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Humble roots to the 'big tent' -- Schenectady native Delgado has his eyes on Congress

Humble roots to the 'big tent' -- Schenectady native Delgado has his eyes on Congress

“He’s not a cookie cutter stereotype anything.”
Humble roots to the 'big tent' -- Schenectady native Delgado has his eyes on Congress
Delgado, center, talks to members of the Oneonta Rotary Club at the city's Fourth of July Fair.
Photographer: Jake Lahut / Gazette Reporter

ONEONTA — Wading through scores of potential voters in 90-degree heat at the Fourth of July festival in Oneonta, it took Antonio Delgado over an hour just to make it 50 yards past the gate.

As a rookie campaigner running for Congress, perhaps it would have made more sense for the 41-year-old Schenectady native to have made a quick stump speech before heading off to the next event. It was just one of several campaign stops that day.

But Delgado was in no rush.

Standing well over 6 feet tall, the former Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons basketball star could have taken advantage of his nimble frame to cruise right past the sweaty fairgoers and avoid their questions, allowing himself to be hurried along by protective staffers.

Instead, Delgado, a Colgate University and Harvard Law graduate, as well as a former Rhodes Scholar, slowly made his way around the outer rim of the fair in blue jeans and a red, white and blue plaid shirt, talking to as many voters as possible, regardless of party affiliation. 

His shoe-leather approach to the campaign comes amid increasing national attention focusing on his bid to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-Kinderhook.

"This is going to be one of the most hotly contested races in the state and the country,” said Steven Greenberg, a pollster at Siena College. “There is no question that this will be one of the most watched races in the country.”

Experts have prognosticated Faso as one of the most vulnerable House Republicans, with outlets like CQ-Roll Call, an insider political analysis publication in Washington D.C., ranking him as the fifth most vulnerable Republican in the House. The race has caught the attention of The New York Times, The Washington Post, POLITICO, NPR, and popular podcasts like This American Life.

Delgado's life has been one of incremental achievement, starting with his humble beginnings in Schenectady's Hamilton Hill neighborhood. Growing up, he lived with his parents in a house on Duane Avenue, which he featured in his first ad of the general election.

After enrolling in the Catholic school at the urging of his parents, who set high standards for their oldest son and his younger brother, Kito, Delgado took an interest in ideas, delving into history and eventually philosophy. 

Former English teacher Paul O'Brien recalled a prescient moment he had with Delgado, a sophomore at the time, who had such an "intellectual thirst," according to O'Brien, that he remembers having to shoo Delgado out of the classroom when the pupil would get enthralled by literature.

"So I remember one time we were reaching the end of 'To Kill A Mockingbird,' and [Delgado] was engaged with the discussion about Atticus' role in the text, and the bell rang, and I said, 'Antonio, you're gonna be late — I know you're going to win a Rhodes Scholarship one day, but you've gotta get going!"  

The 19th District:
Total population: 698,185
Male: 350,299; Female: 347,886
White: 619,777; Black or African American: 31,425; American Indian and Alaska Native: 1,660; Asian: 12,199; Hispanic or Latino: 56,623; Two or more races: 17,539
Democrat: 147,253; Republican: 144,898; No affiliation: 126,928

O'Brien added that this was the first time Delgado had heard of the program, leading him to ask the teacher what it was all about.

Melanie Anchukaitis, Delgado's Spanish teacher, said he had "a real sense of justice" as a Bishop Gibbons student, and worked not just for the grades, but for the intrinsic value of learning.

“For some kids, it’s just, 'Let’s get on with this and do the conjugations,' but for Antonio, there was a deeper level of what language was about." 

Wearing No. 40 on the court for Bishop Gibbons, the 6-foot-4 forward helped lead the Golden Knights to their first Section II championship in 1994, eventually landing himself in the Upstate New York Basketball Hall of Fame after playing two years at Colgate and a short stint of semi-professional ball for a summer in Puerto Rico. 

“His ability to work as a member of those teams — those were great, legendary teams — brought him to where he is now," said Rene LeRoux, who inducted Delgado into the hall of fame. "We don’t induct people on points, we induct them on character."

According to O'Brien, a major turning point for Delgado came at Colgate when he decided to switch from pursuing the pre-medicine path to majoring in political science and philosophy.

"I know [Delgado] told his father that he was switching majors to [political science] and philosophy, and I think that was a difficult thing for his father, but, he said 'It's what I love,'" O'Brien said.

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After the Rhodes Scholarship and getting his degree from Harvard Law, Delgado went off the beaten path and moved to California in 2005. Although he eventually passed the California Bar Exam, Delgado spent much of his five years there working odd jobs and pursuing a career in hip hop and rap. 

