Amenia, N.Y. — It may not be in Massachusetts, but it’s a congressional race that is being watched closely in Berkshire County. After all, the election of President Donald Trump has inspired progressives everywhere to work to elect like-minded people to join the resistance movement to Trump’s rhetoric and policies.
But there are few Republicans to speak of in the Bay State beyond Gov. Charlie Baker, who has distanced himself from Trump and is seen as Democrat-lite by many observers.
So progressive activists in Berkshire County have turned their sights westward to New York’s 19th Congressional District, known in the political vernacular as NY-19, which borders the county and is a true swing district.
The sprawling NY-19 stretches from the Massachusetts border westward across the Catskill Mountains, northward almost to the Adirondacks and southward to the Putnam County border. It includes 163 municipalities and, geographically, it’s about the size of Connecticut, with which it shares a border on its southeastern edge of some 20 miles.
That means it’s an expensive district in which to campaign. Not only do candidates have to engage in extensive travel to gain exposure, but there are four television markets in which to advertise: New York City, Albany, Binghamton and Utica.
But the fightin’ 19th has a checkered history. Though its boundaries have shifted in recent years, NY-19 has been represented by a mix of Democrats and Republicans over the decades. The district voted for George W. Bush twice, Barack Obama twice, and last November it gave Donald Trump a victory of almost seven points.
The district is currently represented by Rep. John Faso, a first-term Republican from the Columbia County town of Kinderhook, about 25 miles northwest of Great Barrington. Only seven years ago, the district was represented in Washington by Democrat John Hall, the rock star and founding member of the band Orleans.
In other words, depending on which side of the fence you sit, NY-19 vacillates between horror and delight. Or, if you’re someone who eschews party labels, as yours truly does, NY-19 is a refreshing anomaly in a gerrymandered nation that does a better job of protecting incumbent members of Congress than its own schoolchildren.
At any rate, Berkshire County Democrats have taken an interest in this out-of-state race at a level that exceeds anything in recent memory. On its Facebook page, the Great Barrington-based Green Tea Party echoes the sentiments of many of Faso’s antagonists, branding him “a Breitbart-backed, Ryan/Trump-line voting nightmare of self-interest and constituent betrayal.”
And what better way for a Berkshire County journalist to cover NY-19 than to meet some of the six men running, in the words of one of them, “to repeal and replace John Faso?” And that’s precisely what happened on Saturday (Feb. 17) at Town Hall in Amenia, New York, a hardscrabble town in Dutchess County for which prosperity has proved elusive compared to its neighbors, despite a sprawling and popular Metro North commuter rail station in the southern end of town.
Only four of the six office seekers made an appearance at the forum sponsored by the Amenia Democratic Committee and its chairperson, retired high school social studies teacher Janet Reagon. The two frontrunners–at least in terms of fundraising–are Rhinebeck attorney Antonio Delgado and activist Brian Flynn, who lives across the Hudson River in Greene County.
See video below of Antonio Delgado laying out his platform:
And see video below of Delgado answering questions:
Flynn, an activist and small-business owner–and a progressive who styles himself after Bernie Sanders–led the race in money raised thanks to a $500,000 loan he made to his own campaign. Meanwhile, Delgado, who grew up in Schenectady, seems to have pulled ahead.
See video below of Brian Flynn’s speech and his answers to questions from the audience:
And there is Gareth Rhodes, whose roots in the district run deep and who can probably lay the best claim to being the “local boy” among the candidates. Click here to read an Edge profile on Rhodes, a former communications staffer for Gov. Andrew Cuomo who has set out to visit all of NY-19’s 163 municipalities–he calls it the “Rhodes Trip”–in his vintage Winnebago.
And there is Kingston native Patrick Ryan, a West Point graduate who served as an Army intelligence officer during two combat tours in Iraq. Ryan later started a small technology firm that provides data analytics software to the military.
See video below of Patrick Ryan’s speech and his answers to questions from the audience:
While the candidates refrained from attacking one another, they all had strong words for Faso and his past as a lobbyist. Here’s a sampling from Delgado: “They [Washington politicians] are bought and paid for. There is literally no better example than our current congressman. He is an empty suit bought and paid for by the Mercer family.”
All were critical of Faso’s votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which, they say, would have resulted in billions of cuts in Medicaid for New York state alone. Some seized the moment, in the wake of the deadly mass shooting in a Florida school, to suggest that Faso was out of touch with his constituents on gun control. Faso, for example, voted for a measure last year that repealed a rule restricting gun sales to severely mentally ill persons, Beales charged in a campaign video earlier this month.
