Catskill, N.Y. — So far it seems that the Trump resistance movement in New York and New England has placed an emphasis on “resist.” But Gareth Rhodes, a 29-year-old upstart congressional candidate in New York’s 19th District, has added a few syllables to the progression.
“Resist, replace, rebuild. That is what my campaign is all about,” Democrat Rhodes told the few dozen or so potential supporters who turned out last Tuesday (Nov. 28) at the trendy Hi Lo, a bar, cafe and performance space in the resurgent village of Catskill.
In many ways, it’s the perfect setting for Rhodes to campaign in. Catskill is a gritty slice of the Hudson Valley across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge from the city of Hudson. It’s seen something of a renaissance recently with the reuse of an abandoned mill and furniture store that now houses dozens of artisans practicing their crafts.
“We’ve got to resist what’s coming out of Washington,” Rhodes said, referring to the administration of President Trump and the Republicans in Congress. “I’m all about getting things done and working together but when you see those policies which have no rhyme or reason but to get rid of the good work that President Obama did, then we have to resist that and replace every member of Congress who’s going along with this destructive agenda and then we have to rebuild.”
Rhodes, who exudes the boyish charm one would expect from a guy who grew up on a Bruderhof farm in Ulster County and eventually found his way to Harvard Law School, saves his best shots for the man he wants to replace: first-term Republican Rep. John Faso.
“It’s wrong to take away that tax credit for teachers,” he said of a provision in the Republican tax bill. “It is wrong to completely gut the EPA. But what makes it so much more painful is our member of Congress, John Faso, has been leading the charge.”
A few days after the Hi Lo event in Catskill, the Republican tax bill passed the Senate and Rhodes sent out a blistering press release about how Faso, a member of the House of Representatives, “jammed a devastating tax bill through the Senate, robbing working and middle-class Americans in order to slash taxes for massive corporations, millionaires, and billionaires.” For his part, Faso had announced in a Nov. 15 press release that he “would not support the tax reform proposal in its current form.”
The race to retake New York’s 19th Congressional District, known in the political vernacular as NY-19, has attracted widespread attention among members of the Trump resistance movement in Berkshire County, where, with the exception of moderate Gov. Charlie Baker, there are few Republican office holders to speak of.
There are no Republican members of Congress in Vermont or Connecticut, either, so members of the Berkshire County resistance who want to get involved are looking westward. Some, including Holly Morse of Swing Left and the Green Tea Party of Great Barrington, have turned their sights to the freshman Republican congressman Faso, who is seen as supportive of the Trump agenda – he voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, for example – and therefore vulnerable to defeat next year, when he will presumably run for re-election.
“We’re looking for every flippable district to join our revolution,” Great Barrington Democratic Town Committee Chairman Michael Wise said in March. “What can we do now? … We’re in a reliably blue state in a deeply blue part of that state.”
On its Facebook page, the 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.”
Earlier this year, Rhodes said Faso’s past support of efforts that would effectively repeal part of Obamacare, was one of the things that motivated him to get in the race and announce that “It’s time to repeal and replace John Faso.”
In an Edge interview, Rhodes was also critical of Faso’s three-year stint as a lobbyist for an energy company that was attempting to build a natural gas pipeline into the state from Pennsylvania. The project was ultimately blocked by the state Senate.
The sprawling 19th District stretches from the Massachusetts border westward across the Catskill Mountains and northward almost to the Adirondacks. 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 has proved to be a logistical challenge for the candidate, who has undertaken what he calls a “Rhodes Trip.” The idea is to motor around the district in an RV – a sort of portable campaign headquarters – and visit every town, city and village in the district from Rensselaer County to Oneonta and everything in between.
Rhodes told the Edge that his deep roots in the 19th–he was born in the district and raised on a farm in Esopus on the banks of the Wallkill River–will enable him to succeed where other Democrats have failed.
“The criticism of Democratic candidates in past cycles is they haven’t been from the area and don’t have the kind of local roots you need to succeed,” Rhodes the Edge. “I’m really the opposite of that.”
The most recent example Rhodes pointed to was Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout, who had only recently moved to the district from Brooklyn and whom Faso trounced by nine points last year in the race for the open seat.
Still, the district poses challenges for any Democrat, even a local guy with agricultural roots who once ran a well-drilling business. It is very much a swing district whose voters cannot be counted on to consistently favor one party over another.
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.
So in attacking Trump, Rhodes is banking on national polls that show the president’s popularity eroding among the more moderate Republicans typical of the 19th and the state of New York in general.
On gun control, sometimes a deal breaker for conservative Republicans when they ponder supporting a Democrat, Rhodes says he believes in the Second Amendment but also in “common-sense gun safety.”
“I grew up on a farm,” he said. “We had guns.”
When pressed, Rhodes offered a mainstream position and acknowledged that he believes the Second Amendment protects the rights of individuals to own firearms, though not every kind of firearm.
Rhodes said he has seen firsthand how climate change has affected the district’s agricultural community and how, when he worked as a communications staffer for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, farms and towns were devastated in 2011 by flooding during Hurricane Irene.
“I believe climate change has an incredible impact on our community,” Rhodes said. “A lot of these communities really came back in a strong way, but there is much more to be done.”
Rhodes pointed to economic development efforts that were facilitated by a change in state liquor laws during the Cuomo administration, in which he served as a traveling press secretary. Previously, he said, “You couldn’t produce beer and consume it under the same roof.”
“We passed a law saying you could do both and now everywhere you go there are restaurants brewing their own beer,” Rhodes continued, pointing to breweries in Chatham and Catskill as examples. “Across the entire district, you can see these new distilleries, breweries and wineries cropping up everywhere using New York state grain and grapes.”
Like most Democrats, Rhodes has been critical of the Trump administration’s oppositional stance toward immigration. But Rhodes told the Edge he thinks the issue will play to his advantage, even among Republicans in the largely rural and agricultural NY-19:
“Seasonal labor is the backbone of seasonal farming. In certain months of the year it’s a necessity. If you can’t get it, it’s a big, big problem. This year we had a lot of farmers who had a very hard time because lots of folks who had been coming here for years didn’t want to come — people who had visas but didn’t want to come because maybe you got a traffic ticket back in the ’90s. They were scared that they were going be caught up in some sort of roundup.”
In response to a question from Hi Lo patron Pat Ruck regarding his electability, Rhodes emphasized his roots and said he will very much make the NY-19 election a referendum on Trump and he will attempt to tie Faso to the Trump agenda.
“I believe he is a moral outrage to this country,” Rhodes said of Trump. “He is unhinged … It takes a long time build a house but a few seconds to destroy it.” The demolition imagery was a reference to Trump’s abandonment of the Paris climate accord and his budget cuts at the EPA.
But he will also emphasize personal contact with voters. He has that easy rapport borne of a native and of a contractor who has helped people out in a time of distress:
“Well drilling is a very trust-driven business because you bill someone based on how deep you drill per foot. You don’t know if that well’s going to be 60 feet or 300 feet. There’s almost no way of knowing.”
After graduating from Kingston High School, Rhodes not only drilled wells but was a volunteer firefighter in nearby Marlboro where he also worked in a deli on the weekends to earn extra money.
Deciding he wanted to pursue higher education, Rhodes landed at CUNY City College and paid for the tuition with a combination of Pell Grants and loans. Then he went to work for Cuomo and eventually wound up at Harvard Law School, from which he is currently on leave in order to concentrate on his congressional campaign.
“I’m absolutely interested in hearing what he has to say,” said Vincent Seeley, the mayor of the village of Catskill. “We’ve had two other candidates come in here too. There’s so many to choose from this time around and they’ve all come here [the Hi Lo].”
Seeley, a Republican who often runs on the Democratic Party line, is a health care executive and a former Greene County legislator. He said party labels mean little in small towns, in contrast to his time as a county legislator when Democrats “wouldn’t even ride the elevator with me. That’s how bad it was.”
“When it comes down to it, I just want what’s best for the village, so if [Rhodes] becomes the next guy, I want an in, so that the stuff I need I can go see him about and he says, ‘Hey I remember you,'” Seeley explained. “I tell people this game is not that complicated.”
There are five other remaining Democratic candidates vying to replace Faso: Antonio Delgado, Brian Flynn, Patrick Ryan, David Clegg and Jeffrey Beals. Delgado is leading in the fundraising race, having raised more than $1 million through the end of September since he started early this year.
Rhodes said he had raised approximately $400,000 and, among the six candidates, an independent analysis indicated Rhodes has the highest proportion of small-dollar donations ($200 and below) as well as the highest proportion of money raised in-state. The office seekers will face each other in a primary in June.
See Edge video below of Rhodes giving a speech at the Hi Lo. Please excuse the semi-darkness. The Hi Lo is a charming place but the light is “Lo.”
The candidates held a forum on Friday night (Dec. 1) in Olin Hall at Bard College in Annandale. See the video below of that forum courtesy of Indivisible The Fight is On: