A replica of Michelangelo’s “Moses” stared out from the bookshelf in Jeff Beals’ campaign headquarters in Woodstock, New York, a few rungs above a copy of the complete works of Allen Ginsberg. It gazed upon a trio of modestly framed certificates on the opposite side of the cramped former tattoo parlor from which Beals is mounting his assault on the Democratic nomination for New York’s 19th congressional district. Two commend his service as an analyst in the Central Intelligence Agency. The third is signed by Zalmay Khalilzad, an American ambassador to Iraq during a couple of the war’s bum years: “To Jeffrey Beals for his extraordinary efforts in facilitating compromise during the writing of the Iraqi constitution.” In the adjacent room, a no-less aspirational notice adorns the sink: “WE CAN’T BE IN CONGRESS IF WE CAN’T WASH OUR DISHES.”
It was a big day for the campaign, which was launched with a $56,000 loan that Beals made to himself and that ate through nearly all of his personal assets, according to a March interview with the Spotlight 19 podcast. The first major shipment of lawn signs had arrived. “There’s a Jewish perspective to this that I hope you’ll be able to portray,” a lanky and impossibly young-looking 41-year-old Beals said shortly after emerging from his office, dressed in trim blue pants and a checkered shirt along with a sly-yet-welcoming smile that a day of campaigning would whittle away. “My grandfather would always say, ‘Don’t advertise yourself.’ Don’t put up signs saying who you are.” All four of Beals’ grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and he is a regular presence at Woodstock’s Reconstructionist shul.
In the car, the candidate unwrapped a nugget of tinfoil, revealing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Beals’ campaign has expended very little on advertising and hasn’t sent out mailers in any significant numbers. In addition to winning the debates, of which there have been an absurd and astonishing 27 thus far, his strategy is to canvass the entire district, all 11 counties, focusing his time on Bernie Sanders supporters and other registered Democrats believed to be on the leftier end of the spectrum. Most of his daily expeditions into the outer fringes of Ulster and Sullivan counties have begun with the same meal as this one. “There’s very little you see that has not reached the point of ritual,” Beals said.
“This is the district where our democracy is starting to either teeter or be reborn,” the candidate explained as he began driving south, through an ambient green that, for a city dweller, can be practically blinding. “It’s a district that went for Barack Obama and then flipped wholesale and went for Donald Trump. This is where that shift happened, right here.” Next comes Beals’ explanation for how we got Trump, or at least a certain localized variation on the question: “People were disgusted with both parties and it was a protest vote against politics not working anymore.” Beals attributes the Trumpist shift in the area to “widespread apathy and disengagement from people who do not feel that their politics is either speaking to the problems of their daily life or offering real solutions to the problems of their daily life.” OK, how about a more interesting one: Why had radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s party just won the national elections in Iraq? “That’s not a whole lot different actually,” Beals, an officer in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 2004 to 2006, chuckled. “That’s a protest vote.”
Trump’s success in upstate New York is a product of America’s own version of sectarianism. Ranging from the Hudson River valley to west of the Catskills, New York 19 encompasses some of the most liberal places in America, along with some of the most pro-Trump places in America. It is farm country and the Rust Belt, split essentially evenly between Democrats, Republicans, and independents ever since a 2001 redistricting expanded the territory northward. The rural poor live alongside the empty second homes of rich, city folk; casinos and racetracks are hard by religious fundamentalist enclaves; artists and gun nuts populate the emerald hills. As Beals likes to point out: “The trends here are ones that are hitting this country across the board.”
The Democrats are screwing up in a way that also feels eerily familiar. The incumbent is John Faso, a first-term Republican who has voted with Donald Trump 88.5 percent of the time but was just inoffensive enough to win in a purple district back in 2016. Faso, a former State Assembly member, prevailed over Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, the one-time primary challenger to Gov. Andrew Cuomo who has since achieved progressive icon status in New York. In a disastrous 2016 election from which socialist Bernie Sanders emerged as the closest thing the Democrats had to a consensus figure, Teachout’s left-wing bona fides and celebrity endorsements were no match for the district’s pro-Trump turn. Faso won by nine points, the third-narrowest margin of the state’s otherwise polarized 27 districts.
New York 19 is a bellwether for Democrats because it is both a microcosm of America and an eminently winnable toss-up district: Obama prevailed by eight and 6.5 points here in his presidential campaigns, and there is no reason people in liberal hotbeds like Woodstock, Kingston, and New Paltz are doomed to Republican congressional representation, especially in an era of supposedly incompetent and unpopular GOP governance. If the Democrats can’t win New York 19 with Trump as president, the party’s problems, whatever they may be, are even worse than they look.
