Many of the about 500 attendees at last week’s meet-the-Democratic-congressional-candidates night at Kingston’s Old Dutch Church got their first look at the contenders who seek to oppose first-term Republican incumbent John Faso of Kinderhook. They shouldn’t expect Faso to roll over and go home. As in 2016, he will be a tough, formidable, well-funded candidate with a solid base of support.
But Faso is a Republican. According to the vocal left, he needs to be excised from the body politic. We’ll see.
I must say I approached the predictable content of this assignment with some hesitancy. People are increasingly fed up with all this partisan political back-and-forth.
Democratic congressional candidate Gareth Rhodes spoke of an exchange at a local car show this summer. “I walked up to a man and introduced myself as a Democratic candidate for Congress,” he said. “Before I could say anything else, the man warned me he didn’t want to talk about Trump or hear any Trump-bashing. He said he’d heard enough of that.”
Rhodes said he asked the man how he felt about health insurance, the idea of Medicare for all, or a one-payer system. “He expressed concerns about the present system,” answered Rhodes. “We found common ground. We had a good exchange.”
I use the unofficial crowd count of 500 advisedly. It might have been more. Almost every seat in the cavernous Old Dutch (seating capacity: 600) was taken and the balconies were almost filled. That kind of turnout on a summer weekday night is a clear indication of keen interest in a race that won’t even officially begin until party nominations next May and June. (Note: A crowd estimated at around 600 turned out for a rare visit to Kingston by junior senator Kerstin Gillibrand at the George Washington School in Kingston on Saturday afternoon.)
I walked over to the Old Dutch from our offices down the street about a half-hour early. Entering through the side door of Kingston’s cathedral like most locals, I was surprised to find the church’s Bethany Hall dark. Many community events are held there, but then this isn’t the old Old Dutch Church any more. Hosting such a politically partisan event in the sanctuary, Democrats to boot, must have had some of the departed elders turning in their crypts below. But then, Kingston is a sanctuary city.
“You mean there’s people buried in this church?” a young woman exclaimed to me as we admired its architecture. “Nearer my God to thee,” I said. City historian Ed Ford tells me that about 80 souls are entombed in those crypts, but none since the present edifice was raised in 1852.
Though the crowd at first glance appeared to be the usual aging liberals who attend these kinds of events, first impressions can be misleading. As the church filled up, causing a 12-minute delay in proceedings, younger people appeared, some with small children. Interesting. Millennials aren’t supposed to be into politics.
Conditions were difficult for audience and candidates, though no candidate would ever complain about facing the biggest captive crowd in a campaign most consider premature. I don’t doubt a few thought the primary was next month.
Put it this way. Five hundred people sitting shoulder to shoulder in an un-air-conditioned space for two hours on a summer evening is by modern standards roughing it. There must have been approaching 80 in that sanctuary by the time the last candidate gave the last response to the notion of impeaching Trump.
The format, sponsored by Citizen Action, was grueling. The eight candidates were given 90 seconds to introduce themselves. Most talked about their local connections and commitment to progressive ideals. After that, moderator Stephen Pampinella, a 33-year-old New Paltz political science professor and a member of Citizen Action, gave each candidate 60 seconds to respond in turn to a dozen questions submitted by members of the audience. There were no rebuttals, though Jeff Beals did take a poke at two of his opponents, Patrick Ryan for his residency or lack thereof and Brian Flynn for his business practices. Expect more of that.
Sixty seconds was hardly enough to power-point such complex, nuanced and divisive subjects as immigration, women’s health, racial justice, job creation, equal rights, international trade and foreign policy.
Methinks Pampinella must be a tough grader. He held candidates to a strict timetable which only a few exceeded for but a few seconds. Rookies all, maybe they haven’t learned to ignore deadlines in driving home talking points. But Pampinella, new to this game himself, took it a step too far. The increasingly uncomfortable audience turned on the moderator with cries of “no! no!” when he suggested “time for just one more question” at the 122-minute mark.
The audience was quiet and respectful, except for an occasional hoot when Faso’s name or the president’s name was invoked. There were no placards in sight.
