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Phil Steck

Fantastic Four

The top four candidates for the 21st Congressional District want to sell you a bright future of ‘change’

By Chet Hardin

Photos by Alicia Solsman

Tracey Brooks stands straight, an athlete’s posture, and makes eye contact with the women in the crowd at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza—Marcia Pappas, president of NOW New York State, Patricia A. McGeown, president/CEO of Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood among them—as Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney rattles off a litany of disappointments in the women’s rights movement: 175 votes passing through the House, each an attempt to chip away at a women’s right to choose; the scattershot inability of women nationwide to get birth control; the fact that only 16 percent of Congress is made up of women; that women still make $.77 to every dollar of a man’s pay; and that the largest predictor of poverty in old age is being a mother.

“What I have seen in Congress is the chipping away at rights that I thought we had earned back in the 1970s, but we still have a long way to go,” Maloney says. “Are we surprised Hillary Clinton didn’t win when we can’t even pass equal rights for women in our own country?”

The congresswoman from Manhattan’s Upper East Side is in Albany to promote her book Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated and to stump for Brooks: “I feel this book is about Tracey. I call on all of you to do a nice thing for another woman today . . . support Tracey and get out to vote.”

Tracey Brooks

Brooks is one of the four serious Democrats jockeying for the party’s nomination this fall in the race to replace outgoing Congressman Mike McNulty in the Democratic fortress of the 21st Congressional District. The stakes in this primary race are high, and the candidates, so similar on policy and approach, are struggling to pull ahead of the pack. The Brooks campaign is aiming for the demographic that is visible here in Stuyvesant Plaza tonight: middle-class women, mostly from the suburbs, and predominantly white.

Assemblywomen Joan Millman and Margaret Markey crash the book signing. On break from special session, they stop in to throw their endorsement behind Brooks. This is the Brooks campaign’s desired synergy: powerful, political women supporting each other, pulling each other up. It’s the synergy they hope to create with the women of the 21st.

“I am a product of Title 9,” Brooks says. “I am a product of the women who paved the way, and to be here today to run on choice, to run on pay equity, is almost funny. These are things that have been put in place to help me get to where I am today, and now to have to run on preserving these things is an honor, but somewhat sad that we aren’t fighting for more things for more people.

“Here in 2008 we are still talking about choice. A 38-year-old woman who is running for Congress is making it one of her top three issues because it has come back into the fold at that level. I am someone who choice has been legal for. And now I am going to go to Congress to fight to keep it legal? Because I have to. Because I have to.”

“I will tell you my favorite things about Tracey,” says Green Island Mayor Ellen McNulty Ryan. “She is extremely intelligent. All of the candidates are pretty intelligent people, but she is more intelligent than the rest of them.”

Everyone laughs. You won’t get any disagreement out of this crowd of Brooks’ soldiers.

Darius Shahinfar

“I can say this because I am a politician, but so many times elected officials talk a lot, but they don’t really listen,” she says. “You can only be as effective as you are in listening. She really listens. She is very down to earth, very real. She doesn’t have any ego.”

McNulty Ryan says that she had intended to stay out of the campaign when her brother announced his retirement, but she couldn’t help but help Brooks.

“I am so nongendered when it comes to those kinds of things,” McNulty Ryan says. “It has nothing to do with the fact that Tracey is a woman. But I’ll tell ya, when men get something done they want everyone to know they did it. Women just want to get the job done, without worrying about who gets credit in the end. Women tend to work better together.”

Kyle Kotary, Brooks’ youthful flack, is beaming. McNulty Ryan is beaming. Brooks hasn’t stopped smiling for the past two hours.

“Big shoes to fill,” Kotary flatters McNulty Ryan’s brother. Brooks agrees. All of the serious Democratic candidates will nod their heads in solemn agreement at the thought of the retiring congressman: big shoes to fill. It’s the popular narrative. Mike McNulty, the legend.

Big shoes, if you insist. But they are also comfy ones, and each Democrat demonstrates a visceral understanding of the stakes: Whoever wins this seat, barring scandal or death, will go on to enjoy a nice long career in Washington D.C.

Paul Tonko

This is a good year to be a Democrat. We face a housing crisis, skyrocketing energy and food prices. Our debtor class is in the free fall of collapse. Putin is looking into the eyes of America to see a soul strained to its breaking point. It’s all delicious political fodder. The past eight years have been a parade of scandal: Enron, Abramoff, Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, Iraq. Each new shame is a fresh condemnation of the political philosophies used to prop up the neoconservative revolution and its champions. America is ready for a change. The Democrats are eager to bring about this change, proselytizing the centrist, polished promise of the national Democratic platform embodied in the candidacy of Barack Obama: alternative energy, health-care reform, conscientious foreign policy, all three inextricably tied to the economy.

The Democrats are defining the political debate, and the Republicans are floundering for lack of vision.

