1000 grass roots: On the trail with Dave Clegg

Clegg at the Town of Rochester Democrats Pre-Primary Pizza Party. (Will Dendis)

The seven-candidate scrum for the Democratic Party nomination in New York’s 19th Congressional District has been a boon for owners of vacant storefronts in Kingston. The temporary campaign headquarters tucked into plazas or standing a few blocks apart on Broadway tend to be the kind of urban swing space that, come tax season will be temporary accountants’ offices.

Then there’s David Clegg, the 65-year-old trial lawyer who’s running his campaign out of the stately brick building next to the post office on Main Street where’s he’s maintained his legal practice for decades. Clegg is counting on that longevity to set him apart in a race heavy on candidates with tenuous connections to the district or who are returning home to seek the seat after leaving for college and moving on to broader horizons.


“The message is basically, I’m the guy who has given back to the community for four decades and I have the 1000 grass roots in this community that it will take to beat [Republican incumbent] John Faso,” said Clegg as he prepared to make his pitch to likely primary voters. “I go around Ulster County and I’m one person removed from just about everyone I meet.”

The Staten Island native and Woodstock resident arrived in Ulster County as a student at SUNY New Paltz in the ’70s. He returned and put down roots after getting his law degree at the University of Buffalo. Over the years Clegg has racked up a resume of charitable and public service endeavors including a stint on the board of Family of Woodstock, where he helped start Kingston’s first homeless shelter, and two terms on the Ulster County Board of Health Commissioners. He’s also coached youth basketball, received a Masters in divinity from Yale and served as a Deacon of the United Methodist Church. Clegg said his legal career has also reflected his commitment to public service. In the 1980’s he handled civil rights litigation on behalf of the Lakota Sioux nation and over the course of his career he’s sued corporate polluters and retail giant Wal-Mart-twice. To Clegg, his record in the community and in court sets him apart from his competitors.

“Rhetoric is great, principles are great,” said Clegg. “But when have you acted on it before you were running for Congress?”


(Will Dendis)


Medicare for all

Clegg, has lagged in fundraising since entering the race last June. To make up for it he’s relying on community ties and a voter outreach operation spearheaded by former Kingston Alderwoman and retail politics wizard Jen Fuentes. On today’s canvass, Clegg is working a stretch of Fair Street looking for support. Like all the campaigns, Clegg’s is working off a list of “prime Democrats” who have a record of voting in primary elections. Clegg’s campaign has them further broken down by a one to five ranking with one representing a solid Clegg vote and five meaning the voter is firmly in the camp of another candidate. The goal is to push the undecided “Threes” into Clegg’s corner and establish a list of “Ones” and “Twos” to be encouraged by by all means short of physical force to make it to the polls on June 26.

On this canvass Clegg is accompanied by campaign manger Phillip Shulman, a 20-something itinerant politico, and Alex Wojcik, a New Paltz resident and field organizer. While Shulman works his cell phone lining up Clegg supporters to serve as a cheering section at an upcoming candidate forum, Wojcik accompanies Clegg to voters doors armed with a briefing book, absentee ballots and an upbeat, encouraging  demeanor that seems impervious to the midday heat.

At a brightly painted Victorian Clegg’s door knock leads to a conversation with an older man about “Medicare of all.” In a crowded field, Clegg has staked out the universal healthcare scheme as his signature issue illustrated with a story of his legal battle with an insurance company after they attempted to deny benefits to his newborn daughter for a congenital illness. Wojcik walks away from the five-minute porch conversation pleased.

“He wanted to know how Medicare for all would work, how it would be paid for,” said Wojcik. “He was waiting for Dave to come by and explain it to him.”

A block away Clegg takes a chance and knocks on the door of a house with a Jeff Beals sign out front. Beals, a Woodstock schoolteacher, is seen as Clegg’s main competitor for the left wing of the party’s vote. Beals touts the endorsement of a PAC run by former Bernie Sanders campaign staff while Clegg has backing from a local grassroots activist group that holds weekly protests outside Faso’s office. Clegg’s pitch to the woman who answers the door emphasizes those local roots and connections along with his progressive bonafides. After the meeting Clegg and Wojcik hold a curbside debriefing.

“I think we broke through a bit,” said Clegg. “Definitely not a five,” offers Wojcik. Clegg sets off down the block with another potential name on the get out the vote list. “Maybe a three, leaning towards a two.”