What does a Hillary voter look like? A Bernie voter? Can you picture both? OK, now let’s say you’re running for Congress, knocking on the doors of registered Democrats in a labyrinthine post-war neighborhood in Ulster County. Do you emphasize different issues based on your snap judgment?
If so, you’re not Jeff Beals, 41, a candidate for the Democratic nomination in New York’s 19th congressional district. No matter who answers the door, Beals hits the same points: He’s a Woodstock school teacher, he was endorsed by the Justice Democrats, a group made up of former Bernie Sanders staffers, who support him because he’s saying no to corporate money and fighting corporate power, he supports Medicare for All, he wants to increase social security benefits, forgive student loan debt and provide a federal jobs guarantee that would put the millions of unemployed to work in green jobs to end our fossil fuel dependence, fixing our existing infrastructure, building up our parks, providing eldercare and education. If elected he’d be the only former diplomat in Congress, and he’d use that experience to stop our nation’s endless wars. Can he count on your support in the primary June 26?
Responses vary. Many say they agree with everything Beals is saying, but they’ll need time to do so research before promising to vote for him. But an equal number, having known little or nothing about him prior, say yes, he has their vote.
I’m surprised by the number of Democrats embracing the Bernie Sanders platform, willing to go, as Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt would say, “the full-Sweden.” But should I be? Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by 17 points in this district in the 2016 primary. A few months later, Trump beat Clinton by 7 points. One way to interpret these results is that NY-19 voters just don’t like Hillary Clinton. Another would be that NY-19 voters were not ticket-splitting moderates but disgruntled mutineers ready for big changes.
“Don’t think of our politics as left vs. right,” said Beals. “Don’t think of it as Republican vs. Democrat. Think about it as the people against corporate power.”
We pull up to a home with a sign out front with the message “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in Spanish, English and Arabic. Beals reads the Arabic line aloud. He’s the only candidate in the race who can do that. Beals graduated from Harvard with a B.A. in government and a master’s in Middle Eastern studies and went on to work as CIA intelligence officer and one of the longest-serving diplomats in Iraq.
At another house he speaks with a young man who commutes to Orange County to work construction. The pay isn’t great and the hours suck, and employees were asked to sign a document promising they wouldn’t unionize. Beals questions the legality of that and promises if he were congressman he’d check into it. Later, Beals and the man bond over some vintage comic books.
The following week, Beals held a Medicare for All event in Kingston. Billed as an address, it instead takes the form of a group discussion. The 15-20 attendees share their tales of higher and higher prices for worse coverage. “It gives me no comfort to have insurance,” says one woman. “There should be a different name for it.” The remark provokes a peal of bitter laughter.
Beals tells the group that Medicare for All is the answer, and only a Congressional candidate who supports H.R. 676, the house bill with 121 co-sponsors, can be counted on to pass it. He said a household paying $6,500 a year for health-care (premiums plus deductible) would pay nothing out of pocket and less than $500 in additional taxes under a single-payer system. That will be possible due to the increased efficiency of single-payer on the expense side, and cuts to defense spending, reversing the Republican tax cut and taxing the financial sector on the funding side. The faces in the group look back at Beals with cautious hope.
The Beals’ campaign’s battle cry is “Fight Corporate Power.” It could as easily have been “Go Hard or Go Home.”
“I never would have stood up to run if I didn’t believe that this was a moment where we could accomplish great things,” said Beals. “And that’s why my campaign is only about those big things because I only want to get elected with a mandate to do big things.”
Many politicians, and those successful at other people-pleasing pursuits, are disarming. In conversation, they make you feel like they share your views, and commend your intelligence for asking insightful questions. They laugh at your jokes and you laugh at theirs, even if they’re not that funny. You can’t help it. Beals is different. Ask a question about electability in a swing district that assumes a general election might be easier for a more middle-of-the-road candidate, and Beals seems disappointed that you’re gaming out the election, losing sight of the fact that people across the district are overworked and underpaid, with most not even interested in voting because they don’t think it does any good — precisely because of reductive ways of thinking that boil races down to the most marketable candidates and a few wedge issues that never seem to get resolved. He’d like to see debate moderators follow up with candidates who give vague answers, to pin them down on issues like health care. He’d like to see the press do a similarly more rigorous job covering the policy proposals and the relevant biography of the candidates.
