Election 2004  
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Barend and Barbaro Aim for Washington

New York is safe for Kerry, but two progressive candidates are running uphill races to upset Republican incumbents for seats in Congress.
 
 
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Less than two weeks until Election Day, and New York remains something of a political anomaly. The state, along with its 31 electoral votes, will go to John Kerry with a majority of votes by a margin reaching into the millions. So why then, does a three-term Republican governor currently hold office? Why is New York City – a strong contender for the most pro-Democratic Party stronghold in the country – run by a Republican mayor? For that matter, why did the city play host to the Republican National Convention this past summer? In many respects, the state clearly is not the bastion of liberalism that many would guess by looking at current statewide polls for the presidential election. There are several races in New York state, however, that have been much more heated coming down the stretch.

Two Democratic Congressional hopefuls, Samara Barend and Frank Barbaro, face the difficult task of running in heavily Republican districts. Both candidates have made unemployment and promoting economic growth primary concerns in this election. Both share political ideals that more or less follow the party line. And each candidate is quickly becoming a champion of the working-class as well as an outspoken voice on foreign affairs. The only question remains whether they will be able to convince enough voters that a change in their districts' politics is long overdue.

For Samara Barend, the road to Washington is one that she helped build. Since 1996, when she was still an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Barend has been fighting vigorously to convert New York's Route17 into Interstate 86, in an effort to stimulate economic growth in New York's Southern Tier region. Growing up in Western New York, Barend witnessed her district's economic turmoil firsthand. Unlike much of the rest of the country, Western New York endured industrial hardships in the mid-1990s, when IBM and other major corporations pulled out of the area, taking with them thousands of jobs; many residents were forced to seek employment elsewhere. Barend's own father was forced to close his business the same year IBM left. As a concerned community member and an aspiring political activist, Barend worked for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who helped her get started on converting I-86, a road that cuts westward along the New York/Pennsylvania border - in the U.S. House of Representatives, this is called the 29th district. Before long, she had reached out to people in her community and politicians from all over the state (on both sides of the aisle), who wholeheartedly backed her crusade to restore industry to the region.

In an interview with AlterNet, Barend said that I-86 is the centerpiece of her campaign, "because this interstate isn't just asphalt and concrete, it's an opportunity to open the gates to economic development and tourism." According to Barend, during the Bush administration, her region lost approximately 30,000 jobs, partly because of outsourcing, and partly due to an over-reliance on the manufacturing industry. "There is a lack of initiative and innovation from leaders who are willing... to get things moving, to uncap potential," Barend said. Even worse, roughly 50,000 people have left the area because of the lack of available employment, 30% of whom are young adults. However, Barend's I-86 initiative is turning the tide. Already, her project has created thousands of new jobs (with thousands more on the way), tourism has increased by 20%, and the venture is expected to generate over three billion dollars in economic development. As member of Congress, Barend's first initiative would be to oversee the completion of I-86, which will enable more industry and tourism to develop in her district. No wonder her website, www.samaraforcongress.com, is peppered with little interstate signs which proudly read "Sam!"

Barend's website and its perky icons encapsulate her fresh voice and youthful energy. At 27, she would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Even at that young age, though, Barend has vast political experience. She graduated from the Kennedy School of Government and worked on Al Gore's presidential campaign. Her own campaign has gained a lot of attention recently; Barend was endorsed by Senator Hillary Clinton, and Governor Howard Dean named her one of his "Dean's Dozen" candidates. Yet Barend may need all the help she can get from influential Democrats since she is facing a long-established Republican constituency. The seat that Barend is vying for has been held by nine-term Republican Representative Amo Houghton, who is leaving the seat after this legislative session. This area, the 29th district, gave George Bush 53% of the vote in 2000 - the highest for any district in the state. But Barend remains undaunted in her Congressional run, especially as her opponent, John Kuhl, Jr., has come under fire recently. On Tuesday, The Associated Press reported that Kuhl's wife asked for a divorce "on grounds of cruel and inhuman treatment" that included Kuhl threatening her with two shotguns during a 1994 dinner party.

Most of Barend's platforms echo John Kerry's political rhetoric. On the war in Iraq, she unconditionally supports our troops, and feels we have started a job that we must finish. "Our obligation is to build a peace," Barend asserted, "and reassess our plan for reconstruction." Like Kerry, she insists that there must be much greater oversight in our management of the crisis in Iraq, especially when the United States currently bears 90% of the costs and 90% of the casualties from the war. Above all, Barend believes that the presidential election has given her campaign added momentum by raising awareness on key issues that affect voters in her district, both Democrats and Republicans alike.

