“You have to wonder about the motivations of someone who has never held political office before, or done anything for the country, when they suddenly decide to jump into the political ring when they’re like, 70,” he said.
The statement made me wonder: what have the NY-19 congressional candidates done for humanity? Not now, once they have announced their candidacies, but beforehand?
Not one of the seven democratic primary candidates have held elected office before, but this does not mean they are bereft of the nectar of altruism. The candidates have served the public, to greater and lesser degrees, through charitable works, holding government jobs, and serving in the military.
The following is part one of a three-part series wherein I ask the candidates: What have YOU done?
In 2007, when Dave Clegg was in his 50s, he decided to go back to school.
Pursuing degrees later in life is nothing new, but Clegg was not attempting to pad out his legal degree with additional classes. Clegg wanted to serve in the church.
Clegg was involved with the United Methodist Church for years, and St. James United Methodist Church in Kingston needed a deacon. The position was based on outreach, Clegg said, “to lead the congregation out into the community to do work in the community.”
“I saw that as a position that was copacetic with my understanding of what I should do as a Christian,” Clegg said.
So Clegg commuted the two-plus hours to Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut to attend classes while still working as an attorney in Kingston.
“As a person of faith, I think that there’s the great commandment, which is to love your neighbor as yourself, and that’s the way I’ve kind of tried to live my life, and I continue to do that,” Clegg said. “I want to bring that to Congress — that’d be a lot of fun, right?”
Through his position as deacon and through a multitude of local community organizations, Clegg has been serving Ulster County and its environs for almost 40 years.
He began his public service far from the crags of the Catskills, when he was a litigator through the VISTA program from late 1977 until late 1979, according to Samantha Jo Warfield of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
The program, now part of AmeriCorps, was created by John F. Kennedy to alleviate poverty. Clegg worked with Indian tribes as part of Western Nebraska Legal Services though the program, mounting defenses and filing civil rights lawsuits in the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations, he said. His work included an appeal in the conviction of Kenneth Hawkman, a Sioux Indian who was charged with four felonies after a struggle with a white man left Hawkman shot and the other man stabbed.
The other man never faced charges, and the case was overturned after Clegg argued Hawkman received an insufficient defense, according to the decision.
Clegg opened a small law practice in Kingston in 1981 but devoted a significant amount of his time to serving the community in volunteer positions.
Clegg was one of the founders of Ulster County Habitat for Humanity in 1996, according to Executive Director Christine Brady LaValle. The organization was created out of concerns affordable housing was becoming out of reach in the county.
Clegg has represented benefactors of the program during home purchases and is still a donor to the organization, LaValle said.
The organization, which partially subsidizes housing for the needy, who must extensively volunteer with the program during the process of acquiring an abode, has completed 14 homes in the county and is working on two others, LaValle added.
Clegg is a board member of Family of Woodstock, which runs shelters and social services programs, and was part of the steering committee that created Kingston’s Darmstadt Shelter in the 1980s. He has represented survivors of domestic abuse pro-bono who have found themselves at the Washbourne House, a women’s shelter Family of Woodstock runs.
Clegg is the chairman of the Ulster County Human Rights Commission, according to Commissioner Evelyn Clarke, and he served as a commissioner in the organization for about five years.
A taskforce, which includes Clegg, is working on legislation to expand the commission’s reach and allow victims of discrimination to file suit with a local administrative law judge, said Ulster County Legislature Chairman Kenneth Ronk.
Clegg has also been part of two forums in restorative justice through the commission, Clarke said.
Clegg also volunteers teaching classes once a week at Woodbourne Correctional Facility through the Rising Hope program, he said, giving lectures on ethics, theology, world religion and homiletics — preaching.
Rising Hope is funded exclusively by donations and supplies inmates with up to 30 credits tuition-free, according to the group’s website.
The program is “remarkably successful” in cutting down on recidivism, Clegg said.