“This is a change election,” says Darius Shahinfar, a onetime staffer in Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand’s office. “There is a wide range of agreement in America as to where we need to go.” It’s why he’s running for McNulty’s seat. He thinks he can be the candidate of change. Change is going to come from someone like myself who has worked in the system, knows the system, but isn’t of the system. We need people who will put their money where their mouth is, and not take special-interest money. I know how to run a Congressional office better than anyone, because I have been a part of the best one in the area.”

When the conversation lulls, he offers airy aphorisms, campaign slogans:

“The question isn’t where we have been,” Shahinfar proffers, “it is where we are going to go. I am running to renew America’s promise. To make America work for working Americans again.”

Renewing America’s promise: a pledge so beguiling and beautiful, so appropriate for the Democrats in 2008, it’s the national party’s slogan. They are the agents of change—it’s such an easy mantel to claim. Easy enough that Paul Tonko, who got into the business of politics at age 22, and has served in the Assembly for a quarter-century, is able to claim it without blushing. You want change? He asks. Send someone to Congress who has the experience to “hit the ground running” on the most pressing issue facing the country today: energy.

He’s taking his message of change to the Democrats in the 6th Ward of Albany, with county Legislator Chris Higgins in tow. Today, on the campaign trail, the old pro is all sunshine and butterflies, alternative energy and hope.

He walks into a group of young homeowners and parents in Center Square.

“Yes, young man, we do shake hands,” he says to a little 4-year-old boy with brilliant blue eyes. “We are running you for something with those big blues.”

The parents are enamored.

“Well, there’s a dynamic duo,” a retiree says as she cracks open her door. Higgins greets her by name (which he has on his clipboard) and introduces her to Tonko. But she knows who Tonko is. An Albany fixture, he was elected to the Assembly before Higgins was speaking in full sentences.

Her husband shuffles up, and greets them both. He seems fond of the boyish Higgins.

“Can you do something about his shoes,” the man asks Tonko, pointing to Higgins’ fraying sandals.

“I have a pair of shoes I can give him, but there isn’t much leather left on them,” Tonko says playfully. He hands over his campaign literature and begins his stump.

It’s similar at every door: Everybody brings a certain expertise or background with them, he says. As an engineer, “the only engineer in the contest,” his specialty is energy, and he has a rarefied understanding of how it impacts foreign and domestic policy. “I think my training in the Legislature for 13 terms, 15 years of which were as energy chair, and as president and CEO of NYSERDA . . . that I can be a strong energy voice in the halls of Congress.”

Think of him, Tonko says, as the New York delegation’s go-to boy on energy issues.

“There is no mistaking that we are in the Mideast conflict because of oil,” he says. “So if we can solve our energy crisis, reduce our dependence on fossil-based fuels, and reduce our carbon footprint, we are going to be doing something.”

“Are you in favor of single-payer health care?” the woman asks bashfully, her head down scanning his flyer.

“Yes I am.”

“How are we going to pay for that?”

It’s a good question, but Tonko doesn’t miss a beat.

“Ending the war is a good place to start,” he says. The war currently costs $12 billion monthly. That would go a long way to providing drugs for seniors and children.

He lays out the potential savings of single-payer health care, which is the same information that you will hear from any single-payer supporter: Cutting back on administrative costs will offer considerable savings; insuring people so that they can receive treatment early is less costly than forcing them into emergency care when an illness is advanced; using the large number of Americans in the system helps negotiate lower costs on services and pharmaceuticals.

In aggregate, the proponents of single-payer argue, the savings from the system itself will not only pay for the program but also reduce the burden of health-care costs nationwide and even lower your taxes in the process.

The Democrats are all busying themselves planning a future in which the Iraq war will be ended and the troops brought home, and steps will be taken to insure every American with the savings.

“If we start doing a number of other smart things and start saving money and build the dollar back,” Tonko says. “If we can build green transportation corridors, get some high-speed rail, and really get talking about growing this country.”

“Pretty ambitious,” the husband at the door says. He isn’t criticizing, or doubting the charming passion driving the Democrats’ optimistic fantasies. It’s just that the old man has been around for scores of elections, and has heard all varieties of political promise. It is the veracity of the change that Tonko and his opponents are all promising that he doubts.

Imagine, along with these politicians, the billions saved by ending the war and the dream of their greater tomorrows. But then consider that the disconnect in the Democrats’ math and the reality of America’s foreign policy is troubling: When Obama speaks of bringing the troops home from Iraq he in fact means leaving behind a residual force in the tens of thousands, many to man a military base outside of Baghdad that is currently the size of Albany. He means redirecting the country’s militaristic efforts and surging 10,000 troops into Afghanistan and potentially violating the sovereignty of Pakistan. He means recruiting another 100,000 men and women into the military—this is a far cry from the fantasies that Tonko and his opponents are pushing to satiate a public eager for change.

