'My name is Eric Massa and I need your support'
The Iraq war turned him into a candidate. Running for Congress turned his family's finances upside down.
(Money Magazine) -- Eric Massa is lost. Or rather, his campaign manager Mike Nolan is. Nolan is driving a battered Cadillac, trying to find this evening's hotel, and he's on his third U-turn.
Massa, a Democrat running for Congress in upstate New York, sits in back. Riding shotgun is former Georgia senator Max Cleland, in town to help Massa raise money. They've just left a fund raiser, the fourth on a marathon Sunday, and it ran long.
With Massa they all do. A retired Navy officer waging an antiwar campaign, Massa works a room until there's literally no one left to talk to. By the time Nolan, followed by two cars of volunteers, pulls into the Lodge at Woodcliff parking lot in Rochester, it's nearly 11. Tomorrow is another 14-hour day. Everyone shuffles through the lobby toward the elevator.
Except Massa, that is. He's not tired. After Cleland departs, Massa, 47, calls to the others, "Back down in the lobby for a beer? Fifteen minutes?"
If adrenaline were all that was required to win public office, Eric Massa couldn't lose. But Massa needs a lot more than energy.
A political neophyte challenging a Republican incumbent in a conservative-leaning district, Massa has to connect with voters who don't know him - and get them to open their wallets.
He'll require more than $1 million to stay competitive, and he and his wife Beverly can't exactly write the campaign a check. Not anymore. Massa took unpaid leave from his $125,000-a-year consulting job earlier this year to run full time, and he's already sold the investment property that was supposed to pay for his two teenagers' college education.
All told the Massas have put more than $90,000 of their money into the campaign, including $56,000 in loans.
"Any sane man would've walked away from this a long time ago," says Massa. "If you took what I'm doing as a business model and you presented it to a class at Harvard, they'd toss you out on the highway."
True enough. Still, the Massa campaign resembles others across the decades and across party lines. Most first-timers pool small checks from the guys at the firehouse and the ladies who saw the speech at the Y, hoping to generate enough excitement that more and bigger supporters come onboard.
Their odds of success - like those of any upstart entrepreneur taking on an established competitor, to pick up Massa's B-school metaphor - are low. But old orders can fall. Like the Republicans in 1994, who took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, the Democrats are hungry this time.
Massa is running against John "Randy" Kuhl, a first-termer who supports the President on Iraq. Massa used to be a Republican himself. He switched parties in 2004, disgusted with the war and discouraged by the American health-care system.
Suddenly the race is hot. According to the nonpartisan National Journal, the Massa-Kuhl contest is one of the country's 50 most competitive. And Massa is making headway on the money. His campaign has raised about $660,000, according to official tallies.
Kuhl has brought in just under $1 million. Kuhl's campaign has used Massa's personal financial stretch against him. "Randy hasn't had to mortgage his home or loan his campaign any funds," a spokesman told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, referring to the San Diego house the Massas sold last year. Massa acknowledges the cost but claims a higher purpose. Recalling the risks that the signers of the Declaration of Independence took (and aligning himself with Jefferson and company), he says, "When you talk about a college fund, it looks kind of insignificant."
Get past the "others have sacrificed more" front, though, and Massa lets on that he knows his run has made Beverly and their kids' world less secure. The family income has gone from $190,000 to $65,000 - from Beverly's job and his Navy pension. They've stopped saving for retirement.
And if Massa loses, his prospects are uncertain. After all, unlike many candidates, he has no law practice to fall back on. He isn't sure his old consulting job will be there, and he worries that his run will put off prospective employers.
"My livelihood was my first thought when I decided to run," Massa says. "How would I manage my family when I'm not earning a paycheck? I basically went to Vegas and threw it all on the craps table."
His biggest race
What drives a guy to take that kind of risk? Maybe it's that Massa understands better than most how illusory security can be. Sure, like any career sailor, he can tell you a hairy story or two from his Navy days.
But there's something else too. In 1997, Massa had recently run a half-marathon when he came down with what he thought was the flu. As a Navy commander, the highest rank he would achieve, he was living in Belgium and serving as a special assistant to Gen. Wesley Clark, then the NATO chief. After a week, Beverly scheduled a doctor's appointment. Massa blew it off.
