By Barrett Seaman
Little by little, out of the darkness of the COVID-19 lockdown come glimpses of the eight Democratic candidates for the 17th District Congressional seat, what they stand for and, to a limited extent, where they stand in the eyes of voters. This will be the week when the veil starts to lift, as at least two more candidates will launch paid media and an on-line gathering puts all eight in the same space. With about a month left before the June 23 primary, voters will start to get a clearer image of their choices.
On Thursday, May 21, the four women and four men running to succeed Nita Lowey will appear in little Hollywood Squares Zoom boxes in a “virtual candidates’ forum” sponsored jointly by the League of Women Voters of Westchester and Rockland Counties. Unlike their last meeting, a debate in January at Mercy College, where a field of what was then nine candidates faced each other and a live audience of some 200, the League’s forum will be highly constrained by the technological limitations of the Zoom format.
The two-hour event (it can’t really be called a “debate”) will be moderated by League member John Hessel of New Rochelle, intentionally not a voter in the District, who will have his finger on the mute button and a set of strict guidelines on who can speak when and who can rebut whom and when. Serving with him as a kind of internet producer will be White Plains chapter president Stephen Cohen. “This is a new format for us,” allows Cohen.
This is not an event one can just drop in on. One needs to register in advance just to be a “participant,” which is somewhat of a misnomer in that no one from the audience will be allowed to “unmute” during the debate itself. To be part of it, one needs to register at https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_NrYE0K9RREibFt5wGCbjmg.
Observers may ask questions, but only in advance. To submit a question, go to https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScyO0pfrVMmx0doWv76DA4k9z2Od3tEFsExH-e9UYOXeI_T2A/viewform. League members will curate the questions in advance.
Each candidate will have one minute for an opening statement and one minute to answer a question. They may also request a 30-second rebuttal to something said by another candidate. The moderator will determine whether to grant the request.
Another ground rule: while the event will be available for anyone to view on the League’s website from its conclusion right up to election day, candidates are prohibited from extracting sound bites for their own advantage. If they take anything, they have to take the entire two-hour event.
The non-partisan League had initially scheduled a parallel debate between the two Republicans registered in the June 23rd primary: Yehudis Gottesfeld, 25, a chemical engineer by training who comes from Rockland’s large Orthodox Jewish community, and Maureen McCardle Schulman, 61, a retired New York City firefighter living in Shrub Oak. Gottesfeld declined the invitation, according to the League, while Schulman never responded to numerous attempts to reach her. “We view the Forum as if it were a job interview,” said Westchester LWV president Marylou Green, “so it is troubling that any candidate would not want to take this opportunity to communicate with the people they are seeking to represent.”
Given the roughly two-to-one advantage registered Democrats have over Republicans in the district, the cancellation of the GOP forum will have no impact on the outcome.
Because it is a rare opportunity to see all eight Democrats—at least within virtual distance of each other, it may prove enlightening to voters who have so far been left with occasional on-line meetings put on by individual candidates, a slew of e-mail messaging, most of which tout endorsements, mailers with pretty pictures and (at least for a couple of candidates so far) cable TV ads.
We’re about to see a distinct escalation in the TV ad war, however. This week, both Evelyn Farkas and Mondaire Jones will be airing ads for the first time. Their campaigns are hoping these ads will boost name recognition and tie them to their key policy positions.
Farkas’s theme is liberty, as in the statue of, and what subjects of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un don’t have. She was handed a freebie recently when Trump loyalists accused her of lying about what information the Obama administration had about Trump’s Russian ties back in 2016-17, opening the door for her to warn about continued Russian election meddling in a Washington Post op-ed. Having Donald Trump Jr. and Tucker Carlson as enemies, it is fair to say, will not hurt her in a 17th District Democratic primary.
The Jones campaign, his supporters will tell you, should benefit from the economic and medical insecurity brought on by the pandemic. His positions on raising the federal poverty line, taxing the super-rich and advocacy of Medicare-for-all should play well in an electorate that has seen millions lose their livelihoods and health coverage in the past two months alone.
Until this week, only two other candidates have been visible on the airwaves: David Buchwald, the down-to-earth former tax attorney who still has a day job as a state assemblyman, had an ad up for a few weeks presenting him as a family man and legislative macher. But that’s been taken down and won’t be replaced until later in May or even June. Filling the vacuum has been what feels like a seamless blanket of Adam Schleifer ads. The latest plays off the courage of his holocaust-surviving grandfather, which, the ad says, inspired the candidate’s courage in prosecuting criminals in L.A. and protecting consumers as a New York regulator.
Schleifer’s very deep pockets—he’s spent more than the other seven combined—has the full attention of the field, and there’s no doubt that he will be widely known in the district come June 23. But his opponents don’t seem to feel he has a natural constituency that will turn out and vote for him.
The most feared candidate is David Carlucci who, despite allegedly high negatives in private polling, an anemic bank account that may not be able to afford television, and the deep enmity of Westchester progressives because of his membership in the Independent Democratic Caucus (IDC), remains the candidate to beat. Reason: his Rockland County roots where his service as a state senator has earned him a base of almost Trumpian impermeability. If Westchester gets carved up among the other major candidates and Carlucci can deliver 35 to 40 percent of Rockland Democrats, he’ll be the party’s nominee. If there’s anything his rivals can agree on, it is a hope that his base is a ceiling, not a floor.
With all the constraints on public campaigning, one would think the candidates with strong digital presence would benefit. By that measure, Allison Fine should be a contender. She has put on enlightening online events and sends out a steady stream of emails offering a mixture of practical advice on how to get by during the shutdown and thoughtful, sometimes philosophical observations on life and its vicissitudes. But by any observable measure, even including numbers of Twitter and Facebook followers, she trails the pack. As the most obvious pro-choice candidate, she could not have been pleased when Emily’s List endorsed Evelyn Farkas.
Farkas’s fat dossier of endorsements is a veritable Who’s Who of the American foreign policy establishment that keeps on getting fatter. Among the most impressive: former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former Senator, Secretary of State and presidential candidate John Kerry. Her opponents contend that these are only proof that she is an outsider whose constituents are from K Street, not Central Avenue. Whether her virtual “whistlestop” events and forums on local issue like Indian Point are enough to counter that image remains to be seen.
David Buchwald leads the pack in another category of endorsements: local pols and unions. Pundits are interested in seeing whether these grass roots are thick enough to counter the glitz of Farkas’s Washington all-stars.
In a field of eight candidates, there was bound to be a category of also-rans—folks who poll in the single digits and don’t warrant attacks ads from their opponents. In the race for Nita Lowey’s seat, Rye’s Catherine Parker and Asha Castleberry-Hernandez of Elmsford fall into that category. Otherwise articulate public servants, (Parker as a county legislator; Castleberry-Hernandez as a combat veteran, teacher and national security expert), these two have not gained any apparent traction and are unable to afford the kind of media exposure that will move them up the ranks. Perhaps a strong showing in Thursday’s League forum will change that.