Making a habit of listening: On the trail with Brian Flynn

Flynn chats with Diana Egnatz and Mei of Hot Spoon Preserves (Violet Snow)

As Democratic candidate for New York’s 19th congressional district Brian Flynn makes his way through a crafts market in Catskill, he introduces himself by his first name as he seeks common ground with each of the vendors he engages in conversation. While talking to a couple selling dog collars made of non-plastic webbing, he discovers they live in Greene County, as he does, and they are skiers. He tells a story about teaching his kids to ski.

Then he asks about the couple’s business, and they say they are about to make a deal with a Canadian hemp grower so they can make collars from hemp. At this point, he reveals his candidacy and says he’s in favor of legalizing hemp growing and marijuana use in the U.S. “It would make small farms viable again,” he said. “Hemp grows compactly, uses little water, and doesn’t need pesticides.” He goes on to ask how they order their raw materials, where their manufacturing takes place (answer: at home), and then trades business cards with them. They are smiling.


A young woman selling Peruvian textiles mentions she has been working to support a candidate in the state senate race. “I’ve been an activist my whole life,” says Flynn, explaining that he decided to run for Congress after hearing someone describe the kind of person who could beat John Faso. “She was describing me. In addition to my activism, I’m an entrepreneur like yourself. I had a small business in medical manufacturing.” The woman is already committed to another Congressional candidate, but she is happy to take his card before he moves on.

I ask Flynn if he goes door-to-door. “I love going door-to-door,” he replies, “but I spend too much time. I could’ve spent an hour with each of those people just now. I would make my whole campaign door-to-door, but the math doesn’t work.”

His weekends include shuttling among forums, meet-and-greets, and festivals where he can chat with voters. On weekdays, he goes to meetings with local Democratic committees and groups representing specific issues such as opioid recovery or Medicare for all. “This Tuesday, we hit meetings in all five counties,” Flynn says.

I ask how many votes he thinks he needs to win. “We’re expecting a turnout of 20,000 to 25,000, but it could be less if people feel overwhelmed by the number of candidates. Thirty percent would be a great number, but I could win with 18. I would like 51 percent. I’m hearing certain people say I’m their second choice. If I win the primary, those people will probably vote for me in the election.”


Winning back democrats

Flynn chats with a man from a cold brew distillery, then moves on to a vendor of infused honey and skincare formulas. He recalls seeing her products on a visit to a Phoenicia craft market last winter, when he and his wife, Amy, were in a radio play staged at the Phoenicia Playhouse. The seller says she works full-time as a nanny. Amy, who is standing at her husband’s side, describes her own nanny experience, which resembled being an indentured servant and led her to go back to school. She is now an editor and writer. There is no discussion of politics, although Flynn ends up handing over a business card, and Amy buys two tins of salve.

He hits pay dirt with a granola maker who has switched parties twice and moved upstate from Long Island after becoming disillusioned with the Republican machine. Responding to her anger about corruption, Flynn says, “It’s not about politics or the party line. It’s about fixing what’s broken. I get my campaign funding from voters, so there are no strings attached.”

Their impassioned conversation continues. Flynn’s campaign manager, Carolyn Riggs, is hovering nearby. “He keeps the staff on our toes,” she says. “He’ll wake up in the morning and call us. ‘Can we find out more about this? What can we pitch the voters that would make a difference here?’ We research it, test it on the stump, and if it works, add it to our platform. It’s an organic way to develop policies.”

Riggs is getting ready to shepherd Flynn to the Irish Cultural Festival in East Durham, the town where his grandfather tended bar after arriving from Ireland. The candidate joins us to say he’s girding for a tough sell in East Durham. On the one hand, the community is his family stomping grounds, so he has an immediate in. On the other hand, many of the voters are Republican cops and firemen, including some former Democrats. “I’m hoping to get them back,” he says.

For a final conversation, he turns to two women selling homemade jam. It’s a sultry day, and they are wilting in the big room, which lacks air conditioning. Amy flaps at them with the rattan fan she bought from a vendor down the aisle. The women are millennials who recently moved upstate, discouraged by the expense of living in New York City, eager to try to make the life they want in a more amenable environment. When they discuss the challenges of running a business, Flynn identifies himself as a candidate and talks about his plan to support the small farmers that local food crafters depend on for ingredients.

Riggs says it’s time to go. Flynn darts off to the fan seller and comes back with a fan for each of the women. After he walks away, the jam maker, Diana Egnatz of Hot Spoon Preserves, comments, “He definitely heard us. He asked about us first, before he said anything about himself, and based on what’s important to us, he recommended things to help us. Some of it had nothing to do with running for Congress.”

“A lot of candidates talk at you,” agrees her companion, Mei. “He really listens.”