New York 19th Congressional District candidates John Faso and Antonio Delgado largely stuck to the script in Monday night’s debate at the Woodstock Playhouse, delivering well-rehearsed answers to frequently asked questions. But both candidates delivered a few curveballs, with the incumbent Faso accusing Democrats of a “mob mentality” and Delgado declaring that he would reject the endorsement of the House’s top Democrat, former (and maybe future) Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The debate was sponsored by Spectrum News and moderated by the cable network’s Capital Tonight host Liz Benjamin and Washington correspondent Jeevan Vittal. It was the second televised debate in two days in the closely watched race for what is considered a tossup election in the battle for control of the House of Representatives. Before an at-times raucous capacity crowd at the 300 plus-seat venue, both candidates hammered home core themes of their respective campaigns, at times at the expense of addressing moderators’ questions.
On healthcare, Delgado continued his attack on Faso’s vote for the American Healthcare Act — part of the House GOP’s ultimately unsuccessful effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Delgado claimed that Faso’s vote signaled approval for provisions in the bill that would have allowed insurers to charge impossible-to-pay premiums for people with pre-existing conditions and charge senior citizens up to five times more than younger people for the same coverage. Faso, meanwhile, accused Delgado of waffling on his position, speaking approvingly of a government-run single-payer system during a hotly contested Democratic primary before pushing a more moderate plan that would include a government financed “public option” insurance program that would operate alongside the private insurance market. At a debate in Woodstock during the primary elections, however, Delgado clearly supported the ‘public option’ position.
“We have got to get away from the notion that every solution comes from Washington,” said Faso, who proposed a government-backed system of “reinsurance” to help insurers provide coverage for their most costly consumers.
Delgado said his public option program would provide a “floor” that private-sector insurers would have to match to stay competitive. Asked by Benjamin if he would ever support a single-payer plan, Delgado responded “I have not seen a plan I would vote for.”
Rapped on raps
The night’s most contentious moment came after Vittal questioned Faso about Super-PAC funded ads taking aim at Delgado’s brief career as a Los Angeles-based rapper in the mid-2000s and casting his lyrics as misogynistic and anti-American. The ads, which were not produced by the Faso campaign, have been denounced as an appeal to racist sentiment targeting a black candidate in an overwhelmingly white district. Faso responded briefly by calling Delgado’s lyrics “demeaning to women” and “provocative,” before pivoting into an attack on Delgado’s foreign policy credentials and questioning his support for Israel. When pressed by Benjamin on the attack ads, Faso sidestepped once again and responded with an attack on Delgado as a carpetbagger. Delgado, who was born and raised in Schenectady, moved to Rhinebeck from Montclair, N.J. with his Woodstock-native wife, Lacy shortly before announcing his candidacy.
“Mr. Delgado has a naive view of about foreign policy and domestic policy. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Faso, who was interrupted by a loud chorus of jeers. “He repeats the Nancy Pelosi soundbites and he’s supported by this kind of mob mentality.”
Delgado, meanwhile, stood by his lyrics saying that his rhymes about injustice and inequality were built around the same themes that drove his congressional campaign. Delgado, who embarked on his rap career after graduating from Harvard Law School, said that he wanted to use music to bring a positive message to inner-city youth.
“How do I take my story, a story of academic success and tell stories of upward mobility and uplift to a community that is all too often marginalized and left behind?” said Delgado.
The candidates also sparred over agricultural policy with Delgado accusing Faso of supporting a farm bill which favors corporate “mega-farmers” over the small and midsize farms which predominate in the district. Faso said Delgado’s real objection was to new work requirements for food stamps aimed at able-bodied adults.
“It is not cruel, Antonio, to ask people to work for their benefits who are able-bodied,” said Faso.
Responding to moderators’ questions about the opioid crisis, Faso blamed the spiraling death rates on a failure in regulation over the past decade which allowed big pharmaceutical companies to “rush headlong” into opioid-assisted pain management without considering the addiction risks. He also touted his own work on a recently approved law intended to crack down on the importation from China of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl via the U.S. Postal Service. Delgado called for an emphasis on treatment and prevention and called access to affordable healthcare the best tool for fighting the epidemic.
“Incarceration is too often the treatment of choice,” said Delgado.
Perhaps the most surprising answer of the night came during the debates “lightning round,” when the candidates were asked a series of questions and instructed to reply with yes or no answers. The candidates were asked to name a favorite local beer — Faso cited Sullivan County’s Roscoe Beer Company; Delgado demurred, expressing preference for his mother-in-law’s Saugerties wine and liquor store — and whether they knew the actual location of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival. (Both accurately identified the Sullivan County town of Bethel).
When Delgado was asked if he would accept the endorsement of House Minority Leader and ranking Democrat Pelosi, Delgado answered with a curt “No.” PACs associated with Pelosi have donated at least $14,000 to Delgado’s campaign. Asked about his pre-emptive rejection of his would-be caucus leader’s endorsement after the debate, Delgado said it signaled that he was more focused on the needs of the residents of his district than congressional leadership possibilities. Delgado added that the party’s financial support reflected the critical importance of the race in Democrats’ efforts to flip the House in November.
“Yes, we’re going to get some support from the party and we’re happy to accept that support,” said Delgado. But there’s a difference between that and being beholden to the party at the expense of your constituents.”