He managed to impress Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi, who made Beals the hero of his first dispatch from “the oddest House primary race in America.” The Beals’ portion of the article focused a lot on the fundraising levels demanded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and asked “What does it mean when the biggest threat to upstart Democrats is the national Democratic Party?” Taibbi was struck by the contrast between Beals the school teacher and the leading fundraisers in the race:
A defense contractor, a health care executive, a partner at a famed lobbying firm and a former press aide to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In Beals’ mind, this lineup was like a Rogue’s Gallery of centrist caricatures. ‘You couldn’t make this stuff up,’ he says.
(Those would be Pat Ryan, Brian Flynn, Antonio Delgado and Gareth Rhodes, by the way.)
Beals’ candidacy is appealing to those with a deep sense of idealism surrounded by a thick cocoon of cynicism about the system as it exists now; those who, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “understand what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers…” But it requires faith in government. Beals is right that people don’t like big corporations. But how do they feel about big government? At Beals’ Kingston Medicare for All event, one woman, a health care provider, expressed some reservations about what it would mean if the government was in charge of how much doctors were paid and what drugs and treatments were covered. Kat Brezler, of the People for Bernie Sanders group, which has endorsed Beals, tried to reframe the terms. Don’t think of the government as something separate and above you; the government is us, it represents our collective will. Beals jumps in. Which is better, he asks, an accountable corporation or an accountable government? The woman seems unconvinced. None of the above, perhaps?
I also tried Beals on this point. A federal jobs guarantee would put the federal government directly in charge of millions of jobs. What would stop an unscrupulous president from directing those jobs to politically advantageous swing-states to ensure reelection? Perhaps the way I asked wasn’t clear because Beals seemed confused. I also mentioned a half-remembered plotline from House of Cards where a similar program was unveiled for less-than-noble-reasons. But Beals doesn’t see the downside. It doesn’t matter who gets credit, he says. There are people who need work and work that needs to be done, much of it not the sort of work that the private sector is going to do. Beals connects the issue with our national crisis of purpose. “The work that we spend our lives doing should mean something, and we have lost the meaning of work, and in a lot of ways the meaning of life, when we allow our economy to exploit people to this extent,” he said.
Of course, undertaking public works and putting people to work doing things that otherwise wouldn’t get done isn’t a new idea. Another Hudson Valley Democrat of some note put such programs into practice in the 1930s. And he shared a similar willingness to name his enemy. “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” said FDR. “They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”
Beals believes the same forces would stand in the way of policies like Medicare for All and a jobs guarantee, but only until they become law. Take Social Security, for example. “Once you passed it, it was like bursting the mirage of the Wizard of Oz,” said Beals. “It turned out that everything thrown out against it was a smoke screen and a lie. Because the government didn’t go bankrupt, seniors began retiring in dignity, their ability to have an income in their later years powered our economy, and Americans young and old felt cared for and believed in our national mission. So that’s what winds up happening every time that we successfully achieve a progressive program. You just have to marshal the political will to get it done, because once you do get it done, it often is irrevocable because everything that was braced against it was propaganda and lies.”
If he is the nominee, Beals will, like the last two Democratic nominees, probably face the “carpetbagger” charge from incumbent Republican Congressman John Faso, having been a district resident for just under two years. Who is this CIA guy who left a good gig at the state department to move up to Woodstock and take a low-paying job at a private school? And although he believes it’s a mistake for Democrats to talk about impeaching the president because it will motivate Trump’s base to turn out, no doubt the Russian trolls on social media would make much of Beals’ past with The Agency — Revenge of the Deep State.
That said, he’s certainly not as vulnerable as some of his primary competitors. Also, as a teacher, he’s a member of the profession that makes up a core constituency of the modern Democratic party. I witnessed it myself while observing Beals canvassing. Even sympathetic voters aren’t exactly thrilled to be interrupted at home to hear an elevator pitch from a political candidate, but whenever Beals mentions he’s a teacher in Woodstock, their eyes light up. It’s a nice change from the usual lawyer or businessperson.
