In Schoharie County, where farms stretch across the wide, flat valleys, Democratic candidate for New York’s 19th district Erin Collier is in her element. At a candidates’ meet-and-greet at the Quality Inn, organized by the county’s Democratic committee, she talks one-on-one to former farmers, describing her farming heritage and her belief that government should be supporting small farms.
She arrives at the Friday evening event after a drive up from Kingston, where she has an office and where she spoke at Faso Friday, the weekly demonstration outside the office of Republican Congressman John Faso. “I said that we need to get him out of office,” reported Collier. “Everything he’s voted for is terrible.”
In the hors d’oeuvres line, a man asks what inspired her to run for Faso’s seat. “Everything the Republicans are doing,” Collier replied. “I grew up poor in Cooperstown, and the divisions in our society are growing worse. I couldn’t stand watching any longer without doing something about it.”
She gulps down a few shrimp and skewered cold cuts, then heads to the people sitting at tables. “You’re looking sharp,” she says to an elderly man in a powder blue suit. “I love that tie. Where are you from?”
He’s lived in Cobleskill for 40 years and worked for Agway, the agricultural supply chain.
“I grew up on a farm,” Collier says. “We were some of your best customers. Farms are struggling right now, and we’re not doing enough to keep them. I’m big on the need to support the agricultural community, including Agway, tractor companies — they’re an important part of our economy. My family still has a farm with 40 cows. Actually 41, since a calf was just born on Memorial Day. But we have a lot of friends who have had to close down their farms in the last year.”
The man’s wife has retired from teaching high school in Cobleskill. “My brother lives in Cobleskill,” Collier says. “My nephews will be going to that school. My sister is a Spanish teacher in a public school. Every year she has to worry about budget cuts. We need to keep funding in the public school system.”
The next man she talks to is a former farmer. “Farming is hard work,” Collier says, describing her family’s farm again, including the newborn calf and her friends who had to give up their land. “Faso sits on the Ag Committee, and he’s not doing anything to help small farms. I’m an agricultural economist. I went to Cornell’s agriculture school. My family’s been in the district for eight generations, so my roots go deep.”
The man’s wife is also a retired Cobleskill teacher. Collier cites her family’s education connections again, adding, “It’s kids and teachers that suffer when programs get cut.”
To a man who once owned a 500-acre dairy farm, she says, “I’m so sorry you had to sell it. That’s heartbreaking. My parents both had work to second jobs to keep the farm going.”
His wife nods, saying, “I worked so he could afford to farm.”
I ask a woman what she thought of her conversation with Collier.
“She seems pleasant and warm. Well-informed. Sincere.”
Each of the four Congressional candidates in attendance gives a short speech to the audience. Collier emphasizes her farming past, adding such details as her fifth great-grandfather’s founding of Colliersville, out near Oneonta. She used to get up at 5 a.m. to work on the family farm, qualified for reduced-price school lunches, waitressed for eight years to put herself through college. “I know what it’s like to do without. I just want to help others who are struggling.”
Collier addresses the need to support education, then criticizes the Republicans for giving a $1.5 billion tax cut to corporations, cutting Medicaid, trying to cut SNAP benefits for the poor. “I’m the only candidate from this side of the district,” she says. “We need good-paying jobs here. Our young people are leaving.”
Later her campaign manager says agriculture and education come up throughout the district. When she campaigns in the Hudson Valley, health care and immigration are big topics.
After the speeches, a woman buttonholes Collier to talk about the urgency of getting Republicans out of office, ending with the declaration, “People ought to just vote for women.”
“We’d get a lot of stuff done,” the candidate agrees.
A woman speaks to her about strategies such as aggregating small farms into a political force to demand help from the government. Later, the woman points out that Collier is the only candidate who makes agriculture an important part of her platform, adding, “It’s time for young people to be involved.”
A local town official, when asked what she thinks of the candidate, says, “She got into the race late, so she’s got a tough road ahead. She has the agricultural community on her side. She’s young and female. Those are all good.”
“But can she beat Faso?” I ask.
“I would hope so. He’s done a lot of unpopular things. I think all our Democratic candidates are great.”