(The third in a series of diaries from the oddest congressional race in America)
Friday, June 8th, Kinderhook, New York. Dave Clegg, the Woodstock-based trial lawyer who’s running for the seat in New York’s 19th district, tells a story about going to Washington for a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee training session on how to run for congress.
“Nancy Pelosi comes in,” he remembers. “A bunch of congressmen come in and tell their stories: ‘This is how I did it. I would get on the phone and do it eight hours a day, call people, and this is how I made it fun.'”
Clegg’s DCCC experience sounds like someone rushing a frat and figuring out halfway through the process that he’s already been rejected. The attorney had worked in the district for 37 years, and had a long record of fighting for social justice causes, but quickly realized he wasn’t the DCCC’s type.
“I sound good in terms of my background and everything,” he says. “But [they ask], ‘Who’s behind you, who’s supporting you?'” Or: “Who’s your godmother or godfather?”
Clegg, a literal Boy Scout – the one criticism I’ve heard of him is that he’s not mean enough for politics – says the message he received in Washington was loud and clear.
“Get in a room, get as much money as you can. That’s how you run a congressional election,” he says, recounting the DCCC’s advice. “The best time you have is spending seven, eight, ten hours a day making phone calls to get money.”
That wasn’t the party’s only message, of course.
Clegg says they talked about “how Democrats need to get a new way of communicating with the working class people.”
How they were supposed to find that working class message while spending all day fundraising was less clear, but, in Clegg’s telling, it was at least a party priority.
Kinderhook is home to one of the local offices of boorish cookie-cutter incumbent Republican congressman John Faso, who, among other things, is notorious for having a PAC supported by the Mercer family. “Faso Fridays,” protesting the Republican’s tenure, have turned into regular gatherings for local progressives.
The 64-year-old Clegg, who has been on a three-day, 200-mile bicycle trip en route to this particular campaign stop (he began in Cooperstown and has 40 more miles to go), addresses the crowd in shorts and a yellow cycling jersey, his forehead sweating.
He speaks briefly, talking about problems small farmers in the district have had. He blasts Faso for supporting the 2018 Farm Bill, which cuts some subsidies for small and organic farmers, but also includes a loophole that would make it easier for wealthy companies to receive other subsidies.
“The farm bill is something that is just an example of how the corporate powers that be are taking our tax money,” Clegg says, to applause. “We have to change that.”
If the Democrats were looking for a crossover candidate to push a working-class message in a lost district like New York’s 19th – one of many around the country that switched from Obama to Trump – Clegg would seem superficially to make sense.
He has extensive local ties and doesn’t need to be taught the working-class message they claim to be looking for. Hell, he’s even religious.
But Clegg didn’t get to pledge the DCCC frat, and the reason is obvious: funding. If you don’t come in the door with your pockets full, your only other way in, almost regardless of policy or background, is to prove you can bring in ass-loads of outside cash.
“That’s what they tell you – that you need money to win, that it’s all about the money,” Clegg says.
Fellow 19th candidate Brian Flynn tells the same story about the DCCC seminar that Clegg does, but with a twist. He says he was advised to keep dialing for dollars even if he had enough money already.
“I said, ‘I got a question for ya,” he recalls. “Let’s say I got a million, million-and-a-half bucks. I think that’s enough to win the primary. What should I do with my time?”
The answer, he says he was told, was to keep on the phones. “They said, ‘You should definitely do more call time. There’s never enough money.'”
Flynn, by all accounts, is campaigning hard throughout the district and not relying on ad buys. Along with Akin Gump attorney Antonio Delgado and cyber surveillance contractor Pat Ryan, the former Citibank executive is one of the three most heavily funded candidates, but seems to be trying to run to the left of the other two. Among other things, he is the only one of the three claiming to support Medicare-for-all (though he has said he won’t vote for the current House version).
But Flynn recently stepped in a cow-pile of viral-meme proportions, ripped by national conservative media for denouncing the wealth gap while wearing a $9,000 Rolex.
The National Republican Campaign Committee even highlighted a Flynn mailer showing him saying, “Billionaires and corporations have rigged the system against us” while standing in standard rolled-sleeves-and-folded-arms serious-pol pose. The watch is so prominently displayed, it looks like a product-placement centerfold. “Nice bling!” the NRCC cracked.
That, and a 2011 essay he wrote for CNN decrying the ineffectiveness of the Occupy Movement – he described the protesters as angry children gobbling up “free cookies” while failing to grasp that “Wall Street employees are not to blame for our financial problems” – will make it deservedly tough for Flynn to play the populist card going forward. The watch alone has Daily Show-level crossover punch line potential.
