- Stacey Estrella
- Congressman-elect Antonio Delgado on the campaign trail in Oneonta on September 8, 2018.
On November 6, Democratic candidate Antonio Delgado made history, becoming the first African American member of Congress from upstate New York, as well as its first Hispanic representative, narrowly defeating one-term Republican John Faso in the race for the 19th Congressional district. A Schenectady native born to working-class parents, Delgado attended Colgate and Harvard Law School, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, enjoyed a brief rap career that provided fodder for some race-baiting campaign commercials, and most recently worked as an attorney at the high-powered law firm Akin Gump in New York City.
Delgado sat down for a conversation in early December at his mostly vacant campaign headquarters in Kingston in the midst of frantic preparations to take his seat in Washington, DC, and set up the necessary infrastructure for constituent services back home. —Brian K. Mahoney
Brian K. Mahoney: Congratulations on your victory in the recent election. What was the secret sauce?
Antonio Delgado: Our thought going in was to make sure that everybody across this district felt they had a true representative, no matter where they live, no matter how rural or how urban. It didn't matter. I'm very pleased with the results. We closed the margins in a lot of areas that are traditionally red, and we were able to actually win Otsego County. And I think it was about the way we ran our campaign and the reach and by going everywhere.
BKM: What do you mean specifically when you say, "the way we ran our campaign?"
AD: The way was showing up. We've had trends in our political discourse that have moved the way we go about the business of democracy away from the people. It's become sort of this game that happens in DC and with donors, and there's decisions and choices made separate and apart from the ground. And the more money that's gotten into politics, the more politicians have been incentivized to engage more and more with that dynamic, rather than going to work with their constituents, holding town halls, having offices that they can be found in, or having case workers that do the work, and people can feel that, they know. I've talked about doing these things. We went to communities across the district. We engaged, we held town halls. We did the things that I intend to do as a congressman to demonstrate to people that this is what it's going to be like if you allow me the honor and the privilege of serving you.
BKM: What did you learn by talking to people on the campaign trail that you didn't expect?
AD: You know, it's interesting because I've been asked that question before, and you would think that by now I'd have an answer. But the thing that I always come back to when I'm asked that question, and I'm going to do it here, it's not that I learned something that I didn't expect, but what I discovered through the process was how deep the desire is for it. You know, you have an instinct, you have a gut that you think this is lacking. You have a sense that this doesn't feel right. But you don't know until you're actually out there and people are reacting the way to it. And you see the real hope and the desire when they are confronted with the possibility of real change. You see that and you can see it manifest itself in them. That is something that no matter how much you think it through or project it, you're not going to be able to actually know what it's going to be like until you're confronted with it.
It's like when you're an athlete and you're trying to prepare for a game—you don't know what the game's going to be like really until you're in the game. In the same way, engaging with people face-to-face, having those interactions, and seeing the depth of desire that they feel for real change—that, to me, was incredibly meaningful.
BKM: Where are we at as a country? If a Martian landed outside and walked in and said, "Describe the political climate to me," what would you say?
AD: I always try to orient myself based on what's happening here at home. We bridged a lot of gaps through my campaign. We overcame a lot of divisiveness. And we spoke to the better angels of people across this district. With the divisiveness that is ongoing right now across the country, the intense partisanship—and New York 19 is an example of this—we are going through a process of being held accountable as a country and particularly here at home to what we really stand for and what we're genuinely about—what our value set is. And I feel that until we right that value set, we are going to be stuck on how we solve complicated problems, whether it's health care, climate change, or wage stagnation. You know, there's very difficult problems that we have to solve collectively in a diverse country. But unless we can get to a place that we can civil, we can't disagree without being disagreeable, right? We can actually be respectful to each other, understand that we're in this together. And we did a lot of work, I felt like.
BKM: How do you intend to make that happen in DC?
