Local Politics, Not Trump, Dominate In Key New York Swing District

Local Politics, Not Trump, Dominate In Key New York Swing District

New York’s 19th Congressional District is a top target for national Democrats.
Residents of New York's 19th Congressional District protest outside a Manhattan fundraiser for Rep. John Faso (R) in July 201

Pacific Press/Getty Images
Residents of New York’s 19th Congressional District protest outside a Manhattan fundraiser for Rep. John Faso (R) in July 2017. The upstate district has seen an explosion of liberal activism.

KINGSTON, N.Y. ― When Gareth Rhodes explains his support for “Medicare for all,” he makes many of the same points about for-profit health insurance as other advocates of the hallmark progressive policy: the cripplingly high costs for worse outcomes, the job lock for workers who rely on employer coverage, and the depressing effect it has on small businesses.

But before Rhodes, a former press aide to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and a Democratic candidate in New York’s 19th Congressional District, gets to all that, he points to an orange rubber bracelet on his wrist with the words “Alyssa Strong.”

He bought it on a campaign stop in St. Johnsville in February. Residents of the small mill town on the district’s northernmost edge were selling the bracelets for $5 to pay for the health care bills of Alyssa, a local high-school student with leukemia. At the bar where he bought the bracelet, he put the young woman’s predicament at the heart of his health care pitch to locals.

“I said, ‘This is why I believe in Medicare for all, a not-for-profit system. Take away the profit from the system and the moment something goes wrong, you’re not worried about getting a letter from an attorney denying you coverage because of some fine print,’” he recalled. “People agreed with me ― and none of them are Democrats.”

Gareth Rhodes shows a wristband with the words "Alyssa Strong." He bought it as part of a fundraiser to pay for the health ca

Daniel Marans/HuffPost
Gareth Rhodes shows a wristband with the words “Alyssa Strong.” He bought it as part of a fundraiser to pay for the health care costs of a young woman with leukemia.

Rhodes, who at 29 is the youngest candidate in the field, approaches Medicare for all in the same way he treats every issue in the race: in terms of the very specific ways it affects a vast “swing” district spread over 11 counties in upstate New York.

Rhodes is not wrong to frame health care in explicitly local terms. New York’s 19th has a lot of Alyssas: Between 2015 and July 2017, district residents raised almost $2 million on GoFundMe to pay for individuals’ health care costs, according to analysis by the local group Kingston Creative.

In a year dominated by intense national debates, a common thread in the state’s Democratic primaries on Tuesday is the precedence of local concerns and hunger for representation in Washington that better reflects their communities’ needs.

A Swing District Packed With Democratic Contenders

New York’s 19th, which stretches from the New York City weekend-home havens of the Hudson Valley to the Catskill Mountains in the west and the Leatherstocking District in the north, is a top target for Democrats this November.

The district went twice for Barack Obama by a comfortable margin ― 8 percentage points in 2008, and 6 points in 2012 ― then handed Donald Trump a 6-point win in 2016. Republicans have nonetheless held the seat since 2011.

That could all change this year. Rep. John Faso (R), a former Albany lobbyist and freshman lawmaker representing the district, is widely considered one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents in Congress.

The biggest reason is health care. In an on-camera exchange in January 2017, Faso promised a constituent who had previously been denied coverage due to a pre-existing condition that he would not vote to undo the Affordable Care Act provisions barring insurance companies from discriminating based on medical history. But then, in May, he voted for legislation to repeal the ACA that would have allowed states to opt out of key pre-existing condition regulations.

Trump’s election and the accompanying dissatisfaction with Faso have prompted an explosion of liberal activism in a district where Democrats hold a slight registration edge over Republicans.

And on Tuesday, these Democrats have no fewer than seven candidates to choose from.

Democrat Pat Ryan, center, stands with his wife, Rebecca, right, and another attendee of a March for Our Lives rally in New Y

Pat Ryan for Congress
Democrat Pat Ryan, center, stands with his wife, Rebecca, right, and another attendee of a March for Our Lives rally in New York’s 19th.

Although there has been no independent public polling in the fiercely competitive primary, conventional wisdom has it that the top two fundraisers, Antonio Delgado, a corporate attorney, and Pat Ryan, an Iraq War veteran and tech entrepreneur, are also best positioned to clinch the nomination. Fundraising capacity is especially important in a district so vast that it includes four major media markets ― New York City, Albany, Binghamton and Utica.

