When a leaked email sent by freshman Congressman Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) revealed that his priorities in his first term would revolve more around communication than legislation, the reaction was a collective shrug on Capitol Hill.
Although Cawthorn’s revelation was more honest than most, many younger members in Congress have been drifting towards the same outlook. Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) wrote in his 2020 book that “if you aren’t making news, you’re not governing.” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) draws millions to her Twitch streams. But so far, neither representative has had any of their sponsored bills signed into law (both have had minor amendments approved in the House).
Meanwhile, another young member of the House is shunning the spotlight—and quietly getting things done. Congressman Antonio Delgado, Democrat of New York’s 19th, hails from the eighth-most rural district in the country. A careful, centrist legislator in his second term, Delgado has been unusually effective at nationalizing local issues—ranging from veterans’ cemeteries to COVID-19 relief for local governments—and getting legislation signed into law by presidents of both parties.
For newer House members, getting legislation passed can be an uphill battle. In the 113th Congress, only 19 bills sponsored by freshmen representatives became law; seven of them renamed post offices and other public buildings. In Delgado’s freshman term, he introduced five bills (including one post office renaming) that have become law, either directly or by being incorporated into other legislation.
Delgado credits his legislative success to a focus on local issues important to his district, which is one of the most politically balanced in the nation, and the willingness to reach across the aisle. Recently, The River spoke with the Congressman about what he’s gotten done in office so far, and how he operates.
Elected in November 2018 against then-incumbent Congressman John Faso (R-NY), who was deeply unpopular in New York’s 19th district after voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Delgado was one of nine newly elected Democratic representatives from so-called “swing districts” that had voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Although he was elected amid a national backlash against the Trump-led GOP, Delgado turned his attention towards local issues.
“[Washington] DC, in many respects, is a bubble: you can go there, and if you aren’t grounded with your community, you can be persuaded to directions that aren’t appropriate,” Delgado says. The congressman travels frequently across his large district, holding town halls and meeting with constituents, and staying in touch with local issues via advisory committees and district offices is a priority for his staff. Delgado says that “staying anchored to the local community” is important to him as a representative, and informs his policy objectives in Congress.
One example of local advocacy leading to federal law is the Fairness for Local Veteran Cemeteries Act, which was brought to Delgado’s attention by an Ulster County member of his veterans advisory committee. Existing federal law had a loophole that prevented county-administered veterans’ cemeteries from receiving federal funding. Delgado’s proposal for fixing the law, whose Republican cosponsors included fellow New York representative Elise Stefanik and Don Young of Alaska, was incorporated into a comprehensive veterans benefit package and signed into law by President Donald Trump in January of 2021.
Another piece of legislation Delgado sees as a bipartisan local win is the Family Farmer Relief Act, which was signed into law by President Trump in August of 2019. Bipartisan success has a “snowball effect,” Delgado believes. “I want to work with anybody if the objective is to help our communities,” he says. Delgado was recently ranked as one of the most bipartisan members of the 116th Congress by the Lugar Center, a think tank devoted to bipartisan governance and informed debate on global issues.
The political system rewards polarization—and so does social media. It’s easy for a representative to become “distracted by the extremes,” Delgado says, and moving to the political fringe may benefit individual members in terms of financial opportunities or social media following. Ocasio-Cortez has 12.7 million Twitter followers, and Gaetz has more than 1 million; Delgado has just 29,400.
The Fight for Local Funding
Bipartisanship has its limits. Originally introduced by Delgado with bipartisan support, the congressman’s most noteworthy legislative achievement to date—securing $130.2 billion in COVID-19 relief funds for local governments nationally—was passed by party-line vote in the House and signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.
Last year’s $2.2 trillion CARES Act had no funding available for any locality that served fewer than 500,000 residents, which completely shut out local governments in New York’s 19th District from receiving federal assistance. Delgado introduced the Direct Support for Communities Act in May of 2020 to rectify the inequity, but the road to passage was long and fraught.
Delgado’s funding formula was included in Democratic proposals blocked in the Senate, but excluded from Republican proposals that passed both chambers. Delgado described the nearly yearlong process of getting his funding formula passed as “really frustrating.”
Ultimately, with a Democratic president and a narrowly Democrat-controlled Senate newly sworn in, Delgado’s funding formula was incorporated into the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. “It basically led to $130.2 billion in COVID-19 relief going directly to local governments all across this country,” he says. Local governments in the 19th district are receiving over $400 million.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how our counties, our towns, and our villages ultimately use these dollars to invest in our communities and to invest in our future,” Delgado says.
Making the River Matter
When asked by a reporter in Delaware County whether a Delaware River Watershed Caucus existed in Congress, Delgado decided it ought to. “If there is one, I will join. And if there isn’t one, I’m going to create one,” he recalls saying.
Delgado was as good as his word. The bipartisan Delaware River Watershed Congressional Caucus was formally launched on April 12 in Callicoon, New York by Delgado and Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), affording representatives of the vast watershed, which stretches from upstate New York to the Delaware Bay, a platform for collaboration.
New York’s 19th is “probably the most beautiful district in the country,” Delgado says, conceding that he might have a spot of personal bias. At the heart of it is the Delaware River, a rich natural and economic resource whose watershed touches 23 Congressional districts across four states and generates roughly $25 billion in economic activity. “I thought it was important to shed light on this, and there’s always power in numbers,” Delgado says.
Staying in touch with people across a sprawling, politically kaleidoscopic district like the 19th isn’t easy, and it has put plenty of miles on Delgado’s car over the past three years. But even after a decisive re-election in 2020, he isn’t resting on his laurels.
“Representative government requires that the folks who people send to Washington to represent them know who they’re representing,” he says. “You can’t do that job unless you actually have a connection with the people.”