Candidate takes the road less traveled, stressing the way a congressman can help with small-town problems

Gareth Rhodes at a pancake breakfast in Esopus (Will Dendis)

Gareth Rhodes has made his choice. After carefully considering the raffle prizes donated by local businesses at a Sunday morning pancake breakfast put together by the Esopus Democratic Committee, he takes a seat at a table to chat with some potential voters.

One man asks him what prize he picked.

The one others are less likely to choose, replies Rhodes. That way he has a better chance of winning.

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The man is dubious. Why not pick the biggest and best prize?

Rhodes shakes his head. A win is a win.

That, in a nutshell, is the Rhodes campaign. The 29-year-old Esopus native has spent the last year traveling to every corner of New York’s sprawling 19th congressional district in a 1999 Winnebago he bought on Craigslist, making multiple trips to small towns that most candidates skip, hoping to pick up a couple dozen votes in each. Do that in 150 small towns and turn in a respectable showing in the 13 remaining larger towns and cities (of which Kingston is the largest), and a candidate in a crowded field can win. At least that’s the plan.

Rhodes talks about big issues like Medicare for All and gun safety; all the Democratic candidates for New York’s 19th congressional district. What makes Rhodes different is he spends just as much time talking about local problems, including addressing the lack of a maternity ward in three counties in this district, dealing with falling numbers of volunteer EMTs and firemen, fixing sidewalks damaged by snow plows, and getting a sign advertising a town as a fishing destination.

“Al D’Amato said, ‘I will be the pothole senator,’” said Rhodes. “I will be the pothole congressman.”

Rhodes believes these local issues that transcend party divisions are the key to victory. On the trail, he’s often asked how to win over the “Trump Democrats” who switched from Obama to Trump in 2016. He tells a couple stories in response. In the first, Rhodes and the Trump voter discuss issues, and it turns out the man is mainly interested in local problems, like those mentioned above. In the second, Rhodes asks the voter who else he supports other than the president, and the voter gives him the name of his state senator, a Democrat. He and I agree on everything, says Rhodes, so why do you support him? Well, says the voter, when I met him he gave me his phone number, and every time I call him he calls me back. Rhodes gives the man his card.

The stories fit the strategy of his campaign: win over voters who feel like they’re being ignored by stressing the ways a congressman can help with local issues (usually through federal funding) and by showing up and being available.

“We can’t just have someone in Congress who is only sticking around the populated areas and going on MSNBC,” said Rhodes. “We need a member of Congress who is passionate about these local issues, who’s passionate about making sure we are paying attention to the needs of Callicoon and Claverack, of Cooperstown, each one of these areas. And that’s who I will be.”

 

Rhodes speaks at a meet & greet in Hudson (Will Dendis)

 

Rhodes grew up at Woodcrest, the Bruderhof community in Rifton. The Bruderhof (“place of brothers” in German) are a Christian movement that practice communal living, pacifism and adult baptism. There are only a few dozen Bruderhof communities in the world, but several in the Hudson Valley. They dress modestly: Women wear long skirts and head scarves, men, less conspicuously, wear simple trousers and shirts, often plaid. The Bruderhof, like other Anabaptists, believe baptism is a lifelong commitment that only an adult can make, and they encourage young people to experience life outside the community they were raised before deciding either way.  

“It was a great upbringing, really,” said Rhodes. “It was the schools, the education, the values, the hard work, the faith-based approach, love of your neighbor, taking care of each other, looking out for each other… [it’s] a big part of my core, who I am today.”

Rhodes credits his upbringing with instilling a sense of social engagement. He said his father read several different newspapers over the breakfast table and engaged his children in discussion about the issues of the day. This also extended to demonstrating against the death penalty and the Iraq War.

After graduating from Kingston High School, Rhodes “decided to do something different” adding that he maintains “the deepest amount of respect for where I came from. But I don’t think that lifestyle and living that way is for everyone, as the Bruderhof will tell you themselves.”

Rhodes first moved to Marlboro, became a volunteer firefighter and worked for J.T. Eckerson Well Drilling and at Frank’s Village Mart & Deli. “College was something I wanted to do but wasn’t planning on doing,” he said. Friends and co-workers urged him to give it a shot, and thanks to Pell grants, he was able to attend CUNY. Moving to New York City after growing up on an Ulster County vegetable farm was “a little overwhelming to start out” and he left after his freshman year and worked at a retreat center in the Poconos. Back in the fresh country air doing manual labor (cooking, scrubbing toilets, carpentry and general handyman work), Rhodes watched from afar as the 2008 campaign unfolded. He credits Obama’s election and Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy with showing a new generation of previously disconnected Americans that politics could be meaningful. “It put it into a real focus that this was a place you could make a difference,” said Rhodes.

Rhodes returned to CUNY and dove into his studies, landed an internship at the White House and with then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, whose administration he joined after graduation, working his way up from junior press officer to traveling press secretary. He left the governor’s office in 2015 to attend Harvard Law School, and left last year, with one year to go, to launch his campaign.

 

Rhodes’ Cuomo connection is probably the thing most voters know about him.

“It’s an open question, however, whether an association with the governor will be helpful in a district in which Cuomo took a shellacking in the 2014 Democratic primary, when his opponent was the unknown and underfunded Zephyr Teachout, and in the general election against Rob Astorino,” wrote Bill Mahoney in a February article in Politico entitled “The Congressional candidate from Cuomoland.”