Delgado said in between parking cars on weekends by a bodega and working as a handy man during the week, he kept pursuing philosophical texts, such as Plato's five dialogues, along with some heavier doses of Kant and Hegel.

"So he parked cars for a while at nighttime, and at one point I said to him, 'Antonio, do any of the people whose cars you're parking have any idea you are not only a Rhodes Scholar, but a Harvard Law grad?'" O'Brien recalled. "And he laughed and said, 'They have no idea.'"

A 'BIG TENT' DEMOCRAT

As a political newcomer, Delgado has positioned himself as a "big-tent" Democrat, aiming to form the widest coalition possible going into Election Day.

Rather than choosing between focusing on an already fired-up progressive base or trying to win over Trump supporters — those in the 19th Congressional District voted for the president by a seven-point margin in 2016 — the political newcomer doesn't feel like he has to focus on any one group over another in his race against Faso. 

Fittingly, Delgado found one of the largest tents at the Fourth of July fair in Oneonta, one staffed by the Oneonta Rotary Club, where he introduced himself to a group of Republican women. 

“Republican love!” Delgado said with an enthusiastic clap when several of the women said they planned on voting for him in the fall, despite their allegiance to the GOP. 

Nevertheless, the 19th District poses major challenges for Delgado.

Spanning 11 counties in the Hudson Valley and Catskills — forming a claw-like shape that reaches up to Schoharie County, down the New Jersey border past Kingston and Poughkeepsie, and back up again along the Massachusetts border through Columbia County and the Southern half of Rensselaer County — the sprawling district is bigger geographically than the entire state of Connecticut.

This puts fundraising at a premium, with door-to-door campaign efforts requiring major resources and television advertising becoming crucial to reaching voters.

Delgado's campaign has already launched three ads in the race and reported $661,742 in cash on hand, along with an overall fundraising advantage of more than $400,000 on Faso in the latest FEC filings.

The district is also 88 percent white, with Delgado vying to become its first African American representative. 

Along partisan lines, 32 percent of registered voters in the district are Democrats, 31 percent are Republicans and 27 percent have no party affiliation. 

After emerging from a crowded primary field with just 22 percent of the vote, Delgado will head to the general election having to unite a fractured Democratic Party and make an appeal to a large pool of independent voters.

“I have committed myself to figuring out how to bridge gaps -- how to unify folks -- whether it’s within the party or beyond the party,” Delgado said as he passed the fried dough stand on the Fourth of July. “We have too much of a wedge issue going on. Everybody’s got their flag planted in something, as opposed to figuring out how to come together.”

The real question for Delgado is whether he can have it all -- whether he can transcend polarized "zero-sum" politics, where winning one group means losing another, according to political analysts who are following the race. Can he make an appeal to the entire spectrum of the Democratic Party without alienating the independent and disaffected Trump supporters he needs to win the district?

“Past research suggests that it’s really not possible in today’s polarized and heavily partisan environment for anyone to pull off a 'big tent' campaign,” said Zoe Oxley, professor of political science at Union College in Schenectady. “But, you know, you don’t necessarily need to, if you’re deciding to make the big tent include all voters. If [Delgado] can be a big tent Democrat, and keep the main wings of the Democratic party happy as well as convince lots of independents or independent Republican-leaning voters for him, then he’ll win.”

In his Oneonta fair appearance, Delgado mostly steered clear of hot-button national political issues. He said he has not decided whether he will support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, for re-election to the leadership post. Pelosi has been a frequent target of criticism and attacks by Congressional Republicans, including Faso.

He also said his campaign is getting help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, but neither his campaign or the DCCC would go into specifics beyond a poll that had him up seven points over Faso. 

On the campaign trail so far, Delgado has stopped short of engaging in some of the typical political chatter that reverberates inside the Washington Beltway and beyond.

Instead, he has sought to localize issues. During his Oneonta campaign stop, he listened to fairgoers of all political stripes and offered solutions he thinks can draw bipartisan support.

The rookie campaigner, who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said he has learned a lot from talking to Trump voters. In his conversations with them, he has begun to draw parallels between his upbringing in Schenectady, his new home in the 19th District, and even much of the Rust Belt that mobilized around the former real estate mogul.

“What’s interesting is — and I was just telling the [Oneonta] Mayor [Gary Herzig] this — each pocket, whether it’s here in Oneonta with the rail yard and how big of an industry that was for folks at a certain point in this area’s history, whether it was IBM in Ulster or whether it was GE in the Capital Region, you had these captains of industry that were anchoring communities for a long time, prior to globalization,” Delgado said just a few yards from where the Rail Workers Association was formed toward the back of the fairgrounds. “And then the world got big. And people kind of went running — I should say the owners of capital and wealth — went out into the open market and left a lot of folks in these communities behind. So no matter where you are in this district, there’s a story like that." 

