I’ll be happy to provide them in the following, albeit at the end. You’re welcomed to skip to them but I hope that you will consider engaging in what I regard as a more important conversation than who we pull the lever for on June 26: how one should negotiate this and other biennial and quadrennial “electoral extravaganzas”, as Chomsky refers to them.
As will be obvious to those in the area, the marquee race is for the NY 19 congressional district seat, though I’ll suggest later that, as is the case for much of what receives the most hype, we should probably be paying less attention to it than we are. Given the barrage of payed and unpayed publicity the race has received, most of us know by now that there are seven declared candidates, Antonio Degado Jeff Beals, Dave Clegg, Gareth Rhodes, Pat Ryan, Brian Flynn and newcomer Erin Collier.
Those of us who have been around for a while also know that this has been a solidly Republican region, with Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand managing to claim the seat in 2006. In the special election following her promotion to the senate, the seat reverted to its normal coloration and has stayed red since.
NY 19: Is it For Sale?
As these victories have been achieved by small margins, the Democrats have seen NY 19 as a potential win and have worked to retake it. In general, they have attempted to do so by deploying the same strategy they have applied elsewhere: fielding centrist candidates who could appeal to moderate Republican swing voters. (Zephyr Teachout’s unapologetically progressive campaign in 2016, it should be mentioned, was an exception).
Given this electoral conventional wisdom it stands to reason that most of the field competing in NY 19 is drawn from the corporate centrist wing of the party. And it is as a result of the presence of mostly corporate friendly candidates that one of the more morbidly striking aspects of the campaign has materialized: an astounding $8 million flooding into the district, most of these large contributions from the usual sources in major investment houses and Wall Street banks, hedgefunds and well heeled individuals.
The frontrunner in competing for these resources is Antonio Delgado, a smooth Harvard educated lawyer employed at the white shoe law and lobbying firm Akin, Gump. Next in line is Bryan Flynn, a somewhat shady corporate executive with with ties to the Kennedy dynasty through his business partner, Kennedy spouse Edwin Scholssberg, though also to blue collar unions through his great uncle, legendary Transit Union head, Mike Quill. The high tech sector has its preferred candidate in Pat Ryan, whose internet surveillance firm was the subject of an unflattering Intercept piece by Lee Fang, as I discussed here. A fourth, Gareth Rhodes, is a former aid to Governor Andrew Cuomo whose insider connections appear to be paying dividends in the form of endorsements from union locals and from certain elected office holders.
Given these funding sources, it is predictable that the mainstream candidates are somewhat reticent to take strong stands on policies which would impact the income and wealth of the 1%. But this is 2018, and they recognize that the growing influence of the populist wing of the party requires at least lip service to progressive ideals. Splitting the difference means rhetorical gestures in the direction of progressivity while shying away from any specific existing proposals which are on the agenda to achieve redistributive ends. This means, in practice, actively ignoring legislation which Bernie Sanders is advancing in Congress. To take one example, while all mainstream candidates make vague allusions to achieving “universal health care” none strongly commits to supporting HR 676 Medicare for All.(1) While all support “increased wages”, some even endorsing a $15 minimum wage, none will commit to signing onto Sanders specific proposal to realize it. While all deplore high educational costs, none proposes free college tuition at state universities, in line with Sanders highly popular proposal.
These rhetorical gestures aside, the mainstream candidates are following the longstanding establishment Democratic playbook, expecting to claim the seat by effacing their differences with the Republicans. Their efforts along these lines include repeated reference to necessity for a strong defense, cutting “red tape”, “rewarding investment” and “grow(ing) our economy.” Where they part company from the Republicans is on certain hot button issues where they believe Faso is vulnerable, most notably Faso’s servile relationship to the NRA and his unconscionable vote to repeal the ACA.
Will Triangulation Work? The Evidence Says No
That said, there is good reason to question whether the Democrats well worn triangulatory strategy will succeed in NY 19 in 2018. In particular, there is growing evidence that Democratic victories in districts which went for Trump require not compromise but conflict in the form of directly challenging core Republican tenets, particularly on bread and butter economic issues.
Of course, not everyone will accept this electoral logic. Those that do will regard two candidates as offering the best hope for defeating Faso.
