Congressional Candidate Sean S. Eldridge Wants You To Know the ‘S’ Stands for ‘Simcha’
The husband of ‘New Republic’ owner Chris Hughes is putting a decade-old plan to run for office into action
Wealthy progressives have been hanging their hats in New York’s Hudson Valley for almost as long as they’ve existed in this country, starting with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, who both grew up in Dutchess County and routinely repaired to the family estate in Hyde Park. In 1960, Gore Vidal made a run at a House seat that included the county seat of Poughkeepsie as well as a handful of surrounding towns, a campaign that touched off accusations of carpetbagging.
Now another idealistic, wealthy young liberal is vying to represent what today is the state’s 19th congressional district, a horseshoe-shaped entity that runs on both sides of the river all the way up toward Albany and Schenectady. Like Roosevelt and Vidal, Sean Eldridge has the luxury of being independently wealthy: His husband, Chris Hughes, the owner of The New Republic, was a Harvard roommate of Mark Zuckerberg’s and helped launch Facebook, affording them the ability to buy an estate worth nearly $2 million in the district to facilitate the run—after very publicly buying a $5 million spread an hour or so south in Garrison, in 2012.
But unlike his progressive predecessors, Eldridge has a Hebrew middle name—Simcha—and a family story that stretches from central Europe to Montreal, where he was born, and then to Ohio, where he was raised. His Jewish background isn’t something he hides, but neither is it something the candidate emphasizes; on the ballot, he uses a middle initial. “The name Sean Eldridge somehow doesn’t jump out at people,” he acknowledged, when we met for lunch in Rhinebeck in early May.
It only adds to the air of opacity surrounding the 27-year-old, who also runs a venture capital firm, Hudson River Ventures, based in Kingston, right in the middle of the district, and at least until recently was a regular sight in New York City and Washington, where The New Republic is based. The Republican incumbent, Chris Gibson—a local who served multiple combat tours in the U.S. Army and taught politics at West Point—has worked to make Eldridge’s recent arrival into both the district and public life the main issue in the race. “This is about him and his political aspirations, and I think that’s going to be a problem for him. He married well, he married into money,” Gibson told Politico recently. “But there are some things money can’t buy.”
Yet Eldridge clearly thinks of himself as a disruptor, like his husband and Zuckerberg. He points to his involvement in the marriage-equality campaign in New York and an array of other progressive issues as evidence that his priorities are better in touch with those of the district’s voters. Whereas he was previously content to work on politics “from the outside,” serving on the boards of local groups like Planned Parenthood and Scenic Hudson—and has been involved in the progressive power donor club Democracy Alliance—Eldridge has clearly decided that role isn’t for him. “The most important thing I could do is step up and run, and hopefully move our country in a better direction,” he says. “There’s such a lack of urgency. I think we need more urgency, more impatience.”
As recently as December 2012, Hughes was insisting to reporters that his husband had no immediate plans to get into public life. “No, no, no,” Hughes told his New York profiler Carl Swanson. “He’s 26. He’s going to do all kinds of things in politics, but I don’t think there’s any rush.” In truth, Eldridge has been openly planning his political career since he was a teenager. The winter 2005 newsletter of his alma mater, Deep Springs College, a kind of ranch-commune for hyper-intellectual young men in rural California, just north of Death Valley, includes the following entry: “Sean Eldridge comes from Toledo, Ohio, where he studied ﬂute and starred in numerous high-school musicals. Sean is a citizen of Israel and Canada and will soon become an American to pursue a political career in this country.”
His mother, Sarah Taub, a family physician, was born in Petah Tikva, Israel. Her father, Zwi, is a former Hungarian soldier who survived the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp and met Eldridge’s grandmother, Gitta, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, at a refugee camp in Italy after the war. The family made its way to Canada, settling in Montreal, where Zwi worked as a tailor and Gitta as a hairdresser, raising their daughter in the Orthodox tradition. “My mother learned how to speak English by watching cartoons on television,” Eldridge wrote in a Mother’s Day post on his campaign website.
Taub insisted Sean’s father, Stephen, convert before they got married in Montreal. Eldridge was born there and spent his childhood going to a Conservative shul in Toledo—where his mother, now divorced, still lives, with her practice in nearby rural Milan, Michigan—after a brief stint in Ann Arbor. He went for one summer to Jewish summer camp outside Cleveland but spent a few more years at Michigan’s Interlochen arts camp.
It was at a Passover Seder in Montreal that Hughes first met the Eldridge clan. The young couple had been introduced by a mutual friend at a brunch in Cambridge in 2005, when Eldridge was working as a customer service rep at a moving company and Hughes was finishing at Harvard. Hughes went on to run the online organizing operation for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, while Eldridge finished his undergraduate degree, in philosophy, at Brown. He then enrolled at Columbia Law, but dropped out to join Evan Wolfson’s marriage-equality group, Freedom to Marry, after the New York State Senate voted against legalizing same-sex marriage in December 2009. By the fall of 2010, he had become the group’s political director, and the next year he made the New York Observer’s list of “power gays.”
Of course, the relationship with Hughes helped grease the wheels along the way. “There is nobody in the movement that is not going to take a call from Sean Eldridge, donor, advocate, what have you,” said one strategist at a leading New York LGBT organization, who insisted on anonymity for fear of compromising his relationships with donors. As a congressional candidate, Eldridge has benefited from the same dynamic, attracting the vocal support of everyone from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan to billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, scaring off potential Democratic primary challengers in the process.
The break in negotiations with Ramallah means Netanyahu can focus on the other permanent threat: Iran