Columbia County farmer vies for congressional seat

 Will Yandik addresses Ulster Democrats in Kingston earlier this month. (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

Will Yandik addresses Ulster Democrats in Kingston earlier this month. (Photo: Phyllis McCabe)

He’s descended from 19th-century immigrant Slovak iron miners, but Will Yandik says running for Congress will be “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Yandik, 38, a Columbia County farmer, part-time journalist and Town of Livingston councilman, is running in the New York 19th Congressional District Democratic Party primary, which includes all of Ulster County and a large swath of Dutchess, against Zephyr Teachout of Dover Plains.

Teachout, a Fordham University law professor, ran for governor in a Democratic primary in 2014 against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, where she carried every one of the 11 counties in the 19th and has been endorsed by a majority of county Democratic leaders. But Yandik doesn’t believe her name recognition will determine the outcome of the June 28 primary.


“In going around the district, we’ve learned that Democrats are willing to be persuaded,” he said. “They’re beginning to pay attention. I think the polls will show something quite different in May and June.”

Yandik said he and Teachout “are actually quite friendly, but that may change as issues are more sharply defined” closer to the June 28 primary. Both self-described progressives, Yandik and his rival have informally agreed to avoid “name-calling,” he said. Teachout endorsed Bernie Sanders for president last December, shortly after announcing her candidacy for Congress. Yandik says he isn’t taking sides for now, though he strongly supports the Vermont senator’s views on global warming.

If Yandik draws a distinction from his opponent, it’s that he says he’s more concerned with district-level issues, while he sees Teachout more involved in national issues like bank reform and campaign finance.

“We live in a unique district of farms and small communities,” he said. “There’s not many places like ours left. I’ve had many opportunities to move away, but have chosen to stay.”

Yandik and his husband Amir were married in Kingston last year. Amir also works on the farm.

Running for an open Congressional seat in a presidential year was an opportunity Yandik said he could not resist. “The standard narrative was that at my age I should be starting at state Assembly or county office,” he said. He claims more “legislative experience” as a town councilman than either U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former congressman Maurice Hinchey or for that matter Teachout had before being elected to state or federal office. (Hinchey served 18 years in the state Assembly before being elected to Congress.) Yandik was elected to the Livingston Town Board in 2011 and was re-elected without opposition last year. He cites Hinchey’s constituent work as a role model.

Increased support for community colleges

Yandik’s forebearers, farmers in Slovakia, immigrated to New York in the 1890s and took jobs in the iron ore mines around Livingston. Their goal, he said, was to get back to the land. It was accomplished when his great-grandparents bought the first 70 acres of their now 130-acre farm in 1915.

Yandik’s father died of a sudden heart attack when Yandik was in high school, leaving a wife and four sons struggling to manage the farm. In recent years their farm has moved from a wholesale operation to a busy retail outlet. “We all work in other jobs, too,” said Yandik, a journalist who writes features for the AARP.

Yandik, a lifelong Democrat, describes his father as a “Rocky [Rockefeller] Republican, socially ambivalent but fiscally conservative, like me. I don’t think Democrats talk enough about how they’re going to pay for things,” he said.

Yandik graduated from Princeton University on scholarship and holds a master’s degree in environmental policies from Brown University. He advocates increased federal support for community colleges in order to educate and train local people for jobs in the 21st century.

Yandik believes either he or Teachout can win in November, but that Democrats need to expand their base. Former state Assembly minority leader John Faso of Kinderhook, Delaware County farmer Bob Bishop and Millbrook businessman Andrew Heaney are vying for the Republican nomination.