It appears the candidates’ common message has been tempered by experience on campaign. Candidates emphasized their local connections, local roots. Some spoke against fly-in candidates attempting to buy a congressional seat. Nobody mentioned past losers Zephyr Teachout or Sean Eldridge in that or any other context. They spoke to traditional Democratic values, about listening to people.
I won’t get into who won or lost or best first impressions this early. I like to watch the dance for a while.
Antonio Delgado is literally the most impressive. Six-foot-four, good-looking and a Rhodes Scholar, Delgado has already raised a ton of money.
Businessman Flynn kick-started his campaign with a $500,000 loan and says he won’t be taking any outside money. Vertically challenged at 5’10”, he kids about his height, especially when standing next to the towering Delgado. I like the way he thinks. While most of the other candidates were four-square for government support of student debt, Flynn took another route. “We’re working off a college model that goes back to the ’50s, maybe [to] 1500,” he said. “Who says you have to go to school for four years to graduate?” Rent’s too damned high, in other words.
Sue Sullivan should have an advantage as the only woman in the field. I like her resume, but she’s going to have to pump it up a bit to compete with the big boys.
Beals wasn’t kidding about a grassroots campaign, meaning he has no money. I met him at a Town of Rochester Democratic picnic over the weekend, attended by no fewer than 40 people.
At 26 and 28, respectively, Rhodes and Steven Brisee are the baby bombers on this squad. They’ll have to do a lot more than talk about the problems. Rhodes is a former Andrew Cuomo press aide. In this district, that is not an asset.
Kingston attorney Dave Clegg, the senior member of the cast, is only a few months younger than Faso, who turned 65 this month. An earnest, compassionate man with old-time liberal values, Clegg may have to temper his message to compete in what is a moderate to conservative district.
Ryan, scion of an old Kingston Republican family, may not get a seat at the Thanksgiving table this year — his proud parents were in the audience. He brings a compelling resume. In some ways, the former Army officer reminds me of former congressman Chris Gibson, an Army colonel who took a turn at politics. Like Gibson, Ryan has “seen it first-hand” (two tours of combat duty in Iraq), which hopefully connotes an aversion to sending our young people into harm’s way.
At the risk of giving somebody the last word, I thought Beals summed up the contest best in closing: “We are a team. We’re a traveling road show,” he said. “We’ll all support the nominee. We’re going to beat John Faso.”
Actually, only one of them has a chance to beat Faso, and who that one is remains to be decided.
Down with Stuyvesant?
Last week a Jewish activist group proposed removing a New York City statue of Peter Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant, the last and most famous governor general of New Netherland, initially banned all religions other than Dutch Reformed, including Jews, Catholics and Quakers. The Dutch East India Company directors in Holland quickly overruled him, not for any particular religious reasons but for business interests.
News of the New York City movement worked its way upriver to the astonished ears of Kingston historian Ed Ford. Prominent statues of peglegged Stuyvesant (along with George Clinton and Henry Hudson) have been on display in uptown Academy Green since 1950.
“He was a hero!” exclaimed Ford. “He saved the settlement.”
It was Stuyvesant who ordered the construction of the stockade after repeated attacks by Native Americans. Stuyvesant also negotiated the peace treaty that assured the safety of the colony.
That Stuyvesant was a bad man, however representative of the times of religious strife he lived in, no one denies. The 99-year-old city historian need not wrap his arms around the local statue of the founder, however.
“Stuyvesant was a man of influence and power,” said Rabbi Yael Romer, spiritual leader of Congregation Emanuel in Kingston. “He did bad things and good things. Anti-Semitism was a big part of his narrative … All of us, Jewish, Muslim, immigrants, have a place in America. I for one am not waving the flag to take down a statue of Peter Stuyvesant.”
In that sense, she said she agrees with President Donald Trump’s comments about George Washington, a slave owner. “We have an absolute responsibility to own our history, the good and the bad,” she said.
Rather than taking down Stuyvesant, the rabbi suggested erecting a statue of Martin Luther King, and/or Jewish activist Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72), who marched with King.
Amen to that.