Hip-hop, health care share spotlight in pivotal House race

MARY ESCH
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Republican U.S. Rep. John Faso, right, and his Democratic challenger, Antonio Delgado, talk after a candidate forum in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. Hip-hop, health care and Brett Kavanaugh have emerged as issues in a too-close-to-call congressional race in New York’s Hudson Valley that pits the freshman Republican congressman against a rapper-turned-corporate lawyer seeking his first political office. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Republican U.S. Rep. John Faso, right, and his Democratic challenger, Antonio Delgado, talk after a candidate forum in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. Hip-hop, health care and Brett Kavanaugh have emerged as issues in a too-close-to-call congressional race in New York’s Hudson Valley that pits the freshman Republican congressman against a rapper-turned-corporate lawyer seeking his first political office. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

SCHODACK, N.Y. (AP) — Hip-hop, health care and Brett Kavanaugh have emerged as issues in a tight congressional race in New York's Hudson Valley that pits a freshman Republican congressman against a rapper-turned-corporate lawyer seeking his first political office.

Democrat Antonio Delgado is running on universal access to Medicare, creating good jobs and eliminating tax loopholes for the rich. But his supporters say Republicans have instead obsessed over his brief rap career more than a decade ago, portraying Delgado, who is black, as a thuggish "big-city liberal" who denigrated police, women and American values.

Rep. John Faso, meanwhile, says his conservative voters have been both angered and energized by the contentious fight over President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who was confirmed after facing an allegation that he sexually assaulted a woman while he was in high school.

At stake is one of the nation's most closely watched midterm races. The sprawling 19th Congressional District, stretching from New York City's northernmost suburbs to rural counties near Albany, is a key battleground as Democrats seek to flip the House. With voters evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and independents, the district, which backed President Barack Obama for two terms and favored Trump in 2016, is a toss-up in 2018.

A Siena College poll in August found Faso with a narrow 5-point lead over Delgado among likely voters, 45-50 percent. A September Monmouth University poll found Delgado leading 45-43 percent.

"This is a very politically divided district," Faso said at a recent pancake breakfast in rural Speigletown. "Conservative voters are galvanized by the way the Democrats handled the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination. The character assassinations and mob tactics deeply alienated people."

But Delgado's supporters say Republicans were the ones who went too far, with attack ads with racial overtones in a district that is 90 percent white.

An ad released last month by the National Republican Campaign Committee showed clips of Delgado performing songs from his 2006 rap album under his stage name A.D. The Voice. Lyrics included the N-word and references to sex, drug use and "white supremacists."

Faso has repeatedly portrayed Delgado as an outsider who should explain whether the lyrics he voiced 12 years ago represent his political views today. "I don't think it's OK to call women trick-ass hos, to call white people crackers," he said.

Delgado, 41, who was born and raised in Schenectady, just outside the district, studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and earned a Harvard law degree before pursuing rap in Los Angeles. He later lived in New Jersey while working in New York City as a litigator for an international law firm representing Fortune 500 companies and investment funds.

Last year, he moved into the Hudson Valley village of Rhinebeck in the 19th District, where his wife is from, and launched his congressional campaign soon afterward.

Delgado has demurred from dissecting his rap lyrics but said his goal dovetailed with his current political aspirations.

"The objective was to use the most popular art form to empower young people to get more civically engaged," he said in an interview on the campaign trail. "To highlight issues like income inequality, the Iraq war, climate change, wealth disparity and criminal justice reform."

Faso, a 66-year-old lawyer and former state Assemblyman, has a record of bipartisanship in Congress on such issues as health care reform and the opioid epidemic. He has supported some White House policies, such as the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but voted against Trump's tax plan because of concerns that eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes would hurt families in his district.

Delgado's rhetoric disparaging Faso is less personal but no less infuriating to the incumbent, depicting him as beholden to corporate political action committees and accusing him of breaking a promise to an ailing constituent who begged him to preserve coverage for pre-existing medical conditions.

"He's not here to serve the people; he's bought," Delgado told a crowd in Hoosick Falls. "A lot of people in D.C. are bought, on both sides."

The race may come down to old-fashioned hand-shaking, said Speigletown volunteer Fire Chief Bill Maloney, who buttonholed Faso about equipment funding.

"If someone doesn't make it a point to get out there for people to get to know them, there's a good chance they won't get the votes — if people vote at all," Maloney said.

"I've never voted in a midterm election before," said Sarah Roberts, 30, who met Delgado at an apple festival with her husband and two young boys. "But I have a lot of enthusiasm for him, and I'm looking forward to getting out and voting in November."