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It’s all about Money

With the economy in tatters, candidates for the 20th Congressional District spend big bucks to convince voters they feel their financial pain

By David King

Photos by Chris Shields


Sandy Treadwell, a tall man with a placid voice, today dressed in khaki pants and a blue jacket, extends his hand gently but firmly. His lips part, exposing his white teeth in a perfect politician’s smile. Treadwell, the Republican candidate for the 20th Congressional District, has heard the same thing over and over again from the potential voters he has been meeting today at the Goold Orchards Apple Festival in Castleton. Men and women, young and old, respond in similar fashion to Treadwell’s polite introduction: “Hi, I’m Sandy Treadwell. I’m running for Congress.” He introduces himself over the beat of a band and the clomping of hooves that belong to large black horses passing nearby. In one instance, a man in a gray jacket and a baseball cap responds, “I know who you are.” He hesitates, returns Treadwell’s smile and continues, “I’ve seen you on TV.”

The response may be the same, but the delivery is different each time. The intonation sometimes indicates approval, other times disdain, and very rarely indifference. No matter the tone of voice these potential voters use in reacting to Treadwell, the message—that they have seen him on TV—is one of the most important truths about the race for the 20th, the X-factor that leaves pundits unsure of the outcome of the battle between Treadwell and popular incumbent Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand. Treadwell, the beneficiary of a blind trust, can spend as much as he likes on his campaign—especially television spots—making a race that is not on either the Democratic or Republican congressional committee’s list of hotly contested races very hard to call.

So far, Treadwell has given his campaign $2.6 million of his own fortune, a fortune that the Times Union recently reported includes a blind trust worth anywhere between “$25 million and $50 million.”

And Gillibrand is keeping pace: She has been chracterized as one of “Congress’s most prolific fundraisers” and has raised more than $3 million for this election cycle. Observers say this race could turn out to be one of the most expensive congressional races in the country.

While Treadwell’s influence on the race may be determined mostly by his television time, he has done much to position himself as an outsider Republican who stands ready to work in a bipartisan manner. His early spots this summer featured a message about green energy.

And Treadwell has come off as a warm campaigner, a compassionate conservative. He has been campaigning for 22 months and, he says, he has come to know the people of his district.

“I just reached the 70,000 mile mark on the car today,” he tells Metroland. “I’ve worn out one pair of shoes right to the bottom. The bottom of my right shoe fell apart a month ago. And I am kind of proud of that. I believe in the power of shoe leather, in walking to doors and asking people for their support.”

Treadwell attended the University of North Carolina, where he earned a degree in journalism. His first job was writing about college football and basketball for Sports Illustrated—a job that, Gillibrand supporters point out, is not your run-of-the-mill entrance into the rat race.

From there, Treadwell got involved in political organizing. He served as secretary of state under former Gov. George Pataki, a job he says allowed him to get to know the state. In 2001, Treadwell became the state Republican Party chairman, and he was elected to the Republican National Committee in 2004.

Treadwell does not enjoy answering questions about his financial status and how voters might relate to his wealth. He answers those questions with a sigh of exasperation: “I’ve gotten on all my life with people from all walks of life,” he says. “My father was in the British army for 25 years. My mother met my father when she was a Red Cross volunteer. I’ve never even thought of treating myself differently from anybody I met. And if I had, my parents seriously would have kicked me in the rear end.”

Recently, Treadwell announced that he would donate his congressional salary to charity.

Democratic incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand is not a pauper by any means. Gillibrand served as special counsel to the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Andrew Cuomo and has been a partner at prestigious law firm Boies, Schiller and Flexner. Her husband, Jonathan, is an entrepreneur.

Much was made about the couple’s refusal to release their tax returns during Gillibrand’s first run for Congress.

In that first campaign, Gillibrand was attacked by incumbent John Sweeney as being a “limousine liberal.” Sweeney’s ads featured butlers and chandeliers and spoke of Gillibrand’s property in New York City.

Despite the ads, Gillibrand won the hotly contested race, which ended in scandal when documents were leaked showing that Sweeney’s wife had called the police during an incident of domestic violence.

Gillibrand recently cast the two most defining votes of her career as a congresswoman when she voted against both versions of the Wall Street bailout bill that came before Congress.

Today, a Thursday morning in October, Gillibrand has come to tour Herrington’s, an independently owned lumberyard in the small town of Hillsdale in Columbia County. Robert Hall, who “grew up at the top of the hill” and has been an employee of Herrington’s since he was a teenager, tells Gillibrand about the fourth-generation business. Herrington’s was founded in 1898 and has become a fixture in the local economy, providing locals steady employment and attracting people to the town of Hillsdale, Hall says.

Old, worn smocks and black-and-white photos of past owners line the walls here. Herrington’s has recently purchased a lumberyard in Catskill, owns other locations in Hudson and Massachusetts, and has a rather large lumberyard in Hillsdale that services local contractors.

