I made a right off Tinker Street in Woodstock just before 10 a.m. into the office driveway of Democratic congressional candidate Jeff Beals, but had a moment of confusion when I saw the yellow two-story house in front of me. There were no cars in the driveway, and a sign post out front was lacking a sign.
They had just moved into the office last week, Jeff said when he arrived a few minutes later from the Woodstock Day School, where he teaches high school history. He led me into to the two-room office, which was attached to the back of the house. They hadn’t gotten a doormat yet, either, and our wet shoes squeaked across the tile.
Jeff stacked books by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — who he said was his favorite contemporary political figure — on his bookshelf, which also included mementos from his career as a diplomat in the Middle East.
We drove to Maria’s Bazaar to get coffee — or tea, in his case. He said he drank coffee, but he had a series of events later in the day and had to ration out his caffeine.
Jeff is not independently wealthy and pledges to not fundraise from corporate donors, instead financing his campaign off small donations. I asked him about the merits of independently wealthy candidates arguing they are not beholden to anyone when seeking office.
“It’s a paternalistic argument that says…somebody else has enough money to be sane, and you people that are all harried and have to earn a paycheck, you can’t think straight, so just leave it to me, because I got a fat bank account and I can afford to think long and hard about these things, because I got time you don’t got,” Jeff said.
“I don’t need it,” he continued, “and If I have to hear, especially in the age of this president, one more CEO tell me ‘I’m independently wealthy, therefore I’m not beholden to anybody,’ I want to retch.”
Jeff filed paperwork in May to run for Congress in the 19th district, a large, mostly rural area which encompasses the upper half of the Hudson Valley, stretches west through the Catskills, and reaches around the greater Albany area as far north as Montgomery County.
The district was cobbled together during redistricting in 2012, and comprises parts of the traditionally conservative 20th district and the traditionally liberal 22nd district. Democrats have attempted to win the new district with a series of liberal candidates, but Republicans have won all three congressional elections since the district’s inception — moderate Chris Gibson won in 2012 and 2014, then left office, leading to a match between law professor and anti-corruption advocate Zephyr Teachout and former New York Assembly Minority Leader and lobbyist John Faso, which came out solidly in the latter’s favor. The district voted for Obama in 2012, and Trump in 2016, according to the Daily Kos.
Eight Democrats have filed paperwork to run in the democratic primary, all hoping to unseat John Faso in the 2018 general election.
Jeff said he is running in part because he feels he is representative of people in the 19th district.
“A lot of the reason that I’m running is the belief that we don’t often put forward candidates that are representative — the candidate…should be representative of the people he wants to represent,” Jeff said. “Simple statement, but often not the case.”
Jeff is the average age for the district — 41 — and supports his two young children on two middle-class incomes.
“I like Barack Obama because I felt that he represented me — that was part of the appeal that I understood — he had 2 kids, I had two kids, he and his wife both worked, they had debt. He was a guy who I really thought was attempting to live the American experience in all its complexities and its challenges,” he said.
Jeff was born in New York City, where his parents lived in a working-class area of Flushing, Queens. All four of his grandparents immigrated to the U.S. after WWII as Holocaust survivors, and his family first fell in love with the Hudson Valley as his grandparents rented bungalows in the Borscht Belt of Sullivan and Ulster counties, Jeff said.
When Jeff was still a child, his parents moved to a farm in Putnam County to raise livestock.
“The story of the Holocaust, the story of the Jews of Europe is a story of dispossession, and I think there’s always a dream in a family like mine have land, [to] have a home,” Jeff said.
Jeff went to Harvard, majoring in government and writing for the school’s newspaper.
After college, Jeff backpacked around Egypt writing for “Let’s Go,” a travel guide for students, he said.
He started his professional career as a CIA intelligence officer before working for the U.S. State Department as a diplomat in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from 2002-2004. He then worked for the State Department in Iraq, using his negotiating skills to bring together clashing factions after the U.S. invasion.
I asked him when military intervention was justified, and, after looking off to the side while narrowing his eyes, he responded that this was the type of question that leads to foreign policy mistakes.
“One of the biggest problems in U.S. foreign policies is people coming up with doctrines, or abstract laws that govern their decision-making, and then that locks them into foolish decisions that they feel they must remain consistent with to maintain some sort of fictitious credibility in the eyes of the world,” he said.
He did not trust the doctrine-makers, Jeff said, because he has seen their policies lead the U.S. astray too many times.
His campaign uses the word “unite” a lot, and their hashtag is #UniteNY19, so I had to ask him how the district was divided.
