WHALLONSBURG | As attendees trickled into the Whallonsburg Grange for a town hall meeting, Patrick Nelson reminded them he could be wordy.
“Feel free to raise your hand and interrupt me,” Nelson said. “I tend to talk a lot.”
And he did.
For the next 90 minutes, the candidate seeking the Democratic nomination for New York’s 21st Congressional District perched on a stool and held court with voters, discussing a kaleidoscopic number of state, federal and local issues.
There were those dominating the national landscape, including the comprehensive tax overhaul that passed the GOP-led Senate on Friday, and health care, including Medicare for All, the single-payer legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
But the freewheeling event was also equal parts stump speech, history lecture and therapy session as Nelson discussed at a rapid clip the overuse of antibiotics in modern medicine, student debt, the root causes of opiate addiction, broadband installation, voter enrollment, clean water infrastructure funding and how to cure the ails of a Democratic Party still picking themselves up off the floor after last year’s shock election upset.
Nelson spoke in complete paragraphs, each accompanied by stats, citations, sources and asides.
Just 10 people attended the session on Sunday afternoon, most of them local residents involved in progressive politics.
Despite preaching to a friendly choir, Nelson continually referred to wealth inequality, and said the Republican-led Congress and White House are prioritizing the rich at the expense of the working class, whether it’s on health care or the pending net neutrality vote by the Federal Communications Commission on Dec. 14.
“These dastardly things they’re trying to do is under the cover of the holiday season,” Nelson said. “The American people are getting ripped off and it needs to stop.”
‘A BUILDING YEAR’
Nelson occasionally took shots at Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Willsboro), whom he criticized as distant and beholden to her campaign donors.
”How often do you see the Congresswoman in Willsboro?” he asked. “She’s not around, and she should be doing these as well.”
The room murmured.
But despite their antipathy to a GOP-led government, attendees also largely appeared to looking for guidance from a progressive leader who could help them navigate the post-election landscape. Questions from the group focused as much on Democratic Party politics as federal issues under a President Trump-led White House.
“We’re in a building year,” Nelson said. “That’s not something to fear.”
At times, he said, the process can appear chaotic.
“It’s safe to say we need to be doing something different than what we were doing before.”
It’s been a whiplash year for Democrats, who have been in full-on assault mode against President Trump, and have fought tooth-and-nail against a number of his legislative initiatives, including proposed budget cuts, rollbacks of Environmental Protection Agency regulations and numerous failed attempts to repeal “Obamacare.”
Nelson, 28, served as a delegate for Sanders during his 2016 presidential campaign, and still wears his admiration for the lawmaker on his sleeve.
Sanders, he said, remains one of the most popular politicians in the nation, and he continues to view him as playing a major role in the Democratic Party.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also has a role to play, said Nelson, and is an important figure (Not so much current Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, he added.)
And he wouldn’t say no to an endorsement from Hillary Clinton.
But Nelson said he doesn’t want to rehash 2016, but rather ensures the party learns from its mistakes.
As his congressional campaign heads into 2018, he aims to emulate the grassroots strategy utilized by Sanders.
After all, he said, the landscapes of the sweeping congressional district and Vermont are not dissimilar.
Grassroots efforts are paramount, he said, including work by the small knots of activists around the district who are organizing protests, rallies and similar forums and panel discussions.
“They’re the voices that need to be heard in the Democratic Party,” Nelson said. “Show up and get involved. It’s not a majority rule — it’s rule by those who show up.”
The candidate called for the state’s primary system to be opened up in 2018 to allow unaffiliated voters to participate, a chief complaint of Berniecrats following last year’s primary.
Nelson has had experience working with two most recent Democratic nominees for the 21st Congressional District.
After interning with Aaron Woolf in 2014, Nelson worked as a regional field director (and later, as a field director-at-large) for Mike Derrick, overseeing five offices and leading the district’s get-out-the-vote operation.
While working those campaigns, Nelson helped tailor phone scripts to undecided voters in different parts of the district, from Fort Drum in the west to the agricultural sector in the Champlain Valley.
“I think that gives me a unique perspective on the district as a whole,” he said.
EYE ON FUNDRAISING
To take back the House next year, Democrats must peel 24 seats from the GOP, six of which are in New York state, Nelson said.
While the seat was considered a toss-up in 2014 and the two major parties poured resources into the open race, Stefanik won both races by wide margins.
Nelson, who lives in the district border town of Stillwater, Saratoga County, is one of seven Democrats vying for the party’s nomination.
He demurred when asked by an audience member what differentiates him from his primary challengers, and said he prefers to run a campaign focusing on why voters should vote for someone as opposed to why they should not.
All hopefuls would be a better representative than Stefanik, he said.
But he admitted fundraising will be challenging ahead of the June primary, particularly considering his campaign does not accept donations from corporate political action committees.
“Does that mean we're likely to raise less money?” he said. “It’s likely.”
Nelson ended the most recent fundraising quarter in fifth place, with $11,500 raised compared to Don Boyajian, a Washington County-based environmental lawyer, who generated $207,965.
The candidate sees a silver lining: Relying solely on small donors means he can be more vocal in addressing critical issues, he said, unlike Stefanik, who he called “a “PR rep for corporate America.”
“Her skill set is putting a nice face on corporate America coming in and fleecing the American people,” he said.
His strategy, he said, is to acknowledge what his opponent’s biggest strength is, and focus on chipping away at that.
“The biggest strength Congresswoman Stefanik has is her ability to raise money,” he said. “The only way I can effectively talk about that is by not calling the kettle black.”
(In response to Nelson’s comments, a Stefanik campaign spokesman said, “Elise is proud of her bipartisan record of always putting the North Country first, a record which continues to deliver real results for taxpayers across our district.”)
Nelson hopes to eventually score a lucrative endorsement from Sanders, a measure he said would give his campaign momentum.
“One fundraising email from Sen. Sanders solves a lot of our financial challenges,” he said.
The candidate has held at least a dozen town hall-type meetings since declaring his campaign in January, and said he will continue to do so.
“I want to learn as much from you as you do from me,” he said. “It makes me a better candidate.”