It’s right to business as Gillibrand sits down at a conference-room table with representatives of local, independently owned lumber retailers.

Gillibrand notes the rise in fuel costs and asks the retailers, “How much did it reduce your profit margin?”

Gen Hagan, of GNH Lumber in Greenville, explains to Gillibrand, “It costs us five to seven dollars per mile to deliver to the consumer.”

Gillibrand asks, “Have you had to raise prices?”

“Yes,” says Hagan.

“We can’t raise prices fast enough to keep up,” says another owner. “We haven’t had the chance yet to figure out what stability is.”

Another representative notes that the mortgage crisis has affected the number of homes being built.

Hall tells Gillibrand, “We have seen half a dozen projects put on hold.”

Another lumber-store owner tells Gillibrand that the next few months will be telling, that they expect to be able to take hits for that long before having to make “tough calls as far as staying in business.”

The consensus seems to be that jobs may be on the line in the next few months, as will the size of what have been expanding operations.

For his part, Treadwell says he had a wake-up call about the economy and its effects on independent business people while on the campaign trail.

“I met a guy named Bill Sutton,” says Treadwell. “He is an independent owner-operator who drives a truck for a living. He is living the American dream. He worked for someone else, drove trucks for someone else, and earned enough money to buy his own a rig. I drove with him from Westchester County to Washington County.”

Treadwell says his trip with Sutton gave him a perspective not only on the importance of the trucking industry but also on the importance of the legislative branch’s move to create a solid energy policy for America.

“I rode with Bill for eight hours,” continues Treadwell, “and one of our stops was at a gas station north of Albany. He presented his credit card to the woman behind the counter and said, ‘Fill it up to one-thousand dollars.’ This was in late summer, and he said to me, ‘I had the American dream, but it is collapsing because of the incredible increase in the cost of diesel.’ ”

Treadwell says that Sutton told him that he had been doing fine supporting his kids, he even had a pool in the backyard, but that “the energy crisis is making everything disappear.”

After touring Herrington’s expansive yard in Hillsdale, Gilli brand stops at Marissa’s Bagel Café in Chatham for a Congress on Your Corner event.

One of Gillibrand’s campaign pledges was to keep her office open to the public, and she has kept her pledge by making sure to host forums all over her district while keeping her busy schedule in Washington.

Gillibrand stands on the sidewalk in front of the café speaking to constituents as the smell of baked goods and sweets waft through the fall-air breezes on the busy Main Street. Here, next to independently owned restaurants, cafes, bakeries, toy stores and dress shops, Gillibrand addresses the financial crisis and her vote against the bailout.

A man dressed in a light-blue denim jacket and matching jeans asks Gillibrand about her vote. “There were no checks on executive compensation. There wasn’t any regulation. No checks on [Treasury Secretary Hank] Paulson,” she explains.

The man counters that he had heard they had cut golden parachutes, but Gillibrand says that while the media had reported that golden parachutes were done away with in the bill, the legislation was not retroactive and deals still in place would still allow executives to exit failing companies with million-dollar severance packages.

Take the time to talk to Gillibrand about the bailout, and it becomes very clear that she knows the nuances of the bill she voted against.

She explains that she wanted the government to buy equity shares in companies and that she wrote to House Banking Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) asking for changes to be made to the bill that would ensure regulation become a priority, but, she says sadly, “They didn’t change the bailout at all.”

Gillibrand tells the man dressed in denim that the media did not properly represent the complexities of the bailout and the bill. And it was hard for her to explain her position “in a sound bite.”

Gillibrand told Metroland that Paulson has changed his approach since passing the bill, but his new direction was not contained in the bills Congress had to vote on.

“Paulson has changed his view on what we should be doing,” she says.

“He is now really focused on recapitalizing banks, but I wanted to buy equity into banks and institutions. I wanted taxpayers to have preferred shares à la Warren Buffet. I wanted a greater focus on buying equity as opposed to having one strategy where we are overpaying for bad assets. The house leaders tried to get some oversight into the bill, but the oversight was not sufficient. There was no accountability. He hired a young investment banker from Goldman Sachs to be the asset manager, but there was no preventing him from saying to Goldman Sachs, ‘After this I want a job, a hundred-million-dollar job.’ I couldn’t vote for it,” she says.

Treadwell has a fairly similar take on the bill.

“As you know, I would have voted against the bill,” says Treadwell.

“It was a bad bill on Monday and it went to the Senate and returned as a bad bill, and they passed it and went home. They should have stayed in Washington. They should have spent the time and produced a good bill rather than running home to get reelected. It is ultimately flawed, because it doesn’t address the problem that the taxpayers are on the line. I would have liked to have seen us buy preferred shares.”

