hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues August 2021


Campaign veteran returns to his roots

Skidmore graduate learned early lessons in local, regional races



Eric Hyers, who grew up in North Adams and studied political science at Skidmore College, became a prominent campaign strategist for red-state Democrats. Now he’s back in the area to manage a congressional campaign. Courtesy photo


Contributing writer


Most people would figure the job of a political strategist demands long hours, but Eric Hyers says he ultimately came to realize that he never truly has time off.

Even a Friday night trip to a movie theater can be interrupted when his phone lights up with an urgent matter that demands immediate attention.

“You have to really love what you do,” he said.
Hyers, a veteran of Democratic campaigns both locally and nationally, grew up in North Adams, Mass., and graduated in 2006 from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.

He had his first professional gig in 2006 as a field organizer on the initial congressional campaign of Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who now is New York’s junior senator. That year, Gillibrand defeated four-term incumbent Rep. John Sweeney, a Rensselaer County Republican, in a race most experts initially gave her little chance of winning.

Fifteen years later, Hyers is back in the area, organizing another local congressional campaign, after managing the Michigan operation of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020.

“He’s a local boy, sort of, who made good,” said Bob Turner, a political science professor at Skidmore. “He was a tremendous student.”

Turner, who taught Hyers at Skidmore and still keeps in contact, said Hyers is a fierce competitor, not just in politics but also in life in general.

“He’s the only student that ever won the Skidmore dodgeball tournament playing with a separated shoulder,” Turner recalled.

Hyers now is managing the campaign of Matt Putorti, a lawyer who grew up in Whitehall, where his family had run Putorti’s Broadway Market for generations.

Putorti, who recently moved back to Whitehall from New York City, is one of three announced candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to run against four-term incumbent Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville. The others are Ezra Watson, a semi-conductor engineer from Wilton, and Bridie Farrell, a former Olympics hopeful in speed skating and advocate for child sexual abuse victims who grew up in Saratoga Springs and recently moved from New York City to the Warren County hamlet of North River.

Other Democratic contenders are reported to be exploring the race but have not yet announced their intention to run. Stefanik has become a bigger target for national Democrats since May, when her Republican colleagues elected her to the party’s third-ranking House leadership post.
Neither Stefanik nor her would-be challengers know for certain, however, how the boundaries of her district might be redrawn within the next year. Based on results of the 2020 census, New York will lose one of its 27 congressional seats, and the boundaries of the remaining 26 districts must be redrawn before the 2022 election.


Making waves in Saratoga
Hyers said he decided on a career in politics as a teenager in North Adams as he followed the tight presidential race in 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

“I realized that I wanted to take my life and dedicate it to electing Democrats,” he said in a recent telephone interview.

He enrolled at Skidmore as a political science major and became active in campus and city politics. In his sophomore year, his was president of Skidmore Democrats, a campus political organization.

Larry Bulman, a local union leader who was the Saratoga County Democratic chairman at the time, recalled that Hyers was involved in the fight to keep a polling place on the Skidmore campus, a debate that made national news.

“I tell people that it was Eric Hyers that got me into Rolling Stone,” Bulman quipped.
The magazine interviewed Bulman for an article about the controversy, which centered on the Saratoga Springs City Council’s attempts in 2002 and 2004 to redraw voting district boundaries and move a polling place from the Skidmore campus to downtown.

Some saw the action as an attempt by the council, which had a Republican majority, to discourage voting by Skidmore students, many of whom were Democrats.

In 2005, while still in college, Hyers was a volunteer campaign manager for Cheryl Keyrouse, a Saratoga Springs Democrat who won election to a seat representing the city on the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors. At the time, Democrats accounted for just 29 percent of the voter enrollment in the city. Saratoga Springs had long been a Republican stronghold but has steadily tilted more toward Democrats over the last 15 years.

For his senior thesis, Hyers conducted a post-election survey in which he interviewed about 300 people who voted in the 2005 city election to analyze voting patterns, what messages resonated, and the implications for future city races.

“I was literally locked away in a broom closet in the government building” while working on the project, Hyers recalled.

The college brought in Patrick Lanne, a national Republican pollster with the firm Public Opinion Strategies, as an outside thesis evaluator to review Hyers’ work.

“For a kid his age, he was pretty well advanced for how to do surveys,” Lanne said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that at 22. I think he’s gone on and done a lot of good work since then.”
Turner said Hyers at the time was weighing whether to go on to graduate school.

But Lanne advised him that if he wanted a career as a political strategist, the best way to learn the ropes was to actually work on campaigns.

So Hyers went to work on the Gillibrand campaign just after graduation. He said the 2006 race proved to be both exciting and instructive.

His work on that campaign made an impression on local Democratic officials as well.
“I recall him as having been very motivated and focused,” Warren County Democratic Chairwoman Lynne Boecher said.

National Journal, a nonpartisan political magazine, characterized the 2005-06 race between Gillibrand and Sweeney as “one of, if not the, nastiest races in the country.”

Sweeney and his supporters accused Gillibrand of being “in cahoots with Communists,” called her “a New York City elitist,” and falsely accused Gillibrand’s husband of working for a company based in Dubai.

Gillibrand and her supporters criticized Sweeney for holding a $2,000-per-person fund-raising event at a ski resort in Utah, named Sweeney the “Rubber Stamp of the Week,” and criticized Sweeney’s campaign for employing the congressman’s wife as a fund-raising consultant and paying her on commission for the donations she collected.

Hyers said the race taught him that the only way to counter negativity is to stay “hyper-focused on local issues and issues that matter to people’s lives.”

Hyers is one of several strategists from that race that have gone on to national prominence.
Gillibrand’s campaign manager in 2006, Bill Hyers (no relation to Eric), went on to manage Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s campaign in 2007, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2013 campaign, and Charlie Crist’s gubernatorial campaign in Florida in 2014, among other campaigns.

“Sometimes we try to scam people and tell them that Bill Hyers is my father,” Eric quipped. “He is my political father.”

Jen Psaki, now the White House press secretary, was the Northeast regional press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006 – a role that frequently placed her on the ground locally during Gillibrand’s campaign.


New England to Nevada
After the Gillibrand race, Hyers set out on the campaign trail and never looked back, working on about a dozen congressional, state legislative and gubernatorial races around the Northeast and across the nation.

“I consider myself as doing something that, very honestly, doesn’t feel like work,” he said.
He met the woman who’d become his wife on the campaign trail, when they both were staffers in Iowa and Nevada on John Edwards’ 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign.

Hyers managed the 2010 campaign and 2012 re-election campaigns of Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who now is vice chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

In 2010, Cicilline, who had been mayor of Providence, won a four-way Democratic primary and went on to win the general election with a little over 50 percent of the vote. He handily won re-election in 2012 with 61.1 percent of the vote.

In 2012, Rhode Island Public Radio profiled Hyers in a report on “14 staffers to watch in 2012,” and the magazine Campaign & Elections included him on its list of “Top 500 Influencers in American Politics.”

Hyers also did a yearlong stint as executive director of the Connecticut Democratic Party in 2011-12.

In 2016, he managed Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s re-election campaign, which Bullock won by 4 percentage points, or about 18,000 votes. The result was considered a feat for a Democratic candidate in a year when Donald Trump carried the state by about 20 percentage points.
In a case study of the race, Rising Tide Interactive, which designed a computer program for the race, said Bullock won by focusing on state-specific issues such as access to public lands, by strong grassroots online fund raising, and by target key geographic areas of the state for get-out-the-vote efforts.

Hyers has a reputation for successfully jump-starting campaigns, “usually for long shots,” said Turner, the Skidmore professor.

A political campaign, like a small business, needs a strong start to be successful, he said.
Bulman, the former Saratoga County party chairman who is now national political director of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, said Hyers has managed winning Democratic races in traditionally strong Republican areas, such as Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s win in 2019.

Beshear defeated incumbent Republican Matt Bevin by about 5,000 votes in the nation’s closest gubernatorial race of that cycle. President Trump had endorsed and campaigned with Bevin in the heavily Republican state.

“We knew all along that it was going to be a dog fight, and that’s why we wanted to build an operation that was going to win a close election,” Hyers told WKYT television of Louisville, Ky., the day after the election.

The Wall Street Journal described Hyers last year as “a veteran of red-state Democratic campaigns.”

Hyers said local issues are the key to winning campaigns.
“Democrats can win these races when they talk about the issues that matter to people’s lives,” he said.

Sustaining small businesses, increasing public options for health care, and increasing “family-supporting” jobs are among the “bread-and-butter” issues in New York’s 21st Congressional District, he said.