AD: Well, one way is to actually do the work of engaging with everybody there across the aisle, not just siloing myself off and saying, "I'm just going to only work with these individuals or only those people who call themselves X," but actually, saying "Anybody who's interested in an infrastructure bill, let's talk. Anybody who's interested in increasing wages for people, let's talk. Anybody who's interested in improving our health care system, let's talk." And I think it's sort of casting a broad net and saying, okay who's out there on either side of the aisle who wants to focus on these issues? Who wants to deal with climate change? Right? Who wants to tackle that? Right? So, you start from that and get to have these kind of conversations, and you do that intentionally for the purpose of results here back home.
BKM: Let's talk about priorities. Going into this session, what are your top priorities?
AD: Well, I'm a big believer that you govern based on how you campaign. I campaigned on health care. So, that was top priority. It's going to be my top priority as a congressman. I campaigned making sure that we expand coverage and get people the choice to opt into Medicare. I want to fight for that. I campaigned on making sure Medicare has negotiating power with big pharma. I want to fight for that. I campaigned on dealing with the opioid epidemic. I want to fight for that.
BKM: What does dealing with the opioid epidemic look like in this district? How can you help in Congress?
AD: Well, we need funding for drug treatment centers. The key is how do we decriminalize the behavior and stop treating incarceration as the treatment of choice, because that's currently what it is. And we need to look at examples like Chief Volkmann out in Chatham in Columbia County. [Oversimplified synopsis: Police in Chatham are emphasizing treatment over arrest for addicts.] That's a prime example of something that we can model out and fund, and find funding for, I would hope on the federal level. That would ultimately allow us to both deal with the stigma of addiction and enable people who are struggling with the addiction to find other avenues for treatment via drug treatment centers and drug courts, rather than just being siloed off into the criminal justice system.
To me there's funding opportunities for that. And one of the things that I've talked to with folks in DC about, and leadership in particular, is how do I directly fight for that work? There's a bipartisan task force, the opioid task force, that I'm hoping to be a part of and have a leadership role on to make sure we bring attention to this issue specifically and fight for the funding that is lacking right now. So that, to me, is an area where I certainly want to be front and center on.
BKM: So, health care, opioids—
AD: Yes, and in the same scope, before we leave health care, mental health care access is another big one. Lyme disease, you know. We have the highest levels of deer ticks here in the Hudson Valley.
BKM: Sure, Lyme disease is a huge problem here. How can you help?
AD: Well, I think there are funding opportunities that are out there again for R&D that can allow us to figure out ways to tackle this. Obviously, health care, fighting for health care to make sure that we protect pre-existing conditions so that individuals who are suffering from Lyme disease aren't priced out of the market. That's a big place. Working with the experts in the field and making sure that I have a direct dialog with the experts who have done a lot of work, and the activists in this arena, to make sure that we shed light on this issue. But primarily I think it's about finding the appropriate funding for the research and the development, and then of course making sure that we have a health care system that allows those who actually are impacted by it to get the treatment they deserve without fear of any sort of cost barriers. And then outside of health care, I would say it's economic development and how we actually create meaningful jobs.
BKM: How do we do that? I've heard a lot of different workforce development proposals, but creating jobs on a mass scale is difficult. Industry is not coming back to the Hudson Valley. You know, so what are we trying to develop here?
AD: I would push back a little bit when you say industry is not coming back. I mean, you have to build things to make sure that it does come back. Yes, you might not get IBM back, we might not get GE back, but that whole model is in many respects moved on given globalization. The key is: How do you have opportunities for small business growth, entrepreneurship, and co-ops based on a robust infrastructure plan that creates immediate access to the market here locally and in New York City, where you have significant unmet demand, particularly for example in organic and locally grown food. We have thousands of farmers and farm operations in this district, and they are unfortunately hamstrung by the fact that they are lacking the infrastructure, regional infrastructure, to tap into those markets.
BKM: When you say "infrastructure," what do you mean specifically?
