UPDATE March 5, 3:36 p.m. — New York Democratic Rep. Eric Massa will resign from the House on Monday, according to Massa’s chief of staff Joe Racalto. While it’s the latest in a string of bad PR the Democrats have taken this week, Massa’s exit will actually help House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her quest to pass health care. Massa voted against the bill in November.
The New York congressman’s resignation will move the number of vacancies from three to four out of 435 House seats. Thus a simple majority needed to pass a bill moves from 217 to 216.
Massa announced earlier in the week that he would retire due to health issues. Shortly after his announcement, allegations of sexual harassment surfaced in the press.
Few congressional elections draw the kind of national attention that Erica Massa’s did in 2006. Even fewer draw an equal amount of attention when a candidate runs again after a failed first attempt, as Massa did in 2008. Now the 51-year-old representative from New York’s 29th District is the center of attention again, this time for announcing his retirement just as allegations surfaced that Massa sexually harassed a male staffer.
Four years ago, Massa was a cherished underdog. In a 2006 article titled, “They served, and now they’re running,” the New York Times profiled a handful of anti-war Democratic veterans who were running for Congress. While the Times played up his military credentials — 24 years in the Navy, including stints working under Gen. Wesley Clark — Massa argued that there had been a “fundamental change in the paradigm of politics” since the start of the Iraq War. Veterans like him could publicly oppose the reasons for going to war and still succeed politically, whereas John Kerry’s opposition to the Vietnam war sunk his presidential campaign decades later.
Even though opposition to the Iraq War was Massa’s top issue in 2006, progressives saw him as overly conservative, citing his opposition to new gun control laws and the fact that he was formerly a Republican. Anti-war sentiments were strong enough on the left, however, that Massa raised more than $377,000 online from far-left donors despite their reservations.
Massa’s conservative cred served him well, too, and the race looked close — closer still when Republican candidate Randy Kuhl’s ex-wife alleged that Kuhl had pulled a shotgun on her not once, but twice.
The 29th was still too conservative for Massa, who lost to a pro-war Kuhl with only 49 percent of the vote.
Following his loss, Massa told Esquire that he was cleaning out his garage when he his family told him that he had to run again. Massa was broke and exhausted, but his memory of the founders, he said, buoyed his spirits.
“Look, half the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were either in debt or bankrupt,” he told Esquire. “The remaining half, most of them lost all their possessions. The only reason Monticello didn’t get burned to the ground was that the British patrol missed the road. In South Carolina, among the Revolutionary leaders, all of them were either hung, had their houses burned, or their family slaughtered. You scratch your head and say, ‘They were fighting for the same things I’m fighting for, and all I’ve got to give is credit-card debt?’”
In an effort to round out his platform in a congressional district that would ultimately go to McCain, Massa added health care to his list of concerns. His own bout with cancer in the late 1990s became one of his stump subjects.
“At my last physical,” Massa told Esquire, “the doctor said, ‘Doing this again could kill you.’ And I said — and this is true, hand to God — ‘My not running for Congress could result in hundreds of soldiers getting killed. So you tell me where the risk balance is.’ This country is in danger of losing the United States of America in one generation. So it’s not, Will you run again? it’s, How could I not?”
Such rhetoric served Massa well, and his star continued to rise until March of 2008, when it seemed his campaign would be derailed by Eliot Spitzer’s scandalous resignation as governor of New York. According to the Washington Post, Massa had accepted campaign funds from Spitzer, and “returned the cash but only after the NRCC circulated three freeze-frame photos of Massa and Spitzer together, taken from one of Massa’s own campaign ads, which featured the words ‘trust,’ ‘integrity’ and ‘respect.'”
Despite the Spitzer taint, Massa won the 29th from Kuhl by the same margin he’d lost it two years earlier, with 51 percent of the vote. Massa attributed Kuhl’s loss to his support for President Bush, and referenced a picture “of Randy [Kuhl] and the president in the back of the limousine” that “tells the story of how disconnected [Kuhl] had become from voters.”
Once seated, Massa quickly proved he was further to the left than anyone anticipated, particularly with regard to public health. When swine flu began to sweep across the U.S. in April 2009, Massa called for draconian measures to contain the disease. “The public needs to be aware of the serious threat of swine flu, and we need to close our borders to Mexico immediately and completely until this is resolved,” Massa told the Washington Times.
The following November, Newsday reported that Massa was one of several New York representatives to sign a letter asking federal officials to “investigate how Wall Street firms ended up with scarce vaccine for the potentially deadly H1N1 flu.”
The letter drew attention specifically to vaccinations administered to employees of Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, and was sent even after Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control testified during a Senate hearing that “New York hospitals, doctors, schools and health departments” had received their shipments of the vaccine first.
Also in April of 2009, Massa renewed his commitment to passing health-care reform and the public option, telling an audience at the Netroots Nation Convention, “I will vote adamantly against the interests of my district,” adding “I will vote against their opinion if I actually believe it will help them.” New York GOP operatives created video based on Massa’s remarks, which were caught on camera, and distributed the video — titled “Democrats Think You’re Stupid” — to New York news agencies.
Since then, Massa has stayed true to his word, joining a very short list of representatives who voted against the November House health-care bill, arguing that it would “enshrine in law the monopolistic powers of the private health insurance industry.”
Several times during the last year and a half Massa broke ranks with fellow Democrats. He voted against rebuking Republican Rep. Joe Wilson after Wilson interrupted a speech by President Obama. Massa also refused to chastise Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel in late 2009 when House Democrats first began distancing themselves from the ethically challenged New Yorker.
The only reason Massa has given for his resignation is a resurgence of cancer, which he first contracted while still in the Navy in 1998. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Massa apparently did not inform party leaders of his plans, and left them racing to find a candidate to replace him.”