Gareth Rhodes is not new to hikes. The Ulster County native has done overnight treks on many of the Catskill High Peaks, and as a child hiked with his family every year from their home in Rifton to Bonticou Crag in the Shawangunks, a 25-mile round trip.
Gareth, as well as panting less on the hike than me, is running for Congress in New York’s 19th District, a rural expanse encompassing the upper Hudson Valley, the Catskills, and areas east and west of the Capital District. Gareth is one of six democrats vying to unseat Republican John Faso, who is serving his first term in Congress.
Part of his hiking ability could be attributed to his youth. Gareth is 29, which would make him the youngest member of Congress if elected. I ask him if he has sufficient life experience for the job.
“No one has more stake in this election than our generation,” he said. “We are the ones who these policies are going to disproportionally affect. If we deny climate change reality, pull out the Paris agreement — (we’re) the people who are going to pay back the deficit that has been created by the generations above us…we’re paying for the wasted expenses of people who went before us. They basically handed us a huge credit card bill — ‘Alright, I had a great life living off our credit card, and here it is to pay back, good luck.’”
“We face a real choice here,” he said. “Are we going to continue to kick the can to our children and end up like Greece, or are we going to do something about it. We need more people who are young to be in Congress, because we can’t kick the can down the road — we [would be] kicking it to ourselves.”
It’s about ten degrees out, and the air feels like iron as we move through it. We’ve selected a shorter loop in the Minnewaska State Preserve leading to an outcrop that promises views of the Hudson River.
We bump into a group of young women slogging up a side trail from the Peters Kill mid-way through the hike. They’re going on some sort of mid-winter tour of the frozen waterfalls in Minnewaska State Park, the area of the Shawangunks outside New Paltz we’re trekking through. Gareth speaks easily to the bevy. I wait for the pitch — ‘My name is Gareth Rhodes, and I’m running to be your representative…’ — but it never comes, and we cheerily give the group a departing wave with the immediate familiarity one has with fellow hikers.
None of the six candidates running to represent the 19th District has held elected office before, part of the contemporary phenomenon of outsider politics, a “kick the bastards out” mentality that arguably started with the Tea Party. That is not to say none of the candidates have served their country — Pat Ryan is a veteran, and Jeff Beals worked as a diplomat in the U.S. State Department — but Gareth is the only candidate who has worked in government in the state. He was employed in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s press office for five years, where he helped hash out a series of new laws which helped stimulate the wine and craft beer industries in the state, as well as working on the recovery efforts after Hurricanes Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, which both devastated communities in the 19th District in 2011.
The six congressional candidates have all lived in the 19th District for varying amounts of time, but Gareth is the only one who can claim to have been born here. The last two democratic candidates for the 19th District — Sean Eldridge and Zephyr Teachout, both of whom lost — moved to the district soon before running, and Faso leveled the “carpetbagger” oath at Teachout every change he got.
Gareth’s life has an interesting genesis: he was born and raised in a Bruderhof community, an off-shoot of the Anabaptists dedicated to following the teachings of the early Christians. Bruderhofs believe in a “community of goods and a common purse,” according to their website, and members do not have personal monies.
Gareth went to Kingston High, but worked after school in the Bruderhof community, farming and crafting furniture.
“I learned welding, I learned plumbing, I learned electrical work — my parents were very insistent I learned different trades,” he said.
Gareth broke away from the community after he graduated high school. They were conservative about certain social issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, which he supported, Gareth said.
“They take a biblical approach to many of these things,” he said. “They tend to be anti-choice and against same-sex marriage, things I feel very strongly about in the opposite way, and I wanted to work in public service, I wanted to work for the good of the broader community, and I didn’t think I had that opportunity there.” (Gareth later clarified the Bruderhof do many good works for the local community, but do not hold government positions).
Gareth took a job drilling water wells around the county and sliced meats at Franks’s Village Market & Deli in Marlboro on weekends.
“I didn’t know that college was really going be an option for me,” he said. “If I’m honest, I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it.”
His co-workers encouraged him to find a way, Gareth said, and he attended CUNY in New York City on Pell and TAP grants, graduating in 2011.
After working for the Cuomo administration for five years, Gareth entered Harvard Law, but stopped his education to run for Congress.
Gareth talks a lot about income inequality over his fruit cup at The College Diner in New Paltz (he ate a double-egg, sausage and cheddar before the hike, he explained). The widening wealth gap is a popular topic in the age of Bernie Sanders (one which Jeff Beals, another NY-19 candidate, also spoke about at length), but Gareth said one of his main concerns about the recently-passed tax bill was that it did not address the ballooning deficit.
