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New York State of Mind: After Running Family Business, Amory Houghton Serves as Renegade U.S. Representative

By Joyce K. Mcintyre, Crimson Staff Writer

The Honorable U.S. Rep. Amory Houghton Jr. '50 loves Corning, New York.

He was born in the small upstate town and raised four children there after graduating from Harvard Business school in 1952.

In 1986, he retired from Corning Glass Works--the company his family founded in 1851--after serving as president, chair of the board and chief executive officer.

Then Houghton bought a motor home and set out to meet his neighbors. Lots of his neighbors. He had decided, on the spur of the moment, to run for U.S. Congress, in the 31st district of New York.

He won, and has served the mostly rural, blue- collar district ever since as their Republican Congressional representative.

"For the money Amo has, he is one of the nicest guys; he is a genuinely nice person," says Bob Rowlfe, a reporter with the Corning Leader for 30 years. "Amo wanders up and down the street and hangs out in the local coffee shop. On Sundays, he drives to pick up his paper. One of the only [millionaires] you see in that light is Amo Houghton."

Houghton, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, surprised political pundits by deciding to run for a seventh term this year. He says he is set to do battle over the upcoming re-districting that threatens to shunt off his beloved town of Corning to such uncaring districts like Rochester or Buffalo.

"I ran again because I feel strongly about the re-districting issue," Houghton says. "I hope they don't carve our district out and make it a suburb of Rochester, where we would never have any rural representation."

A 'Call' To Service

The passionately bi-partisan Houghton says he got into politics 13 years ago by mere chance.

"I was planning to go to Africa. And then I got a call on Memorial Day weekend, asking me if I would run. The seat was open, so I just ran," he says. "I thought I might get an appointed position, but I never expected to run."

Houghton's father was ambassador to France from 1957 to 1961, and his grandfather was an ambassador to Germany and Great Britain after two terms in the House of Representatives.

Rowlfe says he was skeptical of Houghton's candidacy at first.

"It was the biggest political shock story--no one had ever dreamt of it," he says. "But [Amo] was ready to do something entirely different."

And once he won his seat, Houghton has been a renegade Republican in Congress--more than willing to vote against the party platform--and he was one of four Republicans to vote against impeachment in 1999.

"I don't give a damn what party I'm with. I don't have this venomous hate for the leader of the blue team, if the Republicans are the red team. I'm a Rockefeller or an Eisenhower Republican," he says. "I think that [the right wing] is out of step with the party. I'm trying to bring the party back to the center, exactly like the Democrats did," he continues.

Houghton sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and is a member of the International Relations Committee, where he heads up the Subcommittee on Africa.

And after his recent vote on the China trade bill facing the House, Houghton got a call from a disgruntled constituent called who threatened to "come punch [him]out."

"Politics is the rawest form of humanity--good and bad," Houghton says.

Eliot House and Beyond

During his College years, Houghton toyed with dreams of serving in the State Department, and was also interested in the ministry. And then there was always the family business, Corning Glass.

"I had been in the service, so I was ready to do stuff," he says.

He had enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1944, and did a tour in the Caribbean on the U.S.S. Macon.

Houghton first met his Eliot House roommate, Robert L. Montgomery '50, when the two were students at St. Paul's prep school in New Hampshire.

"We met in the infirmary, after I had my appendix out," Montgomery remembers. "He started reciting dirty limericks to make me laugh. He caused me considerable pain."

Houghton, Montgomery and two of their classmates from St. Paul's ended up at Harvard after serving in the military, and because they were veterans, were put directly into Eliot House.

"They thought we were too dangerous to be in the freshman dormitory," Montgomery says.

The four guys from St. Paul's were good friends and nice guys, "safe dates for nice girls," Montgomery remembers.

"I was so very proud of my roommates," Houghton says.

The Eliot House residents never locked their doors, and always wore coats and ties to dinner.

Houghton remembers being inspired by certain subjects he studied as an undergraduate--and being bored by others.

"I took a course in the Old Testament, and got really inspired, and then I would do very well," he says. "I would poop along, and then bang-oh, something shot up, and I would get excited."

Houghton was president of the A.D. Club, a member of the student council and the Republican Club, and active with Philips Brooks House.

"I took music lessons, piano at the New England Conservatory. I was an absolute failure at the piano," Houghton laments.

A Little Elbow Room

Despite his musical shortcomings, Houghton is almost assured re-election this fall.

None the less, he is gearing up the motor home to get out on the road and talk about the issues with his constituents.

"They announce that he'll be coming in advance. And then the motor home pulls in, and he opens it up as an office. People come in and talk to him," Rowlfe says.

The re-districting issue will be Houghton's main challenge in his seventh term, and Rowlfe says the 31st district almost certainly will be eliminated.

"His district will definitely go. He plans to use seniority to broker a deal, so that we are not made a district that is attached to Rochester or Buffalo," Rowlfe says.

During his 13-year stint as a member of Congress, Houghton has focused on economic development in his district, improving transportation with refurbished highways and airports.

He has served as a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers, and was married for the second time in 1989.

And he still hopes to go on a mission trip to Africa, like he had originally planed to 13 years ago, before Congress got in the way.

Looking back, Houghton says he is glad he went into business, and proud he has had the opportunity to represent the part of New York he calls home.

" I realized in college that I probably could do what I wanted to do within business, and I'm really glad I did," he says. "Corning is a wonderful company with extraordinary people. Corning [the town] is a rural community, you have a little elbow room to spread out. I like that."

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