Anthony Brindisi on the Campbell Conversations
On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Anthony Brindisi, the former Democratic Congressman who just conceded his race for reelection in the 22nd District against Republican challenger Claudia Tenney. The 22nd District includes Chenango, Cortland, Madison and Oneida counties and parts of Broome, Herkimer, Tioga and Oswego counties.
Full interview transcript
Grant Reeher (GR): Let's just start with the vote counting process from your election. And I think it would take us probably seven programs to work our way through that in detail. So let me try this. Let me offer a brief summary of my understanding. And if I've got something important wrong, you correct me and then I'll ask a few questions about it. So here's my summary. In short, it was a complete mess, multiple screw ups in different counties, you had lost and found absentee ballots, provisional ballots, early ballots, contested ballots, and seemingly almost beyond comprehension, you had some contest of ballots marked with Post Its, lo and behold, some of those Post Its fell off when they were physically transported. And the list goes on. So with so many problems, and an extremely close election, it would seem that a complete recount might be warranted. Why wasn't that something that that you got? Why didn't that happen?
Anthony Brindisi (AB): That's a good question, Grant. And that is something that we were really pushing for from Judge DelConte, who was the trial judge overseeing the count. As your listeners may know, New York State did pass an automatic hand recount statute that went into effect this past January. So under that law, if a race is within .5%, there is an automatic hand recount. Prior to that, any recounts were within the discretion of the courts. Unfortunately, despite my race being a .4% margin, I was down 109 votes. The automatic recount law was not in effect last year when our election took place, therefore, that that law did not come into play here. We did ask the judge to allow for an automatic recount. I felt that if there was any race that really deserved it, it was this one, given the summary that you just went through, and the multiple screw ups and errors that were made throughout this process. One example I can just give you, we did some targeted hand counts during the election is specifically in Oneida County. And time and again, we kept finding differences between the hand count and the machine count. I would actually pick up seven, eight votes when we went through and did a hand count. So, take that and spread it across the eight counties of the 22nd District. We felt it was something where we could have seen enough votes to pick up and change the margin. That and along with another a number of other areas, we felt really warranted a hand count here.
GR: So why did you decide then to concede in the end and not and not make an appeal? Because my understanding is that you could have appealed that decision.
AB: We could have appealed the decision. And what folks really have to understand is, despite this process taking about three months to get to a conclusion, we were only given a final tally in this race about a week ago. There has been no recounts in this race. So the 109 votes, which I was down by, which we ultimately became the certification in this election, that number is where we should have been on election night or at least soon thereafter when all the absentee ballots were counted, but it took three months to get to that point because of all the errors that were made at the board of elections, and the judge ordering on numerous occasions for the boards to go back and correct the errors. So, after three months of just sheer exhaustion on my part, and I'm sure Ms. Tenney's part, I was left with really two options after the judge decided to certify, or order the certification of the election. One would be to appeal his decision to the Appellate Division, which is the second highest level court here in New York State, responsible for reviewing decisions of trial judges. The second option was to file a contest in the House of Representatives under the Federal Elections Contest Statute. What many people don't realize is that under the Constitution, the House of Representatives really is ultimately responsible for seating its members. And in the judge's decision, what he said was, given the systematic violations, these are his words, of state and federal election law, given the voter disenfranchisement that occurred during this election, he had said that the best avenue to pursue a recount would be in the House of Representatives. That's a tricky process. There have been hundreds of those contests over the years throughout our history. I actually felt pretty confident if it had gotten to the House that we could have won, because The House would have looked at all the ballots, including ones that the judge said should not be counted. For example, you know, people who are registered, but may have showed up at the wrong polling place, and voted by a provisional ballot, he didn't count those. I felt those should have been counted. And I think the House would have felt those should have been counted as well. But as I started to do my research into what a contest in the House look like, it's something that would have taken at least another three months, they would have had to order all the ballots from the district down to Washington, there would have had to been a task force that's developed to look into this election, they would have to decide whether or not to do a recount. And there was a possibility that in the interim, Ms. Tenney would not have been seated as the representative for the area. So further delaying representation down in Washington for the region. Given what my family had been through, what I've been through, and really what the voters most importantly have been through, I felt that with so much uncertainty, it really wasn't something I wanted to pursue in the House. And if ultimately it led to them overturning the results of the election here in New York State, I know that that would have carried all kinds of issues with it as well. So for the betterment of the community, I decided to step aside and allow Ms. Tenney to move on as the representative for the area.
GR: I had another question about this decision of yours and I'm wondering, did former President Trump's behavior after the election and falsely claiming that it had been stolen and dragging the process out and trying to derail it even into the House of Representatives certification and the Congress's certification? Did that play a role in your thinking that, the timing wasn't right because of what had happened in Washington for, as you say, dragging this out?
AB: Absolutely. I'd be lying if I said that it didn't play a role somewhere in the back of my mind, I believe that the country really has had their fair share of contested elections over the last several months, given what happened at the presidential level. Even though what I experienced and what happened in the presidential race, is like comparing apples and oranges. In my race, we never had a recount. I was not alleging fraud on the part of any campaign or the board of elections. It just took us an incredibly long time to get to the point where we had a final number in my election. Where as opposed to the president, he consistently spread baseless claims of fraud. He had over 60 court challenges, several recounts in many states. And after all that, I'm sure if he really even conceded at the end of the day. I felt that the two are separate, but obviously, those comparisons were going to be made they were already starting to be made by those on the Right. And look, I wanted to do what's best for the community, and really didn't want to put my family through another several months of baseless attacks from the extreme right that I'm trying to steal an election.
GR: I had a question now about the campaign itself that you ran. And my understanding is that your campaign made a decision in favor of public health safety regarding COVID. And it didn't go in person. door to door. Is that correct?
AB: That is correct.
GR: Okay. But my understanding also is that Claudia Tenny's campaign did go door to door. And so do you think that hurt you? Now, looking back, I mean, we've given it you know, 109 votes or whatever the margin is?
AB: Yeah, there's, there's a lot of areas that you second guess yourself, but I really don't think I would have changed anything. Looking back, to be honest, ultimately, what's most important to me now, and then, was the health and safety of our volunteers. And yeah, I just didn't feel it was prudent, given the pandemic, sending volunteers door to door, you know, potentially exposing them or exposing others to coronavirus. So while a lot of the enthusiasm probably could have been lost that was there back in 2018. Again, I just didn't want to put people through, put them through any undue risk. So you know, my, my opponent made a different decision, and that may have helped boost enthusiasm on her side. But ultimately, I think there were forces larger at play here that really helped push my opponent over the edge. It was a presidential year, Donald Trump pulled out a lot of voters in this district, for better or worse, and that was certainly was to the benefit of my opponent. She made her whole campaign based on her support of the president, you could drive around the district and see the signs and said Trump-Tenny. So she very much wanted the Trump supporters to think they had to go down the line and vote Republican. Whereas we were able to split the ticket much more back in 2018. So that had an effect as well.
GR: On that point of thinking about the, as you say, the bigger forces that were at work. It does seem like your election did fit. In some ways, this broader pattern that we saw in the in the elections, which is that the downballot Democrats tended to underperform relative to expectations and Republicans overperformed. And that's excluding the subsequent Senate elections in Georgia, that different kettle of fish, I think, because the president was making very strange comments regarding that. And I think those backfired. But what, what do you make out of it? On the one hand, the Republican incumbent president loses by a fairly convincing margin, but nonetheless, people in his party got seem to have gotten a boost and the Democrats lost energy down ballot, what was going on there?
AB: It's hard to explain. Yeah, I still believe we significantly outperformed, where we probably should have been in this district. Trump won this district by 15 points in 2016. I haven't seen the final numbers from this election. But I know it's around the same area. And despite that, we still came within 109 votes in a district that has 30,000 more registered Republicans in it. So it's hard to say, overall, I do think and in some areas across the country, he did much better. But when he got into the suburbs, he certainly did not do as well. And that's probably what led to President Biden emerging as the victor there because he was able to really drive turnout the inner cities. But also, as many of the suburbs started to trend more Democratic see a boost there as well.
GR: So let's look back on your two years in office, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
AB: I would say what I'm most proud of over the last two years is getting 12 pieces of my legislation passed into law over the last two years. We always get wrapped up in, nothing gets done in Washington, especially in a in a divided government, which I had when I was there for two years. But I was able to work with members on both sides of the aisle, and pass substantive legislation that helps fight the veteran mental health crisis that's going on, help expand mental health resources into rural areas, help attract more jobs into upstate New York. And I am very proud of that. I certainly did get a lot of national attention as a member of Congress, and I wasn't aiming for national attention. I really wanted to represent the area more in the mold of Richard Hanna, or even a Sherry Boehlert, for those that remember Congressman Boehlert, who were both moderate representatives, were not interested in the national limelight, really focused on the needs of the district, and worked well across the aisle. And, and I think that is something that I tried to do when I was there. Because ultimately, I think that's what people wanted in the district. They wanted a representative who can who can get things done. And I was able to get some good accomplishments during those two years. And I'm very proud of that.
GR: So if you could have a do over on something significant that you were involved in while you were there, or perhaps an important vote that you took, what would it be?
AB: To be honest, Grant, I have no regrets on my last two years, a lot of people have said to me ‘Well, do you regret voting for impeachment?’ And I don't have a regret over that vote at all. Despite the fact I know, there were people who voted for me back in 2018, that changed their vote this time around because I did vote for impeachment. At the end of the day, I'm very comfortable with that vote. I think it was the right thing to do.
