Democratic strivers are emerging from around New York’s 19th Congressional District, eager to ride a wave of grassroots activism to victory over an incumbent Republican under siege from a newly energized party base.
Seventeen months away from election night 2018, at a time when would-be candidates are usually putting out tentative feelers to party leaders and fundraisers, no fewer than eight Democrats have filed paperwork with Federal Elections Commission announcing their candidacy for the seat currently occupied by Kinderhook Republican John Faso.
“We’re seeing people step forward at this stage because they feel there’s a need to be filled, not just in [this congressional district] but across the country,” said Ulster County comptroller and veteran Democratic politician Elliott Auerbach of the crowded field. “There’s an anxiousness that has turned into activism.”
Whoever emerges from the scrum holding the party’s nomination will become the Democratic standard-bearer in a competitive congressional district where the party’s electoral efforts have been thwarted time and again. The 19th Congressional District — called “NY-19” in these days of truncated Twitter speech — was formed in 2012 from the merger of the solid blue 22nd District held for two decades by arch-progressive Maurice Hinchey and the reliably red 20th District. Currently the district encompasses all of Ulster, Greene, Columbia, Delaware, Otsego, Schoharie and Sullivan counties and portions of Dutchess, Montgomery, Broome and Rensselaer counties. Politically, the district is a mixed bag that includes liberal enclaves like New Paltz and Woodstock and Republican strongholds like Greene County.
By the numbers, Republicans and Conservatives have a slight enrollment advantage over Democrats and other left-leaning parties. In 2012, the district voted to then-President Barack Obama over challenger Mitt Romney by a six-point margin. Last year, the district voted for President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a seven-point margin.
But electoral success in congressional races has been frustratingly elusive for NY-19 Democrats. In 2012, Obama’s convincing margin failed to translate into victory for Democratic candidate Julian Schreibman. The Ulster County native and attorney lost by five percentage points to Chris Gibson, a highly decorated retired Army officer and 20th District incumbent. In 2014, Democrats fielded Sean Eldridge for the seat. Eldridge, the 28-year-old (at the time) husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and a recent arrival in the Hudson Valley, was hit relentlessly as a callow carpetbagger with little knowledge of or attachment to his would-be constituents. Gibson swatted away Eldridge’s challenge by a crushing 29-point margin.
“Chris Gibson was a great candidate for Republicans,” recalls Ulster County Democratic Chairman Frank Cardinale. “Very, very difficult to beat.”
In 2016, with Gibson stepping down and leaving the seat up for grabs, Democrats pinned their hopes on another newcomer to the Hudson Valley when they nominated law professor and clean-government activist Zephyr Teachout for the seat. Teachout, who moved to Dutchess County from Brooklyn less than a year before she announced her bid, beat out Columbia County farmer Will Yandik in a primary for the party’s nomination. Teachout benefited from a national profile as an up-and-coming star of the progressive left — Bernie Sanders made the trip to New Paltz to endorse her candidacy — and a wildly successful fundraising operation based on small-dollar donations solicited online from across the country. But Faso, a veteran Albany lawmaker, painted her as a radical leftist and transparent opportunist. Teachout lost by eight points.
“It was made clear last year that if you don’t have roots in the Hudson Valley it’s a difficult race,” said Cardinale. “You will be called a carpetbagger and an opportunist.”
The current crop of Democratic hopefuls all have roots firmly planted upstate. They are mostly young, well-educated and newcomers to electoral politics. They include a former Rhodes scholar, an Iraq war veteran, a onetime healthcare executive and a former CIA agent and U.S. State Department diplomat turned schoolteacher. Five of the eight candidates are 40 or younger and four graduated from or studied at Ivy League universities.
“These are some great candidates with great backgrounds who can think on their feet,” said Cardinale. “This should be a winnable race for the right candidate under the right circumstances.”
Faso can’t hold the center
Part of Democrats reasoning that NY-19 is in play for 2018 is the difficult position Faso finds himself in. Like Gibson, Faso found electoral success by running as a moderate pragmatist with a firm grip on bread-and-butter issues — like the cost of home heating oil and price supports for dairy farmers — that matter to Hudson Valley residents, regardless of their ideology. But since taking office, Faso’s increasingly been drawn into divisive partisan battles and shackled to a historically unpopular president. Faso cast two votes in favor of the American Health Care Act, the GOP effort to roll back Obamacare, that includes a provision that would cut off funding to Planned Parenthood. Now, pink “I stand with Planned Parenthood” signs pop up virtually everywhere he goes, including at weekly protests outside his Broadway office in Kingston. Faso has taken fire for declining invitations to attend town hall forums organized by progressive activists and has even been confronted by protesters outside his Kinderhook home. Anti-Faso rallies have drawn hundreds of attendees; phone lines at his district and D.C. offices are frequently jammed by organized call-in campaigns included as “action items” on lists distributed by local activist groups like NY-19 Votes and Indivisible Ulster that have emerged since the November election.
