Rap and Upstate New York Roots Rankle Must-Win Race for Democrats

BOVINA, N.Y. — The Democrats gathered outside the farmhouse knew exactly where Antonio Delgado was going with this. 

“Some of you might have heard of my career, at least one of my careers, after law school,” he said on a recent Saturday, drawing laughs. People across the country have heard about it, too.

Delgado’s stint as rapper known as “AD The Voice” has brought national attention to what was already a hotly contested House race in upstate New York’s 19th District. Republican groups have launched ads featuring profanity-laced lyrics from the Democratic nominee’s past.

Some have said the ads stoke racial divisions. Delgado, who is African-American, is running in an overwhelmingly white district currently held by GOP freshman John J. Faso. 

“This is a microcosm of the division in the country,” Faso said in an interview after visiting with seniors in Poughquag last month. “And both sides are fairly evenly matched.”

Watch: This New York District Is the Race to Watch for Democrats in the Trump Era

Must-win district

The heated race underscores how crucial the seat is in the battle for the House.

The expansive 19th District, which stretches along the Hudson River Valley, is larger than the state of Connecticut and includes more conservative rural voters, as well as stridently liberal ones. (The district includes Woodstock.) Democrats have a slight voter registration edge over the GOP: 32 percent to 31 percent. Nearly 27 percent are not registered with any party.

Delgado won a seven-way Democratic primary in June over several more progressive opponents with just 22 percent of the vote, and has since been working to unite the party. Republicans, who are already defending 25 seats Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, can ill-afford to lose one that backed Trump if they want to keep the House. 

Some Democrats are concerned the presence of two third-party candidates, including actress Diane Neal from “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” could pull votes from Delgado. Neal dismissed the suggestion that she was a spoiler after a candidate forum in Kingston last month. 

Rap ads

But for now, it’s the ads focusing on Delgado’s decade-old rap lyrics that have drawn the most attention. 

The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund have aired the ads, and Republicans note the spots feature the Democrat’s own words.

“Antonio Delgado put his anti-American and sexist views on record for all to hear and New York families should be fully informed of these views before making their choice for Congress,” CLF spokeswoman Courtney Alexander said.

An NRCC ad featured text on screen with Delgado rapping, “There’s a war goin’ on… (N-word) what the (F-word) is us?” and “Gotcha sweatin’ this like ya having sex to a porno flick” and “God bless Iraq,” selectively spliced between footage from his positive bio ad. 

“Who am I? I’m Antonio Delgado,” Delgado says at the end of the ad over an image of him dressed in a business suit next to an image of him in a hoodie.

Delgado, a Rhodes scholar and Harvard Law graduate, stopped short of calling the ads racist in an interview but said they were divisive. Gareth Rhodes, who ran against Delgado in the Democratic primary and is now supporting him, called them “race-baiting” and said they tried “to prey on people’s worst instinct.” 

But not everyone dismissed the lyrics.

“When I heard about the rap … I was offended,” said Linda, who declined to give her last name, at the recent opening of Faso’s campaign office in Hyde Park. “About women, about police, about 9/11. Those are all things, core principles that go against the people of our district.”

Faso has called on Delgado to explain himself.

“Delgado refuses to explain the words that he authored that are derogatory towards women and police,” he said. “And if the shoe were on the other foot, you would be damn sure they would be asking me to explain it.”

Delgado suggested the lyrics were a non-issue, accusing Faso of “desperately pulling at straws.” He pointed to a letter from area clergy and editorials that “have all made it clear that the line of attack is baseless and grounded in falsehood.”

On that brisk Saturday night on the farm, Delgado pivoted to the underlying message of his rap music: questioning income inequality, education disparities, and unequal opportunities.

“That’s what I spoke about then and that’s what I’m speaking about now,” he told the Democrats. 

Faso speaks with supporters at a campaign office in Hyde Park. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)
Faso speaks with supporters at a campaign office in Hyde Park. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)

On the campaign trail, Faso is quick to remind voters about Delgado’s recent move to the district in January of last year. 

“The fella is an empty suit,” he told supporters in Hyde Park last month. “He really doesn’t understand what’s going on in this district … because he just arrived in the district.”

Republicans leveled similar charges against the the Democratic nominees in the 2016 and 2014 cycles, but Democrats believe the tactic won’t work as well against Delgado, who grew up in neighboring Schenectady and played basketball at Colgate University. (He was inducted into the Upstate New York Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this year.) 

Delgado said he moved from New Jersey to the 19th District, where his wife grew up, to be closer to their families as they raised their children. It wasn’t to run for Congress, he said, although the (Albany) Times Union reported he formed a congressional campaign committee the same day he bought his home in New York. 

A Delgado supporter poses for a picture at the Cauliflower Festival in Margaretville. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)
A Delgado supporter poses for a picture at the Cauliflower Festival in Margaretville. (Bridget Bowman/CQ Roll Call)

Faso also calls Delgado too liberal for the district. At the candidate forum in Kingston, he twice linked the Democrat to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, accusing him of wanting to raise taxes and backing a “government takeover” of health care. (Delgado said he supports offering Medicare as a public option and allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.)

The health care attacks are not one-sided. Delgado and Democratic groups have gone after Faso for his vote last year to repeal much of the 2010 health care law, which would have led to higher prices for people with pre-existing conditions.

Delgado often refers to Faso’s on-camera promise last year to a constituent with a brain tumor to protect her health care. Faso said the constituent would not have been affected by the GOP health care bill, which covered people with pre-existing conditions.

(While the bill technically barred companies from denying health insurance to people with pre-existing conditions, it lifted limits on insurance costs, which Politifact found would have rendered health insurance unaffordable for people with pre-existing conditions.)

Faso, a former minority leader of the New York state Assembly, said he tries to counter the criticism by touting his record on bipartisanship —  the Lugar Center ranked him the 18th most bipartisan member of the House last year — and his membership in the Problem Solvers Caucus.

His campaign will test whether Republicans who backed the effort to repeal the health care law can also localize their races successfully by stressing their other bipartisan efforts. 

Karen Feldman, a Democratic consultant and activist in Columbia County, said she expected the contest to be close. But she was optimistic. 

“This is our race to lose,” she said. 

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