National News

Democrats Have 7 Choices to Challenge John Faso. Some Revel in the Array.

Posted June 12, 2018 6:48 p.m. EDT
Updated June 12, 2018 6:51 p.m. EDT

KINGSTON, N.Y. — There has been a torrent of political messaging: television ads, radio spots and social media posts. Voters have been wooed by mailers, town-hall meetings and seemingly endless door-to-door canvassing, with any one of seven candidates possibly beckoning.

The 19th Congressional District race in New York promises to be among the most bruising contests in the nation, with the Democratic Party — its eyes on seizing the House of Representatives in November — eager to dislodge the Republican incumbent, Rep. John J. Faso.

The race, according to nonpartisan analysts, has been characterized as a tossup. But Democratic voters first have to choose their candidate, and that has proved a complicated endeavor, with seven Democrats vying to become the party’s nominee.

Hoping to settle on his choice, Doug Shippee, an owner of art supply stores, attended a recent candidates’ forum here. The Democratic hopefuls — six men and one woman — laid out their visions for restoring economic opportunity, stemming gun violence and fighting opioids.

But after two hours of explication and exhortation, Shippee, 59, seemed more unsure than ever. “I’m more on the fence now,” he said. “They’re all impressive and articulate. But who can beat Faso?”

That is the question of the hour here, as the Democrats’ crusade to defeat Faso enters a critical stage before the June 26 primary.

None of the Democratic candidates has held public office before, not even on a village board. Yet to hear some voters tell it, the slate is an embarrassment of riches in terms of experience, knowledge and polish. As the candidates took the stage last week at Congregation Emanuel of the Hudson Valley, one woman grumbled to her husband: “I wish we could spread them around the state.”

In such a crowded field, with many of the seven possessing similar views on a range of issues, the candidates’ challenge will be how to differentiate themselves.

Erin Collier, an agricultural economist who worked in the Obama administration, has stressed her deep roots in the district, citing her family’s eight generations in Cooperstown. Not to be outdone, and perhaps looking for a laugh line, David Clegg, a trial lawyer from Woodstock who has lived in the district for 37 years, told voters at the forum that he recently studied his family tree, drawing a connection to one of the French Huguenot founders of New Paltz.

“It turns out three of my grandparents are immigrants, but my fourth was a Brown,” he said, as if seizing on a key piece of evidence. “And the Browns are related to the Freers. And Hugo Freer moved from France to Kingston in 1675, folks — 1675.”

While no one has held public office, a few have worked in government. Gareth Rhodes, who completed a 163-town tour of the district on Monday, was a press aide for Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Jeff Beals, a high school history teacher in Woodstock, was for several years an officer with the Central Intelligence Agency and then a U.S. diplomat in the Middle East.

Pat Ryan, a Kingston native and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, served two tours in Iraq. And Brian Flynn, an entrepreneur whose older brother was killed in 1988 aboard Pan Am Flight 103, spent years with other families fighting both the Libyan and U.S. governments for justice for their relatives who died in the terrorist attack.

The candidate who has raised the most money (and collected the most petition signatures) is Antonio Delgado. Until recently, Delgado was a lawyer in Manhattan, and before that, a hip-hop artist in Los Angeles. His educational background is sterling: While an undergraduate at Colgate University, he earned a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University and then went on to Harvard Law School.

He credits his fundraising prowess — he has raised $1.9 million so far — to his relentless work ethic, which he says will serve him well during a general-election campaign against Faso.

“To beat John Faso, you’ve got to have a candidate that can do it all,” he told the recent candidate forum. “Make no mistake about it: outwork, outraise, out-organize and inspire real turnout. I can outwork because I come from working-class roots. And my parents taught me from Day 1 to work twice as hard.”

But some voters worry that Republicans will use the carpetbagger moniker to undermine a few of the candidates, including Delgado, should he win the primary. “It’s good to leave and see some of the world, but that was an issue for Zephyr Teachout,” said Carl Parris, 66, of Rhinebeck, referring to the Democratic candidate who lost in 2016 to Faso.

While his wife, Lacey, is from Woodstock, Delgado grew up in Schenectady, which is less than 20 miles north of the district. The couple moved to the district only last year when they bought a house in Rhinebeck. Before that, they lived in Montclair, New Jersey. “This is a place where my wife and I made our roots,” he said in an interview. “My parents live an hour away. Lacey’s mother lives 20 minutes away from us. We were married in Catskill. And I was just inducted into the Upstate New York Basketball Hall of Fame.”

Other candidates have sought to distinguish themselves through policy and political support.

Beals, for instance, presents himself as the most progressive of the lot — the self-described “Bernie Sanders candidate,” with endorsements from national groups still aligned with the U.S. senator from Vermont.

“I am advocating the boldest, most progressive agenda of how to counter the corporate takeover of our politics,” he said in an interview. It is a strategy that he hopes will bear fruit: Sanders beat Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential primary in the 19th District by more than 10,000 votes.

For her part, Collier has highlighted support from Emily’s List, the fundraising behemoth that has helped elect hundreds of Democratic women, as well as New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand. “They will make sure that I beat Faso,” she told attendees at the forum.

The candidates seem to know that for many voters this year, the real foe may well be President Donald Trump, not Faso.

Dr. Steven D. Schwartz, a radiologist from Rhinebeck, said he had always followed politics in the news, but that this was the first year he had come out to see candidates in person. “For me, it’s really about opposing Trump and the whole Republican Party at this point,” he said. Indeed, at times the candidates almost seem to jockey for the most provocative denunciation of the president. Ryan, the veteran who is now a business owner, elicited gasps of appreciation when he connected the oath he took upon graduating from West Point to fighting Trump.

“We all took this same oath to protect and defend the Constitution from enemies foreign and enemies domestic,” he said. “My whole life — like probably most of the people in this room — the greatest threat that I always perceived to our democracy came from outside our borders. We are at an existential moment in our country right now and I don’t say this lightly. The greatest threat to our whole democracy — our institutions, our values — is in the White House.”

Almost all the candidates have Hollywood-caliber videos on their campaign websites. Flynn’s opens with grainy images of Tom Brokaw reporting on the explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland, that claimed his brother’s life. Flynn explains how the tragedy inspired a life of activism in the areas of terrorism, education, health care and the environment.

“You look for meaning; why would someone kill my big brother?” he says, gazing into the camera. “And I heard my brother talking to me and saying, ‘All right, now you’re living for two of us.'”

While some voters appeared frustrated by the imperative to pull only one lever on primary day, others said the selection was energizing.

“I don’t find it overwhelming,” said Johannes Sayre, of Kingston, who works in information technology. “I’m happy there’s so much choice. It’s phenomenal. I believe we’ll pick a good candidate and we’ll get ourselves a seat for the Democratic side.”