The contest draws closer for the party faithful to decide which of three Democratic champions will face Republican opponent Colin J. Schmitt, the strong-jawed, freshman state Assembly member who heads into the election unopposed to represent the 18th Congressional District for New York State in the United States Congress.
Typically held in June, the Democratic and Republican choosing contests were postponed by a federal judge this year as a result of what the court perceived as Democratic gerrymandering of the new 2022 district maps. A special master appointed by the court drew different lines, ones which created more competitive districts in the Hudson Valley.
In the new 18th CD, three Democratic hopefuls are competing. West Point-educated Ulster County executive Pat Ryan will face off against financial advisor and self-described man of faith Moses Mugulusi as well as Center of American Progress alumna and frequent CNN opinion contributor Aisha Mills.
Ryan is the presumptive leader of the Democratic pack. He is running simultaneously in two congressional districts, against Republican Marcus Molinaro for the old 19th CD seat expiring in January 2023 and for the new 18th CD seat ending in January 2025.
Mugulusi is facing long-shot odds. If there is as a potential come-from-behind spoiler, it is Mills.
The nascent candidacy of Aisha Mills was almost suffocated in its crib. An administrative assistant in the office of community development for the City of Kingston and co-chair of the city Democratic committee, Amee Peterson, attempted to cancel Mills’ candidacy outright in paperwork filed with the New York State Board of Elections in Albany. According to the Daily Freeman, her objection was filed on behalf of Pat Ryan,
Mills needed a minimum of 1062 signatures to be considered as a candidate of the Democratic Party for the August 28 primary, Peterson’s objection to Mills’ candidacy attempted to disqualify 862 of the names Mills had submitted.
Initially the state elections board went along with some of Peterson’s objection, whittling the number of problematic signatures down to 499, still enough to tank Mills, who had amassed a total of 1522 signatures. But Mills’ challenge to the board’s findings in Albany Supreme Court resulted in the reinstatement of enough of the contested signatures to keep her name on the ballot. Justice Kimberly A. O’Connor’s ten-page decision reinstated Mills’ candidacy and found Peterson liable to reimburse Mills’ court costs of $1781.
Though Mills and her pro-bono lawyer David Jensen will never recover the time and energy expended to fight the objection to her candidacy in court, Mills said she was not disillusioned by the process. She said she had spent over 20 years of professional work and personal community service work “advocating on behalf of the voices that are generally left out of political and policy conversations, trying to build power for marginalized people.”
Into hearts and minds
Mills has a long history of advocacy against stacked odds. She called attention to the color of her skin and sexual orientation not only as touchstones of her lived experience but also as pluses for why voters should consider her.
“Winning marriage equality for same-sex couples,” said Mills, recalling her efforts as a resident of Washington, DC in 2009, when it became only the fifth jurisdiction in the country to do so, “was a really big, big deal. And, you know, I started to realize that campaigns at the local level, or even at the federal level, because I had been trying to lead people to Congress, campaigns are great and important, and the politics are important. But shifting culture and reaching people where they are is really how we get into the hearts and minds of everyday folks, and help them to understand how these political issues and the current affairs impact their lives.”
She realized that media platforms were just an extension of the campaign advocacy tools that she had always used.
Mills currently calls Newburgh, where she sits on the Newburgh Strategic Economic Development Advisory Council, home. Because of the statewide redistricting, Orange County has found itself in the new 18th CD with its sister cities Middletown, Poughkeepsie, Beacon and Kingston.
“Where I live in Orange County, it’s you know, so much of what feels like a hamster-in-a-wheel poverty-economy-flow that people talk about and just don’t know how to shake it, because we’ve been doing the same thing over and over and over, expecting different results,” said Mills. “I’m inviting the community to get to know me and asking people to vote for me, because I’m going go to Washington on Day One and know how to do it. I spent five years at the largest Democratic think tank in the country, doing federal policy work and advocacy … all throughout the Obama administration. So I know how to how to think about policy and legislation, and also administrative action at the federal level in terms of how we get things done.”
Sustaining our communities
Ulster County was bisected between the 18th and 19th CDs by a jagged line that looks like the ink on a roll of seismograph paper.
Representing municipalities as far-flung from each other as Millbrook and Middletown will be a challenge. But Mills said she loves the district. As a dedicated hiker, she enjoys the Gunks. And she has a great appreciation for local agriculture.
“The Hudson Valley is home to the most amazing family farmers and small growers who are doing the Lord’s work of regenerative agriculture. They are sustaining our communities through the way that they are tilling and toiling and reclaiming the land,” she said. “The agricultural aspect of how we essentially create an entirely new farm economy that incentivizes our local growers or small grower, family-owned, family-run farms, so that more people can actually link up their farming, and guess what happens? We now create healthier communities.”
The profit margins of local farmers are not the huge ones that big corporations expect to extract, ”and we actually get to eat the locally grown organic foods that’s being grown five miles down the road.”
“Yeah, and like what our kids are eating in their schools presently,” she continued. “There’s a complete about-face with regards to health and wealth in our communities you can have just by ending old-school agriculture policy that has been rigged to not benefit any of us, except for a handful of wealthy people and lobbies. The sugar lobby. The wheat lobby. I can go on. I’ve been in DC for a long time doing this work. And I know who those lobbies are that stay quiet. Like you think, well, who the heck are these cattle ranchers and the dairy farmers? Oh, no, no, no! These are multi-billion-dollar industries, with really nasty, powerful players behind them, that have gamed this whole system for themselves.”
Her vision includes opportunities for the region from the growing and selling of cannabis.
“We could be the cannabis-growing capital of the state, by the way. We can really be the force that pushes the federal government towards legalization of marijuana,” she said, “That’s complicated, right? Marijuana on the federal level is now reminiscent of that exact same patchwork of laws from state to state that LGBT [rights] was in back at the beginning of the century …. Well, I will be our cannabis congresswoman in terms of working on the policy.”
Dismantling the barriers
With two decades as a high-level progressive policy wonk in Washington under her belt, Mills has a vision for the district she hopes to represent. Here’s how she puts it:
“Hudson Valley, we are the game-changers and the destination in this country, because of how we are growing our own local economy, for us by us. Literally dismantling all the structural barriers that have blocked the people from profiting and from really being supported, We can just totally rewrite all that. That’s federal policy. So agriculture, housing, climate, you know, a variety things that I was working on, we could really become a beacon of change here.”
Early voting for the primary begins on August 13.
Early voting, absentee ballots
Early voting for the August 23rd Primary & Special Election will begin on Saturday, August 13 and end on Sunday, August 21. Now before every election event, any eligible registered voter will have the ability to vote early at any convenient Early Voting Center. When you get to the Early Voting location, you will check in to vote, receive your ballot and vote as in any other election. Voting during early voting is the same as election day, but if you do decide to vote early you are not eligible to vote on election day.
Early voting sites are:
American Legion, 26-28 Mountain Road, Shokan, NY 12481
Kingston High School, 403 Broadway Kingston, NY 12401
Ellenville Public Library, 40 Center Street, Ellenville, NY 12428
New Paltz Community Center, 3 Veterans Drive, New Paltz, NY 12561
Marlborough Town Hall, 21 Milton Turnpike, Milton, NY 12547
Saugerties Senior Center, 207 Market Street, Saugerties, NY 12477.
Early voting hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., August 13, 14, 15, 17, 19, 20 and 21; and noon-8 p.m. on August 16 and August 18.