“Anything not strapped down will fly.”
Alexa Kissinger, Gareth Rhodes’ girlfriend, twisted her head around from the front seat of the campaign Winnebago to warn me as I attempted to fasten myself against one of the vehicle’s threadbare benches.
The Winnebago was bought by Rhodes off Craigslist, and it looked like it was bought off Craigslist. Since then, the jalopy had added 40,000 miles to its odometer as Rhodes piloted it to the four corners of New York’s 19th Congressional District while campaigning in one of the nation’s most-watched democratic primaries, so by now, the vehicle looked like something you’d see on blocks under a freeway overpass.
The RV’s exterior was painted with 80’s-style streaks of turquoise and magenta, but the pastel vibrancy was coated with a thick layer of dirt and condensed exhaust you could write in. An attached canopy that Rhodes had wanted to use for shade while meeting with voters had somehow broken, and its skeleton was pasted to the vehicle’s side with dusty duct tape. The broad windshield was liberally streaked with bug guts, and the back door was stuck so badly it seemed like you were going to snap the handle off each time you tried to get in.
Rhodes was visiting all 163 municipalities in the district in the thing, and you could argue it was schtick, the everyman, anti-establishment tilt of it, but Rhodes had raised very little in campaign contributions when he bought it, and it’s not like he had the personal wealth to spring for a campaign automobile either. The 29-year-old Rhodes was in school when he decided to run, pursuing a law degree at Harvard, and the $38,000 he made at the law firm Arnold & Porter as a summer associate did little to alleviate the tens of thousands in student loan debt he incurred.
Whatever vehicle he used for the Rhodes Trip, the method was a good one. It put him in direct contrast with John Faso, the current NY-19 Congressman, who was infamous for sparingly interacting with the public, including his infrequent holding of town halls, which were often publicized too close to their starting times, required sign-ups, and were held in call-in format. Faso’s detractors had gotten so pissed at his remoteness the yard sign “Where’s Faso?” had popped up around the district.
It was also a form of old-school campaigning, relying not on targeting advertising tied to Big Data, but on simple human interaction. Bringing this to the edges of a giant district — the size of New Jersey, Rhodes often said on the trail — was a difficult task, but Rhodes had accomplished it.
We were headed to Hardenburgh, Ulster County, the last of the 163 communities in the district. Rhodes’ final town.
Gareth Rhodes is one of seven candidates running in the NY-19 democratic primary to represent a vast, rural region stretching from the mid-Hudson Valley up to areas east and west of Albany. Whichever of the seven democrats wins will have only gotten over the first hurdle. Not only do they have to face Faso, but independent progressive Diane Neal and Green Party candidate Steve Greenfield, both of whom could slice into the democrat’s share of liberal voters.
Forty thousand miles, that was. 40,000.
Activists and other NY-19 primary obsessives I had talked to opined that Rhodes spoke about local issues more than most of the other candidates, and had a good handle on them. I asked Rhodes what major local issue he was unaware of prior to campaigning.
“The crisis facing fire departments and EMT services,” he responded.
Towns in the district were at “a point of crisis” due to a lack of volunteers in fire departments and rescue squads, and municipalities such as Olive and Armenia had to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to privatize their departments, Rhodes said.
The lack of volunteers was not due to a paucity of altruism, Rhodes said, but to modern realities. Hospitals offered less and less services, so ambulances had to rush patients farther to the appropriate facilities, and the additional time it took volunteers away from their jobs made less people able to work in rescue squads for free.
It was harder to find volunteers for fire departments, Rhodes said, because a litany of issues made it harder to volunteer.
People work more jobs farther away from their homes, making it more difficult to respond to calls, “and the training requirements are more onerous then they have been ever before…every piece adds to the puzzle, and it’s so much more difficult (to volunteer),” Rhodes, a former Marlboro Volunteer firefighter, said.
This was only one part of the contemporary woes Rhodes saw in sparsely-populated areas in the district.
“I have noticed what I call a rural municipal crisis, where you have these rural municipalities that are struggling to be able to afford the cost of doing essential services,” Rhodes said, “and they cannot provide the essential services on the property tax base — it’s impossible.”
NY-19 was positioned to capitalize on the new economy, including remote workers, clean energy, and marijuana, which Rhodes believes would be federally legalized in the coming years.
However, more federal investment was needed in rural areas, including for fire departments and broadband internet.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who employed Rhodes as his traveling press secretary before Rhodes went to Harvard, unveiled a plan in 2016 to provide high-speed internet to all New Yorkers though a series of matching grants to internet providers. The internet providers are using the money to run fiber optic cables through rural parts of the state, something that was fiscally unappealing to the internet providers due to the limited number of potential customers in these areas.
