Dobbin contributed to this report from Greece, N.Y.
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