LGBTQ Crowd Rallies to Faso Challenger

Gareth Rhodes is a 29-year-old Democrat itching to take on Republican Congressmember John Faso in New York’s 19th Congressional District. | GARETHRHODES.COM

One member of New York’s Republican congressional delegation with a big target on his back is John Faso, who provided a key vote when the House of Representatives, in May, on a 217-213, passed its version of a “repeal and replace” alternative to President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act.

Faso, 65, served for 16 years in the State Assembly prior to waging unsuccessful bids for state comptroller in 2002 and for governor in 2006. Last year, Faso resurrected his political career by capturing the upstate 19th Congressional District seat — representing all or portions of 10 counties from the Catskills north and east toward Albany — being vacated by Chris Gibson. Though Faso handily defeated Zyphyr Teachout, a progressive favorite who gained fame with a tough primary challenge to Andrew Cuomo in 2014, the Republican already has a pack of Democrats lining up to challenge him next year.

One of those hopefuls is 29-year-old Gareth Rhodes, who this week demonstrated that he has strong support in New York’s LGBTQ community, having made many friends from his days in Cuomo’s press shop beginning in the period that led up to the 2011 victory of marriage equality in the state.

Upstate GOP House member draws out the Dems, including Gareth Rhodes

Prior to going to work in Albany, Rhodes had interned in the Obama White House, and from the governor’s office he went on to Harvard Law School.

The strength of the bonds Rhodes forged working for the governor and the president before that were clear in a September 25 fundraiser at Elmo’s Restaurant in Chelsea. There, he was introduced by Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker who is now CEO of Women in Need, a non-profit that serves homeless families headed up by women. Among the event’s 22 hosts were a variety of other LGBTQ leaders, including Aditi Hardikar, who did gay outreach for President Barack Obama before taking on fundraising work in targeted communities in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Emily Giske, a partner in the high profile Bolton-St. John lobbying firm and a vice chair of the State Democratic Party, Peter Ajemian, who is State Senator Brad Hoylman’s chief of staff, Brian Ellner, who was a Bloomberg appointee at the Department of Education and later played a leading role in the marriage equality fight in Albany, Matthew McMorrow, who is an aide to Mayor Bill de Blasio on gay issues, and Dirk McCall, who works for Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr.

Despite his impressive “résumé and high-profile friends, in Rhodes’ telling, his background is not all ivy walls and coveted internships. A farmer’s son, Rhodes graduated from Kingston High School and took a job drilling water wells while serving as a volunteer firefighter. It was at the urging of his friends, he said, that he decided to enroll in college. After securing a financial aid package, Rhodes boarded a Trailways Bus and came here to attend CUNY.

Does this mean he is a big booster of Senator Bernie Sander’s no tuition for public universities plan?

Not exactly.

“I wouldn’t have gotten a degree,” he acknowledged, without help from the state’s Tuition Assistance Program and Pell Grants, but Rhodes isn’t one who believes the higher education system is broken in giving opportunities to deserving students. His education, he said, cost him $16,000 for the four years, an excellent deal “for the kind of education you get.”

In a Republican-leaning district, he understands, talking about college being “tuition-free” can lead to scoffing that ‘”nothing is free.” Many voters might take umbrage at being asked to pay for other people’s education.

On the other hand, Medicare for All, in Rhodes’ estimation, “will vastly reduce the anxiety and onerous costs that are imposed on small businesses and hardworking families.” America, he said, should join “most other industrialized nations and begin work toward enacting this important reform.”

Rhodes is campaigning for an activist government that will promote prosperity while alleviating real social problems, and he accuses Faso of shortchanging local communities — from his vote on Trumpcare to his support for harsh budget cuts to agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency. The predominately rural district, he charges, will suffer when funding for parkland that attracts both tourists and new residents slows and if support for public health infrastructure dries up. These charges could stick; Faso is a member of the House Budget Committee. Hospitals are the “largest employers” in the district, said Rhodes, who pointed to a little-discussed impact of repealing Obamacare — its impact on healthcare employment.

Faso isn’t looking after “local needs,” Rhodes insisted. His first priority is the Republican Party and Trump.

Those on hand at Elmo’s voiced confidence Rhodes would look out for LGBTQ issues if elected, and his campaign website touts his work on marriage equality and women’s health upfront as proud achievements. Activist government plays well among gay voters. In a moving moment during his talk at the fundraiser, Rhodes recalled a high school friend who struggled to reconcile his gay feelings with his religion. The turmoil ended with his suicide after graduation. The young man’s brother called Rhodes after marriage equality passed, thanking him for showing that “my brother was just like everyone else.”

Former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn introduces Gareth Rhodes at Elmo's on Monday. | GARETHRHODES.COM

In Congress, Faso has reversed his one-time vehement opposition to LGBTQ rights. In 2006, during his run for governor, he provoked laughter by saying that Eliot Spitzer wanted to “force gay marriage down the throats of New Yorkers.” This year, Faso was one of 24 Republicans who voted against an effort by a Missouri conservative to write a ban on transgender transition-related healthcare spending into the Pentagon budget. But in a phone interview, David Stacy, who heads the federal policy team at the Human Rights Campaign, noted that Faso has not stepped forward to co-sponsor any LGBTQ legislative initiatives, as a handful of his Republican colleagues have.

Rhodes has demonstrated an ability to win trust from those he has worked with. That was certainly true of his relationship with Cuomo, where his last position in the press office was the crucial and delicate job of traveling with the governor on his trips around the state, a responsibility that required him to stay abreast of local issues and be cool when confronting surprises while directly in the governor’s view.

Cuomo has made defeating Faso a priority, but he is unlikely to endorse in the primary. There are six other candidates in the race, including Jeffrey Beals, a Woodstock schoolteacher, Woodstock attorney David Clegg, Antonio Delgado, a Rhinebeck attorney, Brian Flynn, the owner of a medical device company who lives in Elka Park, Pat Ryan, a Kingston native who is a West Point graduate and Iraq War veteran, and Steven Brisee of Walden, though the Daily Freeman reported this week that Brisee had been arrested for shoplifting.

Even with the governor’s support, victory will only come after a tough and expensive fight. In 2014 in the 19th Congressional District, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, bested Cuomo 108,339 to 76,140.

Rhodes, for now, appears unfazed by the hurdles he faces, confident that when he meets voters he will persuade them. So confident, in fact, that he has told Harvard Law School he won’t back for his third year and is instead taking a leave to run for Congress.