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News & Issues Election 2018 September 2018


From blue Berkshires, a push for Faso’s defeat

Mass. activists target N.Y. congressman in ad campaign


A billboard along Route 20 west of New Lebanon, N.Y., this summer cast U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-Kinderhook, as Pinocchio for his vote last year on health care reform. The ad was paid for by the Catskills Freedom Network, a group organized by activists from across the state line in Massachusetts. Courtesy photo




If Republican U.S. Rep. John Faso loses his bid for a second term in November, a network of activists just across the state line in Massachusetts will be cheering.

Democratic activists in the deeply blue Berkshires organized a political action committee more than a year ago and began collecting donations in an effort to help sway this fall’s vote in New York’s 19th Congressional District, where Faso won 54 percent of the ballots in 2016.

Democrats have a slight edge in voter enrollment in the district, which extends from Rensselaer and Columbia counties south and west to the Pennsylvania border, and the 19th district emerged early as one of the Democrats’ top targets nationally in their quest to flip the 23 seats they need to regain a House majority.

The Berkshires-backed campaign committee, which organizers dubbed the Catskills Freedom Network, raised more than $72,000 through June 30 (the most recent figures available from Federal Election Commission filings) to pay for billboards, online, radio and television ads criticizing Faso’s record. Nearly all of that money was raised and spent before the June 26 primary in which the district’s Democrats chose Rhinebeck lawyer Antonio Delgado from a seven-candidate field to challenge Faso in November.

The money spent by the Berkshires group is comparatively small in the context of a House race that’s shaping up as one of the most expensive in New York. As of June 30, the campaigns of Faso and Delgado had raised about $5 million between them, while independent groups had spent about $2 million in the 19th district, including in the hotly contested Democratic primary, according to FEC data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group in Washington.

But supporters say the money raised in the Berkshires reflects a broader engagement among grassroots Democratic activists on both sides of the state line.

“We’re right next door,” explained Sherwood Guernsey, a Pittsfield lawyer and former four-term state representative who serves as treasurer of the Catskills Freedom Network.

The group’s ads have targeted Faso’s record on Social Security funding, workplace safety protections and especially health care. Last year, the congressman provided a crucial vote in support of a Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, while slashing federal support for the Medicaid program and subsidies for people who buy private insurance policies through the ACA’s state-run marketplaces. The GOP plan passed the House on a 217-213 vote but later failed in the Senate.

“We’re trying to point out instances where he says he’s for something, but then he votes against it,” Guernsey said, referring to Faso.


Outsider influence?
Faso’s campaign manager, Tom Szymanski, suggested local voters in the 19th district are unlikely to be swayed by the Berkshire group’s campaign ads.

“What you’re seeing is a concerted effort by out-of-state interest groups to unduly influence politics in the district,” Szymanski said.

Szymanski also brought up a longstanding sore point for local Republicans: the effort by some Democratic groups to encourage people from metropolitan New York City who own weekend and seasonal homes in the district to change their voter registrations to their upstate address. (Court rulings generally have allowed voters with multiple homes to register at the home of their choice – as long as they don’t try to vote in more than one place.)

Faso’s district, Szymanski noted, is “the first red congressional district north of New York City.” It’s also the one of the first red districts west of New England – a region where Democrats already hold 20 of the 21 U.S. House seats.

“It is sort of the most competitive place to play for some of these liberal interests,” Szymanski said.

But Guernsey dismissed the idea that the Berkshires activists who want to defeat Faso are somehow culturally different from voters just across the state line in New York’s 19th district.
“The state line doesn’t really divide people,” Guernsey said. “We all drive down the Taconic.”
Guernsey said that, although he has lived and worked in the Berkshires for many years, he actually grew up in New York’s 19th district, in Schoharie County.

“I’ve got deeper roots in that district than John Faso has,” he said. “My cousin still runs the family nursery business there.”

Guernsey also pointed out that, although its founders and early donors were from the Berkshires, the Catskills Freedom Network now has an eight-member governing board that includes four members who live in the 19th district. One feature on the group’s Web site is “Not So Fast, Faso,” a regular rebuttal to Faso’s statements on various issues, and the most recent of these rebuttals now are attributed to a Columbia County resident, Michael Dvorchak of Hillsdale.
But as of the June 30 campaign finance report, 70 percent of the funds raised by the Catskills Freedom Network came from donors in Berkshire County. Thirty-five of the group’s 43 donors listed addresses in Massachusetts, and none of the donors had addresses in the 19th district.


Exporting activism
Because Berkshire County has long been heavily Democratic (Hillary Clinton carried the county by more than 40 percentage points in 2016), there is a history of local Democrats contributing their time and money to campaigns in more closely divided states and districts around the nation.
Guernsey, in fact, was one of the founders of the Berkshire Democratic Brigades, a group that got its start in 2004 by marshalling local volunteers to help John Kerry’s presidential campaign in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Ohio. More recently, the local group ran a virtual phone bank last year in a get-out-the-vote drive for Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate who scored an upset in a special election for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama.

