In the summer of 1997 Amory Houghton, the “moderate” six-term Republican Congressman who represents my home county in upstate New York, cast a crucial vote against the “no arms to dictators” Code of Conduct, refused to co-sponsor a bill banning landmines and helped defeat a bid to kill the unneeded F-22 fighter plane. Unfortunately for my family’s finances and sanity, I took this immoderate record as an affront to my work as the director of a Washington, DC-based advocacy center that had promoted these initiatives. In 1998 we moved back home, and I set about becoming the Democratic candidate for Congress from this sprawling rural district that runs along the Pennsylvania border from just south of Buffalo to just south of Syracuse.
I quickly gained the support of the Democratic parties of the ten counties covered by the district, since nobody else was eager to challenge the person Forbes named the richest person in the House, in a district redrawn after the 1990 census to boost Republican votes. In five re-election bids, Houghton had outspent his Democratic challengers $2 million to $14,000, driving his positive name recognition and moderate image through the roof–even with Democratic voters, who liked his stands against his party on “social” issues and were unaware of his party-line support for cutting Medicare and student loans to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy, turning union workers into contract employees and dismantling clean-water standards during the Contract With America debates of 1995. Taking him on was like trying to replace Pepsi at the district’s diners with a new natural fruit drink. Having worked to end intervention in Vietnam, apartheid in South Africa and war in Central America, I just knew it was winnable.
But not this time. I lost 68 percent to 25 percent, with 7 percent going to the Right to Life Party’s candidate. We held our own in the few small cities and with the Democratic core mobilized by the county parties and our scores of volunteers, but we were washed away in rural areas and by high Republican turnout in the incumbent’s two home counties. Dashing our hopes for an upset was the abysmal turnout among the marginalized working families in this Appalachian area, where unemployment is 40 percent above the national average: 6.3 percent in the first six months of 1998, versus 4.5 percent nationally. Our poll identified this group as the most likely to support our campaign’s call for a budget that would give working families a fair share of prenatal care, childcare, healthcare, access to college and federal funds for jobs, but it also correctly predicted that they would be the least likely to vote.
We raised a remarkable $250,000, most of it from the national peace community, but we were still outspent four to one overall and probably fifteen to one in crucial television time. Not being able to afford the number of TV commercials needed to boost recognition of my name, let alone our message, obviously hurt our chances, but the result was also related to how the public felt about incumbency that year in upstate New York. Despite the weak economy, every Congressional challenger from both parties, many with far more money and far more voters registered with their party than we had, got skunked.
During the six-month campaign, I ran–about half a marathon a day–300 miles across the district, walked dozens of precincts, shook hands at factory gates and in diners on the same day that I’d fly to New York City for fundraising at the Harvard Club, wrote an economic revival plan and pushed it to discouraged union members and discouraging Republican editorial boards, played the banjo and marched in parades, sent chicken-suited students out to call for debates and spent seemingly endless hours dialing for dollars and truly endless hours driving across an area as big as Connecticut. Out of this exhausting blur, I can see three important principles I think all progressives–rural, urban and suburban–should follow if we want to see our policies flourishing ten years from now: