In NY19, Substance Reigns Supreme | National | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
click to enlarge In NY19, Substance Reigns Supreme
Brian Flynn
The seven Democrats looking to challenge John Faso have all offered solidly progressive policy proposals.

Chronogram has, until now, distilled coverage of the New York’s 19th District Democratic primary into a horse race. We’ve looked at who’s winning, who’s losing, who’s on message, and who’s failing to resonate. This piece, however, will take a closer look at policy positions espoused by the candidates in this race. We sent out a questionnaire to all the campaigns inquiring about candidates’ policy positions, legislative priorities and campaign strategies. All but Erin Collier, an economist from Cooperstown, responded.

Sticking to Substance

There has been this persistent narrative in the national media that Democrats running for Congress are far too focused on salacious but non-salient topics, namely the intersections of Donald Trump, Russia and Stormy Daniels, at the expense of substantive policy issues such as healthcare, education, and energy. Further, it has been suggested that Democrats are running largely negative, opposition-centric campaigns. Having covered NY19 for about a month now, I can provide at least anecdotal evidence that this is simply not the case. In fact, it’s quite the opposite here.

In my time covering this race I have heard but one mention of Stormy Daniels: when Dave Clegg, a lawyer from Kingston, referred to her as a “porn queen,” in what was arguably the funniest moment of the Kingston High School forum on April 26th. While there have certainly been more mentions of Trump scandals that I have probably missed or overlooked, those issues are not at the core of this race.

Instead, at every forum and campaign event, and for every question I ask candidates, the answers I hear are heavily steeped in policy. This field, filled with lawyers, business owners, a veteran, and an economist, is not lightweight when it comes to these issues. Each candidate is able to give eloquent, detailed answers on complex policy topics. Furthermore, while they are thoroughly bashing Faso on many issues, amongst each other there is almost complete uniformity of opinion and general camaraderie in tone.

Progressive is the new Liberal

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed this race that nearly every candidate that got back to us identifies as progressive. The one exception to this is Jeff Beals, a US diplomat from Woodstock, who characterized his ideology as “American.” Because Beals is aligned with the Justice Democrats, a group made up of former Bernie Sanders staffers and other progressive pols dedicated to taking corporate money out of politics, we can reasonably assume he too is aligned with the progressive wing of the party. Collier has also taken firmly progressive stances at candidate forums.

Thanks, Obamacare

When asked what are the most important issues facing the people of NY19, nearly every candidate cited healthcare as a top priority. This should come as no surprise to those who have followed politics in the Trump era. Since the ill-fated attempt by Republican lawmakers to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2017, Democrats from New York to California have hammered on the subject of healthcare, recognizing it as a particular pressure point for congressional Republicans.

With continued efforts by the Trump Administration and their GOP allies to dismantle the ACA, including the repeal of the law’s individual mandate, this issue remains salient for voters who have frequently listed it as a top priority. Polls have consistently found that a healthy plurality of Americans support the ACA, with some who disapprove likely favoring more progressive plans with greater coverage.

When asked what their top three legislative priorities would be if elected, nearly every candidate listed healthcare first, with only Pat Ryan, a veteran and business owner from Kingston, not citing it at all. Healthcare has probably been the singular divisive issue in this race. Ryan and Antonio Delgado, a lawyer from Rhinebeck, back a more moderate (but still solidly progressive) universal health care proposal, while the rest have all expressed support for Medicare-for-all, or Single-payer, with Dave Clegg, a lawyer from Kingston, calling universal health care “ill-defined” and a “half measure.” To clarify, there is a difference between the two proposals.

Trees and Stuff

The next most frequently listed issue was the environment. The environment has not historically been a mobilizing issue for voters. However, with President Trump’s EPA chief Scott Pruitt leading a full frontal assault on Obama-era environmental rules and regulations, along with Trump’s decision last year to pull out of the landmark Paris Climate Accord and Representative Faso’s vote to overturn the Stream Protection Rule, environmental issues have been recast this cycle. Environmentalism has become a proxy for the broader resistance to the Trump agenda, and candidates have offered varying arguments for why it is important to prioritize the environment. Painting it as a national defense issue, Pat Ryan explained, “climate change will exacerbate natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources like food and water.”

Other issues frequently cited as top legislative priorities included infrastructure and guns. Surprisingly, economic issues like small business policy, taxes, and jobs seemed to take a back seat to things like healthcare, guns and the environment, with most candidates only briefly touching on hard economic policy.

Clegg’s legislative priorities include a “fair share tax system,” while Delgado proposes paying for a proposes $1 trillion infrastructure plan “by repealing the Republican tax scam and closing corporate tax loopholes.” Beals cast his infrastructure proposal as “focusing on green jobs for rural America.” Rhodes and Ryan both said they would bring jobs to NY19, with Ryan citing the environment as a particular draw for businesses. Brian Flynn, a businessman from Greene County, argued for approaching the issue of jobs from a social mobility standpoint, casting himself as “the only candidate that has a plan that addresses the underlying problems that got us here.” While polls have consistently shown that the economy remains one of the top issues that Democratic voters say they will prioritize when going to the polls in November, the economic boom under the Trump administration probably makes the topic something of a hot potato for Democrats.

No Country for Nancy Pelosi

While Washington palace intrigue doesn’t fall into the policy sphere, it is still notable and perhaps crucial to point out that not a single Democratic candidate in NY19 said they would vote for current House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to continue in her role. Three–Jeff Beals, Gareth Rhodes and Dave Clegg–said no to Pelosi. Rhodes explained, “I respect much of the work that leader Pelosi has done over the years but I think it’s time for new leadership in Congress. This is about a focus on the future. It’s time for our party to move in a new direction.”

Pat Ryan, Antonio Delgado, and Brian Flynn, meanwhile, all declined to give yes or no answers. Each cited their commitment to the issues taking precedence to Washington-centric thinking, with Delgado saying, “I am focused on reaching out and talking with voters every day about important issues like universal and affordable health care,” and that “the people of our region are much more focused on these issues than Washington palace intrigue.” Collier, as has been mentioned, could not be reached for comment.

This desire among the candidates to distance themselves from Pelosi, or simply avoid the topic of her altogether, makes sense, at least according to Vassar College political science professor Richard Born who told me, “There’s a perception that she’s out for power, that she’s out for herself. She won’t sacrifice herself for the good of the party.” Based on this assessment, he surmised that “Democrats running in open seats will not vote for Pelosi.” These answers from the NY19 candidates, along with refusals by younger and rust belt Democrats like Conor Lamb and Tim Ryan to support Pelosi, give credence to that prediction.

Stay Tuned

This piece only scratches the surface of the information we got from these questionnaires. We will be publishing the answers in full, and will continue to draw from and analyze them as the race goes forward.

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