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The Race to Succeed Nita Lowey: Campaigning in the Dark:

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April 9, 2020

By Barrett Seaman

A couple of things happened around the Ides of March that effectively made the crowded race to succeed Nita Lowey in New York’s 17th Congressional District go dark. One was Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to hit the PAUSE button on virtually all interpersonal activity, closing schools and businesses and banning all public gatherings of more than ten people. The other was his reduction from 1,250 to 375 in the minimum number of petition signatures each candidate needed in order to qualify for the June 23rd primary. As COVID-19 spread through the district, the physical contact inherent in going door-to-door gathering petitions was becoming, quite literally, a life-or-death issue. The candidates themselves had been jousting among themselves over whether to suspend petition-gathering and the related issue of challenging the legitimacy of their opponents’ petitions—a process that would put polling officials at risk. No campaign rallies; no meet-and greets; no petitions. Is anybody out there?

Before searching for more clues as to the outcome, perhaps it’s worth pausing to review the cast of characters:

The most solidly grounded Westchester legislator in the race, Assemblyman David Buchwald, is also the most broadly—and locally—endorsed of the lot, having garnered the support of scores of local elected officials, as well as gathering the most petitions. As the pandemic took hold in the county, he played to his strength by introducing legislation in Albany to provide no-interest loans of up to $75,000 for small businesses and non-profits. He recently launched TV spots, featuring him with his two young daughters at home in White Plains.

With Mondaire Jones the only other candidate from west of the Hudson, State Senator David Carlucci has a strong base in that more conservative part of the district. He has won endorsements from a couple of local labor unions, the Teamsters and the Building and Construction Trades Council, but faces widespread opposition east of the Hudson among party regulars who resent his membership in the Independent Democratic Caucus in Albany. The IDC was a group of seven Democrats who often voted as a bloc with Republicans against some of Senate Democrats’ key legislative proposals, like New York’s codification of Roe v. Wade and stringent gun control measures, among many others.

As a U.S. Army veteran who served in Iraq, Asha Castleberry-Hernandez is stressing her military expertise as an asset in the war against COVID-19. She’s been holding a series of Facebook sessions to answer voters’ questions and sell her policy positions, which are pretty standard Democratic Party stances on affordable housing, student debt relief, $15 minimum wage and reproductive rights for women. While she emphatically supports the Green New Deal, she is not a Medicare for All advocate but rather endorses the more moderate public option model.

Of all the candidates, Evelyn Farkas has the most real-time experience in Washington, where she served as a staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and in the Pentagon as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia and Ukraine. That put her in the thick of the Trump/Russia investigation, which in turn landed her a highly visible spot in the rotation of expert contributors to MSNBC’s Morning Joe and CNN, among others. Her Washington experience, though largely a plus in supporting her claim that she can “hit the ground running” if elected, turns out to be something of a two-edged sword. It has left her open to opponents’ claims that she is a carpetbagger. That flared up recently when it was revealed that she had been taking a tax deduction for her condominium in D.C. while she was telling her audiences that she was born and bred in Chappaqua, where she currently lives with her mother. Farkas quickly retracted the deduction claim. Unable, as is everybody, to go out and press the flesh, she is about to launch a virtual “whistle stop tour” in which she will go from town to town interactively, trying to demonstrate her facility with the legislative process.

Author of three books on how to use social media to advantage, Allison Fine has been practicing what she preached under the limitations of the virus pandemic. Her website is one of the more polished, and she sends out daily emails to a list of some 5,000, offering down-to-earth tips: how to make a protective mask, where to find support for a struggling business, what are the best non-profits to support. Formerly chair of the national board of NARAL Pro Choice America and an “unapologetic feminist,” she has made women’s rights a centerpiece of a generally centrist campaign.

Mondaire Jones, 32, holds down the left flank along the ideological spectrum of candidates. He’s a proponent of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and just about every other progressive position you can name. He’s endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, the Working Families Party, Rockland United Community for Social Justice and the Hispanic Democrats of Westchester. He’s black; he’s gay; he went to Stanford and Harvard Law School, and as a native of West Nyack, he’s the only other candidate beside David Carlucci that has a foothold in Rockland County.

Catherine Parker represents Mamaroneck and Rye in the County Legislature, where she has been majority leader for the past two years. Her umbrella issue is the environment, which she says “impacts every aspect of public policy”—social justice, economics, housing and healthcare. Her best-known endorsement comes from the Mayor of Mamaroneck, although she is also backed by Robin Latimer, fellow Rye resident and wife of the County Executive. The other candidate named Catherine who serves in the county legislature, Catherine Borgia, dropped out of the race in March.

The first CD-17 contender to go on TV, Adam Schleifer’s ads feature his younger brother David, who has special needs, and his Holocaust surviving grandparents as the source of his declared commitments to social justice and inclusivity. He’s more moderate than some of his rivals, endorsing the public option as the route to universal health care and more targeted environmental reforms rather than the Green New Deal. In addition to his prolific ad spots, he has been holding twice-weekly virtual town halls. He has also been touting endorsements by former New York Congressman Tom Israel and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd. Like Farkas, however, he is vulnerable to charges that he is an outsider, having last worked as a prosecutor in L.A. against defendants in the “Varsity Blues” college bribery scandal.

As for who’s ahead, there are very few, if any, indices. No polls have been taken. The only reliable markers are the number of petitions each gathered before the process shut down and the amount of money each candidate has raised.  At the time the petition-gathering was halted, Assemblyman David Buchwald had gathered 3,858 signatures—ten times the 375 minimum and nearly twice the number gathered by his nearest competitor, Allison Fine. Below that, four of the eight were bunched in a narrow range.

Under normal circumstances, petition signatures would not be at the top of a list of indices. Money gets more respect from pundits—and more attention from the candidates themselves. There’s a lag in reporting, though, as the Federal Election Commission reports only every three months, so year-end 2019 are the latest hard numbers. By that count, Adam Schleifer led the field with $741,386 raised. followed by Buchwald and Evelyn Farkas, then a big gap before the rest of the field.

By last count, Schleifer appeared to be the top money raiser, but there are different ways of measuring contributions. Daniel Weinfeld of Hartsdale, a self-proclaimed political junkie and blogger, offers two additional looks at campaign contributions that might provide a closer link to voter approval. One is to look at what he calls “Real” fundraising, which nets out personal loans and family contributions. By that measure, at least based on year-end totals, Schleifer, whose father is chairman of Tarrytown-based Regeneron, drops to fourth place, while Mondaire Jones and Evelyn Farkas rise to first and second place.

Weinfeld’s second deep dive into the numbers measures what he calls “fundraising pace,” meaning the rate by which candidates have raised money since entering the race. By this measure, as of December 31st anyway, Evelyn Farkas has a substantial advantage over the field. Whether the first quarter FEC numbers change these dynamics will have to wait until after the next reporting deadline on April 15.

Meanwhile, those looking for a winning candidate will have to walk tentatively through the dim light of web streaming events, Zoom meetings and e-mail blitzes for answers. From a purely horserace perspective, a look at the field suggests that David Carlucci, a known entity with an arguably firm grasp on Rockland County, is a leading contender. As much animosity as he might draw in the more progressive communities of Westchester, his opposition there is fragmented among at least four strong opponents, all of whom have fairly similar moderate positions on the issues, namely Buchwald, Farkas, Fine and Schleifer. If the party faithful are to win this election (since there are no viable Republican contenders), there’s going to have to be a clear winnowing over the next eight weeks. This race may go into the final turn in June with no clear outcome.

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