The first of these is Jeff Beals who has directly appealed to the Sanders demographic partly basing his campaign on endorsements from the Sanders successor organizations People for Bernie and Justice Democrats. These make sense in that Beals is the only candidate to have voted for Sanders and to reference by name key Sanders initiaitves including Medicare for All. On the stump, Beals has shown himself to be the most willing and able to discuss the elephant in the room which Sanders identified: corporate criminality and the corrosive effects of money in politics, tying these, with complete justification, to his competitors in the NY 19 race.
The second candidate representing an alternative to the establishment corporate candidates is Dave Clegg. While less forthrightly aligning with Sanders program in his public statements, Clegg’s 35 year connection to social justice, anti-poverty and peace movements in the Hudson Valley provide a basis for confidence that he would be a reliable vote for a progressive agenda in Washington should one materialize with a Sanders victory in 2020. It’s worth digressing here to note that there is reason to have reservations as to whether the establishment candidates would do the same. In fact, not to be too glib about it, there are eight million reasons. With Beals and Clegg, their comparative lack of big money donors are the strongest arguments for their campaigns which is why I will likely cast my vote for either Beals or Clegg, with a slight preference for the former.
Clegg or Beals: An Uninspiring Choice
Both of these candidates meet the minimal requirement for candidates seeking progressive support in the primary. But it should be apparent that neither is close to ideal. This should not be seen as a criticism of them but rather as a criticism of ourselves–specifically, our failure to recruit and develop candidates who are effective and faithful advocates of a left agenda. What we need to do to address this problem I will return to later. For the moment, it needs to be conceded that certain pronounced shortcomings make it difficult to be enthusiastic about either candidate.
With respect to Beals there is the issue of his past service as what he euphemistically refers to as “a diplomat” in the employ the CIA. Some on the left would use less a polite term: spook. While Beals has argued that in his functioning within the Coalition Provisional Authority, he was facilitating a transition to peace, those of us who were on the streets opposing it will see it as collaboration with the war crime which was the military occupation of Iraq. During the prior administration, served as, in his words, “an intelligence analyst at the CIA writing for President Clinton’s Daily Brief.” working “to promote an informed policy grounded in an understanding of the (Middle East) and its history.” Skeptical observers will recall these briefings as taking place during Clinton’s disastrous sanctions regime described by U.N. Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday as amounting to “genocide” in killing close to a million Iraqi children. If Beals had any objection to those policies then or now, he has yet to register them.
None of this is to suggest that his conversion to an anti interventionist agenda is insincere, but if so, it is of recent vintage. The same goes for his support the Sanders campaign: while there is no reason to doubt his claim that he voted for Sanders in the primary, records show that he made no financial contribution to the Sanders campaign or other progressive candidacies during the 2016 election cycle. If he actively participated, this would come as news to those who organized for Sanders on Beals’ side of the river. These matters, to be fair, will probably not lose many votes within the NY 19 constituency. What will sound a more sour note than Beals’ airbrushing of his resumé are his invocations of having grown up on a farm in Woodstock. In fact, Beals grew up in not in the relatively hardscrabble Putnam County but in the most affluent of Westchester suburbs, Scarsdale where the median family income is a staggering $291,542. Yes, his family owned property in the Hudson Valley, as many affluent families do. But to portray his relationship to it as anything like that of his constituents rings hollow and will be seized on by Faso and the well oiled smear machine in the Republican Party. It is easy to imagine the attack ads and to cringe in pre-emptive anticipation at how devastating they will be.
Insofar as insincerity will become an issue for Beals, the problem would seem to be the opposite for Clegg whose Methodist deacon earnestness plays out in practice as reluctance to draw strong distinctions between his policies and those of his opponents. This can lead one to question why he is running at all, as it did for me. Not long after he announced his candidacy, I was prepared to support him fully having heard that local activists had encouraged him to throw his hat into the ring. After hearing him introduce his candidacy on three subsequent occasions, it became painfully clear from his aimless presentation of an unfocussed agenda that, as an activist friend noted, his candidacy was “not ready for prime time”. Just as Beals will make easy pickings for Faso, there is reason to fear Clegg being humiliated in public debates with Faso who is, if nothing else, a formidably polished deliverer of well honed right wing talking points.
Moving Past NY 19
The conclusion, then, is that while I will cast a vote in the race, I’ve largely avoided it over the past couple of months. My interest in the candidates is mostly based on the awareness that who we support in November will be the same candidate we will need to defeat in 2022 to enable the Sanders administration agenda to get through congress.
That, at least, is the optimistic scenario.
