State Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine said Thursday he will not seek the Democratic nomination to succeed Rep. John M. McHugh in Congress, forcing party leaders to choose among far less well known and well-funded candidates to face off against state Assemblywoman Dierdre K. Scozzafava in a special election.
"My focus is on the things right in front of me, like business dealings in the Senate," Mr. Aubertine, D-Cape Vincent, said in a telephone interview from home shortly after the 5 p.m. deadline for candidates to submit their names to north country Democratic officials.
Mr. Aubertine, who had been undecided since the possible vacancy first became known in early June, said family considerations and his "commitment" to the Senate seat to which north country voters elected him twice were the determining factors.
In a written statement, he said, "My commitment is to the people of the 48th Senate District and has been all along. Before I could even consider the possibility of serving another eight counties, I had a duty to finish out this year's session."
The state senator's decision ends weeks of speculation, and even assumptions, that he would seek the 23rd Congressional District seat that Mr. McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor, will vacate if confirmed as secretary of the Army. As recently as Wednesday, potential Democratic rivals said they assumed he would run and party chairpersons from the 11 counties in the district were sure to select him in that case.
Republicans assumed the same. The National Republican Congressional Committee launched its first robocalls in the region Wednesday and followed up with television ads and mass mailings Thursday and today, all attacking Mr. Aubertine as the likely Democratic nominee.
Mr. Aubertine took aim at those ads Thursday, saying he was surprised by the widespread assumption he was running, and using the ads to tag the Republicans as out of touch with reality or with voters' real concerns.
"They have made this all about politics, the cares of the people be damned," Mr. Aubertine said. "It's all about the seat."
In the end, Mr. Aubertine's decision may have been about preserving a seat as well — his state Senate seat that is precious to the Democratic majority in Albany. Political insiders have said the Republicans had an excellent chance at regaining that seat, whereas a single seat does not make much difference in a Congress now dominated by Democrats.
Still, national Democrats did woo Mr. Aubertine. He said he had spoken with national Democratic operatives but never made a rumored trip to Washington. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has taken an interest in the seat, sensing that capturing it could deal a symbolic blow to a Republican party losing influence in the Northeast. New York has but three Republicans in Congress, including Mr. McHugh, and New England has no Republicans in the House.
His decision caught the party's leaders off guard. State Democratic Committee Chairwoman June F. O'Neill had not heard the news when contacted by a Watertown Daily Times reporter Thursday evening.
"The process moves forward," Mrs. O'Neill said.
With Mr. Aubertine no longer a factor, Democratic county leaders must pick from political hopefuls who are not nearly as established. Jefferson County Democratic Chairman Sean M. Hennessey, who is leading the effort, said before the news of Mr. Aubertine's decision that county leaders plan a conference call Tuesday to map out the selection process.
He did not immediately return a message Thursday evening to clarify how Mr. Aubertine's decision might change the timetable.
Among the people who have said they are interested, the most seasoned politician is John T. Sullivan Jr., a former assistant state attorney general in Watertown and former co-chairman of the New York Democratic State Committee, as well as a former mayor of Oswego. He has perhaps the most political depth and contacts with party officials in the counties.
Daniel J. French, a former federal prosecutor in Northern New York and a LaFargeville Central School graduate, has expressed an interest and has some experience through his work for former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and his ties to Mr. McHugh in the past election cycle, when he was a supporter and contributor.
Mr. French wasn't willing Thursday to say whether he's in.
"Sen. Aubertine's decision creates an unexpected opportunity that I need to discuss with my family," Mr. French said. "A number of good candidates have expressed interest, and I'm confident that the district will be well-served."
Mr. Sullivan would have to decide whether running now sacrifices his job as an assistant state inspector general for Medicaid, considering the campaign could last longer than the six weeks or so that appeared possible in June. Mr. Sullivan, then, might have to contemplate an early retirement if he runs and loses.
"I am a great believer in fate, and if it is meant to be that I should be selected to champion the cause of the hard working people of the 23rd Congressional District as the nominee of the Democratic party, that course will soon become apparent," Mr. Sullivan said. "In the coming days, I will be consulting with those leaders, and with others, to determine if furthering that potential candidacy is appropriate."
A relative newcomer to the race said Mr. Aubertine's decision only boosts his decision to enter the fray.
"I am grateful that Senator Aubertine passed on what I have no doubt would have been a great victory to keep fighting for north country jobs, farms and industry in the state Senate," said Brian S. McGrath, who this week announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for the 23rd Congressional District seat. "I'm going to keep up what I have been doing, which is traveling throughout the district listening to folks and gaining momentum for our own tough fight ahead to get Senator Aubertine a partner in Congress."
Mr. McGrath, a Lowville native who has spent the past decade working as an attorney in New York City, said he had spoken with one of the county Democratic chairmen and called another.
"We're working hard to make our case," Mr. McGrath said. Others who have expressed an interest include Michael P. Oot of Munnsville, who lost to Mr. McHugh in 2007; and Danny M. Francis of Watertown, who lost to Mr. McHugh 1994 and tried unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination last year.
Ms. Scozzafava said she respected Mr. Aubertine's decision. "It's probably a relief to him to at least have arrived at a decision, because every day there was speculation," she said. "We've had a collegial relationship in the state Legislature. I look forward to working with him in the future."
Asked how the announcement would affect her campaign, Ms. Scozzafava said, "I have to be prepared to go forward regardless (of the other candidates) ... It's a big district, and it's my job to get around it and meet as many people as I can."
Times staff writers Joanna Richards and Steve Virkler contributed to this report.