The next day Clark walked into Massa's office and told him that Beverly had just called, worried about his health. Massa apologized for the intrusion, but Clark replied that he just made Massa another appointment. "I said, 'thank you, General, but I don't need to go,'" Massa recalls. "He looked at me and said, 'I think we've lost the fundamental relationship here between a Navy commander and the general in charge of NATO. You will go to the doctor.' Well, off I went."
Clark, who briefly ran for President in 2003-04 on an antiwar platform and who has stumped for Massa, confirms the account.
When Massa returned for a follow-up, four doctors were waiting for him. They told him he had an aggressive form of lung cancer and would live no more than four months. The diagnosis turned out to be wrong - more tests showed Massa had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma - but the prognosis was still grim.
Massa and his family moved to San Diego to be near his and Beverly's parents, and he spent six months undergoing surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. They bought a one-story house because Massa had trouble walking up stairs. His weight fell from 175 pounds to about 125.
But he was soon cancer-free. Massa's military health insurance had paid for his treatment, which he found exemplary. The Navy asked him to serve as a cancer outreach specialist to military personnel and civilians, and sometimes he acted as a patient's advocate.
It was during this time that Massa first felt the tug toward being a legislator. One day, he recalls, a man whose wife he was representing asked if Massa could check with the doctors whether they could switch the regimen from every three weeks to every five. The reason: to avoid piling on credit-card debt.
"Now this is what our medical system in this country has taken us to," Massa says, his voice rising and his hands talking too, as they often do when he gets on a roll. "A husband and a wife gamble with the quality of health care based on how far into debt they can go."
After 24 years of service, Massa left the Navy and landed a job as a manufacturing manager for Corning in upstate New York, moving his family to the town of 11,000 people that's named for the glass company. It's a quiet place about 100 miles from Lake Erie, with a tree-lined Main Street that runs parallel to the Chemung River.
The Massas bought a four-bedroom colonial on a hill and figured on staying put until Eric retired. It seemed like a good, low-risk plan. When Massa was hired in March 2001, however, the air was already leaking out of the tech bubble. Corning's stock price had dropped to $30 from a high of $100 as investors grew nervous about the company's fiber-optics business. Eventually shares sank to $1.10, and Massa's job was one of 3,500 local positions cut.
So there they were with a big house, a depressed town, two teenage kids and Beverly's then $30,000 salary, which she earned as an accountant for Family Service Society, a private nonprofit.
Massa needed to find work - preferably without uprooting his family again. His father was a 34-year Navy man, and Massa did not want the nomad's life for his wife and kids anymore. "You never have roots," he says. "When I lost my job, I said, 'You'll drag me out of this town feet first.'"
Through his Navy connections, Massa landed a job with the House Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C. He drove down every Monday at 2 a.m. and returned home to Corning by midnight on Fridays. Massa left after writing a memo criticizing the war in Iraq.
He found a job as a consultant for Strategic Insight, a D.C. strategy firm that does work for the military and private industry. The salary was good; the commute wasn't. Often he would ask Beverly to leave a serving of Friday night's dinner on the stove. It's a habit he's picked up again recently.
Big money in the big apple
"When you run for office, unfortunately you need money," says Jacqui Samuels, scanning name tags as the room fills up. Massa's campaign hired Samuels, a professional fund raiser, to cook up a big-time Manhattan event at Tavern on the Green, the restaurant in Central Park. "You have to turn over every stone. And every candidate has to come through New York. Especially when you're an unknown."
Massa, son Justin, 17, and a few staffers have driven the five hours down from Corning earlier in the day. Massa warms up the crowd by poking fun at his excitability, recalling how his 15-year-old daughter Alexandra recently attended one of his speeches.
Massa was his typical animated self, and afterward she told him she wasn't sure she wanted him to win. He asked why. She replied, "I just watched you, and if you win, there's not a single boy in Corning who's going to want to date me."
"'Sweetheart,' I said, 'that's why I'm running.'"
Then comes the pitch. "As an old sailor, I'm very shy about asking for help. Navy captains will sail into battle and take on any enemy at any time, but now it's my turn to ask for reinforcements. I will carry the flag, but I need you to pass me the ammunition." the two-hour event raises $35,000 for the campaign.
The home front
That sum is more than six months' worth of income for the Massa family these days. They've cut out restaurant dinners, family entertainment and extra Christmas gifts. ("The kids got one present last year. Uno," says Massa.)
"It's okay because I know what my dad is doing is very important," says Justin.
Alexandra shrugs: "I haven't had a lot of time to shop anyway. And I love McDonald's."
How long the spartan lifestyle lasts depends on what happens Nov. 7. If Massa wins, he'll start earning a congressman's $165,200 salary in January. If he loses, Beverly figures they can get by until next fall. She and Eric both say he'll need some downtime.
That's a good idea, says Nels Olson, who heads up the Washington, D.C. office of executive search firm Korn Ferry: "I've seen many people coming out of the crucible of a campaign who are not mentally ready to present a good case for themselves."
Once rested, says Olson, Massa would need to decide whether to keep his political options open. If so, jobs in real estate and insurance, where there's some flexibility in hours, make sense.
Beyond that, he should tap contacts he made during the campaign and play up his Navy career when talking to employers. "His military leadership experience, being able to lay out a plan and execute it, is very important," says Olson.
To set the Massas up for the longer term, Money Magazine turned to Bill Burns, president of Burns Matteson Capital Management. His office is down the street from Massa's Corning headquarters. (Burns commutes from outside the district, so he isn't a constituent.)
His take: The Massas have been diligent savers, but their portfolio is out of balance and burdened by high-fee investments. He recommends the following.
Lose the Stock Eric's 401(k) from Corning, some $80,000, is entirely in company stock, as is another $50,000 in non-401(k) money. That's about a third of their whole portfolio.
Burns says this is a problem for two reasons: First, it's risky to live and die by the fortunes of a single company, as Corning's history attests.
Second, if Massa wins the election, such a large personal stake in a company in his district could pose conflicts of interest.
Should Massa win, Burns recommends selling the stock outright, establishing a trading plan under which it's sold at pre-determined dates or putting it into a blind trust that Massa wouldn't control. If he loses, the sale can be timed to take advantage of market conditions.
Clean up the Funds The rest of the Massas' kitty is spread out over two Roth IRAs and several taxable accounts with investments in underperforming, high-fee mutual funds.
Burns wants to sell the Olstein Financial Alert Fund, the Putnam OTC and Emerging Growth Fund, and the Oppenheimer Discovery funds.
His replacement ideas include two longtime top performers, the Third Avenue Value fund and American Funds' Growth Fund of America.
About that Tuition Justin has his sights set on Cornell (2006-07 tuition: $32,800), and Alexandra wants to go to Harvard.
The Massas plowed most of the profits from the sale of the San Diego home into the campaign, but Burns points out that they have $47,600 saved for college, mostly in 529 plans.
Those, unfortunately, are based in South Dakota, so Burns suggests the Massas switch to a New York State 529 to secure in-state tax benefits. They will put in $12,000 this year. If they raise that by 5% a year, they'll be able to pay $17,500 a year for each child for four years. The difference will have to be made up by loans or grants.
And Then There's Retirement Once Eric's Corning 401(k) is straightened out, they should turn their attention to Beverly's 403(b), a tax-deferred savings plan for government and nonprofit workers.
Before the campaign, she had contributed $1,000 a month, and she'll start again once Eric returns to work. But Burns doesn't like the fees of the variable annuity that Beverly's plan offers. On his recommendation, she'll ask her employer to begin offering a lower-cost alternative from Vanguard.
As for Eric, if he loses the election and gets a new job, he should enroll in his employer's 401(k) and contribute the maximum amount. If he wins and manages to stay in the House for at least five years, he will be eligible for a congressional pension, though Massa says the sweet deal is something he'll fight as a congressman.
With a few weeks left until Election Day, a lot of miles, handshakes and dollars stand between Massa and Washington. As he is driven down I-390 from Rochester to Corning for another fund raiser, he does a phone interview with the New York Times for a story on the Democrats' plans for Iraq.
Then Beverly calls, and he tells her that he's hoping to be home by 10. He asks if she could leave some food on the stove. ("We try to schedule one night a week when I'm home for dinner," he says. "This week it's Thursday.")