In addition to Ryan, Delgado and Rhodes, the contenders are health care entrepreneur Brian Flynn; Jeff Beals, a diplomat turned high-school history teacher; attorney Dave Clegg; and former Obama administration agricultural economist Erin Collier.

In such a crowded field, the winning candidate will likely need just a few thousand votes. As a result, the contenders have struggled to find ways to both distinguish themselves on policy grounds and demonstrate that they are best equipped to defeat Faso in November.

At an organic bakery in upscale Rhinebeck, a caffeinated Ryan, 36, spoke to a retired state employee about his love and commitment to organized labor ― an institution as woven into the region’s fabric as dairy farming and Hudson River views. For Ryan, the cause is personal; his mother is a retired union teacher.

The retiree, Will Noonan, was concerned about a forthcoming Supreme Court decision that is likely to severely limit public-sector unions’ ability to collect dues. Ryan, who supports national legislation barring right-to-work laws, elaborated on his resolve to fight for union pensions, which he warned are next on the conservative chopping block.

We have to see it as the battle that it is.Pat Ryan, Democratic candidate

“We have to see it as the battle that it is,” the West Point graduate and former military intelligence officer said. “And I use that language purposely.”

Ryan maintains that he is as progressive as Delgado if not more so: He proposes both a Medicare buy-in and lowering the eligibility age to 55, while Delgado only explicitly supports the former. But Ryan is backed by moderate forces in the party including Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton’s pro-veteran Serve America PAC. The New Democrat Coalition PAC, backed by pro-business House Democrats, has contributed to Ryan’s campaign through a donation to Serve America. The mainstream, though less ideologically distinct, VoteVets PAC has also contributed to Ryan.

Delgado, 41, boasts a similarly impressive resume. He grew up in Schenectady to working-class parents who worked their way up in blue collar posts at General Electric. He graduated from Harvard Law School, which eventually led him to a career as a corporate litigator at megafirm Akin Gump, where he put in hundreds of pro-bono hours helping men serving life sentences for crimes they committed as minors.

As if that weren’t enough, in between law school and lawyering, Delgado spent several years in Los Angeles making values-driven hip-hop under the alias AD The Voice. With solid beats and lyrics, he actually found some critical acclaim.

Although he and Ryan are the only two candidates in the race who don’t support Medicare for all, Delgado is not shy about his progressive credentials. He has the endorsement of Citizen Action of New York, one of the state’s most influential left-leaning grassroots groups, as well as Andrea Mitchell, the health care activist filmed pressing Faso for answers. (Delgado had previously featured Mitchell in a health care-focused ad). He also picked up the support of the wife and daughter of Maurice Hinchey, a deceased former congressman akin to Democratic Party royalty in the Hudson Valley.

Delgado, the only African-American candidate in the race, explained that his policy proposals ― including job training, criminal justice reform, a Medicare buy-in and infrastructure investment ― stem from “a family that is deeply grounded in the traditions of this country’s fight for a more just and more fair society ― whether it’s through the African-American experience, whether it’s through the fight for gender equality, whether it’s the LGBTQ community, whether it’s labor.”

Democrat Antonio Delgado, left, speaks to voters in New Paltz, New York.

Antonio Delgado for Congress
Democrat Antonio Delgado, left, speaks to voters in New Paltz, New York.

Front-Runners With Major Liabilities

But both Ryan and Delgado’s strengths are matched by weaknesses that activists supporting their opponents frequently invoke.

Ryan supports national legislation barring right-to-work laws and often talks about his solidarity with unions. But an incident earlier in Ryan’s career at a cyber defense contractor in 2010 and 2011 has raised questions about his progressive record. Ryan’s employer was part of a joint effort, together with private surveillance firm Palantir and another company, to land a contract to help discredit labor unions and progressive groups arrayed against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Hacked emails published by WikiLeaks show Ryan and his potential partners discussing their plans over a period of months ― only to have them collapse in 2011 following scrutiny drawn by the leak.

In a February Facebook message seeking to clarify his role in the work, Ryan claimed that “once it became clear” the project was commissioned by the Chamber and would target unions and other liberal groups, “the proposal process was stopped and no work was done.”