The bill, passed in December, slashes the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, cuts income taxes, and ends many deductions, including for state and local taxes, among other changes. The individual tax cuts expire after ten years, and many lower-income earners would actually be paying more in taxes in the years leading to the cut-off, though most higher-income earners will continue to pay less, according to an analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation.The Congressional Budget Office estimated the tax bill would add 1.4 trillion dollars to the deficit over the next decade.
“It slashed the individual tax rate for the highest income earners, so you’re talking a massive loss of federal revenue at a time when the last thing we should be doing is losing more federal revenue,” he said.”
“It’s one thing to cut taxes when you have a budget surplus like 17-18 years ago, but now we have a budget deficit,” he added.
Income inequality needs to be federally addressed to level the playing field between different states, Gareth said.
States like New York have high minimum wages, but a federal $15 minimum wage tied to inflation would both benefit workers and stop businesses from potentially relocating to areas with lower minimum wages, he said.
Gareth is big into interacting with the district. He’s visiting all 163 communities in the 19th during his campaign, rumbling along the Hudson and over the Catskills in a mini Winnebago he said he bought off craigslist. He complimented former NY-19 Rep. Chris Gibson, Faso’s predecessor, on being thoroughly ingrained in the community, saying he would not have run against the Republican because “he got a lot of things right.”
Faso “lost a great opportunity” by not being more involved and responsive to the community, Gareth said.
Faso did not hold a town hall meeting until four-and-a-half months after taking office, even as the healthcare debate raged, and then held an event requiring pre-registration, according to the Times-Union.
Things that concern Gareth are “the things that keep the average American up at night” — including health care, student debt, the opioid epidemic and under-funded public schools, he said.
He presented several ideas he said would help both the education system and the economy, including tightening regulations on the interest rates for student loans, which currently range from 4.45 to 7 percent.
“There should be a federal program where we incentivize…training for the jobs we need,” he said. “We need more engineers? Hey, it only costs one percent to get a loan for an engineering degree. We need more doctors? Let’s make it one percent for doctors.”
He contrasted Donald Trump, who has declared bankruptcy several times “basically, as a business model,” with “a student who is in debt $25,000-$30,000 and as a result of having to pay those loans back, is going deeper and deeper into credit card debt, and the minute a health care crisis comes along, they have to move out of his or her home or move out of his or her apartment, has to sell their car — that’s exactly what bankruptcy is designed for…to deny that to people who need it the most, that’s wrong.”
There should be more federal funding for schools in order to level the playing field between rich and poor districts, and more vocational training should be offered, Gareth said.
The waitress comes over to offer us more coffee. Gareth has a New York Rangers knit-cap pulled over his head, and the waitress is a fan. They chat for a moment, and he mentions he’s going to be watching the Buffalo Bills game later, but the waitress is not a supporter.
Gareth believes in universal health care, saying he’d co-sponsor the house version of Sen. Bernie Sanders Medicare for All bill. Obamacare was problematic because it still relied on the private insurance industry, an inherent flaw, Gareth said.
“It’s always going be about profits, not people,” he said. “(As a private insurer) your fiduciary obligation is to make money for your shareholders, make sure your stock price is going up…a private healthcare industry means you’re obligated to serve the profit-making incentives instead of people who come there for care.”
I asked him about his experience studying abroad in Shanghai, and he responded the trip made him see the importance of environmental regulation anew.
“I never saw blue sky once,” he said. “The Hudson Valley used to have really high asthma rates. I had asthma growing up. It went away when I become an adult, but when I was in China, it roared up again.”
He knocked the Trump administration for repealing Obama’s Clean Power Plan and pulling out of the Paris climate accord, noting how denuded Catskill peaks have re-grown and fish have propagated in once-dead lakes thanks to anti-pollution measures.
The Hudson Valley had the right resources for continued economic success, but the federal government needed to step in to improve information infrastructure such as broadband internet and cell service, Gareth said, who owns two cell phones with different carriers due to spotty service across the district.
He showed me the Winnebago in the College Diner parking lot. It’s a “Minnie” Winnebago, which he said was preferable to the full-sized version due to lower gas mileage and easier parking. He pointed to a table where meetings can be held, and an exterior canopy he plans to unfurl in the summer months.
The Winnebago has 75,000 miles on it, and Gareth still has about 110 communities to visit. You can check when he’ll be at yours here.