Rhodes believes it’s an asset. He asks: What 20-something kid wouldn’t take a job working for the governor of the state he grew up in? He points to the 2011 Marriage Equality Act, assistance provided following hurricanes and tropical storms and passage of the Farm Brewery Act, which dramatically expanded the number of New York State breweries. He also believes having a congressman with a good relationship with state government would benefit the district. In contrast, incumbent Congressman John Faso, Rhodes’ opponent if he’s the nominee, earned the governor’s ire last year by proposing, along with Congressman Chris Collins of Buffalo, an amendment to the Republican’s ill-fated health care bill that would have shifted Medicaid costs from counties to the state. (Cuomo, not known for subtlety in political branding, considered passing a “Faso-Collins Federal Tax” on counties to make up the difference.) “Faso has such a toxic relationship with the state, I can’t imagine anyone even picks up his phone calls anymore,” said Rhodes. “This is hurting our community.”

Rhodes disagrees that voters know him best for his time working in the governor’s office.  He says it’s the Winnebago. “People do not come up to me and say I won’t vote for you because you worked for the governor,” he said. “It has yet to happen.”

Running against Washington is such a common strategy that even candidates with extensive experience often claim to be “outsiders.” Rhodes is taking the opposite approach, making the competency argument. He says with a “celebrity-actor-turned-politician” in the White House, voters are looking for “people who actually know what they’re doing.”

Rhodes often mentions his local roots, noting that Frank Bruni called them “beyond dispute” in The New York Times. He talks about growing up on a farm, where a gun was a tool (like a tractor), waking up at sunrise to pick vegetables before school, hiking the Catskills, and fishing for striped bass in the Hudson.

Rhodes says the party would be repeating the mistakes of 2014 and 2016 if it nominates a candidate Faso can brand a carpetbagger. “The last couple of cycles, the top attack ad the Republicans ran was attacking the Democratic nominees for not having lived, worked or voted in this district before,” said Rhodes. “And it’s an effective attack ad. If you wake up one morning and the person who’s trying to represent you, you feel like they kind of picked up a map one day and picked a seat that looks winnable and decided to move there, I think it’s a little offensive to the people who are struggling to get by.”

Rhodes’ tales from the trail are harrowing. Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi, in his second dispatch from “the oddest House primary race in America,” captured the character of these anecdotes well: “The stories Rhodes tells of the information gathered in his travels around the increasingly impoverished/isolated nooks and crannies of this New Jersey-sized district sound like a Star Trek episode about a visit to Planet Fucked.” Ulster County, for its concerns about whether the good, middle-class jobs that evaporated when IBM’s Kingston plant closed can ever be replaced, seems relatively privileged in comparison with the rest of the district. Ulster residents complain about the traffic and social mores of weekenders and tourists and organize to stop (or at least slow down) any large-scale commercial development that threatens to change the character of their communities. Elsewhere in NY-19, by the sounds of it, people would love to have these problems.

Health care is probably the most frequently cited example, and the one with the most ready policy solution. Rhodes often speaks of the plight of rural hospitals and ubiquity of community spaghetti dinner fundraisers to pay for medical care of residents. He wears a bracelet from a fundraiser for a Montgomery County high school student battling leukemia. The solution, says Rhodes, is Medicare for All– specifically H.R. 676, a bill in the house sponsored by Congressman Keith Ellison and supported by 121 current representatives, that would demolish the private-insurance industry and all fee-for-service charges, and replace it with a taxpayer-funded system providing medical care as a basic right.

If you think this sounds too progressive to win in a swing district, says Rhodes, you’re underestimating how widespread the dissatisfaction is with our current system.

“People are dying because they can’t access health care. I’ve spent time in the most Republican towns in this district and people have told me that they are ready for something new.”

 

With the Winnebago in Kingston after completing the “Rhodes Trip” (Will Dendis)

 

Rhodes is very young but very serious. As a speaker, he’s earnest and understated; his words are free of righteous indignation or soaring rhetoric. He says he wasn’t particularly social in high school, which sounds right. He doesn’t strike one as the sort of guy who, left to his own devices, would chat up and attempt to charm a hundred people a day, from little kids to little old ladies. But nor does he seem pained at having to play the ultimate extrovert’s game. It’s all work, work worth doing, and he’s a hard worker.

Rhodes doesn’t make many jokes. An exception is when he’s asked about Faso’s attack on his campaign’s carbon footprint. “I could ride a bike and I’d use more gas than John Faso. He doesn’t do anything.” (Rhodes says, for the record, his campaign will purchase carbon offsets to make up for the gas consumed by the Winnebago.)

In a race in which many pols are sitting on the sidelines and waiting to see how things play out, he’s managed to secure his share of endorsements, including Ulster County Legislature Minority Leader Hector Rodriguez, Kingston Democratic Committee Chairman Joseph Donaldson and Ulster County Legislator for Esopus Laura Petit, and labor unions, including Communication Workers of America Local 1120 and Teamsters Local 456 and 455, which have some 9,000 members in the district. The union endorsements could be big if they turn out, considering fewer than 20,000 Democrats voted in the last primary.

The 163-town “Rhodes Trip” wrapped up with a party at campaign headquarters in Midtown Kingston last Monday. Over the home stretch, Rhodes will be holding town halls in each of the district’s 11 counties. Will his pothole campaign get him over the top? Or will the morning of June 27 find Rhodes putting the Winnebago back on Craigslist and resurrecting his harvard.edu email address? If the outcome of the pancake breakfast raffle in Esopus is any indication, it’s the former: Rhodes won his prize.

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