It’s a September afternoon, and Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi is in his comfort zone. Following a tour of a BAE Systems manufacturing facility outside of Binghamton, he emerges in the lobby and does what he says he does best – listening. Brindisi nods along as company representatives discuss their work – building everything from airplane parts to high-tech components for New York City’s hybrid buses – while the TV cameras shoot their segments for the evening news.
After the huddle breaks, he walks over and hits his talking points: “Folks are concerned about jobs and the economy in our region,” he tells the TV cameras. “Folks are concerned about the opioid crisis and protecting Social Security and Medicare.” He speaks deliberately, emphasizing his main points through his words rather than the tone of his voice. It always sounds like he thinks before he speaks, even when he attacks his opponent, Rep. Claudia Tenney. When he talks, his smiles sometimes slip into grimaces.
“People see Claudia Tenney as part of the same rigged system that President Trump campaigned against,” he says during the visit, one of many stops on his county-by-county campaign to represent a congressional district that stretches from the Pennsylvania border near Binghamton, north past Syracuse, to the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. “There’s a reason why all the Wall Street banks and the big financial institutions and the hedge fund managers support Claudia Tenney,” he adds.
For a moment, it’s easy to forget which party Brindisi represents, which might be by design. He would rather talk about bipartisan job training programs than the contributions he has taken from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her leadership political action committee. Unlike many Democratic candidates for Congress, Trump is not Brindisi’s go-to punching bag. National politics could muck up the delicate balance he’s seeking as a moderate Democrat trying to win in a district that went for Trump by more than 15 percentage points two years ago. It has been a month since an Aug. 29 Siena College poll showed Brindisi with a razor-thin edge, and he’s happy to campaign just to the left of the political divide with a little more than a month until the Nov. 6 vote.
A few hours after Brindisi finishes up at BAE, Rep. Claudia Tenney addresses a group of libertarian-minded voters at the Vestal Public Library, telling them what she thinks will happen if Brindisi wins. “You’ll get in the back of the line behind illegal immigrants and everybody else. … We need to wake up because socialism is on our doorstep,” she says. Tenney is also fluent in the #MAGA vernacular, whether she’s talking about “fake news” or the “deep state” or the greatness of Donald Trump himself.A FiveThirtyEight analysis found she has voted with Trump’s position 96.7 percent of the time during her first two years in Congress.
Not surprisingly, her campaign puts it differently: “Claudia Tenney has a bipartisan record of fighting corruption, leading the charge to combat the opioid epidemic and supporting our military and veterans. That’s something all voters can get behind,” campaign manager Raychel Renna said in an email.
“People see Claudia Tenney as part of the same rigged system that President Trump campaigned against.” – Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi
The two candidates in this toss-up race do have their similarities. Brindisi and Tenney are both lawyers – and children of lawyers – from Oneida County, now waging competing populist campaigns. They served together in the Assembly, where they “really didn’t work together too much on issues” during their more than five years representing adjacent districts in Central New York, Brindisi said in an interview.
Despite some common roots, their political strategies are very different, according to Luke Perry, a professor of government and politics at Utica College, who is writing a book about Trump’s impact on midterm elections in Central New York. “Tenney presents herself as an outspoken critic of things she is concerned about. She’s a bit of a flamethrower in terms of her rhetoric. She’s one who’s not going to shy away from a controversy or saying exactly what she thinks about a given issue,” Perry told City & State. “Anthony Brindisi chooses his words carefully. He’s interested in listening. He presents himself as a problem-solver. He’s less ideological.”
That makes Brindisi an anomaly in a year when progressive candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Beto O’Rourke in Texas are pulling the Democratic Party to the left. If he wins in November, Brindisi would be the only New York Democrat with a perfect rating from the National Rifle Association – a grade better than Tenney’s. He has further staked his claim to being an “independent” Democrat by saying he wouldn’t support Pelosi for speaker, nor would he want to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If all goes well for Brindisi, politics will stay as local as they can. “It’s for others to decide what happens nationally,” he says, even as the 22nd Congressional District is one of the Democrats' top targets in their quest to take control of the House.
But try as Brindisi might to campaign on the ground at every town hall, parade, county fair, house party or aerospace factory that he can find, Trump is still a powerful influence in the race. The president remains popular in the district at a time when nearly a majority of voters in the district say they have an unfavorable view of Tenney. “The president outperformed her in 2016 by the second-highest margin of any House incumbent,” Perry said. “She needs to expand her vote share – hopefully over 50 percent – and she thinks that Donald Trump is the way to do that.”
Up the hill from BAE Systems, Theresa Shara has Fox News playing in her living room. In a house across the street, Barbara Fiala has been watching MSNBC. In front of Shara’s house, there’s a Claudia Tenney sign, but she says she only put it there for a friend. Fiala has two Brindisi signs to catch the eyes of passers-by. As a former Democratic Broome County executive and state Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Fiala is firmly in Brindisi’s corner. But she thinks it’s not her vote that will decide the election. “I think the difference is going to be if they support the president,” she says, such as her neighbor across the street.
