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.
are defining the political debate, and the Republicans are
floundering for lack of vision.
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
the conversation lulls, he offers airy aphorisms, campaign
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.”
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.
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.
into a group of young homeowners and parents in Center Square.
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.”
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.
shuffles up, and greets them both. He seems fond of the boyish
you do something about his shoes,” the man asks Tonko, pointing
to Higgins’ fraying sandals.
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.
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.”
of him, Tonko says, as the New York delegation’s go-to boy
on energy issues.
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.”
you in favor of single-payer health care?” the woman asks
bashfully, her head down scanning his flyer.
are we going to pay for that?”
a good question, but Tonko doesn’t miss a beat.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
he wasn’t glad to hear that!”
century of mediocrity in the state Assembly shouldn’t be awarded
with a position in Congress,” another one derides.
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
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.
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.”
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.
I smile?” Steck asks as the meeting drifts into a discussion
over the proper demeanor he should affect during public forums
can’t sit stone-faced,” Nardacci says. “But you can’t smile
too much, either.”
hear someone say something I agree with, Steck ventures, I
should nod my nod. There is no harm in that.
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.
running for Congress,” an older volunteers snaps. “You’re
a serious candidate. How much does Chuck Schumer smile?”
a good question, and the room considers it.
fidgety,” Nardacci notes. “But that’s who you are. What can
you do about it?”
do it,” scolds Brown.
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