Inside Jeff Beals’ Insurgent Campaign for Congress

Courtesy Kingston Creative.
Check out their insights on the 19th here.

“Everything today is really tight.”

Iyla Shornstein, Beals’ 29-year-old chief of staff, swipes through the day’s schedule as Beals loads a giant poster board displaying a map of New York’s 19th Congressional District into the campaign’s SUV. The truck has about 14,500 miles on it and was only purchased in late summer, which speaks to the type of traveling Beals must do in this vast, mostly rural district to reach the voters he hopes will nominate him to face off against John Faso, the Republican currently representing the district.

The three of us gather in the swirling cold outside the Woodstock Day School Jan. 18 after Beals drops his two young sons off for their day’s studies. He has taught high school history at the school for the last couple years, and is still teaching part-time while campaigning.

Beals, 41, is one of six democrats vying to take on Faso in November’s mid-term elections. In a year when democrats are fervently motivated to swing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to their party, Faso’s seat is viewed as weak, according to an analysis by New York Magazine.

I ride shotgun as Shornstein drives and Beals leans over a laptop in back, the high peaks of the eastern Catskills lengthening into snowy ridges as we head east into Delaware County. After a while, Beals puts his laptop away and tucks his knees to his chest while staring at the grand topography speeding past.

“I’m going to need you to call Christina Woods,” Shonrstein says to Beals. “We’re going to be really late.”

Shornstein thought the journey would take well below an hour and a half, but the GPS tells us it’s going to be an hour and 45 minutes. Shornstein has an interesting position — though an employee of Beals, she often has to tell him what to do.

Beals isn’t teaching today, which allows him to travel farther from his Woodstock base then he could on work days, which he reserves for closer events. The target is the greater Delhi area in the center of Delaware County’s rectangle of rugged terrain.

Beals has worked in government before, first as a CIA intelligence officer, then as a diplomat for the U.S. State Department in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from 2002-2004. He next worked for the State Department in Iraq, using his negotiating skills to bring together clashing factions after the U.S. invasion.

Beals is angry. He tells voters this on the campaign trail — he’s angry at Trump, angry at the state of the healthcare system, angry at income inequality — but he reserves a particular ire for John Faso. He has to grade some papers when he gets home, and puts the performance of the former state Assembly Minority Leader and lobbyist into a teacher’s rubric.

“The running joke is that, as we are at this kind of [evaluative] moment in a January, I was thinking to myself — who gets an A and who gets an F? — and John Faso definitely gets a very low failing grade,” he says. “…F for failure.”

Click here for full policy and biographical interview with Beals.

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Delhi, NY. NOT pronounced like the Indian city.

“Is there waitress service?” Beals asks Shornstein. We’re sitting at a table at the Cross Roads Café, a small coffee and sandwich shop on Main Street in Delhi that features an abundance of Timber Wolf photographs hung across its walls.

“Yes!” calls one of the three older women from the adjacent table.

Beals engages.

“My name is Jeff Beals. I’m running for Congress…”

There are approximately 711,000 people in New York’s 19th District, and it behooves anyone running to meet as many of them as possible. Beals is good at this. Within a couple minutes, he is sitting at the women’s table, and takes his tuna melt over to eat with them when it arrives. Within 15 minutes, one of the women is telling him he should address the price of groceries, because she has trouble filling her pantry.

Beals asks a lot of direct questions while campaigning. He tells people he’s “trying to get smarter” — that campaigning is as much about learning the opinions of people in the district as telling them his.

The women talk about their issues with state and local tax deductions being limited in the just-passed Republican tax bill — a left-leaning stance — and what they see as the abuses of the welfare state — a right-leaning one. It’s a swing district, after all.

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Beals at Cross Roads Cafe in Delhi

Cross Roads closes at 2 p.m., but the proprietors keep it open so Beals can hold a “Coffee with Jeff Beals” event. About a dozen people crowd around tables we’ve pushed together. Some of them are tardy, and Beals stops his conversation each time someone enters to stride up for a greeting.

A common theme heard throughout the day was the classic upstate-downstate divide, a deep-rooted sore point for anyone living north of Poughkeepsie. There are a lot of second homeowners from NYC in Delaware County, and people tell Beals they treat the area like “a bedroom community.”

Cliff Bice, one of the Coffee-with-Jeff attendees, says Delaware County is “still part of Appalachia” and the way of thinking in the area is markedly different than thinking in D.C. or Albany.

“It’s different up here, even from where you are, things are different,” he says.

The ire directed downstate is exacerbated around Delhi, because, with its proximity to the Pepacton Reservoir, it is part of the New York City Watershed area, and it pisses people off a metropolis 3 hours away has so much control over land usage.

Beals seems to direct some swipes downstate during the day, saying at the Crossroads event many politicians were bankrolled by “hedge funds from New York City.” I ask him about this later in the day.

“I think that the real fault lines are not geographic, they’re economic,” he says. “They’re 90 percent of the people of the United States not getting a fair share of the growth and wealth of the United States for 40 years. That’s the divide that I see, that I see as being the stark one.”