Despite the Tenney sign in her yard, Shara initially says she could vote for a Democrat. The former public employee says her fixed income has been stretched by $6,400 in health insurance costs each year, and the situation hasn’t gotten better in the past two years. She also cites a 20-cent increase in chocolate pudding prices. Did the Republican tax cuts – a big Tenney talking point – put more money in Shara’s pocket? “What tax bill?” she responds sarcastically. Then the cable company comes up in conversation as she recalls something she heard on TV – perhaps from a campaign ad.
In early August, the Brindisi campaign tried to air an ad in the Binghamton and Utica media markets through the cable provider Spectrum. “If you’re watching this ad on Spectrum cable, you’re getting ripped off,” Brindisi says in the ad. “Spectrum has jacked up rates almost double.”
It’s an attack that could appeal to a Trump voter. “We’ve seen him adopt populism, which was a major element of Trump’s election, but from a more liberal perspective,” Perry says. “It’s an interesting approach, and a fairly unique one based in populism and electoral calculation. Who has cable through their television? People over 40 – Democrats and Republicans – and the older you are, the more likely you are to vote.”
Spectrum refused to air the ad, which only gave Brindisi a chance to milk voters’ antipathy to the main cable provider in the area. Brindisi soon cried foul. Though Brindisi has downplayed the thousands of dollars he has taken from a PAC tied to Pelosi, he has played up the thousands of dollars that Tenney has taken from Spectrum.
“I’m still curious as to whether she supports Spectrum,” Shara says of Tenney, as she thinks about the $50 more per month she had spent on cable bills until she and her husband canceled that very morning.
Shara turns the conversation back to the issues that really get her going. Political correctness be damned, she says before walking down the hallway to look at a photo of her father. The Army private first class lies wounded in a WWII hospital in Europe as General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower looks on. “He fought so we could have a free country – not to have us overrun by illegal immigrants,” she says. “Shoot the first five that come over. … I’m tired of this.” She gets down to the bottom line of why she will vote for Tenney in the fall – if she votes at all. It’s all about Trump because “what he’s done, he’s done for the country.”
But Tenney’s votes for the Republican tax cut package – the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act – and to repeal Obamacare are coming back to haunt her among some Republican voters who have soured on Trump. Outside the Walmart in nearby Vestal earlier that day, John Birmingham explains that he dropped off his wife that morning for a $2,500 root canal only to find out that she needs a $1,300 crown as well. “I’m going, ‘Holy cryin’ out loud,’” he says. As health care costs have increased, Tenney’s votes to repeal Obamacare and to carry out tax cuts that Birmingham said have made little difference in his finances. “They’ve lost their mind,” he says of Republicans in Washington, D.C. Brindisi has won his vote by default. “I have no idea what he does,” Birmingham says. “I wouldn’t care if it were the devil.”
“(My father) fought so we could have a free country – not to have us overrun by illegal immigrants. Shoot the first five that come over.” – Theresa Shara, tentative Tenney supporter
The Tenney campaign dismissed worries that she would underperform among Republican voters. “Claudia Tenney has always been an outsider who wins without the support of political elites in her party and she is going to crush Anthony Brindisi with Republicans,” Renna, her campaign manager, said in the email. “Claudia has a strong record to run on, and Anthony Brindisi’s entire campaign is built upon lies that are now being exposed. Brindisi has been a rubber stamp for Cuomo and (former Assembly Speaker Sheldon) Silver in Albany, and he’ll do the same for Pelosi in Washington. … She will prove the pundits, fake pollsters and media elites wrong once again.”
Securing more Republican support remains “the major challenge” for Tenney in the weeks ahead, but upcoming debates could shake up the race as well, Perry said. As many as nine debates and forums have been proposed to the candidates, but only two debates and one forum have been agreed to by Brindisi and Tenney as of mid-September. A forum sponsored by the Rome Area Chamber of Commerce is scheduled for Oct. 17, with a live debate hosted by WSKG-TV and WSQX radio scheduled for Nov. 1 – just five days before the election. Both candidates have agreed to a debate hosted by Spectrum News, but no date has been set.
Several prominent Republicans however have already signaled that they have made up their minds about Tenney, including her moderate Republican predecessor, former Rep. Richard Hanna, who defeated Tenney in a 2014 primary and did not endorse her in 2016. “I think that conservatives and Republicans should still want someone there who has the capacity to be thoughtful,” he said in a September interview with a local media outlet. “To be deliberate, to give logic rather than just hero worship to whoever’s in charge.”