“People who do this are really committed….many of them are men who are about to get out, so they’ve been in jail for, many times, over 20 years,” he said. “So, you got to bring them back into the kind of work that they’re going to need to do on the outside…we’re trying to bring [them] back as human beings who have potential.”
Clegg has also worked with the Caring Hands Soup Kitchen at the Clinton Avenue United Methodist Church in Kingston for decades; coached basketball for inner-city youth for about as long; was involved in the Rip Van Winkle Boy Scout Council; and lent his legal expertise as a board member of the Ulster County Board of Health.
“One actually gains quite a lot of experience when you’re serving in all these different areas,” Clegg said. “I have a lot of depth of knowledge, whether you talk about the opioid crisis, or health issues, or the criminal justice system, or taking care of the homeless and feeding the hungry and working with education through after-school programs…all that experience and knowledge that I have because of all that work…no one else can touch, honestly.”
Much of Brian Flynn’s activism was spurred by a cataclysmic event: the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, including Flynn’s brother.
Flynn and his mother fought for the fallen, appearing in front of government panels and news shows to advocate for greater security in airports and for the implementation of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, he said.
However, during the ramp-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003, Flynn said he compared Saddam’s regime with that of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi’s, and came out against the invasion.
“Because I had been so prominent, and written so many articles about counter-terrorism, people would ask me what I [thought] about [the proposed invasion], and I would say: Iraq has been behind no terrorist attacks in the United States — EVER — and there is absolutely no reason we should be even considering an invasion of Iraq when diplomacy and sanctions have proven to work,” he said.
Flynn said he marched against the war, which he called “unjust,” and “built upon false and corrupt intelligence.”
In 2004, Flynn formed a group called “the Democratic Agenda,” with Kirsten Gillibrand before the now-U.S. Senator held elected office, he said.
At the time, the Democratic Party was focused on opposing President George W. Bush and the Iraq War, but Flynn said the party had to advocate for its own set of issues, instead of just pushing back at the opposition.
The group advocated for universal healthcare, which Flynn said was both “the right thing to do,” but also “makes the most sense.”
“It’s the most efficient and effective way to deliver the most care to the most people, and will, in fact help…grow the economy,” he said. “It will help address a lot of racial disparities — there’s a lot of reasons.”
Flynn still supports universal healthcare but said Sen. Bernie Sanders “Medicare for All” bill — which several other NY-19 candidates support — needs some tweaks, mentioning the inefficiency of creating a new bureaucracy to process payments.
The Democratic Agenda also pushed for a constitutional amendment requiring “a quality education” for all Americans, which would be achieved, in part, by cracking down on disparities between school districts by relying less on local taxes, Flynn said.
Gillibrand could not be reached for comment about the Democratic Agenda.
Flynn was also involved in the founding of the Bronx Academy of Letters, a specialized public school focused on writing, he said.
“My wife and I saw the attack on public education and the attempt to privatize It — there was talk of vouchers and charter (schools) and all of that,” he said. “We decided to respond to it by getting involved in supporting and empowering public education.”
Flynn said he was involved in organizing and funding the academy, and occasionally taught seminars at the school.
Flynn was a founding member of the New York Chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a coalition of business owners who advocate for responsible environmental policies, according to E2 spokesman Michael Timberlake.
Flynn’s involvement in the organization, which has nine chapters with a thousand members, peaked in 2008, and he left the organization in 2012, Timberlake said.
Part of the organization’s platform was the establishment of a carbon tax, Flynn said. Carbon taxes would take into consideration the eventual costs of fossil fuels as they impact economies through climate change and pollution, then apply those eventual costs to the price of fuels.
Supporters of carbon taxing argue money collected from the tax could be used to offset these environmental impacts and would move the energy industry away from fossil fuels once the real cost of the fuels is felt.
Flynn said any implementation of a carbon tax should be revenue-neutral, so lower-income Americans aren’t disproportionately affected by higher gas and home-heating costs.