Meanwhile, Cardinale said local party officials had received calls from across the country from newly minted activists offering to help out with everything from monetary donations to social media. Ashley Dittus, chair of the Ulster County Young Democrats, surmised that part of the impetus for the early rush of candidates was the desire to get out in front of a newly energized and engaged party base dismayed by Trump’s election and determined to effect change at the local level.
“After the last election and with the marches and movement that has followed I have been inundated with emerging volunteers who have been shaken up by the results of the last election,” wrote Dittus in an email. “These emerging candidates are trying to capture that momentum and hopefully carry it all the way through to November 2018.”
Dittus and other Democrats point to another reason for the crowded early field-money. During the last election cycle, Teachout raised some $3.2 million for her unsuccessful bid. Faso spent about $2.2 million on the effort. Outside “Super PACs” meanwhile spent more than $4.5 million to influence the race with the bulk of the money spent on anti-Teachout negative advertising. Candidates will be under pressure to raise as much as possible as soon as possible. Fundraising ability, meanwhile, will be an important criterion as party leaders begin the winnowing process and select candidates to back in a potential primary fight.
“It doesn’t look like the marriage of money and politics is going to be broken up before the 2018 elections,” wrote Dittus.
If Democrats are feeling good about their chances of flipping the NY-19, that optimism is tempered by the ghosts of 2016, namely the bitter and divisive intra-party conflict between mainstream Democrats backing Clinton and Sanders’ “Democratic Socialist” populist vision. Dittus points out the division at the top of the ticket was reflected locally as veteran Democratic Party operatives aligned with Clinton threw their support behind Yandik while Sanders’ populist appeal helped lift Teachout to victory in the primary. The 2018 contest among Democrats could break down along similar lines with the party establishment pushing for an electable moderate and grassroots activists seeking a more ideologically pure progressive standard-bearer.
Auerbach, who backed Clinton in 2016, said a successful candidate would need to demonstrate appeal to the two thirds of NY-19 voters who are not enrolled Democrats.
“The next representative for the district will be a moderate who is able to grasp issues that both sides of the aisle care about,” said Auerbach. “They’re going to be sensitive to their constituents’ needs no matter what letter is after their name.”
Other shoes to drop?
The current crop of candidates is notable for the absence of current office holders or other political pros. In December 2015, Democratic committee chairs in all 11 counties in the district signed a letter urging Ulster County Executive Mike Hein to enter the race. Party leaders see Hein, who’s been county exec since 2009, as exactly the kind of pragmatic, policy-oriented candidate who would appeal to district’s moderate majority. Hein also brings a track record of electoral success and robust fundraising ability. But Hein declined the party’s call to arms in 2016.
Cardinale said that he had not sounded out Hein about the current election cycle and added that there may still be veteran pols in the district biding their time and waiting for the race to take a more coherent shape before making their move.
“I have a feeling there may be couple more people out there, traditional politicians who realize it’s too early and are waiting for the right time,” Cardinale said.
As for the eight who’ve already declared, “Let them get out there and get out there and get known,” said Cardinale. “I told them all we really don’t know which one will emerge and we don’t want to send anyone home just yet.”
Who’s running — so far, anyway
Jeffrey Beals is a 40-year-old Woodstock resident, a member of the town’s Democratic Committee and teacher at Woodstock Day School. Beals is a Harvard graduate who returned to the Hudson Valley after a career with the CIA and the U.S. State Department, where he served as a diplomat in the Mideast. At an appearance in Kingston last week, Beals announced he would undertake grassroots organizing efforts throughout the 19th Congressional District as part of an “11-county strategy.”
Antonio Delgado is a 40-year-old Schenectady native and current Rhinebeck resident. Delgado is a former Rhodes Scholar, graduate of Harvard Law School and former CEO of a hip-hop entertainment company. He currently works as an attorney for powerhouse law firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.
David Clegg, 64, is a Kingston-based attorney in private practice. Clegg is a graduate of Yale Divinity School and an ordained deacon at Kingston’s St. James United Methodist Church. Clegg serves as chairman of the Ulster County Human Rights Commission.
Sue Sullivan, 52, is an Ulster County resident and former executive at St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital. Sullivan is also founding executive director of the Greater Newburgh Partnership and former development and communications director at the Mohonk Preserve. Sullivan is currently the president and CEO of ISER Consulting.
Steven Brisee is a 26-year-old Orange County resident who has announced plans to move to Gardiner, in the 19th Congressional District. Brisee is a technology “policy architect.” According to a LinkedIn profile, Brisee most recently worked for Citi Financial Services designing and implementing protocols for data security, compliance and risk management.
Brian Flynn, 47, of Hunter in Greene County is an entrepreneur and small businessman. Flynn’s campaign website touts his creation of hundreds of jobs across the region and his efforts to fight terrorism after the death of his brother in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
Gareth Rhodes, 28 is an Esopus native, former White House intern and press aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Rhodes is taking a leave from Harvard Law School to run for the congressional seat.
Patrick Ryan, 35, is a Kingston native and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy. During his time in the service, Ryan served two tours of duty in Iraq. Ryan left the Army with the rank of captain. He resides in New York City where he works in data analysis. Ryan announced plans to return to the Hudson Valley to seek the NY-19 seat.