As voters navigate the confusing maze of congressional primaries and a special election, Josh Riley emerges as a candidate advocating for those whose struggle to make ends meet and find an affordable home.
Riley is running in the August 23 Democratic Congressional primary against Jamie Cheney for the newly drawn 19th District that encompasses Denning; Hardenburgh; Shandaken; Olive; Woodstock; Saugerties; Town of Kingston; Hurley; Town of Ulster; Part of Wawarsing; and the counties of Columbia; Greene; Delaware; Sullivan; Part of Otsego; Chenango; Broome; Cortland; Tioga and Tompkins. The winner of that primary will face off against Republican Marc Molinaro, who has no GOP challenger, in the November general election.
Riley is a native of the Southern Tier municipality of Endicott, a company town founded by the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Company. The town and Johnson City, a village within Endicott, were known as the home of Teddy Roosevelt’s early 20th century Square Deal, where workers earned a living wage and got a 900-square-foot-home on a zero percent mortgage. One could lead a good middle-class life without a college education. But the good times came to an end when Endicott-Johnson closed its last plant and IBM pulled out of the area at the turn of the 21st century. Riley saw the devastation first-hand. He worked for IBM, as did his parents, uncle and grandfather. Riley’s grandmother worked for Endicott-Johnson.
“As I was growing up, what I saw was a situation where workers were able to share the rewards of their labor, get the health care they needed, you could get into the middle class, you could afford to go on the summer road trip,” Riley told a group of supporters gathered at an Olive Democratic Committee picnic at Davis Park. “And then all of a sudden, in what felt like overnight, the rug was pulled out from underneath so many folks across this region. In a matter of just one generation, my generation, we end up losing about two thirds of our manufacturing jobs across upstate New York.”
Meanwhile, Wall Street profits soared. Riley remembers seeing the disparity between Wall Street and Main Street as he read the headlines of the newspapers he was delivering in his youth.
“I remember reading the newspapers, and you would see the stories about all the layoffs and all the job losses across regions in upstate New York. And literally on the very same page, literally, right on the same page, you would see headlines about Wall Street booming and corporate profits soaring,” Riley said “And for me, that left me with a real understanding that our political system and our economic system are rigged against working people across upstate New York.”
At the picnic, we caught up with Riley to get his thoughts on some of the major issues in this district.
Since the new 19th district was drawn, Riley has been in every one of the 11 counties. The affordable housing crisis is one of the things he hears about the most, especially in the Hudson Valley.
“Folks just are being priced out of the area. And so one of the things I think we need to do is build more affordable housing stock. If we build more housing stock, it’s going to increase the supply, that should start putting some pressure downward on the prices,” Riley said. “The way I would like to do that is to make sure the construction is done by local labor, so that those that work, those economic benefits are staying in the community. I also want to make sure when we’re expanding our supply, we’re doing it in a way that is the most environmentally friendly, possible and the most sustainable.”
Riley said he’d push for legislation to get more federal funds for housing.
“In the bipartisan infrastructure law that was passed in November, there were provisions in there that would have actually invested in the construction of affordable housing in places like the Hudson Valley where it’s desperately needed,” he said.
“Through the negotiations for that bill, a lot of those provisions were taken out, and so one of the things I’m going to be focused on doing is pushing that legislation,” Riley added.
“I’m pro choice. Women’s health care decisions are women’s health care decisions. Nobody else’s. Not politician’s. Not the government’s and certainly not a bunch of out-of-touch conservative Supreme Court justices,” Riley said. “So we need to do a whole bunch of things to fight back and protect women’s reproductive freedom. At a minimum, we need to support the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would codify Roe v Wade into law.”
Riley, an attorney in private practice, said he would also like to see the Equal Rights Amendment ratified.
“I would like to see that amendment adopted because it would be crystal clear in the Constitution that women’s reproductive freedom and equality is not up for debate anymore.”
Riley also supports women’s legal right to access FDA-approved abortion medications, which account for about half of abortions in the country. He wrote a letter to the Justice Department advocating for access and it has adopted that position.
“So even if you’re in a state where they’re trying to ban all abortions, you should still have access to FDA approved abortion medication. So this is a huge issue. This goes to women’s equality, it goes to basic notions of freedom, and we need to fight back with everything we’ve got,” he said.
Sensible gun regulation is something Riley has supported in his work as counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my career to have families come to Congress and ask Congress to pass common sense measures that would keep our communities safe,” Riley said. “Not just for that, but also to honor their kids. And then Congress failed to do that, even though the proposals had about 90% support in the public.
“And the reason you have something that has 90% support fails, is because the special interests dominate Washington. So the NRA came in with millions of dollars and money for politicians and millions of dollars for the lobbyists.”
Riley supports strengthening and expanding background checks and more funding for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)
Making basic needs affordable, supporting job growth
“I’ve heard from so many families who are making impossible choices between the medicines they need or their groceries. So those are some immediate things we need to do to help families who are struggling with high costs in the longer term,” Riley said. “I think what we’re seeing today with inflation as a consequence of really bad policies from both Democrats and Republicans, that have shipped a lot of our jobs overseas, and so we need to bring good advanced manufacturing jobs back home here in upstate New York making things like semiconductors.”
Riley noted the region lost two-thirds of its manufacturing jobs in one generation.
“What that meant was corporate profits were soaring. They were able to ship all the jobs away to places where the labor was cheap and where the environment was degraded. But back here at home in upstate New York, people ended up out of work, losing jobs, losing their livelihood, and the opioid epidemic took hold,” he said, noting he lost high school friends to opioid abuse.
Humble beginnings in the Southern Tier
Growing up in Endicott, Riley didn’t know any lawyers or anyone of power or influence. He met then-Congressman Maurice Hinchey, who offered him a job answering phones and opening mail.
“He opened my eyes to this world of the good that can be done in public service,” Riley said.
Riley credits Hinchey with inspiring him to further his career.
He graduated from Harvard Law School, where then-Dean and current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan presented him with the Dean’s Award for Community Leadership.
Early on in his career, Riley worked the Labor and Pensions Committee trying to raise the minimum wage and worked to protect the Medical Leave Act.
While Riley was in law school, he volunteered for a legal aid clinic to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.
After law school, Riley moved to Florida, where he worked with the American Academy of Pediatrics to file a civil lawsuit against the state, arguing children have a civil right to health care services.
“My clients were kids and families who had to choose between a day’s wages or traveling three or four hours to get the health care services first aid needed. And meanwhile, in a zip code over you have some kids who are in a more well off family who can get the care they needed the same day down the block.”
Riley then spent a year in California, where he clerked for Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kim Wardlaw.
He moved on to serve as Sen. Al Franken’s general counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As an attorney in private practice, Riley filed briefs in the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the Trump administration’s Muslim ban and immigration policies, something that hit close to home because his wife is the daughter of immigrants from India and Ecuador.
Riley lives in Ithaca with his wife, Monica, and 2-year-old son.
For more information, see joshrileyforcongress.com.