“(In the 19th District) people strongly identify as Democrat, people strongly identify as Republican, and never the twain shall meet, and this doesn’t make sense to me when you look at the economic situation and the shared economic struggles of most of the people of the district,” Jeff said. “Most of the people in our district are earning less than they need to get by, most of the people in our district are laboring under either medical debt or under-coverage, or fearing what can happen to them if they lose their job, or if their coverage isn’t what they hope it will be. Most of the people in the district care deeply about the environment, because this is one of the environmental jewels of the United States…there’s so many things that unite us, and so many obvious policies that come out of those things to bring us closer together and yet, low and behold, we don’t vote the same way, and wind up with the representative who’s voting against most of those interests.”
Experience as a negotiator makes him an excellent candidate to bridge these gaps, Jeff said.
“There’s societies I’ve worked in and lived in that are torn apart by tribal differences that also mask common unities that never get discovered,” he said. “People judge each other as being the other side, just on the basis of a family name, a turban or the neighborhood they live in, when in fact, they have a ton in common, and I can’t help but see most of what’s going on here in our district in my home through a similar lens.”
“People think if you go to a car show in Olive and you’re waxing an old Bel Air, you might be a Republican, and if you are in the VFW, maybe you’re in a Republican, and if you’re at the Woodstock Farmer’s market, you’re a Democrat,” he continued. “That’s nonsense. Those people all have so much in common, they’re all living within ten minutes of each other, they probably even know each other vaguely, but based on a t-shirt or a song playing on the radio, or a hobby, they’re begining to self-identify as different groups. It’s not a politician’s job or a leader’s job to necessarily end all those differences, because the differences are good, they’re representative of the ways that different people like to live, and diversity makes our society stronger…but it is a politician’s job to guide all those different groups, to bring those groups together for shared causes, shared benefits.”
Some political leaders are guilty of encouraging and capitalizing surface divisions in the 19th, Jeff said.
“John Faso is happy for our district to be divided, (because) as long as our district is divided, he can play one side off the other and vote to repeal the [Affordable Care Act], kick a bunch of people off of Medicaid, and even when he’s doing it to people on both sides of the political spectrum, he can convince one side [that] ‘I’m doing this to them, not to you.’”
A major issue for Jeff is health care. He believes health care should be universal, and said the first bill he will sign onto if elected is the Expanded and Improved Medicare For All Act.
The bill would fund universal healthcare by raising income taxes on the top 5 percent of earners, modestly raising payroll tax, taxing unearned income and instituting a small tax on stock and bond transactions.
Jeff is holding a series of health care forums across the 19th district featuring speakers who experience the ins and outs of health care in everyday life. A Sept. 5 forum held in Hudson featured a local doctor, a local health insurance expert and Andrea Mitchell, who was booted from her healthcare provider after not being able to prove her life-threatening illness wasn’t pre-existing, but was able to receive healthcare under the Affordable Care Act.
Andrea told the forum how in February she confronted John Faso, who she had known since she was a child, about a potential repeal of the ACA, saying he promised her that her coverage wouldn’t be taken away.
Faso later voted twice to repeal the ACA.
Jeff also talked about Medicare Part D, a federal program established in 2003 to help seniors pay for prescription medication. The Medicare Modernization Act, which established the program, included a ban on the government negotiating the cost of prescription medication, which could, in theory, significantly lower the cost of medication across the board.
“We have to reverse that decision,” Jeff said. “It was a corrupt decision that was taken because…of lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industry who wanted to improve their profit margins and price gouge us.”
Speaking of the forums, Jeff said he liked getting the voice of those on the ground level of the health care crisis.
“If you look at the people who FDR had writing his policies to get us out of the Great Depression, they were a bunch of people who were not the top elites of the American spectrum, they were local bankers…it was a far cry from the type of people that you now have occupying cabinet posts…That’s an inspiring part of his legacy, and part of what we need to get back to. It’s part of what I’m doing when I’m bringing together local experts…to me those voices and their ground truth is worth a lot more than an elite expert.”
Jeff said it was “inhumane” and “un-American” for Trump to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gave temporary residency status to those who had been brought illegally to the U.S. as children.
When asked if he would be in favor of raising taxes on the wealthy to fund programs other than universal healthcare, Jeff said he was in favor of closing loopholes in the tax code favoring the rich.
“We’re unfairly taxing work more than taxing wealth,” he said.
Some of Jeff’s views, such as universal healthcare, run in the vein of Bernie Sanders, who Jeff said he voted for in the 2016 presidential primary. After Sanders failed to gain the nomination, Jeff worked as a foreign policy advisor on the Hillary Clinton campaign.
He supports other liberal causes, saying he believed transgendered people should be a protected class under the Civil Rights Act, which disallows discrimination in housing and employment.
Jeff also said he is a big supporter of Green Energy such as solar power, saying investing in this infrastructure would result in U.S. energy independence and would have a “geopolitical benefit of not being so dependent on oil which will reverberate across the globe.”
It would take a real commitment for the U.S. to get there, Jeff said.
“It requires an investment on par with the investment we made into the [interstate] highway system back in the day,” he said.
“The question is, are we bold enough to do it?”