Meeting this urgent challenge is a field of first-time campaigners, many of whom appear to represent one of the prevailing theories of what the opposition party needs in this day and age. There is Antonio Delgado, a heavy spender once thought to be the Democratic primary’s front-runner—if only because of his plentiful TV ads and lawn signs—is a Rhodes scholar and a longtime litigator with a white-shoe law firm. Pat Ryan is an executive for various obscure tech companies and a West Point grad who did two tours in Iraq. Meanwhile, Gareth Rhodes was Gov. Cuomo’s deputy press secretary from 2011 to 2015. Just two of the candidates were eligible to vote in the last congressional election in New York 19; Beals is one of them, and he only moved to Woodstock in 2016, where he began teaching in a private school. There are likely to be just 20-25,000 voters in the June 26 primary; there has been no reliable polling, and in a large field of unfamiliar names nearly anyone is a plausible winner. “Today I can tell you I have no idea who’s going to win,” Spotlight 19 podcast host and leading Democratic primary expert Sajaa Tracy told me in late May, noting that 3,000 votes could be enough to carry the primary. Two weeks later, a New York Times report on the race treated it as a seven-way toss-up.
Beals has attracted the attention of his would-be general election opponent. On June 6, Faso tweeted, “@RollingStone and @SusanSarandon may be embracing @JeffBealsNY19‘s Bernie Sanders-like single payer healthcare scheme, but NY voters won’t! They don’t want government in charge of their healthcare, nor do they want trillions in new taxes!,” referring to a May 16th Matt Taibbi-authored profile of Beals and his district, along with the person who is by far the candidate’s most famous backer. Faso’s tweet and an accompanying press release paint Beals as a second Zephyr Teachout: An out-of-touch lefty elitist beloved outside of the district but aloof from its people and their lives. It is a line of attack that worked the last time around, but the fact Faso is even going after Beals weeks before the primary suggests the incumbent detects danger in a potential matchup. Beals is young, experienced, and totally disconnected from Democratic Party politics, making him free to tack as far to the left as he wants to. In pitting a Bernieite against a Trumpian populist, New York 19 could turn out to be a measurement of how and whether the political winds have shifted since 2016.
Beals still has to get through the primary, though. On some level, only a friend, family member, or true believer could get excited about most of the candidates, none of whom were particularly big names before they declared. In a toss-up congressional district, even registered Democrats tend to have no idea who is running. Beals believes this dynamic works to his advantage. During three hours of canvassing, we spoke with 18 people, 13 of whom said they would vote for Beals and only two of whom were firmly committed to other candidates. “All the money in the world won’t buy an election,” he declared while we were tramping down a country road at twilight. “It won’t buy this election.”
One hundred fifty-odd years ago, the steep trench that cuts through the postcard village of High Falls was the Delaware and Hudson Canal, an 1850s foreshadowing of the New York State Thruway. The town is no longer in the middle of anything, unless you’re a left-leaning outsider candidate in a close congressional primary. “This is chock-full of people, this little spot,” said Grayson Sussman-Squires, a Wesleyan student and “operational intern” who has met us in the middle of town, brandishing a Democratic Party-developed app that identifies likely voters. “It’s crazy. There’s density.”
We visited the house of an elderly poet, labored up Steep Hill Road—“right next to Arduous Climb Road,” Beals quipped—met a man in a 2013 National Young Farmers Conference T-shirt who was in the middle of harvesting shiitake mushrooms, encountered an average of one outdoor cat per property, and visited a fellow in a half-open dress shirt and amber sunglasses drinking a can of Babe Rosé, facing a road vanishing into a pink sky above a gently rising hill. “You gonna do something about this horrible world we’ve gotten ourselves into?” a bearded fellow in work clothes asked Beals at the bottom of a narrow valley. “I’m completely confused about the pool of candidates,” a woman with an especially fat cat explained. “There’s a fellow who’s older and is a hiker. I don’t remember his name though.”