While canvassing, we pull up to a ramshackle house with no clear main entrance. Old vehicles clog the driveway and weeds and vines hang over the path to the back porch. Bees encircle us. Beals knocks a few times, then shrugs and places a flyer in the door. Returning to his car he smiles as he remembers approaching a similar house in Oneonta and finding a flyer for 2016’s Democratic District 19 candidate (and current New York State attorney general candidate) Zephyr Teachout lodged in a vine-covered door. “That’s my Forrestal!” he exclaimed, a reference to the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones approaches a treacherous, vegetation covered temple deep in the Amazon that claimed the life a competing treasure-hunter. “He was good… he was very, very good,” says Jones. Later he finds Forrestal’s decomposing body impaled on spikes. Teachout, a Fordham professor who had previously primaried Gov. Cuomo, had no previous connection with the district, and Faso made much of it. Her margin was only a point worse than once-popular New York Senator Hillary Clinton in this district, but after that loss, plus the 28-point blowout suffered by Sean Eldridge, another newcomer, in 2014, the issue of local roots is looming large this year. NY-19 Democrats don’t want another campaign in which their candidate strives to make points on policy while Faso gleefully sprinkles his rebuttals with phrases like “but I guess you wouldn’t know that since you were living in ______ at the time.”
Beals says local roots aren’t everything, pointing out that Kingston High School grad Julian Schreibman, now a State Supreme Court judge, lost in 2012, a year a Democratic president won. But Beals isn’t new to the Hudson Valley. His family owns a farm in Putnam County where he spent a lot of time growing up and lived from 2011 to 2016. He also mentions his grandparents, Holocaust survivors who worked in New York City and spent summers in a bungalow colony in Sullivan County, a part of NY-19.
A question at a forum asked the candidates to name the first thing they’d do to reverse the damage of the last 18 months. Other candidates cited the Republican tax cut bill. Beals’ answer? Nothing. There is no one thing that could solve these problems, and by the way, they started more than 40 years before the election of Donald J. Trump.
“The simple truth is that three people right now have more money than half the rest of the rest of the population of the United States, and that would put the pharaohs to shame,” said Beals. “It’s a total disgrace and it represents a breakdown of our economy and our entire political system. And if you can’t arrest that and respond to it, then I have no time for you and no interest in your political platform because you’re ignoring the giant crisis of our time, and it’s income inequality. Everything else pales beside it.”
Beals says his experience in the Middle East, particularly his work on the Iraqi constitution, gives him insight into how the country can unwind.
“When you serve overseas and see countries without democratic institutions or where those institutions are failing, or where they can’t ever come together, it makes you acutely aware of the blessings we have here, and of the peril if we squander what we have here,” he said. “I put a lot of pieces together looking over my life and realizing that our democracy has been coming unglued over my lifetime because of spiraling income inequality, enormous corporate power, and the cracking of our institutions.”
He recapitulates some recent history in the U.S.’s road to dysfunction: The Bush v. Gore decision that split the Supreme Court along partisan lines, the Iraq War that undermined the international order America helped build after World War II, and the Senate’s refusal to hold hearings on Barack Obama’s last Supreme Court justice nomination.
“There’s no way to downplay the magnitude of these things,” said Beals. “And the fact that I personally was involved in mediating the drafting of a constitution in another country and have seen how fraught and painful it is for sides to come together on such a document made it all the more frightening for me to see us begin to disrespect the document that we have incredibly held on to for over 200 years.”
Do you think the system is rigged in favor of corporations and the rich against everyone else? That fundraising success in a candidate is a signal that they’ll be on the side of the big money and against the little guy when it counts, no matter what they tell you? That we need a sharp-elbowed fighter openly antagonistic to Wall Street, corporate America and members of his own party willing to play ball with those forces? That Democrats are losing not because they aren’t appealing to moderates but because they aren’t supporting bold and sweeping proposals that directly address the problems of the 99 percent?
Then Beals just may be your guy.