Delgado went on to compare the post-industrial plight of the district to the Rust Belt.

“And nothing has come up from behind [these corporate departures],” he said. “And so people are talking about areas that are going through some turmoil politically; I think a big part of that is, people are trying to figure out what’s the way forward? For 40 some odd years, we haven’t had a way forward. We’re waiting for something to come, but no plan, no vision, no investment, and I think that’s the narrative. And older generations talk about that -- how they don’t see what’s here for their children.”

According to Dr. Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist and director of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz, Delgado has a keen sense — in some ways, in the way Trump did — that there is a component of identity tied to the economic shifts in the region. 

“These are social issues, not just economic issues,” Benjamin said.

He added that there is a desire on both sides of the aisle for jobs to stay upstate, so that young people are not forced to leave to find work. He used the example of an average man named Jerry to make his point.

“What it’s really about is whether Jerry’s grandkids will grow up near Jerry or whether he’ll have to visit them in Florida or somewhere else,” Benjamin said.

Another aspect of Delgado’s campaign that stands out to Benjamin, who has been a professor at New Paltz since 1968, is Delgado’s multifaceted persona — a Rhodes Scholar, a star basketball player, a top lawyer, a rapper, and, now, a candidate for Congress. 

“The guy [Delgado] is interesting in that he combines elements that are not often combined,” Benjamin said. “He constructs a persona out of dimensions that are not always congruent. One of the dimensions of modern politics that’s different from when I was growing up is that you can’t send different messages to different groups of people … now, communication is so fast and generalizes so quickly that you can’t have different messages.”

Yet according to Benjamin, Delgado’s versatility may make him an exception.

“The candidate can rightly say, I’m doing nothing to appeal just to young people; I’m appealing to everybody,” he said. “He can communicate to discreet audiences.”

Just a couple of weeks into the general election campaign, Delgado’s rap career came into question after a New York Post article unearthed some of his lyrics. Delgado's music has also gotten national attention from The New York Times and Vox, with the Times's editorial board also weighing in in an op-ed.

Going by AD The Voice, Deglado has said his music followed a long-established tradition of social justice-geared lyrics, examining the legacy of slavery and the potentially negative outcomes of capitalism for those not at the top.

The Faso campaign, however, took exception to the more vulgar lyrics, which included the use of the N-word, a common practice among black rappers. The Faso campaign also took issue with a reference to prostitution, which the Delgado campaign said was made not by Delgado himself, but by a female guest singer saying “I ain’t no trick *ss hoe.” 

Faso called the lyrics “troubling,” and, “not consistent with the views of most people in our district.” 

Delgado responded by saying, “If Faso showed the same amount of concern about our health care as he has for my music, he would not have voted to cut health care for thousands of his constituents, like Andrea Mitchell.” Delgado was referring to a viral video in which a woman with a brain tumor was promised by Congressman Faso that he would not vote to take away her health insurance, though he subsequently voted for the failed GOP bill to repeal Obamacare shortly afterward (the Faso campaign has insisted the legislation would not have taken Mitchell’s insurance away).

“There’s a latent issue that’s not being discussed, and that’s the issue of race,” Benjamin said of the attacks on Delgado’s rap career. 

Benjamin, who has known Faso personally for years and considers him a friend, said the Faso campaign is honing in on identity politics and the largely white demographics of the district in its attacks on Delgado as a carpetbagger and a rapper.

“It’s not a switch; it’s the same argument. It’s a cultural argument. It’s saying that this guy is not like us,” Benjamin said. “It’s not about rap music — it’s about the kind of people that listen to rap music, not the kind of people in upstate New York.”

Faso would not comment for this article, and his campaign representatives would not comment on the matter beyond previously issued statements, including an additional statement, which criticized Delgado's "broad brush attacks on capitalism and free enterprise," among other things.

"He uses derogatory terms about women and law enforcement, including explicit references to body parts, use of 'cheap a-- ho' as a description of some women, and how police officers would react to his words - 'when I spit, they (cops) s---.' It’s his responsibility as a candidate to answer for the controversial views he expressed in his words and whether he continues to hold these views today.”

Many progressives in the district, such as New Paltz Deputy Mayor KT Tobin, a Delgado supporter, feared race would play a role in the campaign, but not this quickly. 

“I thought they might wait until October,” Tobin said of the attacks. “Most people that were engaged in the primary knew that this was part of Antonio’s life history… certainly there was coded racism in there. I see this as a strength, not a weakness.”

Delgado's high school guidance counselor, Sister Monica Muprhy, recalled Delgado's relationship to race as a student at a predominantly white school, where she said it was often easy for minority students to stay close together in cliques. 