The mostly senescent group at Cross Roads brings up other issues dear to their hearts — Medicare; a decline in volunteers for emergency services; and SUNY Delhi, the nearby campus, not contributing to the local economy.

Deb Blue, an especially insightful attendee, asks Beals how, as a progressive democrat, he would curry the favor of residents who already believe the federal government is too far-reaching.

Without government involvement, Beals says, “it’s going to leave you under the control of corporations that are not merciful.”

Faso ran against Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and anti-corruption advocate, in 2016 and roundly defeated her. Beals brings her name up during the event in the context of his own campaign.

“I don’t think this would work for Zephyr Teachout — I don’t even blame her (for losing), that wasn’t the time — this is the time,” he says.

At a certain point, the gathered ask Beals how they can help. A few of them have been to Beals’ events before and already support him, but fervent supporters are how you build a candidate’s ground game.

At the end of the coffee event, Beals whips out a large piece of paper, holding it against his chest to shield it from view. He was in Iraq during the country’s first post-war elections, and asks the crowd to guess how many political parties fielded candidates for parliament.

“I dunno…30!” says an attendee.

“120,” Beals replies. The paper is a copy of the ballot used in the elections, and he reads the names of some of the liberal parties in fluent Arabic.

“Do you know how many significant liberal groups were elected?” Beals pauses. “Zero.”

“This is what happens when we don’t consolidate,” he says.

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Iyla Shornstein at the back of the audience during a “Citizen’s Summit” in Delhi, NY on Jan. 18.

Born and raised in Woodstock, Iyla Shornstein has always been political. She went to SUNY Binghamton for political science, interning for Rep. Maurice Hinchey during the veteran democrat’s last term in office.

After graduating, she moved to the city of Hudson to work at Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation, a local agrarian economic development agency. She went on to pursue her Master’s degree in environmental policy at Bard College. Faso took office with two semesters to go, and Shornstein started organizing call-ins to Faso’s office around major congressional votes.

“When people started announcing their candidacies, I wanted to volunteer for one of the campaigns, and I started looking into the people that had declared, or had rumors of declaring, and I wasn’t very excited,” she said.

She met Beals at Woodstock Day School, Shornstein said, where her mother is a co-worker of Beals’ and Shornstein herself was once a student.

“She introduced me, and within ten minutes of talking to him I was like, ‘I’m on board,’” she said.

She began volunteering for Beals and became the first person he hired.

“One of the things I say to people a lot is…for me it’s a very weirdly profound experience…because it’s literally my family and my friends and my community,” she said. “This is where I grew up — it’s completely what shaped my world view.”

“It strikes a deep personal [place],” she added. “It doesn’t feel like work, because I’m very invested in this.”

Shornstein handles a multitude of tasks, but summed up her position as getting Beals out in the field with as many people as possible.

“It’s largely educational,” Shornstein said. “It’s putting Jeff in as many situations as he can to learn what’s happening in his district. So, a lot of it is planning and fielding a tremendous amount of phone calls and emails.”

Shornstein is one of four people employed by the campaign as of mid-January. The others are Field Director Connor Boehme, Finance Director Daley Gruen, and Digital Director Alexandre J. Petraglia, who came on board Jan. 19.

Boehme, a 23-year-old Bard graduate with floppy hair, said he has been volunteering in political campaigns since middle school, and had his first official position in John Liu’s campaign for state Senate the summer after Freshman year of college. He was at a candidate’s forum in Esopus while Beals was in Delaware County. Beals had appeared in the forum last week, but Boehme still represented, handing out literature and chatting with voters as candidates Dave Clegg, Gareth Rhodes and Antonio Delgado spoke.

Boehme oversees the almost 100 active volunteers involved in the campaign, part of a larger group that includes volunteers from other organizations, he said.

The canvassing will expand dramatically come March 6, Boehme said, the date campaigns can start collecting the 1,250 signatures needed to get their candidate on the primary ballot.

It’s an honored political tradition for campaigns to employ lawyers to go over other candidates’ signatures and get as many of them thrown out as possible. Common reasons for signatures getting thrown out include the signatory accidentally signing for a candidate whose district they don’t reside in, or signing multiple petitions, as a voter is only allowed to endorse one candidate per race.

“I’ve worked on campaigns — you have a sense of how many (signatures) you need to be safe from any possible challenge situation, so we’re going to build ourselves a really comfortable number of signatures,” he said.

In January, there’s a lot of phone banking, which can involve informing people about an event, Boehme said.

Campaigns are provided a list of registered democrats in the district from the state Democratic Party, and Boehme said he phone banked based on certain attributes of those on the list, like calling only people who voted in the last Democratic Primary, or calling only people in Delaware County when Beals was going to be in town.

After scooting out of Cross Roads Café, we hop into the SUV to ride to Bovina Valley Creamery, a dairy outside of Delhi.

Beals, for all his intensity, can be quite silly. He has the youthful sort of humor that involves ever-expanding flights of fancy. We talk about criminal justice, and he jokes he was in Riker’s Island for a decade, making the story more and more absurd as I joke along with him.

“Jeff, this is why we don’t let you talk to reporters,” Shornstein says from the driver’s seat.

