By Ron Klopfanstein and Ethan Pavlus
New faces seek to fill the void left by Anthony Brindisi
On Thursday, June 24th, Syracuse.com broke the news that former United States Congressman Anthony Brindisi would not be running to recapture the seat representing New York’s 22nd Congressional district in Congress. He lost the seat to Claudia Tenney in the 2020 election by a razor-thin and hotly disputed margin. Dave Wasserman, the House of Representative’s editor for the Cook Political reporter and NBC News contributor, described it as a “setback for Dems in Upstate (New York),” but said that it would still be possible to “oust Rep. Tenney.”
The three people who have expressed interest in doing that “ousting” are a unique bunch, two of whom, Elyssa Bolt and Mikayla Ridley, represent a significant step forward for local politics where the Democrats are often as conservative as the Republicans. Bolt is transgender, Ridley is bisexual, and the third candidate Hal Stewart is a Navy vet who describes himself on Twitter as a “standup comedian” and insists he will accept neither party support nor donations.
Mikayla Ridley is a 27-year old Admissions Counselor at Binghamton University. On her website (RidleyForCongress.com), she cites her work in the educational field as the primary motivator behind her candidacy, describing how education, which can be “the great equalizer,” is rife with systematic problems primarily due to cost. She is concerned that the “national conversation transform[ed] from ‘what kind of education do you want?’ to ‘what kind of education can you afford?’”
She considered this just one of many issues-along with “skyrocketing” healthcare and housing costs and “systematic injustice”- that politicians view as “hypothetical[s].”
Ridley has Gorlin Syndrome, which is a rare genetic condition also known as Nevoid basal-cell carcinoma syndrome. It is a chronic condition that can affect the nervous and endocrine system and the eyes and bones. Most often, and in her case, it results in an increased risk of skin cancers.
She believes the experience dealing with a chronic illness along with coming out as bisexual while she was in high school has given her the sort of deep experiential understanding of having “deal[t] with those hardships.”
“It doesn’t just change what I will do with my seat at the table,” she insists. “It changes how I will walk into the room.”
Ridley describes herself as a “staunch advocate for the social, political, and economic changes.” She contrasts herself with the current officeholder by insisting that she (Ridley) looks forward to “in-depth conversations and public debates” and opportunities to have discussions and listen to constituents, all of which she says Rep. Tenney eschews.
In Ridley’s opinion, “Claudia Tenney has built most of her past campaigns on fearmongering about progressive policies.”
Another candidate for New York’s 22nd Congressional District, Elyssa Bolt, describes herself as an activist, educator, and social services coordinator. Her website (Elyssabolt.com) declares that she is the right candidate to represent the district because “she knows intimately the pressing issues that define the reality of Utica’s working class and is the only candidate in the race actively working to alleviate poverty in the district. On her Twitter page (@ElyssaBolt), she describes herself as a “progressive activist.”
Elyssa Bolt is a transgender woman who takes personally Claudia Tenney’s voting against the Equality Act, which would extend civil rights protections based on gender identity, as well as sexual orientation to Americans in all fifty states. Bolt takes that as a “clear sign that “Tenney does not see the well-being of the LGBTQ community in general as a priority.
If Bolt is elected she promises that her priorities as a Congresswoman will be to institute universal healthcare, pass the Green New Deal, “defund the Israeli occupation of Palestine”, and end mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of nonviolent offenses.
Bolt herself was arrested last fall at a Black Lives Matter protest in Rome. In an interview on the website MediaSanctuary.org, Bolt talks about being “brutalized and arrested” during a protest against police brutality. She told Newschannel2 that she was “attack[ed] violently with excessive force.”
When asked if that would be a liability to her candidacy, she replied, “I think it depends on what the new district looks like. In the existing NY-22, it might be, but even here, it could also mobilize progressives who haven’t had a candidate to be enthusiastic about and whose numbers might be underestimated.”
Whether the ideological progressiveness of these two candidates will prove to be attractive to voters in their district is mainly dependent on what the district will look like after boundaries are redrawn as a result of the 2020 Census.
Mitch Ford, the Oneida County Democratic Party chair, describes a potential 22nd congressional district as a “rainbow” with “pockets of progressives and conservatives” but thinks it would be impossible to assess any candidate’s viability until those district boundaries are drawn.
Regarding the viability of a transgender person or openly bisexual candidate, he argues that “thirty-five years ago no one ever thought we’d have a Black President,” and that before John F. Kennedy was elected. It seemed equally unlikely that there would ever be a Catholic President. Regardless of how the eventual Democratic candidate identifies, they will face a Republican with a “leg up” since the Independence line has been stricken from the ballot due to the 2020 election. While most Republicans also appear on the Conservative party line, Democrats will have to decide whether to seek the Working Family Party endorsement, which, according to Ford, “does well in the cities, but not in the towns.”
According to Wikipedia, the NY22 district is currently about 57% urban and 43% rural, but this could change dramatically due to redistricting due to the 2020 Census. A non-partisan commission will propose how to divide the state into twenty-six, rather than the current twenty-seven, Congressional districts. The Democratically controlled state legislature can amend that commission’s recommendation only after twice rejecting them. Politics, therefore, may very well play a part in the reconfiguration. Dave Wasserman, analyst for the Cook Political Report, is considered a foremost expert on redistricting. He has tweeted out two possible redistricting scenarios, both of which represent dramatic redrawing of the lines. In one, the Northern portion of NY-22 is subsumed into a vast Adirondack district controlled by Republican Elise Stefanik. Another has NY-22 centralized into an upstate urban district that includes Utica, Cortland, and Syracuse.
Either of these scenarios would dramatically alter the district’s political composition, and the latter would cut Mikalya Ridley out of the district entirely. It would do the same for a third candidate, Hal Stewart, an Independent who, like Ridley, lives in Endicott, a village only 10 miles north of the Pennsylvania border.
Stewart describes himself as “a true independent” with “no parties or donors to answer to.” He does not plan to seek any major or third-party endorsement and will only appear on the ballot under “unaffiliated.”
According to his website, his position on several hot button issues makes him significantly less “progressive” than Ridley or Bolt. For example, he argues for completing the Border Wall with Mexico because “it will help maintain order and safety.” While he favors a path to legal immigration and citizenship for “honest, hardworking people,” he has a paragraph in which he expresses concern with “criminal illegal aliens” whom he believes should be in jail for a minimum of twenty-five years.
Stewart’s website acknowledges that student loan forgiveness would be a “huge shot in the arm to our economy.” Still, he blames the problem on colleges and universities, calling them “profit engines.” Stewart’s site states that an “English degree” has the “ridiculous price tag [of] $70,000 a year.”
This claim is belied by United States Department of Education data (CollegeScorecard.ed.gov) that shows local college costs ranging from $25,160 per year on the high end (for Hamilton College) to $7,429 for Mohawk Valley Community College. According to the U.S. Dept. of Ed. website, those figures include tuition, living costs, books, and supplies minus the average grants and scholarships for federal financial aid recipients. When pressed on this issue, Stewart replied that he “Googled the most expensive schools in the United States,” but that his “goal was to make a point about the cost of education and the student loan program. Not to call out any specific school or schools.”
None of the three candidates have ever run for political office. At this stage, it is understandable that they may lack the polish expected in a race where $27 million was spent on the last election. Stewart insists that his refusal to accept financial support is an asset because it allows him to “run solely on my message and my ideas,” which he says “helps with the credibility factor.”
Stewart believes that current Representative Claudia Tenney “wants to do a good job, and she believes she is doing what is right.” His primary objection is that “everything she does and says are the Republican talking points or is calculated for votes. There’s not much to say when an entire campaign isn’t built around your accomplishments, but rather, that you’ll support President Trump.”
Claudia Tenney may be doubling down on her connection to the former President in anticipation of redistricting. NY-22 could end up so geographically altered that she will be pitted in a Republican primary against far-right Rep. Elise Stefanik in Northern New York or moderate Rep. John Katko in Syracuse. While Tenney stakes her claim as the MAGA candidate, according to Stewart, constituents in the Southern Tier “don’t hear from her unless it’s campaign season.”
He describes her as “extremely beatable” because “people see through her phoniness.” Like Ridley and Bolt, his campaign seeks to present a general sense of “straightforwardness” characterized by a lack of “doublespeak.” All three see their lack of experience as a refreshing alternative in a race where the same two candidates have battled each other for two consecutive elections.
Utica College Professor of Political Science, Luke Perry says that since these three candidates lack governing experience and name recognition, it makes sense for them to have declared their interest this early in the cycle to seek media attention and potential supporters. This is likely not the case with more experienced candidates who are probably waiting to see redistricting results.
It will likely be that redistricting, rather than any individual candidate, shaping the next Congressional election. In a process sure to be steered by Democratic elected officials, Bill Thickstun, the town’s chair for the Oneida County Democratic Committee, says that Brindisi withdrawing from the race obviates a need to preserve the district.
The question is whether inexperience, however refreshing it may seem a year and a half away from the election, be enough for any of these candidates to run a competitive race even at the primary level.
“These are multi-million dollar races,” Thickstun says. “The party is going to do everything it can to maximize its chances of winning.”
Primary competition between Ridley, Bolt, and candidates yet to come forward in the Democratic party, and the even more seismic potential clashes in the Republican party between Tenney and Stefanik, or Tenney and Katko will shake things up in both parties.
“It’s not necessarily about winning; it’s about fighting for what’s right, both for the short and long term,” says Patrick Madden, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Binghamton University. Madden briefly entered the race as a Democratic candidate for the seat in 2017. He withdrew after Anthony Brindisi announced his intention to seek the nomination. Madden explained that his values aligned with Brindisi, whom he believes “[stood] up for everyone in the district.” At the time of his withdrawal, WIBX also quoted Madden as saying (on Facebook) that another reason was Brindisi’s “considerable establishment backing.”
Meanwhile, Hal Stewart simply has to convince voters that he can win as an independent.
“I’m as worri[ed] as a cloudy day,” he says. “People are ready for a change in our district. They just need to see there is a real third option.”
Whether Ridley and Bolt can make a successful case to Democratic primary voters that a progressive can defeat Claudia Tenney (or Elise Stefanik or John Katko) remains to be seen. Patrick Madden believes they can.
“Underdogs can win,” he insists. “There was zero chance that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would win her primary against Joseph Crowley. Until she did.”
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