This program was combined with an expansion of broadband in rural areas by Spectrum, an internet service provider that was only allowed to form from the merger of Charter and Time-Warner Cable by promising the state Public Service Commission (PSC) it would provide high-speed internet to 145,000 additional customers.
However, the PSC said Spectrum manipulated the number of new customers it had added when submitting stats to the state, and the internet provider was fined $1 million in March, according to the Albany Times-Union.
The internet should be a public utility, regulated the way power companies are currently regulated, which would protect net neutrality and give taxpayers control over something they were already partially funding through the grants, Rhodes said.
“If the taxpayers are paying for the fiber optic lines, the taxpayers should own them,” he said, giving one of those ‘it just makes sense’ shrugs.
When discussing riding to Hardenbugh by phone, Rhodes pitched it to me as traveling “from the smallest community in the district to the largest.”
Hardenburg only has 238 people, according to Ulster County, and the population is so spread out the town has a population density less than Australia’s.
The town is also not exactly youthful, with 40 percent of the population over the age of 63 in 2010, according to the county. It’s situated in such a remote part of the Catskills there’s no way to get there from the rest of the county and traveling there from Kingston involved driving west into Sullivan County and looping back east.
The demographics suggested to me there wouldn’t be many democratic voters in the town, and I was right. Of the 238, only 41 were registered Democrats, and only six of those Democrats voted in the last congressional primary.
That’s what Rhodes’ campaign is about, though: reaching every voter in the district.
Alexa Kissinger looked a tad giddy as we pulled up to the Hardenburgh Town Clerk’s Office.
“Door knocks are my favorite,” she exclaimed ebulliently.
“Really?” I questioned.
Data showed knocking on doors increased the level of voter turn-out, Kissinger said, and “it’s how you change mind-sets.”
“No Tweet, no TV ad, will do what a door knock will do,” she said.
Kissinger is a petite, fair-skinned woman with large eyes who elected to wear a dress and wedges to Hardenbugh, a decision she admits may not have been the best due to generally uneven footing in the town.
She met Rhodes at Harvard Law, Kissinger told me, and had received her degree from the institution just as the primary campaign was reaching a fever pitch. She still had to take the bar in late July, and studied out of a massive textbook during breaks in the RV.
Also in the Winnebago was Rachael Scheinman, Rhodes’ 24-year-old communications director and his most common compatriot on the trail. She rapidly sipped what looked like a liter of Dunkin Donuts iced coffee while driving, and I wondered if the RV’s bathroom worked.
A duo of filmmakers from Oneonta met us at the town clerk’s office to film the day’s events, and the two vehicles headed out to the first household of likely democratic voters.
Wendy and Luciano lived up a steep driveway that wound around a vibrant, technicolored garden to a two-story house being painted red by contractors. The filmmakers pulled alongside the Winnebago and started assembling their equipment as Rhodes stepped out into the brilliant sun.
He looked back warily at the commotion.
“I don’t want film crews just following me at random,” he muttered to Kissinger.
It would really cut down on the organic quality of the knock, so the filmmakers were asked to hang back while Rhodes introduced himself.
Wendy was an amiable older artist with messy hair who attached the word “man” to the end of a lot of her sentences. She stood in front of a giant sculpture of a blooming lily secured in a bucket of cement (not her own, she said, just a rescue) and chatted openly with Rhodes before being joined by myself, Kissinger, the filmmakers, and Scheinman, who rotated around the group, documenting the meet with her camera.
Wendy espoused anti-corporatist views, and said she was more concerned about “the bigger picture,” than local issues.
She really chewed out Trump, saying he had “no credentials” and was “destroying our society and embarrassing us around the world.”
She reserved some special vitriol for Faso.
“He’s such a POS,” she said, still smiling.
Wendy told Rhodes she was impressed with him visiting every community in the district. He told her he was going to do the same, every year, if elected, and handed her a Rhodes leaflet after scribbling his cell number on it, which he told her to call if she ever wanted to discuss district problems.
Rhodes was born outside of New Paltz, Ulster County, into an agrarian religious community known as the Bruderhof. Numbering only 2,900 worldwide, the Bruderhof seek to emulate the lives of the early Christians, rejecting many of the niceties of modern life and living in communes without personal possessions, property or wealth, according to their website.