AD: Roads, rail, distribution plants, processing plants, broadband access. Quality cell service. How can you set up a business, how can you sell your goods and services in a manner that is fair relative to others who are across the country or even, you know, across the Northeast region, if you're lacking access to markets via your cell phone or via broadband access? One of the things that I really want to zero in on is rural broadband access. I really want to—this term, ideally—make sure that we can roll out some legislation that actually specifically addresses the lack of rural broadband all throughout this district. That is a chief priority of mine.
BKM: How would the legislation work? How do you compel broadband providers to create cost-ineffective infrastructure?
AD: There are pieces of legislation that I have not yet studied, but I'm aware that are out there that will be done to address this. And I want to make sure that my team looks at that and find ways to build off of that with other sponsors, individuals who've taken the lead on this across the country, and have a robust plan that we can present to the people, particularly people here at home.
BKM: The Green New Deal, what's your feeling on this? Are you going to be with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others and pushing this forward?
AD: I want to draw a distinction here, and I think, you know, it's funny how terms can take on a life on of their own, because the Green New Deal has been used many, many times before its current iteration. I mean, I used the Green New Deal at certain times over the course of the campaign well in advance of the way it's currently defined. So, we've got to be careful with our terms.
I'm for a larger, conceptual notion that we have to get to a place where we prioritize dealing with climate change in a robust and meaningful way. And that includes, as I talked about over the course of my campaign, a commitment to stop propping up fossil fuel industries and stop spending billions and billions of dollars in subsidies and tax credits when we don't need to, and to shift those tax credits and subsidies over into the renewable energy space. I think if we do that, we can actually incentivize more and more growth in wind, in solar, in geothermal. That is how you transition responsibly and effectively toward a robust green economy—it is a necessity at this point.
And we must be thoughtful of the impact of this transition on individuals who rely on paychecks in industries that might be left behind through this process. These are our fellow citizens who are raising their families with children, putting food on their table. What are the alternatives? What's not just the plan to create and incentivize investment and renewal energy? What's the robust plan to create skills training that actually pays in a manner that allows people to feel comfortable, or at least comfortably live through this transition, and not just be left behind and fall off a cliff by virtue of the transition.
BKM: Some people say that since the Democrats now control the House, it's time to impeach Trump. Where do you stand on that?
AD: In the same place I've stood throughout the course of the campaign—we have an ongoing investigation. What all the developments have shown of late is that we have got to protect the special prosecutor, bipartisan legislation that does that. That to me is the priority. Let the investigation conclude. Let all the facts be laid bare, and then, once we have that, we are standing on an evidentiary foundation that I think gives a lot more credence and merit to any decision that is made at that point. I would much rather do that type of conduct, which whatever way you go on this, you want to make sure you have the evidentiary record for the public's consumption, and then that decision, I think, will proceed as it should, whatever that course might be. That also, I think, speaks to the divisiveness, right? You don't want to, I think, react in a way that's not grounded in that, because it just has a potential of just feeding into the divisiveness.
BKM: And if Robert Mueller's fired, what then?
AD: Oh, if Mueller's fired, we have a constitutional crisis on our hands and the game is changed considerably.
BKM: In two years, I hope to sit down with you again for another chat. What will you have hoped to have accomplished by then?
AD: Well, I'm hoping that two years from now we're talking about that rural broadband bill that we got passed. We're talking about the funding that I was able to bring home for drug treatment centers. We're talking about the water contamination legislation that we're focusing on with Rep. Dan Kildee over in Flint to deal with the issues that we're seeing in Petersburg and in Hoosick. And if we're talking about those three things two years from now and maybe something on health care (ideally, I really want to make sure we get to a place somewhere on health care), I'd be very pleased. And, of course, if we're talking about all those town halls that I did over the course of two years; and we talk about all of the offices that I opened across the district; and how we were connecting with people; and how we were so accessible that it gave people the sense that we were restoring their faith in democracy—if all those things happen, I'd be very pleased.