“I think he was fortunate in that he had a number of friends who were black, and they did not stick together as the black kids," Murphy said. "I think he was well liked by all, and I think that’s because of his approach to other people."

Delgado's wife, Lacey Schwartz, received critical acclaim for her 2015 PBS documentary, "Little White Lie," which focuses on her biracial identity.

Oxley warned that a perceived evocation of race from the Faso campaign may backfire in the post-2016 national climate. 

“After the Trump campaign, people are more aware of when race is being used,” the Union professor said. “We’re in a more liberal part of the country, so people will be quick to know when these attacks are being racialized.” 

While it is still early in the campaign, Delgado and Faso have yet to duke it out in the nitty-gritty of policy.

Faso grew up in Massapequa, cutting his teeth on Long Island as a grants officer before heading to Georgetown University for law school, eventually becoming the Republican Minority Leader in the New York State Assembly. 

In 2002, Faso launched a failed bid for State Comptroller, losing to Alan Hevesi by 3 percentage points. Faso's second bid for statewide office came in 2006, when he ran for governor and lost to Eliot Spitzer by 40 percentage points.

Later turning his attention to Washington, Faso withdrew from a 2009 special election to replace U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's vacant House seat, throwing his support behind Republican State Sen. Jim Tedisco. Faso ran for the seat again when former U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson retired in 2016, beating Democratic challenger and Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout with 54 percent of the vote.

Though he has suffered setbacks in his political career, Faso has been widely considered a substantive, policy-focused candidate, taking generally moderate positions within the GOP, according to Benjamin. Benjamin warned that while Faso may be vulnerable in his seat, he has proven to be a formidable debate opponent with a deep knowledge of specific policies. 

“Delgado is a smart guy, but I’ve found that people who run against John can’t go head to head with him on issues," Benjamin said. "They end up resorting to slogans.”

Also see:

Faso’s team has primarily focused on Delgado’s recent move to the district, his rap lyrics and his prolific fundraising ability, along with his ties to the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, whose employees have made significant donations to Delgado’s campaign. Despite the Faso campaign’s criticism, Delgado insists he never did any lobbying for the law firm, focusing instead on pro-bono cases, such as those involving minors in the legal system. 

“Antonio went above and beyond in his pro bono commitment," said Joseph Sorkin, a partner at the firm who worked with Delgado on litigation and pro bono work. "He not only understands complex theoretical ideas, but also what matters to people."

At the Oneonta Fair and elsewhere on the trail, Delgado can be hesitant to attack Faso on anything other than health care, and occasionally taxes — Faso voted against the Trump tax cuts. The Schenectady native certainly refrains from attacking Faso personally, a tactic he says has earned him the respect of his opponents. 

“They were just talking about the approach that I’ve been taking, in terms of positivity, in terms of focusing on issues and bringing folks together,” Delgado said of his conversations with other Democrats who ran in the primary, all of whom have endorsed him, including Jeff Beals, who was very critical of Delgado during the primary. 

Now that Delgado has the progressive side of the stage to himself, he has the chance to bring his energy and enthusiasm to an already attention-grabbing race. 

“I think he has hit the sweet spot for being inspirational and practical at the same time,” said Tobin, the deputy mayor of New Paltz. “I really think from a rhetorical and messaging perspective, he will increase voter turnout by getting people to the polls.”

As Delgado made his way past the bandstand, mingling with voters from tent to tent, he laughed with a woman while taking a selfie with her, learned the origin of the first railworkers union from the mayor of Oneonta, and kept the energy going with his young campaign volunteers, who were giving up their Fourth of July holiday to be with the candidate. 

For Delgado, it would have been easy to stay in New York City, earning a nice salary and just taking the occasional trip back upstate to visit family. Instead, he decided to move back upstate, a decision Benjamin argued could be used in his favor, should Delgado play his cards right when he gets attacked for being a late arrival to the district. 

“The fundamental issue is not that I worked on Wall Street, but that I worked on Wall Street and I came back,” Benjamin said, outlining an argument he would make if he were Delgado. 

Whether he is in the courtroom, on the mic, on the basketball court, in Hamilton Hill or surrounded by the hills of Oneonta, Delgado said he always tries to bring “humility and service” to whatever role he finds himself in. 

That has earned him the support of those who knew him back in the day to those who first encountered him on the trail. 

"All I can say is I wish I lived in one of those counties," Sister Murphy said. "He certainly has my vote." 

For loyal supporters in the district like Tobin, that mix of Delgado's versatility and consistency is what makes him so likeable. 

“He’s not a cookie-cutter stereotype anything.”

Correction, 9:30 AM July 29: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Delgado's brother.
Clarification, 3:05 PM July 29: An earlier version of this piece misattributed the source of lyrics on one of Delgado’s albums.

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