Much has been made of the candidates’ commonalities in the last few months. Both Gillibrand and Treadwell received high ratings from the National Rifle Association. And both came out against the bailout bill.

Treadwell insists there is a vast difference between himself and Gillibrand. “I believe Congress takes too much of our money and wastes too much of our money and does not give enough of it back. She has a different policy. I signed a pledge saying I will never vote to raise taxes on individuals and businesses. She has voted for the largest tax increase ever. She is against drilling for American oil, and I am for it. She claims to be an independent voice for the district but votes with the speaker 93 percent of the time. I’m not going down there as a partisan. I am going to do right for the people of this district.”

Gillibrand supporters say it is unlikely that a man who has been neck-deep in the Republican Party for years in New York would suddenly become nonpartisan if he won a seat in Congress.

Treadwell’s accusation about Gillibrand’s vote for the largest tax increase ever is skewed, if not blatantly misleading.

Gillibrand’s vote was for a nonbinding budget resolution that serves as a plan for future government spending. The resolution assumed that the Bush tax cuts would expire when the law, as written, says they will expire.

“Mr. Treadwell thinks I’ve raised taxes, but it’s not true,” says Gillibrand. “They are just plain old budget votes. The law requires us to assume all laws on the books to be followed and the Bush tax cuts written by Republicans were written in the law to expire in 2010. So when we were writing the budget you have to assume the tax cuts will expire 2010. But I have no intention of letting the middle-class portion of the tax cuts expire.”

Gillibrand has taken Treadwell’s accusation personally, and while media outlets such as the Times Union have debunked Treadwell’s claim, members of the Gillibrand camp privately worry that Treadwell’s accusation will frighten people during times of economic crisis and drive them away from Gillibrand.

“His ads are false and misleading,” says Gillibrand, “and hopefully they will not continue to be so.”

Treadwell’s camp has unleashed a steady barrage of attacks on Gillibrand since late summer. Some attacks have demanded that she denounce Congressman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who is involved in a tax scandal. Another demanded she refuse campaign contributions from Woody Kaplan, a real-estate developer who also donates money to a marijuana-law-reform group. The Treadwell campaign has also tried to highlight donations made to Gillibrand from Wall Street executives and Lehman Brothers.

Some Gillibrand supporters insist that Treadwell is trying to draw attention away from his family’s strong connections to General Electric and the trust fund Treadwell probably enjoys because of it.

A YouTube commercial created by features a narrator who says, “Sandy Treadwell. He wants you to think he is one of us when in reality he’s a GE trust-fund multimillionaire masquerading around in a farmer’s costume.” The background features the phrases “out of touch” and “elitist.”

Despite their differences, both candidates have gone to considerable lengths to appeal to the other’s support base. Gillibrand, a member of the conservative Democrat group known as the Blue Dogs, does her best to stress her conservative tendencies. In public, Gillibrand has a no-nonsense approach and a wonkish way of explaining positions. She is always ready to display her detailed knowledge of the legislation that crosses her desk.

“She is two people,” says Treadwell. “She claims to be conservative when she is back here but when she is in Washington she does not vote that way.”

Meanwhile, Treadwell has done much to advance a warmer, almost liberal image of himself.

He greets potential voters like that next-door neighbor who is always ready to chat. Treadwell has proposed the kind of reforms that would be hard for the most jaded Democrat to refuse. He says he supports term limits in the House and Senate. He has called for posting congressional office budgets online. He supports banning relatives of House members from lobbying, and wants a one-year moratorium on earmarks. And Treadwell, who attacks the current Congress for there lack of accomplishment, also openly bashes the Republican House for “losing their way” with scandals such as the one involving Jack Abramoff.

“They were fired by the American people,” he says.

Treadwell also likes to tell the story of meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was attending Groton, a privileged boarding school in Massachusetts.

“Martin Luther King came to the school and spoke to the whole class. There were 36 of us in the class,” says Treadwell. “He spoke to us about public service. He is the greatest man I have ever met. I’ve thought about his words a lot over the last 22 months. I get chills.”

While Treadwell can talk about what he might do as an elected official, Gillibrand actually has a record to run on.

One constituency that seems pleased with Gillibrand’s record is the small dairy farmer. Gillibrand points to her work in passing the current farm bill, which increased the MILC payment limit to dairy farmers from 35 to 45 percent and increases the size of herds covered under the bill. She also had a “feed adjuster” attached to the bill to help farmers get the proper reimbursement for the grain they use to feed their cows as feed prices continue to rise along with fuel costs.

“Once a dairy farm is gone, it tends to be gone forever,” says Gillibrand. “Farmers tend to sell land to development. What I’m going to do—farm bills are every five years—if I get reelected is change the way dairy pricing happens in America.” Gillibrand notes that milk pricing that was set in the Great Depression to keep food prices low does not take into account the constantly rising price of fuel.

