“Can’t start a fire without a spark,” sang Bruce Springsteen. Those expecting sparks between Democratic congressional primary candidates Zephyr Teachout and Will Yandik in Woodstock Tuesday night came away disappointed. “There really wasn’t much difference between them, was there?” commented first-term Ulster County legislator Jon Heppner as a crowd of more that 200 filed out of the Woodstock Community Center after a near two-hour meet-the-candidate session.
Which candidate was Heppner supporting? “I really haven’t made up my mind yet,” he said, just three weeks before the June 28 primary.
As evidenced from cheers and applause for both candidates, this audience, comprised mostly of Woodstockers but sprinkled with visitors, was almost evenly divided. Polls taken by both sides tell a different tale. A Siena College Institute/Time Warner poll released an hour after the candidates’ night started showed Teachout with a 30-point lead.
“I’m overwhelmed,” she said before taking the stage. “We’ve been getting a very strong response, but we take nothing for granted.”
Asked about the poll after the session ended, Yandik said his internal polling “shows we’re much closer than that.” The same poll gave former assemblyman John Faso a 22-point lead over Millbrook businessman Andrew Heaney.
Both Democratic candidates said they preferred to face Faso in the general election in November. “I am John Faso’s worst nightmare,” Teachout declared.
Town supervisor Jeremy Wilber, speaking from the audience called for unity. “Whoever comes out of the primary I’m voting twice for that person in November,” he said to laughs and applause from the audience.
The forum was sponsored by the Woodstock and Kingston Democratic committees. Former Woodstock supervisor and Woodstock Times editor Brian Hollander was moderator. In something of a departure, Hollander, who has performed this function at similar gatherings in the town, drew up a list of more than a dozen mostly national topics but did not allow questions from the audience. Candidates, though strictly timed, were allowed to expand their answers. Pleading ignorance on some questions, they didn’t answer at all or shifted the discussion to a more wheelhouse topic.
Hollander’s list was not all-inclusive. “They never asked about education,” a key plank in Teachout’s platform, “and that’s very important,” a member of the audience complained before heading off to confront the moderator.
Challenging the establishment
Teachout, a Vermont native and a Fordham law professor, is new to the district and lives in Clinton in Dutchess County. She is no stranger to voters however, having carried all eleven counties in the 19th Congressional District in her failed attempt to unseat Gov. governor Andrew Cuomo at primary in 2014. Yandik, a fourth-generation farmer and journalist, is a two-term town-board member in Livingston in Columbia County.
The pair presented themselves as long-time activists who have challenged the establishment. “I haven’t written a book,” Yandik said, in reference to Teachout’s recent tome on corruption in New York State government, “but I have stood up to it [state government],” he said, referring to his opposition to plans to run new power lines from Canada to New York City through the Hudson Valley.
Echoing those sentiments, a familiar theme all night long, Teachout declared in her closing statements, “We’re in an historic moment. You can feel it. This is the year for people who are tough enough to stand up when nobody else will.”
If there was a difference between the candidates, which Teachout described as “an improv between and and but,” it was Yandik’s contention that an overly progressive Democratic candidate (like Teachout, endorsed by Bernie Sanders) would have difficulty in a district almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and with about 125,000 independent voters. “Our goals cannot be achieved by a single-term progressive member of Congress. We have to bring in Republicans. I’ve done that,” he said.
Teachout said she has made a career of working with diverse groups. “I work all the time with hard-right people, and I’ve learned two things,” she said. “First, be really clear. And second, be really, really, really polite.”
Primary day is June 28 from noon to 9 p.m.