Dylan Ratigan, a former MSNBC anchor and one of the five candidates vying in the Democratic primary to challenge GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik, is not the typical New York progressive. He did not vote in the 2016 election, and he refuses to say whether he preferred Hillary Clinton, the former senator from New York who remains popular in the state, to Donald Trump. In fact, he is a proud lifelong non-voter, an unusual attribute for any candidate from either party. At a Democratic women’s luncheon last month, Ratigan reportedly said he would have voted for Trump, which he later claimed was a bad joke. But when given the opportunity by City & State to say he preferred Clinton to Trump, he demurred.
Ratigan’s platform is a mix of Bernie Sanders-esque populism with a Trumpian anti-politician streak. He inveighs against a political establishment that he says is getting in the way of reforming health care and implementing fair trade policies.
“I didn't vote in the 2016 election out of disgust from the options that were presented. There is no answer to that question that has validity,” Ratigan told City & State when asked who he would have voted if had voted for president. “Why speculate about a hypothetical when there's a record that shows my decision – which is to not vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton – and instead devote all my energy that year to promoting the ranked-choice voting on the ballot in Maine.”
Ratigan was referring to his advocacy for ranked-choice voting in Maine on his show on TastyTrade, a financial network online, “The Real Ratigan,” a voting overhaul which passed in this year’s primary elections. Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank candidates from first to last. If there is no majority-winner among first-ranked choices, additional rounds of tabulation add in second and, if necessary, third or fourth rounds until a winner is determined. (Advocates of ranked-choice voting say that it ensures that a candidate with a small but devoted fan base won’t win in a multi-candidate race, favoring instead more broadly appealing candidates and bolstering third parties by eliminating their potential spoiler effect.)
Although Ratigan has said that he has been a staunch supporter of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for a decade, he did not vote for him in the 2016 Democratic primary. And, despite his TV wealth, Ratigan did not donate to the Sanders campaign, according to data from the Federal Elections Commission. “My entire relationship with the political apparatus has been one that has been targeting reform, and it's something that was 100 percent of my focus at the time, and so I've made my efforts to support Bernie in the way that made sense for me in terms of creating both awareness and access to him,” Ratigan said. “There was perhaps no television show that had Bernie Sanders on more than the show that I hosted at MSNBC a few years ago.”
Sanders often was a guest on Ratigan’s show, “The Dylan Ratigan Show,” which ran from 2009 to 2012.
But despite Ratigan’s public political engagement, he said that he has never voted in an election.
When asked if he thought Trump was a better candidate than Clinton in the general election, Ratigan declined to answer. “I think this is a silly conversation, with all due respect,” Ratigan said. “They were both terrible candidates for different reasons. To compare them is a backward-looking view at a time when we desperately need to turn our attention to the future.”
Ratigan said restraining Trump is less important to him than more general political reform. Democratic primary voters, many of whom may view the Trump administration’s various corruption scandals – his interference with the Russia inquiry, foreign governments patronizing Trump properties to gain influence, foreign policy being conducted to advance Trump or his associates’ business interests, Cabinet members’ alleged misuse of publicfunds and regulatory policy being guided by Trump advisors with personal financial conflicts of interests – might be perplexed by the contrast between opposing Trump and reforming politics.
Ratigan also deflected when asked about his qualifications for Congress despite never before casting a ballot. “The thing that's most striking to me is how aggressive people tend to be to try to shame people who are limited voters at a time when the country claims it wants more voter participation,” Ratigan argued. “(It's) impossible to solicit more voter participation if every time someone comes out of the closet – as it were – as a limited voter, the way they're treated is as a pariah instead of a savior or at least a welcome asset.”
Ratigan believes that, like Trump, his political outsider credentials are exactly what will propel him to victory in the primary, and then in the general election against Stefanik, despite the district being rated as solidly Republican by the Cook Political Report. Ratigan pointed to his background as a journalist, author, film producer, and entrepreneur involved in hydroponic farming. In contrast, he said Stefanik “never worked a real job in her life outside of the political ladder climbing she's been doing since college.” Stefanik worked in the Bush White House after graduating college.
In another contention sure to irritate Democratic voters who worry about issues like abortion rights or environmental protection, Ratigan believes political process reform, such as ranked-choice voting, is the cure for all political ails – not changing who is the party in power.
“The Democrats controlled the presidency, they controlled the Senate, they controlled the House of Representatives, and they refused to even introduce a public option, let alone even discuss Medicare for all,” Ratigan said, referring to Democrats crafting the Affordable Care Act in 2009. Democrats in the Senate rejected the public option, due to opposition from more centrist members. However, Ratigan argues this is “because they're in the stranglehold of the drug companies and the health insurance companies.”
“There is not an issue here of switching parties, there is an issue of reforming the relation of the entire government in order to open up the opportunity to actually solve our problems – as opposed to preserve the profits of the monopolies that are strangling this country,” Ratigan said, arguing that North Country voters will see his candidacy as the key to achieving reforms needed to solve problems such as the opioid crisis and deindustrialization. “There are few areas in the country that have been as affected by the terrible trade policies, financed by U.S. multinationals to benefit themselves in China, at the expense of people that work in upstate New York,” he said.
Ratigan is running an outsider’s race in a district that voted for Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary and Trump in the general election. The question is whether he can convince Democrats in the district wary of the president that he is truly on their side.
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