Sun Community News - NELSON, RUNNING TO TOPPLE STEFANIK, UNDETERRED BY FUNDRAISING DISADVANTAGE
PLATTSBURGH | The seven Democratic candidates running for the North Country’s lone congressional seat have raised a collective $1.4 million ahead of the June nominating content.
That’s roughly what Mike Derrick, the party’s nominee in 2016, raised during this entire 18-month campaign cycle.
But seven weeks ahead of a historic primary and a full six months before the general election, money pouring into the race will likely escalate as Democrats attempt to add New York’s 21st Congressional District to the pickup list by defeating Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Willsboro), who is seeking a third-term against the backdrop of a controversial president and unfavorable historical trends.
Twenty-four seats are needed for Democrats to flip the House from GOP control.
Top-fundraiser Don Boyajian, a Albany-based attorney, has raised $494,633 since entering the contest last August, which is slightly less than double the haul by Tedra Cobb, who has raised $293,890 since declaring her candidacy a month earlier.
By comparison, Patrick Nelson, who entered the race the same day President Trump took office last January, has raised just $53,620, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
“Money is not indicative of support or success,” Nelson told The Sun. “Everyone wants to make it all about money. But if you have the right message that resonates, you can punch above your weight.”
Nelson, a political activist and self-described “working stiff” who lives in Stillwater, has made stripping politics of corporate money a campaign centerpiece, and has frequently tied Washington’s political dysfunction and corruption to campaign contributions.
While his fellow Democrats have lapped him on the fundraising metric — former MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan has tapped into a pool of urbane donors and small-dollar givers to raise $151,000 in just two months — Nelson said he is undeterred as his competitors jostle to spin the numbers into frontrunner status.
Nelson pointed to Rick Trevino, a fellow Justice Democrat candidate for Texas’s 23rd District (and fellow Bernie Sanders diehard) who he hopes to join in the House this November.
Treviño spent $20,000 and got 17 percent of the vote in a run-off earlier this year, beating back challenges from party-backed candidates bankrolled by insiders like U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro and his brother, Julian Castro, who helped steer $500,000 to the race.
Treviño will face off in a two-way primary this May to determine who will face U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican who represents a sprawling border district, in the November general election.
Each of the seven Democrats vying for the nomination will appear on the ballot for the June 26 primary.
Joining Boyajian, Ratigan and Cobb are Emily Martz, Katie Wilson and David Mastrianni.
Stefanik raised $3.1 million in 2016 and is sitting on a $1.3 million war chest.
Nelson believes money is the root of all evil in politics — not because politicians are inherently sneaky, but rather due to basic human psychology.
It’s a message he has honed after 15 months on the campaign trail.
Ahead of the new “Stars War” flick, the candidate forgot his wallet and a friend picked up the tab.
Nelson paid him back, but he still wanted to reciprocate.
The feeling wasn’t intentional, said Nelson, but rather because giving triggers a basic psychological response designed to reward that behavior.
“There’s a basic human urge to return favors even if we don’t have to,” said the candidate, who graduated with a degree in biochemistry from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “It feels good, and politics is no exception to this basic human drive.”
If elected officials are spending 4 to 6 hours per day calling donors, he said, the habit is bound to influence their policymaking — like rolling back financial regulations, for instance.
“This is what corporate political action committees and lobbyists do,” Nelson said. “Every politician is eventually going to sell out to their donors, whether it’s Elise Stefanik, Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders — it’s basic human psychology."
He admitted he’ll sell out, too.
“I am going to sell out for the pizza delivery driver in Ogdensburg and the gas station attendant in Peru,” he said. “I was a working stiff at a guitar center before I got a job with the Derrick campaign.”
A politician cannot be truly effective at representing working class issues if they don’t rub shoulders with the rank and file, he said.
“I’m a 28-year-old wage worker,” he said. “I think the message is good, and I do a good job delivering it.”
The candidate repeatedly bored into the issue at a candidate’s forum in South Glens Falls in January, asking his Democratic competitors to join him in a pledge to reject contributions from corporate PACs and lobbyists.
Boyajian, Wilson and ex-candidate Ronald Kim signed on at the time; Cobb later agreed and Ratigan, who entered the race afterwards, said earlier this month he hadn't yet accepted any pledges from corporate PACs.
The Green Party does not accept corporate donations as part of their platform, making Lynn Kahn automatically exempt.
Other Democrats defended their contributions from PACs, citing labor unions and other progressive groups that share their message.
Stefanik, for her part, batted away accusations by progressive activists at a forum earlier this month in South Glens Falls that fundraising influences her decisions, including those related to her work on the House Intelligence Committee, which concluded a controversial probe into potential Russian collusion with the Trump 2016 presidential campaign earlier this year.
“No. I don’t let my contributions dictate my work in Congress,” said Stefanik.
Nelson said the average donation to his campaign is about $28, which he said reminds him of who he is working for.
Sixty-four percent of his contributions are donations under $200 compared to Boyajian’s 12.4 percent.
“That says to me we’re a clean money campaign,” Nelson said.
The only way to nip the money problem in politics is through a publicly funded election system, he said. But as he hurdles towards the primary, his campaign will continue to tweak their grassroots, digital-driven formula designed to solicit small-dollar donations.
This strategy, he said, will allow him to be unshackled when it comes to discussing issues — namely economic inequality.
“I don’t have fear of alienating support I’m not going to get,” he said.
Democrats need to return to working class issues if they want to win elections again, he said, citing shellackings the party received in 2016, losses he attributed in part to their status as “corporate Democrats” who made a deal with the devil.
“Broad-based programs that are easy and simple to understand and will benefit a broad segment of population — that’s the winning ticket for Democrats,” he said, citing support for programs like Medicare-for-All.
Nelson believes he will be the party’s nominee in June. But if he falls short in clinching the nomination, expect him to continue to draw focus to the issue.
“Expect me to speak out if I see corporate money on their FEC reports,” he said.
A war chest by itself will not work without an effective strategy, Nelson added.
“I imagine they’re going to fall into the same traps that haven’t been very effective,” Nelson said of high-earners in the Democratic pack, “spending $20 to $30 a vote because there’s still a lot media consultants around who have lost campaigns for 30 years who are still in the business.
“It helps when candidates are wasteful with their spending.”
Wilson echoed similar sentiments at a campaign event over the weekend.
"I see a lot of empty platitudes and (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) talking points," she said.
In a sense, Nelson said he has already won because he has helped steer the debate and other candidates have started working his talking points into their messaging.
“I’m a 28-year-old from a town nobody’s ever heard of,” Nelson said. “My name is on the ballot for the House of Representatives, and I’ve been an influence in topics discussed in New York’s 21st Congressional District. I’ve already won — the only question is by how much we’re going to win.”