One to Watch: If She Wins This Fall, Samara Barend Will Be the Youngest Congresswoman Ever, and Something Nearly as Rare: A Democrat from Upstate New York

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CORNING, N.Y. -- SAMARA BAREND, A 26-year-old congressional candidate in New York state, is barreling along in a Buick Rendezvous on a recent Friday when "an even bigger SUV," as her campaign spokesman-cum-driver, Don Weigel, put it, nearly sideswipes her car.

Barend looks shaken, but it's not the first time she's had a mishap on the campaign trail. On the morning of January 22, 2004, Barend was on the same highway--a four-lane expressway, Route 17, designated the "Future I-86"--on her way to New York City to meet with Abigail Disney, past president of New York Women's Foundation, when she got into a "horrible accident."

"I hit a pothole, and my car was completely totaled," Barend says.

Somehow, she persuaded the ambulance driver to drive her to Monticello, New York, where she got on a Greyhound bus and rode to New York City. Her lunch in an Upper East Side restaurant was a success: Disney donated $2,000 to her campaign. But that night, Barend went to Corning Hospital and discovered that she had a concussion.

"I had no idea," said Disney. "Well, you know she's tough. She's going to have to be."

The 29th District, which runs from the southern-tier region along the Pennsylvania border to suburban Rochester, has been strongly Republican since 1860, says Caleb Rossiter, an American University professor who ran as a Democrat for the seat in 1998 (and got trounced by incumbent Republican Amo Houghton). In 2000, George W. Bush won 53 percent of the vote, his "strongest district in the state," according to The Almanac of American Politics.

A Democrat last won a congressional race here in March 1976. Stan Lundine, who eventually became New York's lieutenant governor, won in a special election after James Hastings was convicted of mail fraud.

"It's hard for me to see whether any Democrat could win. I know it's possible but, to be honest, I was lucky," Lundine says.

For the past 17 years, the seat has been held by the 77-year-old Houghton, the only former CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Corning Glass Works) to serve in the House. Houghton announced on April 6 that he wouldn't run again and has endorsed a Republican state senator, John R. "Randy" Kuhl Jr., 61, a veteran of New York politics, according to Houghton's chief of staff, Bob Van Wicklin.

Barend has her own track record. As a Capitol Hill intern, she helped write sections of a transportation bill that sought to upgrade Route 17 into an interstate, an age-old dream of southern-tier economic-development mavens. After the bill was passed, $50 million in federal funds was funneled into the district. In addition, she has fancy donors, seven full-time staffers, and is, as we know, hardheaded.

BAREND'S CAMPAIGN HEADQUARTERS on East Market Street is filled with the usual debris: cardboard pizza boxes, dusty keyboards, and bags of "Plastic Patriotic Bunting." Unlike most campaign offices, though, this one is located in a former Community Bank with two vaults, sealed by 7-and-a-half-inch steel doors. And, unlike most neophyte candidates, she's raised a hefty amount to stash there: $171,000.

Indeed, Barend has more money than all of her opponents combined. Kuhl has $84,000, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filing. Mark Assini, the favored candidate of the anti-tax organization Club for Growth, has raised $62,000. Jeremy Alderson, a lefty Dalton School graduate and former nightclub performer known as "Joshua the Stripping Philosopher," has raised $1,200. (The field will be narrowed after a September 14 primary.)

Barend's list of supporters reads like the New York Post's Page Six. Hillary Clinton counseled her on entering the race. Howard Dean named her a "Dean's Dozen" candidate. Individual donors include Marie Wilson, president of the White House Project, a nonpartisan organization that advances women's leadership; Swanee Hunt, former ambassador to Austria; Daniel Glickman, new president of the Motion Picture Association of America; and pollster Celinda Lake. …

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