Bruderhofs are also conscientious objectors, and do not believe in holding government positions. Rhodes told me in an earlier interview the Bruderhof’s views against same-sex marriage and abortion, as well as his ambitions to work in government, caused him to leave the community.
After graduating from Kingston High School, Rhodes worked as a water well driller and at a deli before going to CUNY on Pell grants, during which time he interned for Andrew Cuomo, first in the New York Attorney General’s Office, then in the Governor’s Office when Cuomo took office in 2012. Rhodes went on to work for the governor’s press office, rising to the position of Traveling Press Secretary and working with Cuomo on such crises as the Dannemora Prison Escape, where two convicted murders broke out of a maximum-security prison in New York’s North Country, and Hurricane Irene, which ripped through many of the communities he was now re-visiting on the Rhodes Trip.
Rhodes went on to attend Harvard Law, but stopped his studies to run for Congress. So now he’s here.
The Bigger Picture is Smaller
Scheinman had piloted the Winnebago down a road in the most democrat-heavy part of Hardenburgh, which is like saying you’re in the most confederate flag-heavy part of San Francisco.
Though Sally had never met Rhodes before, she had recognized the Winnebago as it pulled up to her property, which included an out-building with a sign reading “Treejuice Maple Syrup.”
The maple syrup was her son’s venture, Sally said, who was a farmer herself and was married to a retired veterinarian. She told Rhodes she had narrowed down the list of candidates in the primary to two contenders — Pat Ryan and Rhodes.
“We will all vote in the primaries,” she said. “Our heads are blowing up over what’s happening in the country.”
Most of Sally’s concerns were more regional. She was the chair of the Watershed Advisory Council, an organization attempting to balance the needs of New York City and the Catskills, two regions often at cultural odds with each other. NYC controls large swaths of the Catskills through purchases or easements made to protect the city’s water supply, 90 percent of which comes from Catskills reservoirs. But residents often chaff under this downstate control, as it limits local development.
Sally talked to Rhodes about the limits of the economy in the Catskills — “it’s tourism or it’s agriculture” — and her issues with trying to get local milk labeled as being from Upstate New York.
Rhodes was able to speak with deep cognizance on the issues, especially with regards to agriculture. They chatted about the prices of different tractors (Sally had a Massey Ferguson) and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irene — Rhodes was in an adjacent town during the storm’s aftermath as part of Cuomo’s press office, and the two remembered when the giant bear statue in the parking lot of Freshtown of Margaretville, a local grocery store, was in water up to its neck.
“You’ll probably get my vote,” Sally said as she bid Rhodes adieu. “To come to my door in the middle of nowhere — you can’t beat that.”
On the way back to Rhodes’ campaign office in Kingston, I rode shotgun while Rhodes drove. The filmmakers talked with Kissinger in the back section of the RV, and Scheinman drove behind in the filmmakers Saab.
As the dusty RV rattled down Route 28, I asked Rhodes how today differed from most days’ campaigning.
Well, there was the camera crew, Rhodes said, who had shot bits for their film in Sally’s yard after Rhodes had finished speaking with her
“Honestly, if I wasn’t with a crew, I probably would have talked to 10 or 12 [more people],” he said. “I would’ve hit all of the doors in Hardenburgh, and that’s normally what we do — in some of these towns, you can hit every single democratic door in about two or three hours.”
I asked him about the idea behind the Rhodes Trip.
“This district has shown a skepticism to the Washington style of campaigning, which is top-down, which is Washington-consultant driven, (which is) only based on polls — telling candidates what to say, all these focus groups and poll-tested, generic kinds of campaign slogans and generic talking points — people are so sick of that,” he said.
The most effective criticism of the two last democratic candidates in NY-19 — Sean Eldridge and Zephyr Teachout, both of whom lost by significant margins — was arguably that they were carpetbaggers. Carpetbaggers they were, but what district residents were miffed at was deeper than that.
Both campaigned like they were simply running to occupy a seat in Congress, instead of campaigning like they were running for this seat. They viewed the district as simply a card that needed to be flipped from red to blue, part of a master plan to make Congress more liberal. A seat in Hawaii or Florida would have suited them just as well; they just studied the polls, did the calculus, saw what they thought was a solid possibility, and loaded up their suitcases.
But the possibility was never really there for either of them. The citizens of NY-19 didn’t appreciate being a box to be checked in a national political game; NY-19 can smell spuriousness a mile away.
“This district has always rejected [Washington-style campaigning], and to me, to win this seat, you have to do it this way to win,” Rhodes said as the road carried him back to Kingston. At least for the moment.