N.Y.s Hudson Valley seen as Congress battlefield

The prospect of toppling two GOP House members in New York’s Hudson Valley has Democrats, peace activists and progressives coming together, aware that 2006 can end the Bush administration’s control of Congress.

A combination of Bush’s falling popularity and formidable Democratic challengers has six-term Rep. Sue Kelly (19th Congressional District) and four-term Rep. John E. Sweeney (20th CD) worried. The Cook Political Report has put both districts in the “toss-up” category, very competitive races that could go either way.

Adding to the incumbents’ woes are independent electoral groups that formed during and after the 2004 election, like the Mid-Hudson Progressive Alliance in the 19th District. In the 20th, Democracy for America groups are leading progressive politics in nearly all 10 counties and reporting big membership gains.

Another grassroots organization, Take 19, is working to inform voters that Kelly, while casting herself as a moderate Republican, has consistently supported the Bush-DeLay agenda.

The outpouring of volunteers to beat Bush in 2004 brought hundreds of new people in these districts into the fight and reinvigorated others. The 2005 local elections reflected this activity when Democrats and progressive candidates were swept into office up and down the Hudson Valley.

In the 19th CD, where six candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination, unity is critical, given that the primary, held in September, favors incumbents. Many activists attending candidate forums in the 19th are concerned that unless a candidate is chosen early, Kelly will gain the advantage.

At a Dutchess County forum April 8, one of the six candidates sounded a theme that may prove to be a unifying mantra. “This election is not about any one of us,” he said, pointing to his colleagues, “it is about us as Democrats turning this country around.”

In the 20th, Sweeney has been pedaling away from the Beltway neo-cons since Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, 39, entered the race. Gillibrand, of Hudson, N.Y., served in the Clinton administration as special counsel to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Her candidacy has ignited a flurry of activity and fundraising that few would have expected possible two years ago when Bush took the district with 53 percent of the vote, as he also did in the 20th.

In past elections many local and national unions contributed to the campaigns of both incumbents. Yet with the tide turning against the GOP, unions see an opportunity to shift their support to a Democrat who has a shot at winning. Contributing to this rethinking is the fact that both incumbents have disappointing labor voting records on key issues.

Gillibrand has received endorsements from 1199 SEIU, which has 17,000 health care members in upstate New York, and from two local building trade unions. In the 19th district, with so many candidates in the mix, it is too early to gauge labor’s position, but indications are that there will be a break from the past.

At the April 8 forum Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.-22) placed high stakes on unity when he cast the outcome of the 2006 election in a stark historical context. Referring to the Bush administration’s “doctoring of evidence” to bring the nation to war, and its litany of corruption and lies, Hinchey said: “Unless we can take a majority in Congress, especially the House, and begin investigations, those activities will continue for the next two years and the possibility of losing our constitutional rights is in jeopardy.”

Hinchey also poignantly characterized the grassroots effort required to defeat the right wing. “They [the GOP] have an enormously effective propaganda machine and our job is to overcome it.”