The logic behind the all-fundraising, all-the-time model of campaigning is that, particularly in geographically large districts, mass-media messaging and paid door-knockers are the only ways to hit the requisite number of eyeballs.
Ads and paid canvassers cost money, and big business is the only real source of it. Also, the reasoning goes, if you don’t take that money, the Republicans surely will.
Call it the rule of Walter Mondale, whose landslide loss to Reagan in 1984 caused the Democrats to abandon the party’s financial dependence on labor unions and seek literally greener fundraising pastures: Whatever money you don’t accept becomes an advantage for the other side.
The post-Mondale funding influx helped the party rebound and elect candidates like Bill Clinton. But it also pushed the party into policies like NAFTA, welfare reform and financial and environmental deregulation that put it in direct conflict with its natural constituents. Those contradictions are showing today.
The fundraising model comes with another cost. As boxing writers say, styles make fights. As more money is raised, campaigns drift into familiar patterns.
Front-runners hit the streets less, but pop up in mailers or on the airwaves more. Positions become more vague. As politicians become more seen, they become less accessible.
This pattern is one reason Democrats lost so much ground – as many as 1,000 seats nationally – during the Obama years. The losing candidate who de-emphasizes the trail but shows up for fundraisers has become a dependable cliché of recent party lore.
Another is the increasingly exclusive bent of the DNC-DCCC priesthood. Instead of using primaries as forums to explore new ideas and ideologies, the party keeps tightening the rules of entry.
On that same Friday, June 8th, when Clegg gave his speech in Kinderhook, the DNC made a change to its bylaws.
The change said all Democratic presidential candidates must be members of the Democratic Party, pledge to accept the party’s nomination if chosen and also promise to “run and serve” as a party member.
This was pitched in the media as a shot at Bernie Sanders. But it was really about changes in the political landscape extending beyond the socialist bogeyman.
In the last few years, the bureaucracies of both the Republican and Democratic parties have seen serious challenges to their authority.
Republicans were rocked first by the Tea Party, then by the Trump campaign, which from the start was aimed as much at the “bloodsucker” Republican establishment as it was at Democrats. Trump mocked the $100 million spent on “bottom of pack” Jeb Bush, then beat Clinton despite being outspent 2-1 and having, at various points, five or six times fewer paid staffers.
Democrats are suddenly also dealing with internal challenges from candidates who are pointing fingers at the party’s traditional funding sources. The 2016 Sanders run was just the loudest.
In New York, actress Cynthia Nixon is challenging incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo, whom she has bashed as an “establishment” gobbler of corporate money. (Cuomo has raised over $30 million, mostly from large donors.)
Nixon’s rhetoric sounds a lot like that of Clegg or fellow candidate Jeff Beals, aimed at the question of corporate support.
“It’s not just about getting more Democrats in office, but about getting better Democrats,” Nixon said in a speech this campaign season. “Ones accountable to voters, not corporate donors.”
Nixon’s run prompted the Working Families Party, which historically backs the Democratic line, to dump Cuomo and endorse her. This follows a trend of alternative political organizations moving out of the fringes and becoming legitimate challengers within the Democratic orbit.
All over the country, races are being influenced by groups like Working Families, the Democratic Socialists of America, the Justice Democrats and Our Revolution, which has successfully backed a number of LGBTQ candidates and women of color.
The victories are not huge in number. Still, these groups have unseated a few traditional party favorites.
These include last month’s congressional primary win of single-payer advocate Kara Eastman (who defeated DCCC favorite Brad Ashford), the primary win of Idaho gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan (in line to become the first Native American governor), and the primary wins of two Democratic Socialists in Pennsylvania state house races.
A lot of these races have been inaccurately described as being all about Sanders. Frankly, the run of Sanders himself was inaccurately described as being all about Sanders. The national media is so used to focusing on personalities that it often fails to see that movements can precede politicians.
The real story, for years now, has been an erosion of support for the political system in general.
Disillusionment allowed Trump to steamroll Republican opponents and leave his party disfigured in Harvey Dent/Two-Face fashion. On the Democratic side, the same sentiment made millions of voters more receptive to an insurgent like Sanders, when the likes of Dennis Kucinich were tuned out previously.
How could two parties that are so far apart on key issues simultaneously experience revolts that are so similar in character?
Republicans and Democrats sell wildly different brands of politics (especially on social issues), but voters are sniffing out something similar: the method of campaigning.
Since the post-Mondale changes, Democrats have had essentially the same business model as Republicans: Raise tons of money (often from the same sources and through the same new soft-money loopholes), buy ads, wait.
It’s in this context that the recent DNC rule changes make more sense. On the surface, it seems like a non-strategic move, knocking Sanders and his 13 million voters – he polls as the most popular politician in the country – in the middle of a key midterm election season.
But organizations like the DNC or the DCCC can’t only worry about winning general election races. They also have to worry now about losing market share to Independents like Sanders, other parties like Working Families and alternative nominating organizations like Our Revolution or the Progressive Change Campaign Committee – to say nothing of the proven vote-snatching prowess of non-traditional Republicans like Trump.
There’s more at stake in these primaries than the November elections. The whole way the parties do business is in play.
The candidates in the 19th were split in their reaction to the new rules.
“Erin is focused on winning the primary in two weeks rather than the rules of a primary in two years,” said a spokesperson for Erin Collier.
Brian Flynn said voters can police who is and is not a Democrat, offering a dig at some of his opponents in the process.
“I don’t think we need these rules,” he said. “Voters can decide whether candidates are being opportunistic or cynical. But here in NY-19, I think it’s bullshit that people want to be nominated for the party but have no track record of ever having supported Democratic candidates or causes.”
Gareth Rhodes, fresh from completing his “Rhodes Trip” Winnebago tour of the district (the last leg went from tiny Hardenburgh, pop. 238, to Kingston, pop. 23,000), didn’t like the rules change.
“We should be working to make the party more inclusive, rather than exclusive and narrow,” said the 29-year-old former Cuomo aide. “There’s a reason one-third of the voters in our district are unaffiliated with either party, and unless we do something to bring them in, we’re going to continue to lose them.”
Beals, who as the most outspoken representative of the Sanders movement would most naturally take offense, had the most creative answer. He compared the DNC change to the infamous loyalty oath crusade from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
In the book, soldiers in battle are paralyzed by the need to keep signing patriotic pledges to fulfill the officers’ insane policy of “Continual Reaffirmation.”
“You know you’re in trouble when you have to start demanding oaths and pledges to keep the party together,” Beals said. “Let’s just rally huge majorities to a platform people want to support and represent, and the loyalty will follow.”
Sounds easy. Why hasn’t it been?
The DNC isn’t the only group asking for pledges. Activist groups are increasingly putting pressure on Democratic candidates, including those of the 19ht district, to declare themselves on dividing-line issues.
An example is the OFF Act, a bill offered by Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard that’s being pitched as the most aggressive climate legislation ever. The Act is supported by over 400 environmental and union groups, and co-sponsored by 35 congressional Democrats, including 12 from New York.
The bill would place a moratorium on new fossil-fuel projects and move all transportation and electricity systems to renewable energy by 2035. It’s the moon-shot of green energy plans, serving two purposes: reducing pollution and committing the country to a massive research and development project that theoretically would create jobs everywhere.
“I’m not convinced that there is a downside to this legislation,” says Todd Fernandez of Climate Action Mondays, “unless you get money from Big Oil.”
The OFF Act, like Medicare-for-all (supported by 75 percent of Democrats), the breakup of Too Big To Fail banks (backed by over 60 percent of Dems), and free higher education (even more Republicans support this than oppose it now, according to a recent poll), is exactly the kind of plan that increasingly appeals to disaffected voters in recent years. It’s sweeping, it’s expensive, it’s immediate.
Like a lot of those other initiatives, the OFF Act is also plainly designed to be something you can’t “sort of” support. It essentially outlaws fossil fuel use. If you’re in on the bill, you’re probably out on donations from Exxon-Mobil. There’s no middle ground.
“Like Medicare-for-all, it calls the question,” Fernandez says. “There’s no wiggle room with this.”
Fernandez tried to get all the candidates in the 19th to sign a letter pledging support for Gabbard’s bill. Five of the seven did, which is a remarkable number. Like the sudden surge in support Medicare-for-all, it’s reflective of a significant shift in party attitudes.
Only the campaigns of Delgado and Iraq vet Ryan – the same two who don’t support any version of Medicare-for-all – have refused to support the OFF pledge.
Here’s another crazy consequence of the money system:
Without polls, the only way for journalists to measure the horse race is by money. Checking opensecrets.org totals is the poor man’s poll, and this trick puts one of Delgado, Flynn or Ryan in the conventional wisdom lead.
This results in headlines like, “Democrat Delgado Holds Fundraising Lead Among NY 19th Congressional District Candidates” in the district’s biggest paper, Kingston’s Daily Freeman.
Nobody among the candidates is driven crazier by all of this than Beals.