We tour the creamery, checking out the new stainless-steel equipment as a worker’s white German Shepard sniffs at our pantlegs. Shannon Finn, who is constructing the operation with her husband, Dan, said the facility would allow milk from their herds to be turned into cheeses on-site. As the operation expands, a farm-to-table restaurant featuring the dairy creations will open, and the creamery will begin to use milk from other local farmers.

Delaware County used to have much of its industry based on dairy, to the extent one of the women Beals talked to at Cross Roads said it used to be weird to meet someone living in the county who was not involved in dairy. Milk prices have been “abysmal” in recent years, Finn said, due to large farms over-saturating the market. In many family farms in the county, one of the partners must work an outside job just to keep the farm running, she adds.

“We have the [view] as small farmers, that no one is going to step in and save us — we have to really take the bull by the horns,” Finn says.

Finn’s heard consists of 100 cattle, including 45 milking cows, while her husband has 30 milking cows, she says.

Finn champions the small farm to Beals, saying cows in large farms “are cogs in the wheel — they’re not treated as life.”

The ultimate plan was to act as a consultant to other small dairy farmers, Finn says, advising them how to keep their businesses local and profitable.

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Beals talks with Shannon Finn at Bovina Creamery outside Delhi.

Beals stands in front of a group of about 20 inside the Walton Theater, a 20-minute drive from Delhi. We’re above the theater itself in a large space reserved for meetings and events. A profusion of signed posters from past musical acts line the walls, and two massive projectors gleam dully towards the back.

Beals starts out by telling stories — of AT&T strikers he marched with in Kingston after their new contract tripled medical premiums while the CEO made $1,000 an hour — of a student at Beals’ school who died of cancer, and the fundraiser the family immediately had to hold because of the medical debts they accrued trying to save her life.

This is the story of America, Beals says.

“You can have corporate power, or you can have people’s power,” he says.

He talks of what he called Faso’s corporate support, saying when the congressman votes a certain way, “he is just answering to his employers.” He talks of environmental problems and the necessity of investing in renewable energy. He talks of an employment crisis in the country, where the unemployment rate is low, but available jobs did not pay the bills. He talks of standing up for working people, about the “bloated national security budget.”

Then Beals throws in a sharp twist: he wants the assembled to ask him questions as though they were Faso.

“People want to know whether or not you’re really ready to beat and face John Faso,” he later tells me. “And I’m ready to do that right now, and there’s no better way for us all to get ready to do that then by preparing for the things that we know he’ll say, and the dodges that we know he’ll make.”

The crowd bites.

“How are you going to pay for all this?” one man pipes up.

The question was essentially about debt, and Beals wanted to address what he saw as the larger issue of personal debt, especially medical and credit card debt.

“The policies I’m concerned about are the ones that put the people in debt,” he says.

Beals is a strong advocate for Medicare for All, a bill penned by Sen. Bernie Sanders which 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.

Getting the bill passed is his number-one priority if elected, Beals says, followed by renegotiating prescription drug prices (which is largely impossible under current law), followed by repealing the just-passed Tax Bill.

Another Faso impersonator throws Beals a question: corporations create jobs — is Beals just going to talk about protecting the environment?

The issue isn’t employment, Beals replies, it’s about getting well-paying jobs.

Beals takes a swipe at democratic primary candidate Antonio Delgado while speaking (though he doesn’t use Delgado’s name, it’s pretty obvious who he’s talking about: a woman in front of me mouths “DEL-GADO” to her friend). He also chose to go negative at a candidate’s forum this fall in Hudson, where he took a very direct swipe at candidate Brian Flynn, who had just finished speaking. The crowd omitted a giant combination of a gasp and a grumble, and I talked to several people afterward who viewed the move in a bad light.

I asked Beals later about the merits of negative campaigning.

“I think we do have different vision then (other) candidates, and that it is important to draw distinctions and tell what you believe in and…what the Democratic Party should represent, and I think it’s very important that the Democratic Party be the party of working people and patriots. I think it once was that, and I think it’s lost that Identity,” he responds.

The issue of the Republican tax bill came up, which Faso ultimately voted against, citing concerns about the limiting of deductions for state and local taxes he said would negatively impact New Yorkers.

This was a bill Faso needed to fight from Day 1, instead of waiting until the 11th hour when the house leadership already knew the bill had enough votes to pass, Beals says.

Another Faso impersonator says something called “Medicare for All” sounds socialist in Delaware County. And Beals has a response to that too.

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It was a 14-hour day of campaigning. We’re back in the SUV, traveling east in the darkness. Beals and Shornstein both like 80s music, so we’re dialed into the Sirius 80s station much of the time, but a Lara Hope album is popped in at some point. Then the band The National comes on, which Beals loves. Shornstein says several of the members live in Hudson, which Beals freaks out on.

“If The National endorsed Delgado, I would drop out tomorrow,” he jokes.

The SUV doesn’t have any windshield wiper fluid. It ran out yesterday, and now looks like some vandal spray painted it. Shornstein kept saying throughout the day we needed to stop off to pick up some new fluid, but we never had the two minutes this would take.

There’s more than five months until the June 26 primary, and the campaign has many miles to travel along the way.

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