In these encounters with the electorate, Beals often talked with a hand on his hip and a leg thrust subtly forward, as if he was about to step toward his listener. Speaking in a focused yet nonconfrontational manner—a mode likely honed over years of having to deal with schoolchildren and Iraqi warlords—Beals’ pitch always began with some variation on “I’m a teacher in Woodstock and a former U.S. diplomat” before hitting on a rotating series of key points: “A people’s campaign … the tide is turning … speak out against endless war … criminal penalties for opioid companies hooking up young people. … I’m endorsed by the national network of former Bernie Sanders staffers … we need to put a former diplomat in Congress. … Federal jobs guarantee … green New Deal.” Iraq only came up in the context of his diplomatic career, usually through the assertion that he “negotiated to get us out of the Iraq disaster.” He would be “the only former United States diplomat in Congress,” he repeatedly stressed, and in longer interactions he would usually make some mention of his having a longer record of government service than the rest of his primary opponents. Beals’ qualifications for elected office are both impressive and uncommon, although over the course of a dozen-plus house calls his work as a CIA analyst, which included writing for the daily presidential intelligence briefing for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, came up exactly once.
Beals began working at the CIA as a graduate fellow in 1997 (he earned graduate and undergraduate degrees from Harvard simultaneously). His assignment had no spying or paramilitary aspect and largely involved synthesizing Arabic-language media and diplomatic cables into analysis for policymakers. Beals was at CIA headquarters on Sept. 11, 2001. “There was someone screaming in our office, word came out to evacuate and I remember standing there and saying, don’t you all think we shouldn’t evacuate? That this should be the building where, in an event like this, we stick around and try to figure out what’s going on?” he recalled. “But they were already flooding out the doors, and that was when I knew that everybody’s wits had deserted them.” In Beals’ view, their wits were never to return. From those first days onward, people “weren’t thinking clearly,” Beals said. “There was talk of a big response. To what? To whom? There was talk of a war on terror. I didn’t understand from the day I heard that term what that even meant. What, are you waging a war on an emotion? What does that even mean? I never thought any of that made sense. And it’s still the mode of thinking for many Americans toward the Middle East or toward the world.”
Beals moved over to the State Department in 2002. A fluent Arabic speaker—something that would make him a rarity in all of American electoral politics—he was the political officer in the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem in charge of keeping tabs on the Palestinian political scene from 2002 to 2004, and stayed in the region long enough to witness the end of the Second Intifada, along with the collapse of George W. Bush’s Roadmap to Peace. Beals said he worked toward connecting the impending Gaza disengagement with some kind of negotiated peace process, a region-wide failure of imagination whose consequences are still being felt. Beals wouldn’t speak in much detail about what policies he would advocate in Congress—he passed on endorsing or opposing cuts to military aid to Israel, for instance. But he believes peace is possible. “If you know the place as well as I do you wind up circling back around to a type of idealism that is usually only attributed to those who don’t know the place,” said Beals. “I feel it. I feel peace is possible because I know the people that could make it.”
Beals is married to a Palestinian woman from Nazareth he met when he was based in Jerusalem, and has two young children. He is, perhaps, one of the only people to spend their formative years in the Israeli-Palestinian cauldron and come out of it feeling better about the human race. But Beals is an optimist by nature. While still in his early 20s, he traveled through central Europe to write a book about his family’s Holocaust history. One of his grandfathers was “liberated near Auschwitz,” he explained to me later, at the end of a long day of campaigning, and then attempted to return to his prewar home in Mlawa, in northern Poland. “I think about him a little bit sometimes because there’s that same inextinguishable idealism that could lead you after the Holocaust and after the betrayal of your family by the entire nation, that you would still try to say, maybe we could make it work.”
The Holy Land is seldom boring but in 2004 even bigger things were afoot. As one of the few officials of his seniority level in the State Department with Arabic fluency and deep regional knowledge, Beals felt he had little choice but to head to Iraq, where he would spend two of the deadliest years of the war.
Beals said he “spearheaded the first high-level ceasefire talks between our generals and the insurgents that we were fighting.” He located and then opened lines of communication with anti-U.S. fighters, some of whom were Sunni jihadists who would pop up in Syria a decade later. Not everyone was convinced negotiations were the right way to go. “I pushed against generals that were arguing that bullets were the answer and that these insurgents were killing U.S. soldiers and there’s no way to work with them and they all had to be killed,” Beals said. “I argued face-to-face with a United States general that we had to start talking. And ultimately that was part of how we got out of the trap of the Sunni Triangle.”
Beals left the State Department in 2007, when he was barely 30 years old—if he had stayed, he would likely be an ambassador or an undersecretary right now. It is almost inexplicable that someone of his abilities would leave behind the life of power and influence that he had more or less guaranteed for himself. It is so inexplicable that the more peaceniky people in the district suspect Beals never actually left the government, or that he didn’t really spend his first few post-State Department years overseeing his family’s farm in Putnam County or making a film with his brother or working on a book about his Iraq experiences or teaching in a private school in Woodstock. “Some of the progressive Democratic voters up here consider Jeff a spook,” Sajaa Tracy noted. “There’s a lot of activists up there. … They’ll go, oh, the CIA guy.”
