Faso, Delgado face off in Congressional contest with national implications

The long and hard-fought race for New York’s 19th Congressional District will come to a close Tuesday, when voters head to the polls to choose among four candidates for the seat. Incumbent Republican John Faso and Democrat Antonio Delgado are, by a wide margin, the front-runners in the race. Green Party candidate Steve Greenfield and independent Diane Neal will also appear on the ballot.

The race is one of the most closely watched of the midterm contests — the outcome could determine which party controls the House of Representatives next year. 

“We need to take over the House,” upstate Congressman Paul Tonko told the crowd at an Oct. 26 rally for Delgado in Kingston headlined by former Vice President Joe Biden. “It doesn’t take many seats and it’s going to start with the New York 19.”

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A Monmouth University poll released Tuesday, Oct. 30, gave Delgado a 49-44 percent advantage over Faso, using what pollsters described as their “standard midterm turnout model.” Three percent support a third party or independent candidate and 4 percent are undecided, the colleges stated. Monmouth stated that if “a model that incorporates a turnout surge in Democratic precincts similar to the turnout dynamic seen in some special elections held over the past year” was applied to its findings, Delgado would have a 51-43 lead over Faso. A less recent Siena University poll found the race virtually tied, with Faso holding a one percentage point advantage.

The 19th Congressional District encompasses a broad stretch of the Hudson Valley and Catskills, including all of Ulster, Greene, Columbia, Delaware, Otsego, Schoharie Sullivan counties, and portions of Broome, Dutchess, Montgomery and Rensselaer counties. The district was created in 2012 through the merger of the former 20th and 22nd Congressional Districts. Politically the 19th is considered a “purple” district — neither reliably Republican nor automatically Democrat. As of April 1, there were 141,289 active Democratic voters in the district, compared to 138,473 active Republicans. 114,937 active registered voters are not enrolled in any political party. The district went to Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. Republicans have held the congressional seat since the formation of the district, when Chris Gibson defeated Democrat Julian Schreibman. 

The incumbent

Faso, a Long Island native and Kinderhook resident, was elected to the represent the district in 2016 after Gibson opted to not seek a fourth term in Congress. Faso, 66, came to Congress after a long career in politics that began in 1986 when he was elected to the state Assembly. Faso eventually rose to the rank Assembly minority leader before stepping down from the seat in 2002 to pursue an unsuccessful bid for state Comptroller. In 2006, Faso campaigned for governor but lost to Eliot Spitzer. Faso has also worked as a lobbyist at Albany law firm Manatt, Phelps and Phillips, and as consultant to an energy company seeking to build a gas pipeline between Pennsylvania and New York. 

In Congress, Faso has cast himself as a moderate, touting his ranking as the “18th most bipartisan member of the House” according to Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy and his membership in the informal bipartisan caucus the “Tuesday Group.” He cast a deciding vote to move the American Healthcare Act — the GOP’s ultimately failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare — out of the House Finance Committee. Later, he voted for the finished bill. He and fellow New York Congressman Chris Collins also negotiated an amendment that would have forced New York State to end its practice of passing a portion of Medicaid costs on to counties.

Faso voted against another signature piece of his party’s legislative agenda, the Tax and Jobs Act of 2017. Faso has said that he voted against the tax cut based on his objection to a provision that caps the amount of state and local taxes that can be deducted from federal tax returns at $10,000. Faso serves on a bipartisan task force on heroin and helped push recently signed legislation to crack down on the importation of the deadly synthetic opioid Fentanyl.

“We need bipartisan solutions,” said Faso. “And that’s what I’ve been working on since I’ve been in Congress.” 

Faso has expressed support for an immigration deal that would offer a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children. Representing a district that relies heavily on immigrant labor in the agricultural sector, Faso has also supported reforms in a program that offers temporary visas for farm workers. Faso said he rejects Trump’s push for border wall running the length of the US-Mexico border, but he said he supports enhanced border security as well as an end to the “diversity lottery.” 

