On the Trail with Josh Riley | Politics | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

In October, I invited Josh Riley, Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives in New York’s 19th District, to step off the campaign trail and onto a hiking trail at the Greenport Conservation Area, just outside of Hudson. 

With two weeks until election day, the race for NY-19 remains highly contested. First-time candidate Josh Riley, 41, is competing against Republican Marc Molinaro, 47, who’s served as Dutchess County executive since 2011. The open seat in the recently expanded district now encompasses 11 counties and stretches nearly 200 miles, from Columbia County’s border with Massachusetts to Ithaca. 

In a political climate clouded by attack ads, fear mongering, and conspiracy, I wanted to learn more about Riley and his beliefs firsthand, and hoped to understand his reasoning for leaving a successful legal career to enter the seemingly toxic world of politics.

Waiting by some bushes in the dirt parking lot, I wondered if Josh Riley—a Harvard-educated lawyer turned candidate for Congress, a man I’d seen described as a dangerous extremist on television—was indeed coming to meet me in the outskirts of Hudson.

Sure enough, after some brief confusion as to the exact location of the trailhead, he arrived. We were both wearing plaid shirts. Standing 6’6”, Riley seems much taller in person. He didn’t ask where we were going, we just started walking. His campaign manager, smartphone clutched tightly in hand, trailed behind us.  

“Oh, wow,” Riley said, looking across to the Catskills that, covered in the warm colors of autumn, dominated the horizon. “This is such a nice break from the campaign trail.” 

We talked for a bit about the redistricting of NY-19. About the three hours it takes to drive from Hudson to Ithaca where Riley lives with his wife Monica and their two-year-old son Patricio. We briefly talked about our favorite hiking spots, waterfalls, and gorges. Then, we got into politics. My questions and his answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

How is your campaign going?

It's really exciting. We have a lot of momentum across the district. One of the things that I've noticed is there's a lot of, not just Democrats, but also Republicans and independents who are really excited about our campaign. And I think that's because this race, in a lot of ways, is about change versus the status quo. The status quo that has not worked for a lot of folks. I'm a new person and I'm offering a new voice through leadership and vision.

What is your vision for Upstate NY?

Well, there’s a couple of immediate things. One is that the cost of living is too high right now. In the immediate term, we need to bring down costs. We do that through things like giving working families a tax cut for once, instead of giving tax loopholes to hedge fund managers and investment bankers on Wall Street. Let's give a break to upstate New York. Working families for whom we have Medicare cover the cost of hearing, vision, and dental. So many seniors who are on fixed incomes are forgoing that kind of care because they can't afford it. We need to do more to lower the cost of prescription drugs. I'm against what's called pay for delay deals that jack up the price of prescription drugs. There's a lot that we need to do in the immediate term to bring down costs. 

But longer term, I am committed to the success of bringing up projects that will bring new high-tech manufacturing work to our communities. Things like semiconductor manufacturing, solar panel manufacturing, lithium ion battery manufacturing. Those are the types of jobs that can build and strengthen the middle class. And they're the types of jobs you can get with an apprenticeship program or a CTE. You can get a great career technical education diploma. They don't require you to go get a four-year degree with a ton of debt as the price of admission to the middle class. And there's a huge amount of pride in that work, too, because you're not just, you know, making widgets; you're making the things the world needs to overcome its biggest challenges. My vision for upstate New York and for our future is that we build on our very rich manufacturing history and create a bright and fairer future.

As a young person, I look at the people who make up our government and see that most of them are well, not so young. At times, it seems like many of their beliefs and opinions are antiquated. How do you think we can get more young people involved in government instead of losing confidence in it? Are Congressional term limits something you support?

Yeah, I do. I think we need new leadership and new voices for exactly this reason. I support a whole host of ethics reforms that would make our politics less entrenched in the establishment and open it up for people like me, you know, I'm a first-time candidate. I think new leadership and new vision and innovative ideas are what we need. I support term limits. I would support banning corporate PACs. I support ending gerrymandering at the federal level. 