Gillibrand says she will do her best to ensure that dairy farmers aren’t trying to make a living on a “razor-thin” profit margin.

Treadwell says he understands the plight of the farmer and would like to address the milk issue by working toward alleviating the “energy crisis” with a national energy plan, a plan Treadwell says the country desperately needs and the current Congress has failed to address. “My father had dairy cows. We still have a herd of Holsteins we are very proud of. It’s not the dairy farm it was in his day. Milk prices are good right now—in normal times the price would be OK. But the price of energy, grain and fertilizer has doubled in the last year. The price of diesel fuel is killing our farmers.”

Back at Herrington’s lumberyard, the lumber-store owners trudge over puddles and moist earth as Gillibrand has her picture taken with a forklift driver who sports an impressively scraggly beard.

One owner tells Metroland that she jumped at the chance to speak to Gillibrand because she feels Gillibrand has been ignoring small businesses.

She would like to see Gillibrand support an “innocent seller’s act” that would prevent customers from suing lumber stores in the event they are harmed by a faulty product, shifting all of the liability to the manufacturer. She says she likes Treadwell’s television spots on alternative energy. “I actually support the other guy, Treadwell,” she says. “I’m just not sure he will have enough support.”

Gillibrand says she does not agree with the version of the seller’s bill the group supports, but wants to work with them to change it to make it less broad. She says the current version would protect toy sellers from being sued if a toy was faulty and injured a child. She says she would like to work on a bill that would protect sellers of natural products like lumber from lawsuits, as lumber sellers do not actually control the quality of wood.

“The most important thing we can do for small businesses is focus on tax cuts to make it easier on them,” says Gillibrand.

Polls on the race for the 20th are not readily available. Siena Research Institute—which polled this district two years ago, and showed Sweeney with a large lead until close to election day—is not polling the race. And although the race has a prominent place on television thanks to frequent campaign ads, the media and voters seem preoccupied with the national election and the state Senate contests, which will determine which party controls the Senate.

When Treadwell joined the race two years ago, it looked like the newly elected Gillibrand would be vulnerable. But since then Gillibrand has grown in popularity and become a bit of a political icon in the region. Meanwhile, the polling on the presidential race has grown more grim for Republican candidate John McCain.

Many pundits believe that Barack Obama will have coattails leading to a Democratic surge. And if McCain continues to struggle, pundits expect Republican turnout to be depressed.

Treadwell announced earlier in the year that New York was “in play” for McCain. He recently told Metroland, “The head of the ticket is obviously an influence, and I expect Sen. McCain to do well in this district, and that helps.”

Gillibrand says she thinks excitement surrounding the Obama presidential campaign will likely help her. “I think young people are registering to vote in greater numbers,” she says. “There is greatly increased excitement around this presidential election, and the economy is so terrible people may want to voice their opinions, because it’s come to the point where the safety of their families is at stake. At end of the day, I think higher turnout will help me, because people are looking for a change.”

Some voters have expressed disgust in recent days that while the country has been in economic turmoil, local businesses are suffering and people are being forced from their homes, the candidates in the 20th as well as nationally have waged an ugly ad war that plays on voters’ fears about the economy.

Treadwell told Metroland that he understands the voters’ concerns. “Everybody is sick of the partisanship,” says Treadwell. “It’s both sides. Everybody is sick of seeing everyone battling for political advantage and not getting anything done. What I hear everywhere since I have been on the road for 22 months is, ‘What are they doing to help us? What are they doing down there?’ I’m doing this for the right reasons. It’s not about me, not about advancing myself. It is about bringing experience, common sense and judgment to the job.”

Gillibrand says she was worried that politics and attack ads may be obscuring real problems. “My biggest concern,” says Gillibrand, “is that this is such a serious economic crisis that it is truly time for a frank economic discussion of U.S. economic policy. I am gravely concerned we are not seeing the leadership on the national level to solve the economic crisis.”

Gillibrand says she is prepared to continue her role in Congress, and she says she knows exactly what her focus will be if she is reelected. “What I would like to do is continue my efforts to change what we do in response to the crisis. Our current focus on equity is good, but we still don’t have any agreement on regulation, and I am going to focus very hard on getting the markets regulated.”

Treadwell and Gillibrand will have the chance to cut through partisanship and have a “frank economic discussion” at the end of this month when they meet for three debates.

The first debate, sponsored by the Poughkeepsie Journal and the Dutchess County Chamber of Commerce, will take place on Oct. 21 at the opera house in Poughkeepsie. The second debate, sponsored by the Times Union and WMHT, will be held Oct. 23 in WMHT’s studio in Troy. The final debate will be sponsored by the Post Star and WNYT and will be held Oct. 28 in the WNYT studios.

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