all about Money
the economy in tatters, candidates for the 20th Congressional
District spend big bucks to convince voters they feel their
by Chris Shields
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.
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
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
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
Gillibrand asks, “Have you had to raise prices?”
can’t raise prices fast enough to keep up,” says another owner.
“We haven’t had the chance yet to figure out what stability
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
has changed his view on what we should be doing,” she says.
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.
you know, I would have voted against the bill,” says Treadwell.
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.
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.
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 UpsateBlue.com 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.