Raucous groups of partisans emitted whoops, yells and hisses at the first public face-off between Congressional candidates Chris Gibson and Sean Eldridge at overheated Miller Middle School in Lake Katrine the evening of Monday, Oct. 6. The rowdies numbered only about a third of the more than 600 in attendance. The majority came to look, listen and perhaps begin to decide which candidate they would vote for on Nov. 4.
For the most part, attendees were given a good ol’ country candidates’ night. Both candidates were on their games and quick with their facts, but at times boringly repetitive. In the trade, it’s called “talking points,” and woe is the candidate who doesn’t yap it up ad nauseum.
By my count, Gibson called Eldridge a hypocrite at least eight times, with Eldridge countering that sending the same people back to Congress would certainly produce the same results, one of the classic definitions of insanity. Just in case some of the dull wits didn’t get his drift, Eldridge mentioned some version of “least productive Congress in history” at least four times.
I didn’t do any exit polling, but the reaction had to be mixed. Zealots, naturally, came in with their minds made up. Some folks, who apparently had never attended a live candidates’ debate, found the snipping and sniping between candidates “embarrassing.”
As for winners and losers, I think Eldridge may have better accomplished his obvious and necessary mission. At 28 and a newcomer to the area who has never held public office, Eldridge faced serious credibility issues coming into this campaign. In a doctrinaire, almost knee-jerk Democratic way — this guy is right out of the Beltway playbook — he’s definable, and that plays well to a considerable Democratic base. Two years ago Julian Schreibman, the Democratic candidate in against Gibson, carried Ulster by more than 13,000 votes, while losing the district overall by more than 20,000.
I think many came to Miller School to see this young man in action, in the flesh, as it were. In that respect, he did not disappoint. While Gibson seemed exasperated at times and even squirmed around a bit — unexpected from a retired Army colonel who had faced hostile fire in Iraq — Eldridge kept his cool and stood his ground against aggressive attack.
For instance, at one point during the back and forth on fracking, Gibson mentioned Eldridge’s “million-dollar TV ads” that had the congressman saying he supported the controversial gas-mining technique.
“What he didn’t add was the next part of that sentence, that I would support it if it was proven safe,” Gibson said. In that regard, Gibson said he supported Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s three-year-long study of the subject, which some see as evasion on the part of the governor.
I don’t know what the latest polls on this race are reporting, but late last month Eldridge was wallowing at a score around his age. He helped himself at Miller, but still has a long, long way to go and precious little time to close the gap. Prediction: It will get uglier soon.
Punches and bruises
In this campaign, Gibson appeared more the showman than rookie Eldridge. Everybody likes to make an entrance at these affairs, and the standing reception Gibson got as he walked down the aisle with his wife to the podium was loud and sustained. There were as many Eldridge supporters on the other side of the auditorium, but their hero arrived off-stage and appeared only as he was being introduced. In any event, both were given a warm reception.
Eldridge gets credit for not mentioning “Tea Party Republican” even once, though he did dredge up the legacy of former congressman Maurice Hinchey. Hinchey voted 100 percent on environmental legislation to Gibson’s 33, Eldridge said. So why do environmental lobbies support me, Gibson retorted. Maybe because Gibson supported Hinchey’s bill to add fracking to the Clean Air Act, now stalled in Congress for more than four years.
If the Democrat wasn’t into rancid tea, Gibson was. “I have the same voting record as [Westchester Democrat] Sean Patrick Maloney,” he said. “Does that make me a Tea Party Republican?” Sounded like the colonel was a bit defensive on that one after suffering the slings and arrows of anti-Teas two years ago.
To get an idea of the entourages these campaigns carry, the first two rows in the auditorium were marked “reserved” for staff, mostly bright young faces under 25 years old. I sat behind former Assembly candidate cowboy Pete Rooney, who thankfully, kept his trademark Stetson in his lap.
A pair of young reporters from the local dailies directed questions at the candidates, but I wonder if they winced when Gibson bragged about keeping deliberations of his No Labels Congressional caucus secret from the media. I did.
At one point toward the end of the one-hour session, moderator Ward Todd, a former broadcaster and currently chamber of commerce president, seemed to be losing control of the crowd. But it was only a passing moment. Nobody challenges “the voice of God” (Todd). “How many of these have we done?” Todd, a former newsman, asked just prior to commencement. We agreed the Lincoln-Douglas debates were best.
Between them, the candidates pretty much surrounded the minimum wage issue. Eldridge, like most Democrats, favors an increase from $7.25 and hour to $10.10, while Gibson says $9 an hour is “politically doable.” Eldridge supports an indexing system; Gibson didn’t disagree. But if Eldridge, who married a multi-millionaire, really believes ten-ten will “lift people out of poverty” he’s living in a dream world.