“We are a nation of immigrants,” said Faso. “But we are also a nation of laws.”

The challenger

Delgado, 41, grew up in Schenectady and graduated from Colgate College and Harvard Law School. He studied at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. After a brief career as a rapper under the name of AD the Voice in Los Angeles, Delgado returned to New York and joined the high-profile law and lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, where he worked as a litigator on corporate law cases. Delgado and his wife, Woodstock-born filmmaker Lacey Schwartz Delgado, moved to Rhinebeck from Montclair, N.J. shortly before he announced his candidacy. 

Delgado’s path to the Democratic nomination began in February 2017 when he became the first candidate to enter the fray. By June of that year, he would be joined by six more hopefuls seeking to capitalize on a wave of energy and activism that followed in the wake of the 2016 election. Over the course of the year-long primary campaign, Delgado participated in dozens of candidate forums where he positioned himself as a center-left moderate. While his opponents on the left touted their zeal for a government-run single payer healthcare system, Delgado advocated for a government-run “public option” health plan that would exist alongside private insurance plans. While impeachment has become a rallying cry for much of the Democratic Party base, Delgado took a lawyerly stance, arguing that he could not make a decision on the subject until all of the evidence has been presented. And in a campaign season that has seen self-described “Democratic Socialists” make inroads into his party, Delgado touts his capitalist bona fides.

“I’ve worked as a litigator at a corporate law firm — it’s not like I’m coming at this from an anti-business, anti corporate, anti-Wall Street perspective,” said Delgado, addressing the need to limit the influence of corporate money in politics. “That would be hypocritical. I’ve worked in those spaces.”

The healthcare issue

If Faso claims to be running on his record, the same can be said for Delgado. He’s made Faso’s votes on the American Healthcare Act a core theme of his campaign. In a barrage of ads and stump speeches, Delgado has accused his opponent of voting to take healthcare away from millions of Americans, roll back protections for pre-existing conditions and impose an “age tax” by allowing insurers to charge seniors deductibles up to five times higher than younger people.

The American Healthcare Act would have allowed states to seek waivers from Obamacare rules on age-based pricing. Insurance companies would still have to offer coverage for pre-existing conditions but — with a state waiver — could charge them much higher premiums than allowed under Obamacare, as long as states with the waiver set up “high risk” pools to help reduce costs. The bill would also have significantly cut federal funding for new enrollees in expanded Medicaid programs funded under Obamacare. The bill would also have eliminated all funding for Planned Parenthood — a provision that Faso opposed when it came up in committee but remained in the legislation he eventually voted for.

“We’ve got a congressman who literally did the worst thing he could have done,” said Delgado. “And he did it after promising [constituents] that he wouldn’t and promising that he would not defund Planned Parenthood.” 

Faso has called Delgado’s attacks on his healthcare votes dishonest. He notes that the provisions in the AHCA allowing states to seek waivers for certain Obamacare rules would only apply to a small fraction of the total market, about 7 percent. The proposed changes would have no impact in New York, which has its own law banning insurance pricing based on age or health status. Faso’s own platform calls for keeping elements of Obamacare that are popular, while fixing others he said have proven unworkable.

“It just shows that he doesn’t understand the issue,” said Faso of Delgado’s line of attack. “He’s just repeating the same rhetoric we’ve been hearing from Nancy Pelosi and the national party.”

Is that a carpet in your bag?

While Delgado has homed in on Faso’s vote for the American Healthcare Act as major vulnerability, the incumbent Republican has seized on his opponent’s status as a newcomer to the district as a major theme of his campaign. The sense that the “carpetbagger” label could be fatal to Delgado’s candidacy was shared by some local Democrats who noted that two of their party’s previous contenders for the seat — Zephyr Teachout and Sean Eldridge — had been soundly beaten, their campaigns hamstrung by allegations of district-shopping. Faso himself rarely misses an opportunity to cast Delgado as an interloper in the district without the kind of detailed knowledge of the region’s issues and economy to effectively represent his would-be constituents. Delgado has countered the attack by noting his upstate roots in a working-class Schenectady family and his wife’s status as a native Woodstocker whose family still runs a popular wine and liquor store in Saugerties.