In addition to being an unfounded conspiracy theory, the idea that Beals’ departure from State was some kind of cover story badly misunderstands both the candidate and human nature in general. Beals left government for reasons that are remarkably at odds with the logic of the modern meritocracy, in which anything short of pushing as far as possible for as long as possible comes across as either self-righteousness or insanity. In the real world, even diplomats awarded the Iraq Campaign Medal find themselves trapped in jobs they begin to resent, or in which they’ve lost some former degree of belief. “I was very disillusioned with the course that our foreign policy was taking and I felt like I had to find a way to make a difference in another way,” Beals explained. “I couldn’t let myself be a tool of any administration, which was part of the bargain of being a foreign service officer that I felt had been broken.”
Avi Jorisch, a scholar and former Pentagon official who was close friends with Beals when both lived in D.C., said he sensed Beals growing increasingly disenchanted with State over the course of his time in Jerusalem and Iraq. “So many people in government basically regurgitate what they’ve heard through the open source or in intelligence briefings, but Jeff really took the time to learn Arabic and get his hands dirty,” Jorisch said. “He was very capable—very, very capable. But for some people being a civil servant is just not the path they want to take.”
Although he never said this in our four hours together, Beals’ diplomatic career was, in a sense, a casualty of the war. Everyone who cycled through Iraq during the U.S. occupation had a different experience of the place: Beals never went on patrol in Sadr City, but then again many of the U.S. soldiers deployed to Iraq didn’t spend two full years there, and few of them were brokering ceasefires between U.S. forces and the country’s insurgents. Was Iraq ever salvageable? I asked during a long walk between houses in High Falls. He pondered for an endless couple of seconds. “Look, you’re really focused on the war, man, I gotta tell you,” he responded with a certain annoyance. I’m curious, I replied—you were there, after all. “I know,” he said. “I mean it’s interesting. It’s a huge episode. It’s a huge tragic episode of U.S. history that in some ways speaks to an entire generation of magical thinking in the United States.” For all I know, this exchange marks the first time a political hopeful has ever tried to nudge a journalist away from talking about their Iraq record, as if the post-Sept. 11 wars are no longer the ultimate validator of a candidate’s worth, or even something people care about anymore. Why focus on Iraq, Beals seemed to ask, instead of “Medicare for all,” or a federal jobs guarantee? Why not talk about now?
Of course for people of a certain age, the Iraq War is a kind of eternal now, a filter for every subsequent political experience. Operating in a wholly legal and legitimate fashion, the American political system hurled the country into a self-defeating catastrophe from which it has proven incapable of ever fully extricating itself. It is impossible to know whether radical alternatives like Donald Trump, or for that matter Bernie Sanders, would have gotten a wide hearing without this uniquely homemade disaster at the surface of memory and consciousness. It is also difficult to discern whether the country and its leaders have gotten any wiser in the last 15 years on matters of war and peace, or really on any other topic.
Despite his occasional hesitation in discussing the war, Beals was shaped by his participation in America’s Iraq adventure. For starters, Iraq helped him realize that, “There are subjects where the library is full of books but there’s no information,” bringing him to “a healthy skepticism for anybody’s knowledge, even if they’re a professor or had four stars on their lapel.” Because he argued with generals and earned a rare official recognition from the U.S. military for his contributions, Beals can claim that his rejection of “endless war,” as he puts it, comes from a firsthand understanding of what that war, which takes place far from our soil and which only a small handful of Americans have prosecuted or witnessed, actually consists of.
At one point, sitting in a booth at Kingston’s Stadium Diner after a grueling day of trying to convince total strangers to vote for him, I asked if people at the CIA of 1997 would ever have imagined that the agency would be involved in “kinetic” operations just a few years later. Only when he smiled did I realize how Strangelovian my choice of words must have seemed to him. “Even the way you just said that is like part of the deranged military speak, the use of the word ‘kinetic’ to—uh, God”—he paused to regroup. “Kinetic fits under the same category as ‘full-spectrum dominance,’ which was another one of these madness terms to describe a form of American omnipotence that’s never existed. Or a ‘scientific approach to warfare,’ which has always been false and madness.”
Beals left government before that “madness” overtook him. A tumultuous decade in the CIA and the State Department forced him to confront the gap between the self-regarding geniuses who tend to run things, and the people who must live out the often-cruel reality of the decisions others make for them. In Iraq, Beals said, “I learned that real power lies with the people. It doesn’t lie in any secret room within the U.S. government.”
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