Local Democrats are eagerly anticipating what could be the second coming of Maurice Hinchey. A primary difference between the former congressman and would-be successor Sean Eldridge could come down whose money is being spent to buy votes.
Hinchey, over a long congressional career ending last year, used government funding, bringing home the bacon to remind voters to retain him in office. Millionaire Eldridge, just launching his career, is spending his own money.
Big, big difference. While Hinchey had to birddog and beg big government on behalf of his constituents and battle calcified bureaucracies, Eldridge just cuts a check.
Over the course of less than two years Eldridge and husband Chris Hughes of Facebook fame have sprinkled at least a million in loans and investment around the congressional district currently represented by Republican Chris Gibson.
Eldridge in an interview last week wouldn’t say exactly how much Hudson River Ventures, a for-profit limited liability corporation he founded in 2011, has committed to economic development in the region. “Somewhere between seven and eight figures,” he said when pressed, meaning between $1 million and $10 million. There’s every indication that HRV, with investments in five counties, has already passed the million-dollar mark.
Eldridge, who turned 27 last month, burst on the scene less than two years ago when he and Hughes purchased a two-bedroom home in Shokan for slightly less than $2 million. Nineteenth-century robber barons used to call them summer cottages.
Eldridge filed preliminary documents last year indicating an interest — but not a commitment — to run for Congress. Asked about his political plans last week, he redirected the conversation to economic development. That he’s invested over $200,000 to date on his possible campaign could be a clue to his intentions.
Occupying Hinchey’s old congressional digs at 291 Wall St. next to the county courthouse was methinks just as calculated as the enterprises the would-be congressman funds over the next year or so. But one would be hard-pressed to find signs of the hallowed Hinchey in what was his haunt for two decades. Hinchey’s corner office, where Eldridge sits at an uncluttered desk (Hinchey’s looked like a landfill) has been cleared of mementoes. Gone are the framed posters of Harry Truman, Woodrow Wilson and Jack Kennedy, the many plaques and awards piled up by Hinchey as one of the nation’s leading environmentalists.
Eldridge’s office of glass and stainless steel projects modern efficiency, however sterile, even cold. The current occupant is engaging, even friendly, eager to respond to “good questions” and very much the busy young man in a hurry.
His path to Congress, if he goes that way, will not be without stiff opposition. Salting the district with millions of publicity-worthy grants, outspending his opponent by whatever it takes and bringing in all those big-time Democrats he hobnobs with at his Soho loft or at White House receptions, will make Gibson’s task of holding on to his seat in a marginally Democratic district all the more difficult. Polls, which nobody shares, no doubt show Gibson vulnerable in the Ulster end of his district, where he lost by more than 8,000 votes last year, but more solid in the Republican north, where he took 60 percent of the vote.
Bottom line is that the retired Army colonel, who has said he intends to leave Congress after the 2018 elections, will not go down without a stout defense. Efforts to define him as a rightwing Tea Party nut-job failed to resonate with voters last year, when he easily turned back challenger Julian Schreibman of Marbletown. His voting record after three years in Congress suggests more a thoughtful moderate than a loose cannon.
Gibson and staff don’t much talk about Eldridge at this early stage, but manage to sprinkle the word “carpetbagger” or some variant in every other sentence.
Recent campaign spending reports indicate fodder for a Gibson-Eldridge battle will be long-range, with most of the mother’s milk of politics, campaign donations, coming to both candidates from outside the district. Federal election reports show Gibson with $452,000 collected this year, mostly from corporations and PACs (political action committees) with Eldridge logging another $90,000 from them. A $215,000 contribution from the Democrat takes him to more than $750,000. Nor surprisingly, Gibson’s donors include House speaker John Boehner. Eldridge’s include Nancy Pelosi and Kirsten Gillibrand. Boehner appeared at a Gibson fundraiser in Sullivan County this week. The media was not invited.
This contest, it if comes off, could be a national showcase for what’s good and bad about Congress. Advantage: the challenger with means.
Youth sometimes served
No doubt, there will be some who find Eldridge at 28 (next year) a bit callow for Congress. It’s hardly the rule, but candidates do get elected to the House in their late twenties from time to time. Witness Brooklyn’s Chuck Schumer, who after a few terms in the Assembly (elected with Hinchey in 1974) went to Congress before he was 30.