The Catskills Freedom Network, Guernsey said, was a natural outgrowth of the work of the Berkshire Democratic Brigades and involved some of the same people.

The new group lists Ben Hillman, a filmmaker and media consultant who lives in Sheffield, as its largest donor by far. Guernsey said Hillman has created all of the Catskill Freedom Network’s advertisements, effectively providing an in-kind contribution that was valued at $24,800 on the group’s financial disclosure reports. (Guernsey is listed as the second-largest donor as of June 30, with $6,000 in contributions.)

Guernsey said the group plans to continue raising funds and running ads through the Nov. 6 general election. But he acknowledged that part of its goal was to start running ads critical of Faso’s record in the period before the Democratic primary in late June – a time when the Democratic hopefuls were all focused on trying to win their party’s nomination.

In past political contests, Guernsey said, “what I’ve found is that it’s really important that, before the primary, the incumbent not have a free ride in the media.”

It remains to be seen just how much impact the group’s ads will have. As an independent expenditure group under federal campaign finance rules, the Catskills Freedom Network is barred from coordinating its strategy or messaging with the Delgado campaign.
Szymanski predicted that local voters won’t be swayed.

“John Faso is a solutions-oriented congressman,” he said. “He’s fighting for the interests of upstate New York, and no amount of outside influence is going to change that.”


Polls and past elections
A Siena Research Institute poll released Aug. 30 showed Faso leading Delgado by about 45 percent to 40 percent among likely voters. The lead was within the poll’s 4.8 percent margin of error.

Although the 19th district has about 5,700 more registered Democrats than Republicans, it has consistently elected Republicans to Congress since its boundaries were redrawn in 2012. Donald Trump carried the district in the 2016 presidential race, although Barack Obama carried it in 2012.

Faso, a Kinderhook lawyer, served as a state legislator from Columbia County for 15 years, beginning in the late 1980s, and rose to the position of Assembly minority leader. He was the Republican nominee for state comptroller in 2002 and governor in 2006, losing both races. He worked as a lobbyist in Albany, then ran for the 19th district seat two years ago when three-term Republican Rep. Chris Gibson stepped down.

In the 2016 race, Faso defeated Democratic candidate Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham University law professor and anti-corruption crusader, by 54 percent to 46 percent across the district. Teachout carried Ulster County, while Faso prevailed in the 10 other counties in the district.
In the 2016 presidential race, Clinton carried Columbia, Dutchess and Ulster counties, while Trump carried the remaining counties in the 19th district.

The new Siena poll showed Delgado leading by 13 percentage points overall in Dutchess and Ulster counties, with Faso ahead by an even larger margin in the rest of the district. (The poll did not break out specific data for Columbia and Rensselaer counties but instead grouped them together with Greene, Schoharie and Montgomery counties in a region where Faso led by 17 percentage points.)

The Siena poll did highlight some potential vulnerability for Faso, however. A slightly larger share of voters said they viewed him unfavorably (38 percent) than favorably (37 percent), while 25 percent had no opinion. By comparison, Delgado was viewed favorably by 34 percent, unfavorably by 22 percent – and 44 percent said they didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion.

The poll showed Faso leading among independents by 44 percent to 38 percent across the district. But a comparatively large share of both independents and Republicans (18 percent and 15 percent, respectively) said they hadn’t decided which candidate to support, while only 6 percent of Democrats were undecided.

The poll also revealed a large gender gap, with men favoring Faso by 53 percent to 32 percent across the district, while women favored Delgado by 47 percent to 38 percent.


Health care a top issue
Much of the opposition to Faso as he seeks a second term revolves around his vote on the GOP health care bill last year.

The Catskills Freedom Network has focused on this issue in its advertising, including with a television spot that shows an encounter last year between Faso and Andrea Mitchell, a 35-year-old constituent with multiple health problems including a brain tumor. In the encounter outside Faso’s home in Kinderhook, Mitchell told the congressman that the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions were vital to maintaining her health insurance.

A video of the encounter, which also has been featured in ads by the Delgado campaign, shows Faso embracing Mitchell in a hug and promising to protect her health coverage. Mitchell contends the congressman, by voting for the GOP bill to repeal Obamacare, betrayed that promise.

Faso has defended his vote on the health care bill, saying the Republican plan would have led to lower premiums for many people buying private health insurance. Many analysts said this would be true, especially for people whose incomes are too high to qualify for subsidized coverage in the Obamacare exchanges.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded, for example, that in states that opted out of certain Obamacare requirements under the Republican plan, overall health insurance premiums would go down. But the agency also predicted that in these states, older, sicker people could face sharply higher premiums and “might not be able to purchase coverage at all.”
Faso and other Republicans have stressed that under last year’s House bill, insurance companies would still have been barred from denying or rescinding coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. But the bill would have allowed insurers to raise premiums for these patients if their insurance coverage lapsed for more than 60 days.

And independent analysts said that over time, tens of millions of people with pre-existing conditions would wind up having lapses in coverage – and facing sharply higher premiums – as they changed jobs, moved or faced divorce or other changing life situations.