What all this means is that the likely outcome of the NY 19 race will be familiar: a more or less conventional neoliberal Democrat will defeat the progressive candidates-probably by a wide margin. Those of us on the left will vote for him (and it will be a him, alas) on the usual lesser evil grounds, hopefully as part of a Democratic wave. But, should that emerge, the purse strings which facilitated their victories will ensure that it will be a disappointment previous blue waves have been. Just as 2008 resulted in an anemic stimulus, a failure to take on Wall Street criminality, bloated defense budgets and minimal efforts to restore social welfare safety net after generations of cuts, so will a neoliberal Democratic majority in 2018 mean nothing more than a curb to the worst excesses of Trumpism.
Having said that that I’m a bit concerned that the above will come across as depressing-as an admission of defeat or despair. It shouldn’t. Rather it is an argument for the point made at the beginning that NY 19 has become a distraction from where we should be directing our attention.
The Good News: A Renewed Working Families Party
What the hoopla surrounding NY 19 should not obscure are far more exciting and interesting down ballot races. These include three state level campaigns of candidates endorsed by the now politically vibrant (if financially strapped and organizationally weakened) Working Families Party.
Most notable among these is that of Sex in the City actor Cynthia Nixon who is currently giving our iconic neoliberal Governor Cuomo fits by exposing his most cynical shenanigans. Many prospective voters now know thanks to Nixon the nature of Cuomo’s shell game in enabling the Independent Democrat caucus to prevent to the enactment of a progressive state wide agenda. This agenda is, needless to say, opposed by Cuomo’s big money donors and, secretly, by Cuomo himself. The arrangement allows the governor to posture as a progressive while working behind the scenes to make sure there is no progress on key issues. No candidate has revealed the corruption at the heart of NY State Democratic Party machine. And Nixon’s salvos have drawn hit home, forcing the Governor into a series of embarrassing gaffes and lame, tone deaf rejoinders from his surrogates. It is not clear to me that she can win, but voting for her and for her WFP running mate, Lieutenant Governor candidate Jumaane Williams is an obligation.
Also running on the WFP line is 2016 NY 19 candidate Zephyr Teachout this time for New York Attorney General, a position for which she is eminently quaified. The prospect of the string of indictments which will immediately materialize should she take office should elicit fist pumps from anyone wanting to bring some semblance of decency back to state politics. She will be competing against Tish James, a former liberal great hope from Brooklyn who cut her ties with her initial sponsor Working Family’s Line in exchange for the Governor’s endorsement. It remains to be seen if enough voters are sufficiently informed to be repelled by this exercise in political opportunism to break with a party line endorsement.
Finally, last but not least-and arguably most important to think about moving forward is a little noticed regional race, the candidacy of Rhinebeck county representative Joel Tyner for State Senate. Tyner, as those who know his work are aware, is a the kind of deeply principled, pragmatic and committed office holder which would be common if we had a functional progressive politics. Unfortunately, he is almost unique in Dutchess County fighting a lonely battle against centrist neoliberals in both parties who have made strenuous efforts to marginalize him over the years.
Due to the absence of the kind of regional organization necessary to support his run, Tyner was forced to suspend his campaign leaving the field to the machine supported candidate, a former marketing executive and the scion of a Poughkeepsie contruction firm named Karen Smythe. (Smythe is then likely to lose to the incumbent, Republican Sue Serino.)
The conclusion to this discussion is, to draw a lesson. Candidates we want to vote for won’t spontaneously generate themselves-we will need to recruit them, help them develop their agenda, run them in races where they are competitive, and encourage them to move up the electoral ladder from local, to county, to state and eventually to federal office. Had Tyner or another progressive successfully claimed a state senate seat, he would have an existing constituency ensuring at least a competitive run for congress, and there would be no question of who we would support in NY 19.
While a victory would by no means be certain, we would be sure of having a competent, principled and competitive candidate.
The kind of organization we need to bring this about, a left/progressive complement to the Dutchess County and Red Hook Democrat machine doesn’t, to my knowledge exist. Or if it does, not in a sufficiently visible form.
It is time to get to work on establishing it now.
If anyone is interested in working to make it happen, I’m all ears, and I’m ready to get to work.
(1) Update 1/13/18: As noted in this excellent piece by William Dendis, only the two non-corporate candidates, Clegg and Beals, and. to his credit, Gareth Rhodes have committed to support HR 676. Vague commitments supporting “universal health care” or other legislation not before the house (e.g. the senate bill S. 1804) should viewed with suspicion, particular from candidates accepting millions of dollars from the corporate sector.