The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a Trump district, a freshman House Democrat works on repeating his success

Democratic freshman Reps. Katie Hill (Calif.) and Antonio Delgado (N.Y.) converse on the House floor on Capitol Hill before the start of the election for speaker of the House on Jan. 3, 2019.
Democratic freshman Reps. Katie Hill (Calif.) and Antonio Delgado (N.Y.) converse on the House floor on Capitol Hill before the start of the election for speaker of the House on Jan. 3, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)

HOOSICK FALLS, N.Y. — The crowd sat quietly inside a high school auditorium as their new congressman explained his nuanced views on the release of the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Then, after seven minutes of silence during his talk about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign, Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.) moved on to his legislative agenda. He has introduced seven bills; the crowd applauded. He backed several bipartisan measures to address problems at veterans hospitals — more applause. He supported legislation to clean up Washington — bigger applause.

Finally, Delgado said he is leading an effort to expand Medicare to draw down health-care costs. The crowd gave him the loudest ovation of the evening.

It is exactly how Delgado, 42, predicted the day would go. He won his first race last November focusing on kitchen-table issues, appealing to voters who have grown increasingly distrustful of Washington. So on Monday, when the political newcomer spent more than 200 miles on the road across the sprawling 8,000-square-mile district, he found resigned indifference to the political-insider focus on Trump scandals.

Instead, high school students quizzed him about the opioid and mental-health crises. Local business people pleaded for a rural broadband program and workforce training. Organic farmers taught the 6-foot-4 former high school basketball star how to protect crops from violent hailstorms. And more than 75 constituents, at an evening town hall, pushed him on issues including climate change and the measles outbreak.

That was Delgado’s 12th formal town hall, part of a concerted effort of “being everywhere” in his district — it is as big as Connecticut and Rhode Island combined — so that he can take its pulse and not get sucked into the latest Washington drama.

“The more that I’m able to connect with folks back home, the more of a sense we can build on each other’s own relationship, irrespective of what’s happening in D.C.,” Delgado said in an interview the next day.

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In many ways, this district holds the keys to both the House majority and to bigger Democratic ambitions of winning back voters in these regions as the party grows younger and more diverse.

Back in 2012, these voters favored Barack Obama by more than six percentage points, and four years later swung in Donald Trump’s favor by almost seven percentage points, one of 20 districts across the nation that voted for Trump after backing Obama.

This was the key to Trump’s victory, winning over disaffected voters by railing against trade deals and warning of immigrants stealing jobs. In 2018, however, Democrats flipped eight of those districts, including New York’s 19th Congressional District.

Democrats now hold 14 of the 20 Obama-to-Trump districts — and Delgado is the only African American in one of those seats.

His victory came after a racially heated campaign in which Republicans tried to portray him as an unpatriotic, violent big-city rapper.

In his victory and his early months in office, Delgado has not run from his identity. He wraps his stump speech in his own life story as an allegory for a district that was once a cultural touchstone of yesteryear.

As he explained to about 100 high school students in Tannersville, about 50 miles south of Albany, Delgado parlayed academic success at Colgate University, where he played a couple seasons on the basketball team, into a Rhodes scholarship. He then went to Harvard Law, before fleeing for Los Angeles to briefly become a politically active hip-hop artist.

After that stint, he spent six years as a lawyer in Manhattan. After Trump’s victory in 2016, he talked with his wife, Lacey, a documentary filmmaker who grew up in the district, about returning home. He used this prodigal son theme to explain how he wanted to help jump-start the region’s economy, running a highly disciplined campaign to win a crowded Democratic primary contest and then prevailing in the contentious general election.

“My life story is not happening enough anymore,” he told the students.

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Delgado could be considered moderate in today’s shorthand political labeling. He has sponsored a bill to create a public option through Medicare to compete against private insurance but does not support the more ambitious Medicare-for-all proposal.

He continues to speak in optimistic tones about finding bipartisan solutions and uses uplifting rhetoric, at a time when many liberals have abandoned Michelle Obama’s 2016 plea to “go high” when Republicans “go low.”

“To go high doesn’t necessarily mean to shirk, to go in a defensive posture,” he said in the interview, embracing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent ethos. “From my vantage point, when the stakes get this high, they get this darkened, that’s all the more reason to double down.”

Still, Delgado recognizes that he has a unique voice. He was the rare swing-district Democrat who publicly defended Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) when President Trump tweeted snippets of Omar’s comments about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and video of the burning towers of the World Trade Center.

He said he could not stay quiet in the face of “something as tragic as 9/11 being exploited in that fashion,” adding that his experience also framed the issue: “Yes, there’s a personal element to it because that it actually reared its head at me.”

His district can be seen as a cultural reference point to the past. It includes the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the Bethel farm where the original Woodstock Music and Art Fair was held in 1969 and the Catskill resorts to which New Yorkers flocked in the mid-20th century.

But those are nods to the past, and today’s families face much different economic times. Over lunch in Leeds, a hamlet on the Hudson River, Peter Maasman explained that his lodge and golf course gets no cellphone service except on a small practice putting green.

Jeff Friedman, who runs the Greene County Chamber of Commerce, nodded as Maasman explained how his children had given up on taking over the family lodge and would move to New York City. Friedman’s children also left.

And he noted that with so little funds for training in trades, the average age of plumbers had climbed to 55 in his county. “We’re going to be out of plumbers,” Friedman said.

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Despite his moderate tone, Delgado’s economic diagnosis echoes that of some of the liberals running for president.

The economy has “doubled” but “wages haven’t gone anywhere” as 95 percent of the gains have gone to the top 1 percent as banks “started repackaging debt” and hedge funds took over, he said. Workers in this region, once home to massive IBM and General Electric plants, no longer get lifetime jobs at factories to “work your way up.”

That is why Delgado faced just one question about Mueller over 11 hours Monday, a soft plea to see whether Congress could read the entire report and not just the redacted version.

No one mentioned impeachment. No one mentioned Trump.

No one.

Delgado told the students that he would stick to his plan, focus on kitchen-table issues and try to keep doing this job. “Give it everything I got, fight for things that I believe in,” Delgado said. “Be your voice, so long as you let me be your voice.”

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