Whereas, I'm running in a district right now that's one of the most competitive in the country. And I actually think that's a great thing because it incentivizes folks to meet people where they are and try to find common ground and we need more of that in a democracy. I think we need to overturn Citizens United. I think the corrupting influence of dark money and corporate money in our politics is destroying our democracy. But I'll tell you this, I've actually been really encouraged on the campaign trail to see young people stepping up and getting engaged in our democracy right now. With all the threats that we're seeing and all the dysfunction and the division, you know, young people could just turn off from it and retreat from it. And what I'm finding instead is that young folks are really enthusiastic and engaged about this election. I think a big part of that is because of what we just saw with the Dobbs decision of the Supreme Court and a really fundamental assault on liberty and justice and equality. So I'm actually hopeful that young people are involved and engaged in this day and age. And that's what I've been seeing.

It is hard not to feel disillusioned with the current state of American politics. The last five years have felt well, crazy. What would you say to people who are losing hope?

Here's what I can tell you. A big part of the problem you're describing—the extremists and the carnival barkers in our politics—a lot of that is the result of partisan gerrymandering where politicians pick their voters instead of letting voters pick their politicians. You end up with these districts that are very, very red or very, very blue, and that rewards extremism. What we should be doing is disincentivizing it. 

One of the first questions I get when I tell people that I'm running for Congress is “Are you crazy, have you seen how dysfunctional it is?” 

And I understand that there's a lot of division and dysfunction. I've also seen the best of what we can accomplish if we just have some basic upstate New York values around treating each other with decency, giving each other the benefit of the doubt. 

And when I was counsel in the United States Senate [Riley served as general counsel to Senator Al Franken on the Senate Judiciary Committee], I worked on a lot of bipartisan legislation, some of which was signed into law that made a real difference in people's lives. I was the lead counsel on a bill that protected survivors of domestic violence from homelessness, and I was able to bring Democrats and Republicans together. We got that bill passed through a very divided Senate and a Republican-controlled House and signed into law. And it's not the type of thing that's going to make huge headlines on cable news. And it's not the sort of thing that people are screaming and tweeting about, but it made a real difference in the lives of a lot of women who were in their most vulnerable situation. And so seeing that is what gives me hope and inspiration that if enough people are elected to office who take that approach, instead of the extreme approach, I really think we can get a lot more done in America.

I’ve seen TV ads label you as a dangerous extremist. They show you alongside footage of someone being assaulted. What is that about?

A couple of things on this. The first and probably the most important is that the ads that are running against me with respect to law enforcement and the criminal justice system, they're blatantly false and I don't think it's a stretch to say they lie about my position. I have never once even remotely suggested that we should defund the police. In fact, I have a really long and proven track record of supporting law enforcement. When I was counsel in the Senate, I worked on legislation that was sponsored by the National Sheriffs Association, by the National Association of Police Organizations to actually provide more support for law enforcement for things like crisis intervention training. 

That's my record. In addition to that, unlike my opponent, I actually come from a law enforcement family. My mom was a probation officer for nearly 20 years in Tioga County. I think what we're seeing is not rooted in truth. I think it's rooted in a strategy of fear. And this, unfortunately, this is what career politicians do best. They lie and they try to stoke people's fears and anxieties. I am trusting voters to see a contrast here. I'm running a campaign where I'm offering a really, really hopeful and optimistic vision for what we can all accomplish together. I want to build an economy that's bringing people together and lifting people up and creating the jobs of the future to save the planet and bring down costs. I'm going to focus on that. And if my opponent wants to focus on fear-mongering and exploiting people's anxieties, then, you know, that's what that's what career politicians do. And that's just not who I am.

What is the most extreme thing about you?

I am extremely opposed to corporate PAC money in our politics. I think it is destroying our democracy and it's creating a political system and an economic system that favors special interests over working families. And we've seen the consequence of it for 30 years with the loss of thousands of really good manufacturing jobs and the erosion of our labor unions. 

We have an economy right now where the top one percent have more wealth than the entire middle class combined. We have constitutional rights and basic liberties and freedoms being ripped away from people. The whole thing is rigged against working folks, small businesses, and farmers in upstate New York. It's rigged because of the corrupting influence of corporate money. If I'm extreme about anything, I'm extremely opposed to corporate PAC money.

Spending time in natural spaces like the one we are in is very important to me. I am worried for my future and that of our planet and am concerned about inaction surrounding climate issues. If you are elected, what will you do about climate change?