Criticism from fellow Republicans continued following the leaking of a Tenney campaign memo to the New York Post that warned her staff to be “aware of strange cars,” especially since “Brindisi’s family has used their political connections to get away with violence, intimidation and thuggish behavior for years. As the Brindisi family watches Anthony’s political career end, they may return to what they know – violence and intimidation.”
The memo prompted rebukes from elected officials in the district, including Republican state Sen. Joseph Griffo who described the memo as an “ethnic smear.” Outgoing Republican Assemblyman Marc Butler told WIBX radio that Tenney’s latest attempt to tie Brindisi to organized crime could backfire with swing voters – especially given the stakes of the election.
“If the future fate of our nation depends on one seat, on Claudia Tenney’s seat, I think our problems run much deeper than anyone is admitting,” Butler said.
He later added, “To fan the flames like this is just bad politics.” The host then asked if Butler would be offering an endorsement in the race. “I thought I just did,” Butler replied with a laugh.
For now, Brindisi is looking to hold on to the 24 percent of Republican voters who support him, according to the Siena College poll. They could be the difference in the race if independents continue to split their support between the two candidates, but other Republicans say that Tenney does not need to worry about mass defections of Republicans. “Maybe there’s 10 or 20 (percent), or 20 or 30 (percent), but I wouldn’t classify that as the feeling of the mainstream Republicans,” said Fred Beardsley, chairman of the Oswego County Republican Committee. He added that a good economy is what matters to voters, a point that Trump has emphasized in recent months.
Tenney may have aligned herself closely to Trump, but Brindisi also has links to controversial politicians, said Broome County Republican Committee Chairman Bijoy Datta, who repeated a talking point that has continued to follow Brindisi throughout the campaign despite his efforts to distance himself from controversial Democratic leaders. “Tenney sides mostly with Trump,” Datta said, “and Brindisi sides with Cuomo and Pelosi.”
Air Force One landed at Griffiss International Airport in Rome on Aug. 13. It was the first presidential visit to the area in 70 years, and the people of Oneida County were ready to show whether they stood for or against the president. By the time that Trump arrived in downtown Utica, hundreds of people showed up to greet him, local media reported.
The Trump supporters rallied on the north side of the street outside the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Utica, where they traded insults and slogans with the Trump protesters across the street. Inside the hotel, about 300 guests who had paid up to $15,000 each to see Trump listened as the president explained the purpose behind his visit: “I’m here for Claudia. She has been incredible in Congress. She has helped us so much,” Trump said at the event, the Auburn Citizen reported. “You gotta help her because she is running against somebody that’s a total puppet of Nancy Pelosi.”
But the event – which Brindisi matched by having a $10 minimum per person fundraiser nearby – also highlighted Tenney’s own dependence on outside support. Big donors have bankrolled much of Tenney’s campaign, with contributions of more than $1,000 accounting for three-quarters of her fundraising. This includes support from GOP megadonors like Robert Mercer, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and members of the billionaire Schwab family. Overall, of the roughly $2 million that Tenney has raised for the race, less than half has come from in-state donors. About 13 percent of her donations have come from within the district. Brindisi, by comparison, has raised about the same amount of money, but nearly half of his donations are for less than $1,000 and 30 percent of them come from within the district, City & State reported.
“(If Brindisi wins), you’ll get in the back of the line behind illegal immigrants and everybody else.” – Rep. Claudia Tenney
For Tenney, Trump’s appearance in Utica was the reward for her loyalty over the past two years. She had supported him on high-profile votes on health care and tax cuts, as well as on less prominent issues like a March 2017 vote to give the secretary of veterans affairs more power to punish employees and a January vote in opposition to limiting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Trump called her son, a Marine Corps officer, in April 2017 before his deployment to Iraq, and now Trump had come to help his mom win an election – and it fit in well with the political narrative that she and Trump share. “President Donald Trump’s historic visit to the Mohawk Valley is symbolic of the importance he and I place on serving the forgotten people of upstate New York,” she said in a statement before the visit.
Brindisi’s bid to come off as a centrist makes sense in a district that has 30,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. Compared to the state and nation, residents in the district as a whole are less educated, more impoverished and relatively dependent on social programs, such as Social Security, according to census data. In a normal year, the Republicans would have the edge, but this is 2018 and a combination of centrist politics and anti-Trump fervor could put Brindisi over the top, especially since about one-fifth of the approximately 400,000 voters in the district have no party affiliation, according to the state Board of Elections.
But for most voters it appears the race depends on one essential question: Do voters want Congress to help or hinder Trump?
In the small city of Norwich along state Route 12, Russell McIntyre says he has already made up his mind to vote for Claudia Tenney. Trump may be a “social idiot,” but “I like some of what he’s doing,” McIntyre says. “Politics is pretty much partisan. You have to pick a side right now.”
NEXT STORY: Cuomo statements that haven’t held up