Flynn is a donor to the Hunter Foundation, according to Executive Director Anne Jakubowski. Flynn’s wife, Amy Scheibe, sits on the foundation’s board.
The Hunter Foundation purchases decrepit properties in the town and rehabilitates them, allowing new businesses to enter the community, Jakubowski said.
Flynn said he was also involved in The Catskill Mountain Foundation and 23 Arts, two foundations supporting the arts in Greene County.
One of Flynn’s first real forays into altruistic engagement came when he was 22, he said.
“I was espousing some pretty socially liberal points of view, and the woman I was dating at the time said, ‘you know you talk a lot, why don’t you do something?’”
Flynn said he started volunteering at a soup kitchen at St. Francis Xavier in New York City. Many of the people he served were undocumented immigrants, and Flynn and several others set up classes to improve their English, he said.
“The guests who came…were from all different places — Europeans, Asians, Latin Americans — so you would basically go into a room with 10-15 people, and everyone was speaking a different language and they all just wanted to get better in English, so they could better themselves and better their opportunities,” Flynn said. “So that was a great way of not only advocating for immigrant rights, but actually doing something specific.”
Gareth Rhodes is 29, giving him less time to stack up a resume than some of the other candidates. However, the Ulster County native said he has been civically engaged his entire life.
“[Civic engagement] is a life calling,” he said. “This is not a second career, this is not a thing I came to only after the election of Donald Trump…this is something that’s guided my entire life, from a young age until now.”
Government, Rhodes said, is a “a noble profession” and “has an extraordinary potential to help and improve society.”
Rhodes grew up in a Bruderhof community outside New Paltz, NY, a collectivist Christian society.
“From a very young age, the value of loving your neighbor, looking out for your neighbor, was something that was instilled in me,” he said.
The Bruderhofs practice pacifism and are conscientious objectors, according to the group’s website.
While a child, Rhodes said he remembers traveling to Albany by bus to protest the death penalty after Gov. George Pataki’s election. At the outbreak of the Iraq War, when Rhodes was a teenager, he went to anti-war marches.
“I grew up in a household where peace was the priority,” he said. “Both my parents were insistent that we find ways to resolve our problems without violence.”
He grew up in a climate that opposed the “war-mongering” policies of Neoconservatives, who dominated George W. Bush’s foreign policy at the time.
After graduating Kingston High School, Rhodes worked drilling water wells before attending CUNY thanks to Pell Grants.
At CUNY, Rhodes was accepted into the Colin Powell Leadership Fellows program, according to the college, which Rhodes said allowed him to pursue unpaid internships instead of working jobs to make ends meet.
During his freshman year of college, Rhodes interned with Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel, after which he interned at the Bowery Mission, a religious-minded homeless shelter in lower Manhattan, he said.
Rhodes interned at the White House during the Obama administration, then interned at the state Attorney General’s Office under Andrew Cuomo before moving to an internship at the governor’s office when Cuomo won the gubernatorial election in 2010, he said.
Rhodes graduated CUNY in just three years, according to his commencement profile, and started working as a press officer for the Cuomo administration before being promoted to deputy press secretary, then traveling press secretary, he said.
As traveling press secretary, Rhodes was in Dannemora after two convicted murderers escaped the Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015; in Buffalo after the city was petrified by a massive blizzard in 2014; and in the Catskills after Hurricane Irene, he said.
Rhodes was one of two CUNY students in 2011 to be awarded the Harry S. Truman Foundation Scholarship, according to the college, and used this money to pay for his first year at Harvard Law.
Rhodes said his intent in pursuing a law degree was never to become a practicing attorney. He instead wanted to learn about crafting legislation and communicating policy.
“My goal was always to come back to public service,” he said.
A common path for graduates of Harvard Law is to get a lucrative job with a private law firm, Rhodes said.
“It’s what you’re supposed to do, but for me, public service is what I’ve always done,” he said. “It’s what matters to me.”
The New York Democratic Primaries are June 26. Less than 20,000 people in NY-19 voted last time. Your vote counts.