Music fans know John Hall as the lead guitarist for Orleans and songwriter of hit singles like Still the One, Dancin’ in the Moonlight, and Dance With Me. Activists know him as the musician who organized No Nuke concerts and released the song Power, an ode to alternative energy, just three weeks before the Three Mile Island meltdown. His fellow-citizens in upstate New York know him as a member of the Ulster County Legislature, and president of the Saugerties Board of Education. And, now, it looks like Americans might soon know this great musician and good man as Congressman John Hall (D-NY).
Hall is poised to unseat an incumbent previously thought to be invincible, Rep. Sue Kelly of the 19th District. According to Congressional Quarterly, “[Kelly] took 67 percent of the vote two years ago and has exceeded 60 percent in every election since 1998.” That’s why risk-averse, inside-the-Beltway Dems initially lined up behind Judy Aydelott, a lawyer and one-time Republican who they felt would appeal to the electorate as a moderate. But longtime activist Hall believed he could take his message directly to the people. And he did. He hired Amy Little, a 30-year veteran organizer on social justice issues, as his Campaign Director. (Little’s career past includes raising over $30 million for Citizen Action groups and labor coalitions across the country, and serving as a National Field Director for GOTV and voter registration in 2004.) Since taking the helm of the Hall campaign, she has built a gutsy and effective grassroots organization.
Hall has a simple yet powerful message that resonates with voters. He told The Ostroy Report, “The biggest issue of the days are ending the war in Iraq, achieving universal health care with an affordable prescription drug plan and finding safe, clean, renewable solutions to our energy needs.” On why he’s running Hall says, “The situation in the nation and the world is at such a crucial juncture, and the stakes are so high. Right now, there are no checks and balances. I want to be a voice for creativity and honesty in solving our problems. I want to be proud, not just of our country but of our government.”
The emphasis on a grassroots field operation has produced terrific results. On primary day the campaign had 400 people in the field and voting numbers were up 100 percent from the previous election. Hall defeated Aydelott by nearly 2:1, and received 49 percent of the vote in a 4-way race. The field team has now grown to 1,200 people, and it seems Hall – who flew under the radar for so long – may turn out to be the perfect stealth candidate to unseat Kelly.
Sadly, instead of celebrating Hall’s ability to connect with the voters – not to mention his down-to-earth manner (see his spirited appearance on the Colbert Report) – big ticket Dems are still shying away from Hall’s progressive credentials. One sign of that – 85 percent of Halls’ fundraising comes from individuals contributing $200 or less.
Meanwhile, Kelly has done nothing to endear herself to the voters. Questions have arisen over her role in the Foley scandal (which broke on her 70th birthday) since she was Chair of the Page Board from 1999 to 2001. She lost her cool at an editorial board meeting when it was brought up; she literally ran away from reporters who wanted to talk to her; and she has defended and supported the Bush administration ad nauseam while building a voting record voters will love – if they love Tom DeLay!
On Sunday, the New York Times endorsed Hall as “a lawmaker of energy, steady conviction and clear principles” with an “ambitious and coherent” platform. He’s also collected the endorsement of the Times Herald-Record (which has endorsed Kelly in the past). This week he will announce the Sierra Club’s backing and he is heavily supported by labor.
While Kelly still has the typical big bucks of a Republican incumbent – and no one should underestimate the work that remains – the humanpower supplied by a unique coalition of labor and environmental activists could prove to be the difference on Election Day. If so, a lot of happy progressives will be dancing in the moonlight come November 7.
Jonathan Tasini is organizing trips upstate over the next two weekends to canvass for Hall. Click here if you’re interested in going.