By Josh Brokaw
Seven candidates vying for the Democrats’ nomination to take on Representative Tom Reed visited Ithaca on November 16 to continue their genial battle for the approbation of voters in New York’s 23rd Congressional District.
The debate, held at the Space @ GreenStar, featured a couple of new faces to the race since a group of six candidates visited Ithaca in August.
Karl Warrington, a medical social worker and pastor, and Charles Whalen, an economist from Geneva, were at the table along with Max Della Pia, Rick Gallant, Ian Golden, Tracy Mitrano, and Eddie Sundquist. Here’s a very useful page of links to all of the candidates’ online presences from the New NY-23rd blog.
Ulysses Town Board member John Hertzler was not there; Hertzler seems still to be in the race as an independent and is filing Federal Election Commission returns as an independent, but TruthSayers has reached out to confirm his status. Jason Leifer, recently re-elected as Dryden town supervisor, was said to be officially in the running in the Olean newspaper, but Leifer told TruthSayers on November 20 he’s “not officially running.”
Those candidates who are running as Democrats drew a capacity crowd of about 200, according to Facebook reports; this reporter stayed home and livestreamed the event on a cold November evening.
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The candidates answered questions one after another, right down the line, with a one-minute cap on their answers. The questions covered a host of issues, including health care, gun control, connecting with veterans, national security, and climate change.
To generalize very broadly, they are in favor of universal health care and a woman’s right to choose; they think climate change is a major problem; there was agreement that President Donald Trump is one of the biggest threats to national security; and most candidates made sure it was clear they don’t want to take away anyone’s guns, except maybe AR-15s, but would like to see them tracked in a more comprehensive manner. [Vaughn Golden has a rundown of the debate at ithaca.com that includes a summary of the Second Amendment questions; Sarah Mearhoff pulled one quote from each candidate for the Journal. If you’re interested in specific responses, check the full livestream at the link.]
What this commentator wants to focus on in his remaining time is the first question the candidates fielded: “How will you defeat Tom Reed?”
First, some snippets from the candidates’ answers. Then, some of that hardheaded political analysis you all come here expecting.
Della Pia said he believes himself to be the candidate who can gather the most voters to a “platform of social and economic justice.” While canvassing “for a matter of days,” Della Pia said, “65 of the people I talked to, Republicans and uncommitteds, say they’re tired of what we see in Washington.”
Gallant said that as a regional representative for New York State United Teachers [NYSUT] “I already represent pretty much the entire 23rd, I don’t have Ithaca, I don’t have Geneva … There’s a lot of front porches I’m invited to.” Gallant said he has the “wherewithal” to bring people together to gather signatures and campaign to beat Reed.
Golden referenced the campaign of Nate Shinagawa against Reed. “People loved Nate Shinagawa: he was out there and got closer than anyone has.” Golden noted his straw poll victory in western New York and fundraising efforts. “We have to understand why people voted for Trump, we have to understand why people voted for Bernie. If we can’t relate to that, we can’t understand that, then we’re not going to be viable.”
Mitrano said she would hit Reed for “forgetting where he comes from and a lack of concern for his district.”
Sundquist said he was “committed to going door to door” across the entire 23rd district. “That’s not something we’ve done. That’s not something Tom Reed has done.”
Warrington said he would express outrage at Trump’s bigotry and misogyny: “I am disgusted folks, I am disgusted,” Warrington said. “Tom Reed is attached at the hip with this guy.”
Whalen said “my background resonates with people, my experience demonstrates that I have spent decades of my life finding ways to solve problems around upstate New York and around the country.”
Now, for some scattershot political analysis: Reed’s Facebook post above is one clue to what any successful Democratic — or independent — challenger must do to unseat the 23rd’s Republican incumbent. Don’t just run against Reed, or run against Trump — run against Cuomo.
The 23rd candidates talking about going door-to-door are on the right track. There’s really no substitute for in-person meetings with as many people as you can meet. But those meetings need to be followed up with reminders on Election Day: people making phone calls, texts, knocking on doors: “Hey, it’s time to vote. Do you need a ride?”
Tying Reed to Trump might have some beneficial effects in turning out moderates and Republicans who aren’t thrilled about Trump’s administration so far; I don’t really know. No one knows — those who tell you they know thought Hillary Clinton would win! But being afraid to go too hard against Reed for any of his stances shouldn’t stop attacks beforehand from any prospective Democratic candidate.
Those attacks need to be specific, they need to be well-researched. There was perhaps one mention, that I caught, at the November 16 forum of Reed’s family’s debt collection firm, RR Resource Recovery LLC. But Reed’s opposition needs to go beyond tying Reed to medical debt recovery and raising questions about his ethical position on those issues, like Martha Robertson did in 2014.
Reed’s 2018 opponent needs to go out and find people who were actually pursued by Reed-related debt collectors, and get those people to tell their stories. The Reed opponent needs to do opposition research, in short, they need to do some reporting and digging. There’s no reporter across the 23rd who has the time or support to take on a project of that magnitude; the debt collection firm has been public knowledge for years, and would have been covered “in depth” by now if anyone had that sort of time. If you want to fund TruthSayers to put a reporter on this story for the couple of months of work required, let us know.
More than anything else, the candidate who wants to beat Reed will have to be mean sometimes, but more than that, they will have to make the race an entirely different sort of game. Golden has spoken about creating a Sanders-like “movement,” and that gets at my point to some extent. To unseat the very smooth Reed, the former Corning mayor can’t be allowed to stay within his comfort zone.
Playing entirely on a field of spin and counterspin, in the straight media, on the TV ads and in the mailers and papers, will not turn out well in a race with Reed – as Martha Robertson so painfully found out. The candidate, to both win the primary and to make an effective challenge, will need to Get People Out. Not just Out to the Polls on Election Day,because the process of getting people out has to start far before that day. To overcome a demographic disadvantage, to overcome the eternal advantages of incumbency in American politics, the Democratic candidate — or an upstart independent — will need to be getting people out of their homes, out of their bubbles, out of their TV/newspaper/internet-spin headspaces and get them talking about their own problems.
Once those problems are heard, the candidate should have solutions on hand – maybe not an effective white paper, something so detailed that the policy blogs are writing about the candidate, but vision. Not all the wonky stuff that’s gotten Democrats walloped in this tail end of the opportunisitc, triangulating, Clintonista New Left era. No more “well, we can’t afford that” so-called “realism.” It’s easy enough to make transformative proposals, because supposedly radical policy proposals can always be funded by cutting the defense budget by 10 percent.
And show that vision in tangible ways on the campaign trail. Serve breakfast outside one of Reed’s invariably uncomfortable and too-early town halls, for example. Enact a vision of a new society as you’re working toward one through the always-slow electoral process.
When Reed hits back with the old “extreme liberal” accusations, when he inevitably says “I appreciate that” to some outraged or very reasonable constituent bringing up anything from Social Security cuts to environmental pressures, when he says “I have to represent all of my 717,000 consituents,” throw his insider status, his Trump tie, and his family’s predatory loan business in his face.
But these are just suggestions.
Featured photo: Tom Reed outside Southside Community Center after March 2017 town hall meeting. Josh Brokaw/TruthSayers
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