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Politics

For Delgado, Politics Is the Art of Showing Up

In his first year in Congress, the Hudson Valley representative has held 33 town halls, proposed 28 pieces of legislation, and built a reputation of strong constituent outreach that has warded off any formidable opposition—so far.

Antonio Delgado, Hudson Valley congressman
Congressman Antonio Delgado connected with the audience at a recent town hall by playing up his local bona fides.
Photos by Andrew Solender
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Cairo, New York is not Antonio Delgado country. The town of about 6,500 people voted for his Republican opponent, John Faso, by a 34-percent margin in 2018. In Greene County as a whole, Delgado fared scarcely better: He got clobbered: 55.4 percent to 41.2 percent, one of his weakest county results on an otherwise victorious night.

Delgado was far from alone in that regard. That same night, fellow Democrats Governor Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Letitia James, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand lost this rural county, situated in the northern portion of the Catskills. In fact, Greene hasn’t voted Democratic for President in more than half a century. But you wouldn’t know it from the warm reception Delgado received at his Greene County town hall on Sunday, December 8.

The freshman representative for New York’s 19th district addressed 70 mostly supportive residents in Cairo’s Town Court, his 32nd town hall in his first year in office. He touted his legislative agenda, vented his frustrations about the sluggish machinations of Washington, and vowed to fight for local interests.

At first glance, Delgado seemed out of place: A black man just barely into his forties, a Rhodes scholar, former rapper, and elite lawyer, speaking to a room of almost entirely white, grey-haired upstaters sporting barn jackets and facial hair right out of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.” And yet he spoke with the ease and certainty of someone who had lived in town all his life.

“I’m a Democrat—that’s how I am registered,” Delgado said. “But before that, I’m an American. And I have to serve everyone who I have the honor and privilege of doing so.”

Even though he projected humility, Delgado was not above a little bit of self-praise. He rattled off the bills he has sponsored, which address causes like rural broadband, money in politics, veterans’ issues, and green jobs. In total, Delgado has sponsored 28 bills so far, with six passed by the House and one, the Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019, signed into law. He is one of just five members of the freshman class to have accomplished that feat.

“I’ve certainly tried to put my head down and work,” he said. He listed his relatively unglamorous committee assignments—Agriculture, Small Business, Transportation and Infrastructure—with an almost geekish pride.

In contrast to his predecessor, Faso—who amassed a reputation for inaccessibility that was central to his defeat—Delgado also made it clear he believes town halls are crucial to his job.

“A big part of the work that I’ve been doing is just getting out there and showing up and listening to the constituents, to you,” he assured the audience, “to understand exactly what I can do to help in Washington.”

One example of this came in a discussion of PFAS chemicals, a family of synthetic chemicals found in household items that have contaminated water wells across the district and have been linked to birth defects and cancer. Several audience members expressed concern about PFAS contamination and urged Delgado to fight harder. By Tuesday, Delgado had penned an op-ed and given a speech on the House floor calling for his colleagues to show leadership on the issue. That’s in addition to legislation he proposed to add PFAS to the Toxic Release Inventory, which passed in November.

Delgado played up his local roots by contrasting himself with outsiders to the district. He did not mince words in expressing frustration about the workings of Washington.

“Turns out, just because you’re a conferee doesn’t mean you actually get to negotiate,” he said, regarding his attempt to get a PFAS provision in the National Defense Authorization Act. “Turns out, if you’re just a lowly freshman member of Congress, the way it works is you just have to wait for information to leak out and dither out, and hope that if you scream loud enough from the outside someone hears you.” 

While the provision did eventually make it into the NDAA, Delgado is still quick to voice fiery criticism of Washington gamesmanship and partisanship, which he sees as deleterious to the legislative process. He told The River his biggest surprise in his first year in Congress was the extent of the “institutionalization of partisanship” in Washington.

“It’s not just rhetoric, it’s not just flamethrowing—it’s also the ways in which the body operates, all the way down to procedural votes. It’s been pretty alarming and I find it very concerning,” he said.

Delgado also appealed to local concerns with a discussion of Lyme disease, a particular problem in the district.

“When you mention tick checks to other members of Congress, they’re clueless,” Delgado said. “They don’t have this reality in their districts.” He noted that he has helped raise millions of dollars to fight Lyme.

The crowd was with Delgado every step of the way, laughing at his jokes, applauding his accomplishments, and nodding in agreement any time he blasted Washington inaction and decried the sluggish legislative process.

During the Q&A section of the town hall, most audience members praised Delgado’s work, while others made neutral suggestions for how he could further serve the district. But the Congressman did receive a few adversarial queries, and, once again drawing a sharp contrast between himself and Faso, he attempted to provide satisfying answers.

When one man asked how Delgado could “in good conscience” support an impeachment inquiry in a county Trump won by 27 percent, Delgado offered an explanation of his thought process.

“I don’t view this any other way than just me following my conscience,” he said, adding, “this is a hard job, man. I don’t take this job lightly and I don’t take my oath lightly.”

Antonio Delgado, Hudson Valley congressman
Delgado stayed after the town hall to debate impeachment with his constituents.

One week after the town hall, Delgado announced he would vote in favor of both articles of impeachment proposed by the House Judiciary Committee, writing in a statement: “Having reviewed the articles of impeachment and the underlying evidence, my conscience tells me that the right thing to do is abide by my oath of office and vote affirmatively for both articles.”

Some swing district representatives worried that vote would cause problems next November, as polling has shown impeachment to be a particularly divisive issue. But Delgado is not afflicted with such concerns.

“I can only really focus on what I can control,” Delgado told The River, “and what I can control is, first and foremost, doing what I do in a principled fashion to the best of my abilities and staying as connected as possible to everybody in the district.” He added that he wants to stay accountable to “all of my constituents, irrespective of party identity.”

Delgado also demonstrated deftness in Cairo when confronted with dubious questions. When one woman asked about a nonexistent agreement between Ukraine and the Clinton administration authorizing American officials to collaborate on domestic Ukrainian investigations—which she had read about in the comments on a Yahoo news article—Delgado said he had not heard about such an agreement.

The woman pushed on, prompting grumbling from other audience members. But Delgado was not prepared to give up on her just yet. “I will push back a little bit, gently, that people commenting on articles are promulgating verifiable sources,” he said. “There are a lot of things out there that are conspiracy-driven.”

And so it went, with Delgado exhaustively trying to answer every question posed to him. When one woman said that Democrats had done nothing for the economy, he explained how the current boom was more of a bubble. When an aide told him he was running late, he brushed her off, continuing to take questions long past the time limit. He even spent time after the event debating impeachment, much to the chagrin of his increasingly frustrated aides.

But, in the end, it seems to have paid off for Delgado. The reviews were glowing.

Sally Spitzer, a Democrat and a retired psychologist, said that Delgado is “absolutely” doing a good job of reaching out to rural communities like Greene with his town halls. Gary Harvey, a “middle-of-the-road” independent and former County Supervisor, said that the town halls are “excellent” and that Delgado was “well-received” with an impressive turnout. Harvey added that, as long as Delgado stays on message, he may even be able to persuade some Greene County conservatives to vote for him in 2020.

Even Republicans were swayed by his performance. Mike Camadine, a construction manager and former Republican County Legislator, said that while he is unlikely to vote for Delgado, the Congressman nonetheless “persuaded me that he’s a good person who’s working hard.”

These sentiments can be found well beyond Cairo. Across the district, the current consensus is that Delgado is broadly popular, thanks in large part to his constituent outreach and hyperlocal legislative focus.

“I hear from liberals, moderates, and conservatives that Antonio’s doing it right,” says Gareth Rhodes, who campaigned for Delgado in 2018 after a close loss to him in the Democratic primary. “He’s shown up and demonstrated he is focused on important local issues, from broadband to the opioid crisis to helping dairy farmers, and he’s hired responsive and competent staff.”

Even some of Delgado’s harshest critics from the 2018 campaign see the efficacy of his approach to retail politics. Gerald Benjamin, a SUNY New Paltz professor who was a steadfast Faso supporter and landed in hot water in 2018 for his criticism of Delgado’s rap lyrics, has changed his tune considerably.

“Mr. Delgado is doing an excellent job,” Benjamin says now. “He is outcome-oriented, has been available and responsive, and is working hard to represent all the people in his district.” Benjamin pointed to Delgado’s Lyme disease initiative as an example of his tackling issues that are “very crucial to the region.”

Antonio Delgado, Hudson Valley congressman
An attendee questions Delgado about the economy.

Delgado’s hyperactivity in the district puts him in stark contrast to not only Faso, but also his would-be 2020 Republican opponents. Former New York National Guard Lieutenant General Anthony German, fashion designer Ola Hawatmeh, and nonprofit director Mike Roth are all relatively obscure. To the town hall audience in Cairo, they were virtually unknown.

“I don’t know anything about them,” Spitzer said.

Asked if they’ve come to the county, Harvey, who says he’s relatively plugged into politics, conceded, “I don’t know.” Does he know of any of them? “I don’t.”

“I think one of them is a general and there’s maybe a fashion model in there as well?” said another attendee. “Is it Faso?” guessed several others.

Camadine, the former Republican County Legislator, knows the field, but he expressed dissatisfaction with the candidates and said he is trying to recruit an alternative. “Because of the diversity and because of the nature of the district, you have to have the right person,” he said. “I’m shopping for the right person.”

Rhodes credits Delgado’s activity in the district and his impressive fundraising for yielding a lackluster GOP field. “He’s staved off any serious competition with being among the top fundraisers in the House.”

But the GOP spots weakness in Delgado where nobody else does.

RNCC National Press Secretary Mike McAdams blasted Delgado for overpromising during the campaign but failing to deliver in office. “He tries to be all things to all people,” McAdams says. “But he lacks authenticity.” McAdams noted that Delgado has an “ethics issue,” referring to a complaint that Delgado used congressional funds for a campaign commercial, a story that has received only marginal coverage.

McAdams also pointed to Delgado’s record of “voting for a lot of very liberal policy initiatives” as evidence that he’s indebted to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. GovTrack and DW Nominate both rate Delgado as one of the most moderate Democrats in Congress, though FiveThirtyEight gives him a particularly low “Trump score.”

“I don’t feel a need to respond to that,” Delgado said of the RNCC’s criticism.

But in the end, any vulnerability for Delgado hinges on whether a formidable opponent enters the fray. A GOP source working on House races said that the current field is “incomplete,” and that a potential run by Dutchess County executive Marc Molinaro is the “elephant in the room.”

Molinaro has yet to make a public announcement about whether he’ll run for the seat, but he recently met with the chair of the New York GOP to discuss the prospect. Molinaro did not respond to a request for comment.

Whether or not Molinaro does run, Delgado appears stronger than the average freshman incumbent in a swing district. Some ponder whether he’ll be able to carve out a safe seat for himself like his neighbor to the south, Sean Patrick Maloney, who has faced mostly token opposition in NY-18 and won by comfortable margins the last few cycles.

But Delgado says he is singularly focused on his work in Congress. “My concern is my constituents,” he told The River. He even bristled at the use of the word “strategy,” when asked about his pitch to voters.

“I just look at it from the standpoint of doing the work that I was sent to do, and that’s it,” he said. “And the work that I was sent to do is legislate, to reflect the needs of my district, to be accessible, to be accountable and to be transparent. That’s what I’ve committed to doing and that’s what I will keep doing.”

Andrew Solender is a political reporter based in Kingston. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSolender.