Democrat Sean Eldridge has donated nearly $1 million to his bid for Congress, and his venture capital firm has made investments in businesses across the sprawling upstate New York district where he moved last year.
The moves have attracted plenty of attention to the 27-year-old candidate, who is married to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. They’ve also stirred partisan accusations that he’s a carpetbagger trying to buy votes in the closely watched race. One Republican campaign email even includes a cartoon of Richie Rich.
“How could somebody with virtually no experience and absolutely no ties to the district — how can it be that this guy is the candidate for the Democratic Party?” asked two-term Republican incumbent Rep. Chris Gibson. “Can there be any other explanation? Any other explanation at all, except for money?”
Eldridge dismisses the criticism as mudslinging and argues that Gibson is too conservative for a district that voted to re-elect President Barack Obama. He contends that the real money issue in the race is Gibson’s acceptance of contributions from committees representing corporate interests.
“I think we have a big problem of corporate money in our politics drowning out the voices of middle-class people and families in our region,” Eldridge said in an interview. “And I think Congressman Gibson has been part of that problem.”
New York’s 19th is a district much of the mid-Hudson Valley and points west., including all of Schoharie County and parts of Montgomery and rensselaer counties Gibson won his seat from a Democrat during the 2010 tea party surge, but he stresses his independence and working relationship with Democrats. He notes that outside groups that rank Congress members based on key votes place him close to the political center.
Gibson, a 49-year-old retired Army colonel with four combat tours in Iraq, lives with his wife and three children in rural Columbia County, around the block from where he grew up in a working-class family.
Eldridge worked for Freedom to Marry during the successful push for same-sex marriage in New York in 2011. He has advocated for campaign finance reform and served on the boards of the local Planned Parenthood and the environmental group Scenic Hudson.
He and Hughes had lived a bit south in the Hudson River community of Garrison until January 2013, when they moved into the district. Critics charge that Eldridge made the roughly 50-mile move solely to make a congressional run in an attainable seat, a claim Eldridge dismisses.
“I love this region. That’s why I moved here,” he said. “And this is my home. This is where my company is.”
Eldridge’s firm, Hudson River Ventures, has made equity investments or loans to 18 regional businesses, many of them food-related operations. Many of the businesses are in the district. He also provided a $250,000 grant to a center focused on 3-D printing at SUNY New Paltz.
The firm has been derided as a vote-getting operation, but Eldridge said he is focused on developing the region’s economy. He declined to give the total amount invested.
Eldridge’s campaign had amassed $1.58 million through March, helped by contributions from the likes of Facebook president Sean Parker and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. But Eldridge remains his own top contributor, accounting for $965,000 so far.
Gibson reported $1.23 million in cash for a campaign operation he calls the “Home Team,” a not-so-veiled reference to Eldridge’s recent arrival.
Eldridge’s argument that Gibson doesn’t “represent the values” of the district centers on specific votes, like the congressman’s 2011 vote for a budget plan from Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, which Democrats claimed would require deep social spending cuts. Gibson has voted against subsequent Ryan budgets, saying it’s “not the best budget.” Eldridge accuses him of flip-flopping.
The criticism that Eldridge is trying to buy the election resonates with voters like George DeJesus, of Hudson, who warmly greeted Gibson at a recent job fair in Columbia County.
“I guess it’s probably a hobby he wants to pick up,” he said. “He has the money to do it. He’s probably bored at home.”
Others in the district seem less concerned. In Rensselaer County, Gibson backer Ken McGuire said, “The reality is that everybody spends somebody’s money on the campaign.”