Just the suggestion that the Democratic nomination might go to what some voters in the district refer to as “the establishment guys” sends Beals reaching for even more colorful book references. He sees the rise of such candidates as a classic example of how the Democrats end up with representatives who lag behind clear majorities of their voters on issues like health care, war, labor law and the environment.
Ryan and Delgado of late have been battling. Delgado has accused Ryan of accepting the aid of a “cross-partisan” Super-PAC that supposedly commissioned a push poll against Delgado, allegedly violating the no-negative-campaigning pledge that all the candidates except Beals signed.
The argument between the two candidates has attracted local headlines. But the two declined to square off Monday, June 11th, when a forum was held at Rough Draft Bar & Books in Kingston. Oddly, neither candidate attended the gathering in front of more than 100 people in the district’s largest city two weeks before the primary.
Delgado had a meet-and-greet in Delhi; Ryan had a personal family commitment. Both had surrogates speak instead.
“Who needs voters’ engagement or support when you have the money to win the air war?” grumbled former journalism professor and FAIR founder Jeff Cohen, who lives in the district and was in the crowd.
Each candidate was given time to speak. Rhodes, jazzed after completing his “Full Rhodes,” argued that his willingness to physically reach out to voters in traditionally non-Democratic areas is what will give him an edge.
Rhodes blasted the money system, among other things, arguing that members of Congress should give back 30-to-40 percent of their salaries, since they spend that much of their time raising money.
Collier scored applause by saying Congress needs more working-class people in it. The Cornell-educated economist also suggested Congress needs more economists. “There’s actually only one economist in Congress, and it is a Tea Party Republican,” she said, eliciting laughs.
In the process of saying this, and pledging to fight the Citizens United – the 2010 Supreme Court decision opening floods of money into politics – Rhodes also mentioned that he’d now raised “nearly a million dollars,” making him competitive. The crowd clapped at this. Beals, quietly, felt his irritation growing.
Then New Paltz town council member Dan Torres spoke on behalf of Pat Ryan. Torres batted back several questions on the topic of fundraising.
“We call it dialing for dollars,” Torres said, in response to one woman’s question about candidates spending too much time raising money. “That is unfortunately one of the realities of running a modern congressional race, and I think Pat would certainly agree that it shouldn’t be.”
The line about “unfortunately one of the realities” sent Beals over the edge. By the time he got to the mic an hour and 40 minutes into the event, both he and the crowd were restless.
“Thank you, everybody. You’ve heard a lot of candidates, so you must be extremely bored by now,” Beals began, to laughs.
Beals talked about how the challenge facing Democrats isn’t getting votes from Republicans or turning out Dems, but facing the fact that most people are so grossed out by politics that they simply don’t care anymore and don’t vote.
“That’s what I think is going on,” Beals said. “I think most people don’t even vote. And I think most of our political discussion has become a big charade, where we talk about issues, but we don’t change them.”
A woman asked him why nothing gets done in Washington. Beals jumped on the question.
“Big money and corporate power control our politics,” he began. “The politicians… they come in here, and they tell you, as I just heard in this room…”
Beals here lowered his voice in a sardonic imitation of the speech he just heard from Torres, Ryan’s surrogate:
“In a modern congressional campaign, call time is an absolutely necessary piece of running a campaign. You simply must register and gather two million dollars. There’s simply no way around it, people, that is what we must do, and I assure you, once I get to Congress with your vote, I will change that system, and I will never do it again.”
The performance finished, he stopped and returned to his normal voice. “I’m sorry, but they already failed the test,” he said. “And the test was right now.”
The modern Democratic Party strategy for winning elections was cooked up in the ’80s. The post-Mondale path to victory was designed around cash, and constructed by groups like the Democratic Leadership Council (tabbed by Jesse Jackson as “Democrats for the Leisure Class“).
Designed to take a party that had been walloped nationally in the Reagan years and help it win back the White House by a nose, the plan was based on the political reality of the ’80s and ’90s.
Democrats would lean on a base of social liberals who could never vote Republican because of issues like civil rights and reproductive choice. Then, they would use the new sources of funding to compete hard for independents in the middle using the bait of economically “moderate” (translation: not reflexively pro-union) policies. It was a delicate strategy calibrated to the last vote that was successful in its time.
The problem is that 30 years have passed, and none of those definitions still fit. There is no middle anymore. Disaffected Republicans and Independents in places like the 19th are as likely to want reduced military commitments abroad and increased bank regulation as they are to crave the “pro-growth” pseudo-conservatism Democrats used to lure back white working class voters in Bill Clinton’s day.
The party’s conventional wisdom is as outdated as your parents’ taste in music, and it seems determined to keep out the new sound.
This story has been updated to clarify that Gareth Rhodes is 29-years-old.