I think about this every day. I have a two-year-old son. Part of the reason why I'm running for Congress is I want him to grow up in a democracy that's functioning, a planet that's habitable, and an economy that's fair. I think that climate change is an existential threat to the planet, one of the biggest challenges we are facing. Also for the same reason, I think it is one of the best economic opportunities and job creation opportunities we have in upstate New York. I've talked to folks across this district about climate change in the context of economic development and revitalizing the economy. We have endless opportunity and promise across upstate New York to start making and manufacturing the technologies that we need to address climate change.

Things like semiconductor manufacturing that are critically important if we're ever going to end up with the technologies and the fuel-efficient vehicles that we need in the future, we're going to need steps to do that. Making those things is really exciting, both because it gives people good jobs and a career path, and it's also helping to save the planet. 

There's a lot of effort underway right now to make upstate New York one of the leaders in solar panel manufacturing. And if we can do that, it's going to help save the planet and will put a lot of people to work with good jobs. There are really, really, exciting opportunities around renewable energy storage. Coming out of our SUNY system, we have some of the most cutting edge and innovative breakthrough technologies for lithium ion batteries, so we can save the sun when it's not shining and save the wind when it's not blowing. And if we can take those technologies out of the lab and put them on the factory floors, it's going to give a lot of people really, really good jobs. And when you give people good jobs, that lifts up the entire community. And so I go across this district and I look at environmental issues and climate issues through that lens. And that is something that Democrats, Republicans, and independents are all on board with. 

Do you truly believe we can actually ward off the worst effects of climate change?

Well, we have no choice. And I actually do. I really do. I think there is endless potential and promise if we roll up our sleeves and actually try to find common ground and do the work. I think part of the problem, though, is that it goes to the fundamental problems of our democracy and our political system. So you have for example, big oil companies and their corporate PACs, buying politicians. You know, my opponent is taking money from oil industry PACs. And what they do is buy politicians, line the politicians’ pockets, ship them off to office, and then the politicians do what's best for the PACs, instead of what's best for the planet. And you know, my two-year-old son doesn't have a PAC. He doesn't have a bunch of lobbyists. So that's the thing that stands in the way is that this is a broken democracy and a broken political system.

If we can elect more people who are committed to doing what's right for the planet and doing what's right for working folks, then I do think there's a more promising potential in terms of what we can accomplish. And it's not some far-off, hypothetical pipe dream. I can see it on the horizon and across upstate New York. 

I remind people, you know, we have had a really rich and proud history of manufacturing things here for generations. My family's been here for over 100 years working in the plants. And that's something we're really, really good at because we're very industrious and we have a really strong work ethic. And so why not us? And why not now? And why not New York be the place that's making the things that the world needs? And I really believe we can do that. But we've got to be better than our politics. 

That sounds great, but how can you enact that vision once in Congress?

How do you actually do it? Yeah, it's a great question. I've actually laid out a pretty detailed policy platform that sets forth specific pieces of legislation, specific regulatory actions and such that we should take. It's a bold vision. But the bottom line for it, a couple of examples for it, one is The American Rescue Plan included a once-in-a-generation investment for manufacturing around renewable energies. And so my job, after I'm elected, will be to make sure that law is being implemented correctly, to make sure that our community has a voice at the table when those funds are being distributed. 

There's legislation, too, to fund semiconductor manufacturing across upstate New York. So my job when I'm elected is to make sure that the federal government is appropriately implementing those projects. One of the huge things we're going to need to make all of this work is a skilled and trained workforce. And so during the next Congress, the Workforce Opportunity and Innovation Act, which is the federal workforce training policy and investment that's up for reauthorization, is going to expire and then they have to extend it. 

I've worked on this in my career. I worked as a policy analyst at the Employment and Training Administration in the Labor Department. One of the things I'm going to be focused on, on that piece of legislation, is making sure that our local community colleges and our local trade unions are getting the support they need so that they can train the workforce to go do these amazing jobs.

I mean, we can talk about this for hours. There's tons of specifics. How do you take a big dream and a big vision and actually implement it? I look at those very specific concrete proposals and pieces of legislation and things that we have to implement. And when I think about it that way, I know that it's doable. I know we can do it.

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