Early Monday, Albany County Legislator and civil-rights lawyer Phil Steck and his bleary-eyed soldiers are gathering at Professor Java’s to discuss the week ahead. First on the agenda: fund-raising. “In the second quarter we raised approximately $120,000, and that was off the pace of the 1st quarter where we did $205,000,” Steck says. “Brooks did $200,000 in the 2nd quarter to $177,000 in the 1st. And Tonko did $125,000 in the 2nd quarter. There’s a lot of differences in the way the campaigns have been raising money. Tonko’s is mostly from PACs. Our money was 99 percent from invidiuals, and Brooks got a boost from that Emily’s List.”

Emily’s List is a political action committee that helps fund candidates who support abortion rights. Brooks has received thousands of dollars in contributions from Emily’s List members, in the way of bundled contributions. She has received $32,000 directly from other PACs, including the Albany City Majority Party Committee and Women Under Forty.

Early on, both Steck and Shahinfar accepted Obama’s challenge to accept no money from special-interest groups or lobbyists. They even returned money contributed by those sectors. And they have been arguing the moral high ground since.

“Take Tonko for example,” says Steck’s public relations manager Tom Nardacci. “He has a progressive record in the Assembly, right. He’s out talking about how he is for single-payer for all these years, yadda, yadda, yadda. His single biggest campaign contributor for all these years is MVP. It’s one thing to say the right things. But at the end of the day, on the cocktail circuit, are you really against it?”

Tonko dismisses the attacks as bumper-sticker politics. And the Brooks campaign points out that her PAC support comes from organizations that line up behind her campaign’s key values.

Regardless, to the Steck army, it’s a big win. In a race where the legitimate candidates essentially agree with each on everything, pulling ahead of the pack can come down to one resonant issue. It provides Steck, and Shahinfar, a sweet opportunity to separate themselves.

“It gives Phil a good opening line when he goes up to a door,” a volunteer points out. “How can my opponents present themselves as agents of change when they won’t even live up to the bare minimum set by the party’s leader?” And maybe that will help secure another 500 votes. Maybe 1,000. Who knows? It’s all about gaining whatever ground you can.

This is an aggressive campaign, and has been since Steck announced his candidacy in the early winter. His staff figure that they have knocked on more than 20,000 doors. Including mailers, a TV spot, and phone banking, Steck’s strategy has been to shake those hands and drive the message home.

“I heard anecdotally,” a volunteer says, “I heard that all the work Phil has been doing in Albany’s 14th Ward, Paul Tonko was walking around there the other week, and he was being told, ‘Oh, the Steck people have already been here twice, and they called us once.”

“I bet he wasn’t glad to hear that!”

“A quarter century of mediocrity in the state Assembly shouldn’t be awarded with a position in Congress,” another one derides.

Steck leads a debriefing session about the past week’s door-to-door canvassing. Last week, his energy was focused on two council districts in Troy. His strategists see the city as a valuable untapped resource, an even battleground, far enough outside of Tonko’s old Assembly district as to not be impressed by his name, bearing a constituency in which neither Brooks nor Shahinfar have made much of an impact. If he wins, their attention to Rensselaer will have played an important role, Nardacci figures.

But his base, what gives him his edge in this race, is Colonie. With Steck as chairman last year, the city’s Democratic party saw a historic victory, wrenching away control from the GOP for the first time in the city’s history.

“Colonie is interesting. It’s in full swing,” says Shirley Brown, longtime Colonie organizer and strategy maven. “I think the interesting thing in Colonie is that the people who moved to Colonie and registered Democrat in an entrenched Republican machine were truly Democrats. It was basically every year these people got up and voted for all the losers, but last year they got up and voted for all the winners. Phil is wearing that mantle in Colonie. That is his base. Phil is a hero in Colonie.”

Brown is mythmaking, no doubt, but Steck’s endorsement by the Albany County Democratic Party, an early victory over his opponents, was proof of the strength of his well-oiled Colonie machine. Proof that Steck is able to mobilize his committeemen and women, and bring them together toward a common goal. Steck is riding the crest of a wave. This is probably his only shot at clawing his way above county politics, and he is leaving nothing to chance.

“Should I smile?” Steck asks as the meeting drifts into a discussion over the proper demeanor he should affect during public forums and debates.

“You can’t sit stone-faced,” Nardacci says. “But you can’t smile too much, either.”

If I hear someone say something I agree with, Steck ventures, I should nod my nod. There is no harm in that.

“You don’t want to look too plastic,” a volunteer agrees. It’s probably good to laugh at the candidates when they make jokes, even if Shahinfar’s “tough name to spell” line is getting a bit ripe.

“You’re running for Congress,” an older volunteers snaps. “You’re a serious candidate. How much does Chuck Schumer smile?”

It’s a good question, and the room considers it.

“You’re fidgety,” Nardacci notes. “But that’s who you are. What can you do about it?”

“Don’t do it,” scolds Brown.

So it’s decided, between pastries and second cups of coffee: Smile, but not too much. It you agree with an opponent, it’s OK to show it. Laugh at their jokes, even the bad ones, but absolutely stop fidgeting.

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