But the email trail shows that Ryan continued to work on the project long after he knew it would target unions.

In a follow-up conversation with HuffPost, Ryan admitted as much, though he insists that he raised concerns internally at his company and was overjoyed when the project fell through.

“I was dealing directly with the CEO of a company as a 25-year-old,” he said. “I’m not going to, over email, tell that guy his ideas were problematic.”

Ryan emphasizes that he favors online privacy regulations similar to the strict new rules adopted by the European Union. It’s a stance that the local Democratic group Oblong Valley Indivisible cited in its endorsement of Ryan.

For his part, Delgado is vulnerable to future Republican attacks about his ties to the district. Schenectady, where Delgado grew up, is outside the district’s boundaries; notwithstanding his wife’s childhood in the district, he moved there with his family for the first time in 2017.

“This is home for us,” Delgado said when asked to respond to criticism of his residency. “And we’re happy to be fighting for the communities that gave our lives opportunity in the first place.”

An aerial view of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge in the Hudson Valley. New York's 19th is known for its natural beauty.

Daniel Piraino/EyeEm/Getty Images
An aerial view of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge in the Hudson Valley. New York’s 19th is known for its natural beauty.

“I Just Don’t Want To Keep Repeating The Same Mistake.”

Delgado is not the only candidate in the field for whom residency could become a question in the general election. Chief among them is Flynn, an extremely wealthy man who only recently became a full-time resident of the district, having maintained a weekend home there for years. (Ryan returned to the district from New York City in 2017, but grew up in Kingston.)

Questions of residency loomed large over disappointing Democratic outcomes in 2014 and 2016. In 2014, multimillionaire Sean Eldridge moved to the district to run and got crushed by 30 points. And in 2016, celebrated progressive law professor Zephyr Teachout moved to the district only to lose by a narrower 8-point margin.

Neither candidate lacked campaign funds, but both faced a barrage of questions about their rootedness in the 19th.

Residency questions prompted Zach Feuer, a Livingston-based Democratic activist and co-founder of the popular Facebook group “Listen to us, John Faso,” to rule out Delgado and Flynn.

“I just don’t want to keep repeating the same mistake,” Feuer said.

Democrat Gareth Rhodes marches in the pride parade in Hudson, N.Y., on June 16, with his "Rhodes Trip" Winnebago picking

Gareth Rhodes for Congress
Democrat Gareth Rhodes marches in the pride parade in Hudson, N.Y., on June 16, with his “Rhodes Trip” Winnebago picking up the rear.

At the same time, Ryan’s early-career surveillance work was a deal breaker.

Feuer endorsed Rhodes in a lengthy June 17 Facebook post; the New York Times editorial board endorsed him that day as well. A host of locallabor unions have also steadily lined up behind Rhodes in the final days of the campaign.

Rhodes has certainly embraced tactics that diverge sharply from previous campaigns. The heart of his run was a “Rhodes Trip” in a Winnebago to all 163 towns in the district, and when he spoke with HuffPost he was finishing up 11 town halls in 11 days in each of the district’s 11 counties.

And though Rhodes too returned to the district in 2017, after taking a leave of absence from Harvard Law School, he is quick to note that he grew up on a farm in Ulster County. He later worked as a water well driller and volunteer firefighter while saving up money to attend City College in Manhattan, which he ultimately did with the assistance of Pell Grants.

In fact, Rhodes was raised in the deeply Christian, Mennonite-like Bruderhof community in Rifton, where he rose at dawn every morning to pick corn before attending school. He left the enclave at age 18, seeking a more socially liberal atmosphere, but he remains close with his family and credits the Bruderhofs for instilling in him a spirit of service and social justice. As a child, he recalls traveling to Albany to protest the death penalty and to New Paltz to rally against the Iraq War with members of his community.

Rhodes’ biggest liability may be his ties to the governor in a district where suspicion of Cuomo runs deep on both the left and the right.

Sajaa Tracy, a Hurley resident and co-host of the influential progressive podcast “Spotlight 19,” has not made an endorsement in the race. But Tracy, who is a Cuomo critic herself, doesn’t think being associated with Cuomo is a burden unique to Rhodes.

“That’s the attack that John Faso will run on no matter what,” she explained.

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