The Army's gain is expected to be the North Country's loss of a popular, centrist Republican who for 16 years has represented the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi River.
John McHugh, who has represented most of the North Country in Congress since 1993, was nominated as secretary of the Army by President Barack Obama at noon Tuesday.
Obama said McHugh hasn't always agreed with him but has demonstrated "patriotism and pragmatism." He characterized McHugh as "a distinguished public servant who will help keep us safe and keep our sacred trust with our soldiers and their families. Just ask the soldiers he's always fought for in his district at Fort Drum, home to the legendary 10th Mountain Division, the most deployed division in the U.S. Army."
President Barack Obama watches as U.S. Rep. John McHugh speaks in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington Tuesday after the president announced he has picked McHugh to become Army secretary.
(AP photo — Ron Edmonds)
McHugh said he had thought long and hard about something original to say, but "I don't have an original thought in my mind. All I know is what I feel in my heart. I am enormously moved and deeply proud of this nomination."
McHugh will have to be confirmed by a majority vote of the U.S. Senate. He will first have to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee before being voted on by the full body, said Bethany Lesser, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Lesser said the schedule hadn't been set, but "Senator Gillibrand hopes it happens as quickly as possible."
McHugh would replace Pete Geren, a Texas Democrat who became secretary in 2007. The secretary of the Army answers to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, and is responsible for all matters related to the Army including manpower, personnel, weapons systems and management of the Army Department's $170 billion annual budget and more than 1.5 million soldiers, employees and contractors.
A wide array of North Country politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, praised McHugh as someone who understands the region as well as the military. Franklin County Legislator Paul Maroun, R-Tupper Lake, said he expects "no problem with his confirmation," noting that McHugh has worked closely with senators Gillibrand and Charles Schumer and former Sen. Hillary Clinton, all Democrats. Schumer put out a statement this morning promising to "work to ensure a swift and smooth confirmation for my good friend."
McHugh is the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee and has visited Iraq 10 times and Afghanistan four times, said McHugh spokeswoman Stephanie Valle. He grew up in the Watertown area and lives in nearby Pierrepont Manor, both near Fort Drum. McHugh's district spans from Lake Champlain to Lake Ontario and includes much of the Adirondacks. He was re-elected for a ninth term in November, beating central New York Democrat Mike Oot by an almost two-to-one margin.
McHugh has been on the West Point Board of Visitors. His father served in the Air Force during World War II, and his mother was an Army nurse.
"He has been a tremendous advocate for our military," said state Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro, who has known McHugh for almost two decades and said she would consider running to replace him. "But on the flip side of that coin, we're going to miss John as our congressman because he's an advocate for our people and he's a real person."
Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne said McHugh has been "tremendous as far as border security" and efforts to reduce the flow of drugs into the U.S. from Canada.
"It's really important that the secretary of the Army is coming from the same district that Fort Drum is in," said Franklin County Legislator Tim Burpoe, D-Saranac Lake. "Not that he's going to lean or have any bias toward Fort Drum, but at least he knows what the benefits are of continuing to fully fund Fort Drum."
Tupper Lake Democratic Committee Chairman Dean Lefebvre, however, said McHugh's new position may lead to special attention for Fort Drum.
"Perhaps (with McHugh) as secretary to the Army, you might see Fort Drum expand more than it has," said Lefebvre.
"It's too bad for us if he's leaving, but there will be other good candidates," said North Elba town Supervisor Robi Politi. "He's an easy guy to talk to and understands the meaning of bipartisanship. It's not unusual to see John walking up and down the sidewalks of Lake Placid on the weekend, because of his interest in the whole region and his love for the Adirondacks."
Franklin County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Ellis, one of the county chairs who spoke to McHugh about running for Congress in 1992, said he was pleased with the appointment.
"I think it's one of the few things that Obama did that's right," said Ellis. "I've never seen a person who is more of a student and more of a person who really digs into things before he makes a decision, and I think a secretary of the Army needs to be that kind of person."
Former Tupper Lake Democratic Chairman Rick Dattola said that while he'd prefer the position be given to a Democrat, he was pleased it would be going to someone who had done well for the North Country.
"With Fort Drum there, I think he's got a lot of good experience," said Dattola.
Essex County Republican Chairman Ron Jackson, of Essex, said McHugh is well respected by Democrats and Republicans and noted that Clinton chose him to accompany her on her first visit to Iraq.
"It shows the bipartisan respect the man has," Jackson said.
McHugh mentioned bipartisanship and working with the Obama administration in his acceptance speech. He said the members of the Armed Services Committee come in with different political viewpoints, "but at the end of the day, Democrats and Republicans work for the common good."
McHugh's record includes votes to allow the Iraq invasion and for the surge. He voted for the bank bailout, after voting for an amendment to remove unrelated spending items used to sweeten passage of the bill, and he voted against the federal stimulus plan. He favors keeping abortion legal but supports certain restrictions such as parental notification in the case of minors. He has consistently won federal funding for rural airports, fire departments, acid-rain monitoring and heating-oil subsidies for low-income-residents. He opposed Homeland Security rules that slow traffic at the U.S.-Canada border and publicly called a Border Patrol proposal for a permanent checkpoint near Exit 30 of Interstate 87 "stupid."