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The attacks on Delgado’s outsider status took a nastier turn in a series of attack ads funded by Republican super-PACs unaffiliated with Faso’s campaign. The ads take aim at Delgado’s rap career, accusing him of using demeaning language towards women and questioning American values. One flyer mailed to thousands of voters in the district by the Congressional Leadership Fund PAC features a white woman clutching a little girl with the headline “Ex-rapper Antonio Delgado is sexually degrading towards women.” In another spot produced by the National Republican Campaign Committee, a series of white district residents intersperse attacks on Delgado as wrong on the issues and a puppet of Nancy Pelosi with lines like “Nobody talks like that around here, it’s offensive,” and “his voice definitely can’t be my voice.” Critics have called the attack ads a transparent dog whistle to racist sentiments, targeting a black candidate in a district that is 86 percent white. Faso has resisted calls to denounce the ads saying that doing so could open him up to allegations of illegal coordination between his campaign and the super-PACs. Delgado, meanwhile, defends his lyrics. The core message of his album, he said, was uplift and engagement. His lyrics, he said, were an attempt to use the preferred medium of marginalized inner-city youth to tell his own story of academic success and upward mobility.

The larger impact

The race for the 19th is one of the most closely watched in the nation as Democrats pin their hopes on flipping the House on a “blue wave” of grassroots activism and civic engagement by a wide swath of voters both dismayed and energized by the Trump administration. The primary campaign was the subject of in depth coverage by National Public Radio and Rolling Stone. Along with the attention, the race had attracted millions of dollars in the form of campaign contributions and outside spending by PACS affiliated with both parties.

Delgado has been the clear winner in the money race, taking in $6.5 million to Faso $3.3 million. Half of Delgado’s campaign cash was raised in third quarter of this year, reflecting a surge in contributions after he secured the party line in a June primary. The majority of Delgado’s war chest came in the form of individual contributions from some 8,800 donors. Other funding flowed in from political PACs affiliated with Democratic leadership and interest groups. Delgado has not taken any money from PACS affiliated with corporations or business groups.

Faso, meanwhile, lags significantly in individual contributions, but has garnered funding from a number of corporate and trade association PACs representing finance, real estate, industry and energy sector interests.

Outside spending by super-PACs on independent messaging to influence the outcome of the race has been less lopsided. Conservative super-PACs have spent $5.36 million on negative ads targeting Delgado and $1.16 million on ads in support of Faso. On the other side, left-leaning groups have put $4.24 million into anti-Faso ads and $435,000 in pro-Delgado messaging.

Neal, Greenfield

While the race has essentially been a two-man contest in terms of fundraising, visibility and viability, two other candidates will be on the ballot for the congressional seat. Former Law and Order: Special Victims Unit actor Diane Neal is running an independent campaign and secured her ballot line after a series of mishaps, including an accident involving a drunken driver that left her with a serious back injury and the initial rejection of her ballot petitions by state officials which left her off the campaign trail during the summer campaign season. The Hurley resident said she entered the race because she did not see another candidate who truly represented her and her neighbors. Neal believes that independent candidates have an opportunity to be powerful advocates in what she expects will be a divided Congress.

Along with Neal, Green Party candidate Steve Greenfield will appear on the ballot. Greenfield, a musician with a degree in economics, is a former New Paltz school board trustee, a volunteer firefighter and has served on the town’s land use committee. Greenfield is running on the promise of a “Green New Deal” to provide full employment by taking urgent action to address climate change with a massive infrastructure overhaul to renewable energy.

Polls will be open 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6. Look up your polling place here