We all get our 15 minutes of fame, as Andy Warhol said. In the ever-accelerating internet age, it’s more like 15 excruciating seconds.
Last month, Chris Tague got his. It went about as well as you might expect for an upstate New York politician.
Let’s set the scene: we’re in the studio at WIOX, a little public radio station in Roxbury, with host Don Mathisen, who’s taking calls from candidates in the upcoming 102nd Assembly District special election. Tague, a Republican town supervisor from Schoharie inclined to tough-guy populism, is campaigning to cut the state budget. Mathisen is lobbing softballs.
“So what would you cut?” Mathisen asks.
“Well, there’s a lot of different programs, I would say, that need to be looked at. I mean, number one — well, I would say, um, probably in the areas of —”
At this, Tague lets out a profound sigh.
“Hold on one second, would you?” he mutters, darkly.
Tague heaves another mighty sigh. Something on the phone line rustles. He gives up.
“I’m having one of those moments,” he says.
Mathisen waits. There is a long, long silence, ripe with heavy breathing and flop sweat.
Last month, the clip got picked up by progressive YouTubers the Young Turks as their “Politician Fail of the Week,” and duly made the rounds on politics Twitter. It wasn’t a good look for rural New York. We’re rarely ready for our closeup.
The last time WIOX went viral, the station was the butt of right-wing media for a hot minute, after a rogue program host used the official WIOX email account to harangue then-Congressman Chris Gibson about his “pathetic face.” At least our local humiliations are bipartisan. Sigh.
On Tuesday, April 24, voters in New York State’s 102nd Assembly District will head to the polls to pick a replacement for former Assemblyman Pete Lopez, tapped by the Trump administration last fall to serve as an EPA administrator. On the Democratic side, Tague is facing Aidan O’Connor Jr., a paramedic and a young first-term legislator from Greene County.
It’s Tague’s race to lose, even if he isn’t the smoothest public speaker. The reliable Republican bread-and-butter voters of the 102nd love guys like him: Schoharie County born and bred, a dairy farmer turned stone quarrier who rails ferociously against taxes, “illegals” and “New York City liberals.” Lopez, who isn’t quite so inclined to nasty rhetoric, was well respected across the district, and Tague will be riding his coattails.
The 102nd stretches across seven counties, from Saugerties in the southeast up to the edge of Otsego County in the northwest. It’s not the state’s most bizarrely drawn Assembly district — that honor probably belongs to the eel-like 101st next door — but in its sprawl across the northern Hudson Valley, Catskills and Albany suburbs, it spans a lot of ideological territory.
Among the district’s 87,443 eligible voters, there are roughly 25 percent more registered Republicans than Democrats. In Schoharie County — home turf for both Lopez and Tague, and probably the part of the district where the race is most strongly on the public radar — the Republicans have even more of an edge. The last time Lopez faced a Democratic challenger, back in 2012, the Schoharie native whomped Jimmy Miller, a retired Albany police officer, to the tune of 65-35.
In a normal year, Tague would be a shoo-in. But nothing about this year is normal. Democratic voters are more invigorated than they’ve been in generations, a key factor in a special election that is likely to draw only the most fervent true believers to the polls. And then there’s the independents, who make up fully a quarter of the district’s registered voters. If they’re looking for a Trump surrogate to punish, Tague — a Trump delegate back in 2016 — is conveniently at hand.
To make matters worse for Tague, there’s Wes Laraway, a fellow registered Republican who has mounted a thoughtful, centrist challenge to both Tague and O’Connor on his own “Best Choice” party line. A wildlife rehabilitator and a local social studies teacher, Laraway is about as squeaky-clean a candidate as they come.
Laraway has managed to get himself on the ballot — an uphill climb for any independent candidate — but he faces, as they say, a tough path to election. Laraway hasn’t been getting nearly as much news coverage as his opponents, a particular disadvantage in a region where news coverage is already sparse and shrinking.
For reasons known only to themselves, my hometown local weekly, the Catskill Mountain News, has barely mentioned Laraway’s name. That’ll be awkward for the paper, if Laraway ends up splitting the Republican vote and handing the race to O’Connor. There’s every reason to think that scenario is possible: just look at Ulster County District 22, a territory not exactly known for its progressive politics, which went recently to renowned local rabble-rouser Kathy Nolan after a nail-biting three-way race.
There’s been a lot of talk this year about the “blue wave” that’s coming for Republicans at all levels of government. Waves only go so far inland, and most of the 102nd is hill country, far from the muttering surf. I’ll believe it when I see it.
Still, there’s something in the air this year. Maybe Tague should be sweating.