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
Except the thing that makes Eldridge a viable candidate isn’t his friends, per se; rather, it’s Hughes’ money looming over Gibson’s head like an anvil. It is somewhat ironic, then, that Eldridge is a fierce advocate for campaign finance reform, though he rejects the idea that being wealthy and channeling his personal fortune toward a campaign is inconsistent with wanting corporate cash to be less central to our democratic process. “When you’re in a position where you see how the system actually works and you see the amount of money in our political system, then you get a first-hand perspective of how broken it all is,” he told me when we met for lunch at Bread Alone, one of Hudson River Ventures’ pet projects, on a warm Saturday afternoon. “I’m blessed to be able to run and be independent and invest in my own race.”
He used the word “blessed” quite often in the few hours we spent together. But the logical jujitsu of simultaneously decrying money’s influence and trading in it seemed to elude him once or twice the course of our conversation, even if he fairly draws a distinction between self-interested corporate actors like the Koch brothers and independently wealthy philanthropists like himself and his husband, whose net worth is estimated at roughly $700 million. “As a candidate, it’s the Wild West,” he told me.
It’s a distinction many on the left are keen to draw, especially as progressive groups move to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which lifted restrictions on spending on elections by corporations, unions, and other groups. “Sean will be unbought,” said Josh Orton, political director at former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold’s campaign finance reform group Progressives United and a guest, along with plenty of other movers and shakers in the progressive movement, at Eldridge and Hughes’ wedding reception.“I would never have any concern that he would be controlled or bought by industry.”
Indeed, just a few days after we met, the Chamber of Commerce announced it was dumping $300,000 into local TV spots to boost Gibson—a nice chunk of change, but still less than a third of the $965,000 Eldridge has poured into his own campaign from the family kitty. “I’m proud to not take any corporate PAC support or business association support to distinguish myself a bit and I hope to have a bit more of that independence,” he told me. Yet Eldridge was practiced enough to make sure to add that he isn’t too anti-corporation. “I think the conversation can get too shrill on both sides,” he said. “Corporations are not evil. Corporations create jobs, they create good products, and they’re all different, right?” He said he’s skeptical of wealth taxes of the kind advocated by the French economist Thomas Piketty—“My husband was educating me on this!”—because it would hurt local farmers whose property is assessed at a high rate even as they struggle to pay the bills.
“They literally sit around and read a lot, not just a little bit,” said another prominent LGBT political strategist who has been active in the movement for decades and knows the couple well. “Sean is actually going to get into the substance of stuff. He is not a surface-level person.”
There’s a palpable restlessness to him, a sense of how the world ought to be mixed with irritation that it isn’t so already. He is decidedly queasy about embracing the language of all-out confrontation with American elites; Eldridge is not an Elizabeth Warren-style candidate looking to connect with regular folks by invoking the 1 percent, which makes perfect sense given that the 1 percent are now his people. But he more than once brought up Warren and her brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, mostly in order to rip his opponent Gibson for voting against funding it. “I would love to hear how that helps our district,” he said, a little snidely. Clearly, though, his preferred mode is pragmatism: “You don’t want to go there and just, you know, say controversial things that draw attention to something if you’re not getting anything done.”
At a meet-and-greet at a supporter’s lush modernist home after lunch, Eldridge faced a couple dozen admirers sipping cocktails from plastic cups. He was on his own; Hughes was in Washington for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, partying at the Buzzfeed suite, while Eldridge stayed home to campaign.
Half the questions from the small crowd were about how to respond to the carpetbagger issue when it inevitably surfaces. The candidate’s answer then was virtually identical to the one he had given me an hour earlier over sandwiches: “Chris and I decided to move and live here because it’s an incredible place,” he said. “Many people have chosen this region.”
After his short remarks, which centered on a stump speech of elegantly delivered boilerplate progressive fare punctuated by a harsh dig at Gibson for supporting fracking, Eldridge slowly made his way from one elderly admirer to another for some glad-handing. His facial expression alternated frequently between a polite smile and intense stare, no surprise given that steely ambition is the single quality most often impressed on those who meet him. “Maybe he can be the Bloomberg of the Hudson Valley,” Melinda Fishman Jones, a content strategist who lives primarily in New York City, told me as people started to filter outside. “I think that would bring back an era, in modern times, of vitality and entrepreneurism.”
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