When Democratic congressional candidate Antonio Delgado arrived in the hometown of his opponent on Saturday night, more than 250 people were waiting to hear him at the Elks Hall.
Peter Volkmann, police chief of nearby Chatham, did the introduction, ticking off Delgado’s gold-plated résumé: Colgate University athlete, Rhodes scholar, Harvard Law School graduate. “We’re going to demonstrate to everybody — change happens,” Volkmann said. “How much more of a great candidate can we give to the community?”
When Delgado took the microphone, the 41-year-old lawyer added wryly: “I’ve had a couple of careers, and I’m sure you’ve heard of one of them.”
Indeed, so has pretty much everyone here in the 19th Congressional District, a vast and picturesque swath of Upstate New York.
That is because Republican groups have saturated the airwaves and the Internet with ads that highlight Delgado’s brief time, more than a decade ago, as an unsuccessful rap artist who called himself A.D. the Voice.
Delgado’s lyrics included the n-word and the f-word, along with sexual references and criticism of white supremacy — all of which is pretty standard fare in rap music.
But some of the lyrics featured in the ads were yanked out of context. In one, for instance, there is an image of the World Trade Center burning as Delgado says: “God bless Iraq.”
A more complete version of that song goes like this: “We must fight with love and goodness in our hearts and peace in our minds if democracy, equality and freedom are truly to prevail. God bless America, God bless Iraq, God bless us all.”
The racial overtones of these spots are hardly subtle. And they are having the intended effect: GOP strategists say privately the ads are the main thing keeping their candidate, first-term incumbent Rep. John Faso, competitive in the race.
More than 80 percent of the district’s voters are white, making it one of the least diverse in the country. I counted five African Americans in the Kinderhook crowd Saturday night; three of them were the candidate, his wife and his brother.
The ads — which are being produced by the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC associated with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) — are also fueling a backlash. A Woodstock radio station has pulled one from the air, deeming it “highly offensive” and “factually distorted.”
“It’s really firing up the Democrats, because it’s repulsive,” said Louise Roback, who heads a local Democratic organization in Stockport. But as she knocks on doors canvassing for Delgado, she is discovering “the independents and Republicans have this vague sense of ‘oh, he’s the rapper.’ It’s implanted.”
While Faso’s campaign did not make the ads, the Republican congressman defends them as being well within bounds: “The ads are provocative, but many of his lyrics are provocative. It’s fair to ask: Do they represent his views today?”
There’s a better question: Why did the Republicans feel it was necessary to stoop to this?
Although Barack Obama won the 19th District twice, Donald Trump carried it by six points in 2016 and remains popular here today.
But like much of the rest of the country, this district is experiencing a surge of liberal activism, and it is considered one of the most likely to flip if there is a large blue wave in November.
The other big factor is Delgado himself. He moved to the district just last year from New Jersey and quickly emerged as a political phenom. He beat out six other candidates to win the Democratic nomination and has outraised Faso nearly 2-to-1.
For all the attention the ads are getting, voters here have plenty of other things beside race on their minds. On Saturday night, Delgado took more than an hour of questions on topics that ranged from affordable health care to the safety of their water, the opioid epidemic and climate change.
His answers were substantive and thoughtful, while cautiously avoiding some of the more liberal positions of the Democratic left. He rejected one man’s appeal to support Medicare-for-all, saying he prefers a system in which people could buy into the system if they chose to. And he said he does not support further investigation that could lead to the impeachment of newly sworn-in Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, arguing that it is more important to focus on the fights ahead.
“It’s important to be able to talk about these issues honestly and be genuine and be authentic,” Delgado said.
That, ironically enough, was exactly what Delgado once tried to do as a rap musician. His words were a form of artistic expression back then. Now, they have been twisted into a test of just how cynical our politics have become.