Congressman Tom Reed (left) and Democratic challenger John Plumb (right) are locked in a battle for New York's 23rd district.

November 7, 2016

Congressional Race Adopts National Nastiness

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This election season, presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton seem to have tossed aside civility in favor of hostility, from leveling threats of incarceration to exchanging accusations of dishonesty, criminal activity and sexual assault. The race for Ithaca congressman shows this political mudslinging has not been confined to D.C.

Fighting Words

Incumbent Congressman Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) and Democratic challenger Navy Captain John Plumb have frequently employed hostile rhetoric as they vie to represent Ithaca in the House of Representatives. Plumb, along with prominent Ithaca and Cornell Democrats, has laced his rhetoric with no-holds-barred attacks on Reed, calling him “literally one of the worst people in the United States Congress” at a Democratic Unity Rally at Cornell Thursday.

“His entire campaign is based on name-calling, smears and, frankly, I’ll just say ‘lies,’” Plumb said. Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 — who officially endorsed Plumb on Oct. 15 — further condemned Reed for his anti-progressive voting record. “Every time that Tom Reed has had a chance to stand up for women, minorities and refugees, he’s chosen instead to throw them under the bus for political purposes,” Myrick said.

Democratic politicians, including congressional contender John Plumb attended a Get Out the Vote Rally on Nov. 3.

(Michael Wenye Li / Sun Staff Photographer)

Democratic politicians, including congressional contender John Plumb attended a Get Out the Vote Rally on Nov. 3.

For many local Democrats, Reed’s continued support for Trump is another source of ire. The Republican was one of the first congressman to endorse his party’s nominee in March.

“Tom Reed has been dangerously ideological, and I think that’s no more apparent than in his early support of Donald Trump,” said Kevin Kowaleski ’17, president of Cornell Democrats. “He has stood by him this whole campaign as Trump has attacked Mexicans, women, Muslims and Khizr Khan.”

Reed’s campaign has also employed vitriol when attacking Plumb, using a campaign website entitled, “Stop D.C. John Plumb for Congress.” This kind of name-calling mirrors Trump’s tactics: as the Republican nominee knocks “Crooked Hillary,” Reed attacks “D.C. Plumb.”

“[Plumb’s] loyalty to the D.C. Democratic establishment helped him move into Obama’s Defense Department and … is what swayed Nancy Pelosi to handpick him to run for New York’s 23rd District,” the site reads.

The site also attacks Plumb for spending time in D.C. at the Pentagon and the National Security Council, criticizing his emphasis on national, rather than local issues. Plumb acknowledged this service at the rally but said he is not ashamed of it.

“I am absolutely proud of that service, and him trying to tarnish that is just a slimey move he has to do because he really can’t stand on his results for the district,” Plumb said.

He added that allegations of his disloyalty to New York crossed a personal line, sharing an anecdote about his deployment to the Middle East in 2007, during which his photo “hung on the wall” of the Randolph, New York post office.

“Why? Because that’s where I’m from, and that’s my home, and that’s where everybody who is deployed to the wars, that’s where your picture hangs until you come home,” he said, choking up. “And if you don’t come home, it’s where they send your body.”

Plumb has used Reed’s “disrespect” of his military service to argue that Reed is unfit to be a congressman.

“He’s also disrespecting the other 50,000 veterans in this district, and he’s disrespecting every other veteran in this country, but he will say anything he can say to stay elected,” Plumb said.

An ‘Extreme Ithaca Liberal’

One of Reed’s attacks has enraged Ithaca Democrats more than any other.

In 2014, his campaign criticized then-challenger Martha Robertson ’75 (D-Ithaca), calling her a “far-out Ithaca liberal” trying to push an “extreme Ithaca liberal agenda,” according to The Ithaca Journal.

Labeling the ad “one more horrible way that Congressman Reed has decided to conduct campaigns and stay in power,” Plumb stressed that Reed’s word choice demeans one of his largest constituencies.

In defense, Reed said the comment was meant to attack an ideology, not the people who hold it. “What we’re talking about with the ‘extreme Ithaca liberal’ identification is that it is a philosophy that I don’t subscribe to,” Reed said. “We just don’t believe that extreme ideology is appropriate for the future of the country.”

Yet Plumb too has had limited success among voters who contributed to the campaign that helped win Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) 62 percent of the Democratic vote — one of the highest in the state — in the primary, The Sun previously reported.

“I feel that neither [Reed nor Plumb] is offering the true change our nation needs, but Plumb would be better for our district,” said Donald Bazley, a former volunteer for the Ithaca and Tompkins County for Bernie Sanders Campaign. “Even if he does not stand for the major changes I feel our nation needs to make, he is at least a step in the right direction.”

Theresa Alt — a member of the Ithaca Branch of the Democratic Socialists of America for Bernie Sanders — echoed Bazley’s concerns, saying that while she cannot speak for the other members of the DSA, she “find[s] his positions very mixed.”

“As an organization we are concentrating on affordable housing and issues of policing and jail,” she said. “Plumb’s website addresses neither of these, although they could be national as well as local questions.”

Yet Kowalewski said he believes Plumb’s moderate stances are not a problem, given that the district as a whole is not as liberal as Ithaca — especially when compared to Reed, whom Kowalewski said he believes represents only the conservative part of the district.

“I think what we see with Tom Reed is when you start disregarding one half of the district just because they don’t totally agree with you, you have someone who is not fully representing our voices,” Kowalewski said. Myrick agreed, saying Plumb is a viable alternative to Reed for both Ithacans and all citizens in the district.

“I think that we recognize the district that we live in is not as progressive as Ithaca is,” Myrick said. “While John Plumb might be not as progressive as your typical Ithacan, he certainly is far more progressive than Tom Reed. He will represent our interests far better than Tom Reed will.”

Progressive Values

Plumb has agreed with Myrick and Kowalewski, stressing that many of his positions — like campaign finance reform and the use of science to inform policy — are compatible with progressive values.

Plumb, who holds a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder, has also emphasized the importance of addressing climate change in his platform.

“We’re the United States of America. … We can fix anything we want if we put our mind to it,” he said. “But we can’t get that done when you have people like Congressman Tom Reed in Congress standing up for big oil and getting in the way of Congress.”

Decrying money in politics, he argued that politicians like Reed — who receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from interests outside the district — fail to fight for their constituents.

He noted that while Reed has raised more funds from campaign donations, Plumb has received donations from a greater number of district residents, “actual people that can actually vote.”

“[Special interests] fund [Reed’s] campaign; he does deals for them, and guess what, we get the short end of the stick,” Plumb said. “Well, I’m sick of that, and it’s one of the reasons I’m running and it’s one of the reasons there’s so much frustration in the country right now.”