The stately green home sits atop a steep hill, U.S. and New York state flags framing its front door. But a fierce iron gate also wraps the property, along with signs that warn "No Trespassing" and "Violators Will Be Prosecuted." When a reporter knocks, Eric Massa — the former House Democrat who stepped down amid accusations of sexual misconduct — refuses to speak and slams the door.
Just six months after Massa's abrupt resignation, New York's sprawling 29th Congressional District is one of several across the country that Republicans are counting on as the party tries to reclaim control of the House.
Polls here show Republican Tom Reed with a double-digit lead over Democrat Matt Zeller, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not spent money to hold the seat — a sign they've all but written it off. That's left local Democrats disillusioned and deeply angry at Massa for the opportunity they say he squandered.
"I really did not care for Massa that much to begin with, but then I thought he turned into a pretty good congressman," 74-year old Corning resident Dera Dauman said. "But when that scandal came out, I thought, my goodness. Why does it happen to a Democrat? We finally got a Democrat in there."
A career Naval officer, Massa, 51, rode the 2008 Democratic wave and narrowly defeated Republican Rep. Randy Kuhl after losing to Kuhl just two years earlier. Massa, an energetic if sometimes quirky lawmaker, was highly visible in his district during his first year in office and appeared relatively well positioned for re-election.
But Massa announced last March he would resign his seat, claiming a recurrence of the non-Hodgkins lymphoma he had battled years before. Within hours, reports surfaced that Massa was being investigated by the House ethics committee on charges he had sexually harassed male staffers.
Massa went on national television to defend himself, telling Glenn Beck of Fox News he had tickled and groped aides at a birthday party but claimed his overtures weren't sexual.
Massa, a married father, denied being gay and suggested former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and other aides to President Barack Obama had conspired to drive him out of office.
"I am sitting there showering, naked as a jaybird, and here comes Rahm Emanuel, not even with a towel," Massa told an Elmira radio station, saying Emanuel jabbed "his finger in my chest, yelling at me because I wasn't going to vote for the president's budget."
Massa added, "You know how awkward it is to have a political argument with a naked man?"
Today, Massa is rarely seen on the streets of the district, which spans much New York's southern tier and climbs north to the Rochester suburbs. Residents still puzzle over the circumstances of his bizarre departure.
Forty-four-year-old Chris Herman is an undecided Democrat who said Massa's fall from grace has intensified the Corning restaurant owner's growing disgust with politics.
"In a small little town like this, we all met Eric Massa. How did people not know stuff from his past?" Herman said. "Seems that politics, once people get into it, they start putting their own interests against the country's interests. I'm just over it."
Local talk radio personality Frank Acomb, 26, said Massa let down the district by leaving it with no representative in Congress for six months.
"You had a guy who said he was going to do his best for the community. And then what he did, he left midstream," Acomb said. "If it was because of the ethics charges, you could understand why he dropped out. But he said it was health issues, then it was all of a sudden that he was intimidated by Rahm Emanuel. What is it? We never really found out."
Acomb, a Republican, described next month's election as "Tom Reed's to lose." A Siena Poll released Sept. 21 found Reed leading Zeller 44 percent to 30 percent among likely voters in the heavily Republican and conservative district.
Such predictions aren't fazing Zeller, 28, despite the daunting poll numbers and fundraising woes. His campaign had about $50,000 on hand according to the most recent financial filing in August, while Reed had $361,000.
"We've somehow correlated the ability to fundraise with the ability to govern, and it doesn't work. All we have to do is look at our slate of national leaders and our disgust with them to realize that," Zeller said in an interview.
Zeller, an Army veteran who enlisted at age 19 after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, is campaigning across the district wearing the boots he wore during a nine-month tour of Afghanistan. He calls the 9/11 attacks his generation's Pearl Harbor and said Congress would benefit from someone his age and with his experience.
My generation went off to war for our country," Zeller said. "We want jobs. We want an affordable education. We want social security to be there for us when we retire. And if you think we don't want a voice in this fight, you're darn wrong."
Thirty-eight-year old Reed, a former Corning mayor, has embraced the tea party movement and speaks generally of creating jobs and improving the economy while boosting overall fiscal restraint. Pressed for specifics, Reed says he'll develop those through his membership in the Freshmen 50, an organization of Republican House candidates committed to working together on those issues if elected.
"It's all fiscal related. The concept is, we get to D.C. and you mess with one, you mess with all," Reed said.
Reed and Zeller have eight debates scheduled during the final weeks of the campaign. Both insist they rarely hear Massa's name on the campaign trail, saying voters care more about pressing issues of the day.
"I don't know where he's at. The good thing is, it's behind us," Reed said, adding he's only questioned about Massa when he leaves the area.
"We go to Washington, D.C., or New York and everyone associates the district with him. And that's not who we are," Reed said.