In addition, Faso supported a concealed carry bill last year and boasts on his website that he has received a “lifetime ‘A’ rating” from the National Rifle Association. Indeed, a quick check reveals that, during his brief congressional career, Faso has taken in just shy of $50,000 from the NRA in direct and independent support, according to OpenSecrets.org.
“Enough is enough on gun violence,” said Flynn, who suggested his background in the military would give him the standing to tackle the issue. However, it is not on the list of five campaign priorities on his website.
All the Democratic candidates have to tread carefully here. Donald Trump carried the district in 2016 by seven points. NY-19 includes the Catskills and many other rural areas. A large percentage of voters own firearms and are active hunters, so it is not clear precisely how out of touch Faso is with his constituents.
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who represented part of the current NY-19 before the boundaries were redrawn, boasted when she was a congresswoman that she, too, had a lifetime A rating from the NRA and that she and her husband kept rifles under their beds. After being elected to the Senate in 2010, she flip-flopped on her pro-gun positions and her NRA rating quickly plummeted to an F.
After listening to 90 minutes of Faso bashing, the Edge reached out to Faso’s campaign office for comment. To our surprise, the congressman called back and, in a brief interview, was eager to defend his record.
Faso was quick to dispel the notion that he is a puppet for the family of wealthy hedge fund owner Robert Mercer, who, with his daughter Rebekah, has given millions to conservatives causes, in part through Reclaim New York, which was the subject of a controversial report in the Edge last summer.
“Bob Mercer is a donor of mine but within the limits,” Faso said. “In my last race, we raised over $3 million and Mercer and his wife each donated $10,000 to me out of $3 million.”
Meanwhile his opponent, Democrat Zephyr Teachout, spent $5 million and still lost by seven points, despite receiving the endorsement of every prominent Democrat and labor union in the state. Then-President Barack Obama also endorsed Teachout. Ironically, Obama won NY-19 in 2012 by seven points, the same margin Trump won the district by four years later.
“I’m viewed as one of the more bipartisan members of the House,” Faso insisted.
As for his votes to repeal Obamacare, Faso said it was complicated because “The ACA, while it certainly helped many people, also hurt many other people. Politifact, no right-wing organization, labeled ‘If you like your health care plan, you can keep it’ the lie of the year.”
The ACA mandated that all businesses with 50 full-time employees or more provide health insurance to the employees. Faso says he has heard from small-business owners who “continue to complain about it.”
“I’ve had many employers tell me they had reduced their employees to lower than 50 or reduced full-time to part-time,” said Faso, who wants to increase the mandate from 50 to 500 employees.
However, Faso voted against the recently passed Republican tax bill “mainly because of limitations on state and local tax deductibility.” The law caps the federal deductibility of state and local taxes at $10,000 per year and hits hardest those who live in high-tax states like Massachusetts and New York.
As for his position on gun control, Faso said the mass killing in Florida points out “the need to ensure that those who should not have a firearm, such as the Florida shooter, are not able to purchase one.”
“We know that the FBI and local sheriff’s office both received numerous reports of the shooter’s instability and violent behavior,” Faso said. “Despite those warnings, nothing was done. It is abundantly clear that the school shooter should have been ineligible to purchase an AR-15 or any other sort of firearm.”
Faso is convinced, however, that both Congress and state legislatures “need to create better systems so that background checks are done correctly and that there is accountability when failures occur.”
“We should also consider raising the age for purchase of semi-automatic firearms to age 21 as well as other measures to better protect schools and other potentially vulnerable locations,” Faso continued.
Meanwhile, back in Berkshire County, Holly Morse of Swing Left and the Green Tea Party of Great Barrington told the Edge that “While some NY-19 indivisible groups have gone through the steps to endorse a candidate in advance of the primary, the GTP has decided not to.”
Morse says Swing Left has been actively canvassing voters in nearby communities in Faso’s district such as Hudson, Chatham and New Lebanon in Columbia County.
“We recently hosted a successful Voter to Voter Letter Writing party, have been phone banking from home, and will continue to do so,” Morse said. “We are keeping our fingers on the pulse and are very excited to be supporting the unprecedented activism in NY-19 that is going to sink Faso.”
Great Barrington Democratic Town Committee Chairman Michael Wise echoed Morse’s sentiments about endorsing a candidate from another district–or another state, for that matter.
“Not sure we will ever will take sides since it would be a bit cheeky of us to tell them who to vote for,” Wise said. “The most important thing is to find someone who can win in that district.” The only candidate Wise has heard from directly is Delgado.
Morse says Swing Left/GTP’s next meeting is Saturday, March 10, at a candidate forum in Hillsdale. There will likely be many people there from Berkshire County.
Meanwhile, Faso sounded confident about his chances for re-election, having won his race handily two years ago.
“I think 2016 is a good barometer of my support this year,” he surmised.