Barend often describes her campaign as "unconventional." She still relies upon her firm base of political allies and the media to a certain extent, but the salient feature of her campaign has been its grassroots effort to gather support. Barend quipped, "My opponent may spend more money his campaign, but he won't outwork us." On October 23, for example, Barend's campaign will launch the "Prescriptions for Change Tour," paying for 50 senior citizens to cross the Canadian border by bus and get their prescriptions filled. Her youth has certainly translated into an energetic grassroots campaign that goes door-to-door and writes letters to friends, raising awareness for her fight to bring back jobs to the Southern Tier and restore the vitality of the 29th district.

While Barend's unbridled enthusiasm seems unparalleled in this election, she certainly has a kindred spirit in Frank Barbaro, who's running in New York's 13th Congressional District. "The world is exploding!" Barbaro declared in his interview with AlterNet, referring to the chaos in Iraq, the genocide in the Sudan, the ubiquitous threat of terrorism, and the dire state of our own economy and national affairs. "Now is the time for the Democrats to take control, because the House, and the Senate, and the White House are in the hands of rightwing, ultra-reactionary forces."

The son of Italian immigrants, Barbaro grew up in Brooklyn, served a hitch in the Navy, and then paid his way through New York University working as a butcher. Barbaro's Italian heritage surely works to his advantage, since his district includes Staten Island and areas of Brooklyn which are predominantly Italian. The problem is his constituents are also mostly steadfast Republicans. Barbaro's opponent, the three-term incumbent Vito Fossella (who's laundry list of deceptions is linked on Barbaro's website, with the button "Veto Vito"), won in 2002 with 70% of the vote. In fact, Staten Island residents were so discontented with New York's Democratic leadership in the early '90s that they approved a referendum to secede from the city. (The New York State Legislature later blocked the referendum.) Barbaro continues to gain in the polls however. A poll conducted by Bannon Communications Research, a Washington-based firm that deals mainly with Democrats, showed him trailing Fossella by 8% in late September, with undecided voters at 22%. He is quite confident that he can continue to reach out to voters. "In my soul, in my psyche," Barbaro said, "I'm still a working person."

Barbaro's ability to empathize with his working-class constituents sets him apart from his opponent. After NYU, Barbaro worked as a longshoreman on the Brooklyn waterfront for several years while studying at night at Brooklyn Law School. Both experiences seem to have been equally formative, given Barbaro's political history of sticking up for workers. As a State Assemblyman and Chair of the Assembly Labor Committee, Barbaro led campaigns to increase minimum wage, disability, and workers compensation. He helped improve occupational health and safety standards, lower the unemployment rate, and protect workers from union busting. Barbaro also established the Garment Industry Task Force in order to topple illegal sweatshops.

Workforce welfare continues to be a primary issue for Barbaro's campaign, especially since his district, like most of the United States, has suffered from the outsourcing of jobs during the Bush administration. One area of particular concern to Barbaro is the Bush Terminal (named after someone not from the current American political dynasty), a railroad hub in Brooklyn where jobs have been greatly cut back. In the last two years alone, New York City has lost roughly 230,000 jobs. Barbaro plans to promote job growth through a series of economic strategies that include working to repeal "free trade" agreements such as NAFTA, which he believes threaten worker benefits in this country with the harsh possibility of outsourcing.

As Representative, Barbaro would fight to roll back the tax cut that the Bush administration passed for the wealthiest Americans, which he referred to as "absolutely obscene." By contrast, Barbaro plans to stimulate the economy by voting to give money back to the working-class through tax incentives. He wants to raise the federal minimum wage, thereby establishing a level economic playing field for all states. Barbaro also intends to invest in schools and public works, create better prescription drug benefits for seniors, restore overtime pay to workers, and stop the privatization of social security.

A focal point of the Barbaro campaign is boosting homeland security funds for New York City. Barbaro is incensed that New York City is receiving approximately nine cents per person in homeland security aid, while Montana gets over nine dollars worth. "Something more must be done," Barbaro insisted, "when 95% of the containers coming from overseas are not inspected." In Washington, Barbaro would guarantee more homeland security funding for New York and ensure that police, firefighters, and first-response workers have the proper equipment they need.

Above all, Barbaro feels that winning this Congressional race and reclaiming the House of Representatives will send a clear message that the Democratic Party is returning to represent its core. "Our party has gone long enough to the [Joseph] Liebermans of the world," Barbaro said. According to him, the Democratic Party must not merely reclaim Washington, it must also reclaim its roots, and go back to representing working-class people.

Barend and Barbaro have made economic growth a priority because they have seen so many jobs leave New York State in recent years. Under the Bush administration, New York has suffered the third worst loss of manufacturing jobs in the nation. These jobs are being taken away from Barend's rural community in Western New York, and from Barbaro's Brooklyn Bush Terminal. What's more, both Barend and Barbaro can empathize with those who are suffering from our current economic turbulence because they have long identified with working-class New Yorkers. They hope the voters will appreciate these positions on November 2 and remember where their interests lie.