GR: I just want to make it clear. You're talking about the first impeachment obviously, for our listeners?
AB: Yes. It's hard to think that we've had multiple impeachments. And that one was so long ago, but yes, the first impeachment, not the current impeachment process.
GR: And you were involved in your own process. So I understand you did not cast a vote on the second one, correct?
AB: No, I was not there for that.
GR: So go ahead, finish your finish your thought on impeachment.
AB: So, I stand by that vote. And I understand it. It may have lost me votes. But at the end of the day, I think it was the right thing to do.
GR: So how do you expect Claudia Tenney is going to behave as a member of Congress in this Congress? Will it be a rerun of her previous term? Or do you think that she might try to shift more to the center away from the right, what do you expect?
AB: Well, it's a clean slate and I will certainly give her the benefit of the doubt, I hope that she moves more towards the center and away from some of the past statements that she has made, some of the conspiracy theories that she has spread, and some of the false statements that she has made over the years. I had a chance to meet with her this week. I want obviously to make the transition process as smooth as possible between our offices. So I had a chance to meet with her and show her around the office in Utica. And hopefully, when she gets there she will be able to help heal some of the divisions that are in this country. We are as divided now as we've been since the Civil War. And we need representatives there who can bring people together? Hopefully she's able to do that.
GR: She has, as you noted in describing the campaign, she really did attach herself to Donald Trump. He now he's out. One could say disgraced, particularly given the behavior post-election. Do you think that she'll still continue to wrap herself in Trump?
AB: I hope not. I just think his brand of politics is toxic for this country. We saw what happened on January 6, and now we're in the middle of another impeachment trial on this president. So I just think that's the wrong way to go. And hopefully, the Republican Party will move away from that particular brand of politics. We need to have truth, we need to have people there who are willing to work together and not spread false claims of conspiracy or all the other things that he's done over his tenure.
GR: My understanding is you've already filed to run again in 2022. Is that a hard decision at that point? Are you in? Are you starting to campaign?
AB: I's too early for me to tell at this point. I’m not ruling anything out right now. But I wanted to file and then really explore my options here and see what happens.
GR: And I've read that there is some speculation that your district, the 22nd District, is likely to be changed significantly in the redistricting process. And the implications of that are that it would become more Democrat-friendly. First of all, is that something you're hearing? Or if you had any discussions about that? Do you know anything about that? And then the second part, will that be part of the calculation?
AB: I've only seen public reports on that I have not had any conversations with anyone. And I think it's too early in the process here in New York State to determine what the district lines will be until the census numbers come in from the federal government. But we all know that New York is going to lose one, possibly two seats. So it's going to change the lines one way or the other. But, you know, I will wait and see what the new district looks like.
GR: Okay. And so what will you be doing in, let's say the next year other than figuring this out? How will you be organizing your time? Or are you going to pursue something else while you're, while you're sorting this out?
AB: Well, at this point, going to take some much needed time with the family. My wife, Erica, and two children have been incredibly patient, loving, and caring through this whole process. So relieved that we're together more and have some time to spend. I'm also going to probably practice law a little bit over the next year. Get back to my roots, and practice law and, and then really evaluate my options moving forward here. But now's the time to regroup.
GR: I want to just ask you a couple more personal questions if I could, I hope that's okay. But first go back to your service and in Congress. From a personal perspective, what was most gratifying to you, and also from kind of a personal perspective, what was most frustrating to you, about your time there?
AB: Most gratifying, I would say it's just the ability to help people. That's why I got involved in public service in the first place, dating back to my days on the school board here in Utica, through my time in the state legislature, and up until Congress. You get into public service because you want to help people, you don't get into it for your own personal ambitions, or you shouldn't. And there are so many instances where I can point to our office helping people. Whether it's on a large scale by passing legislation that's going to affect thousands of people or even on a small scale, helping someone who's going through chemotherapy access health care. So there's those kinds of instances really have a huge impact on me. And I'll remember for the rest of my life, and really cherish those moments. But I would say some of the most frustrating times are probably moreso recently. I've been in public service for about 10 years now. And even from my time when I first got in, I have seen a complete lack of respect for public officials over the years. And maybe social media has played into that. I'm not sure, I'm sure the former president in his rhetoric has not helped the situation. But we are very divided and it's sad because it's like we can't have disagreements anymore and walk away still with respect for one another. We have to now hate one another, or even resort to violence, which is even worse.
GR: I was wondering, I was thinking of you and the insurrection before doing this interview, and you weren't there for that because your campaign was involved in this adjudication process on the electoral result. I wonder what that was like for you. I could imagine two reactions, one being ‘wow, I'm glad I'm not there. I missed that.’ or sort of feeling like a soldier that, you know, wasn't there with their comrades in an important battle. I mean, I just was curious as what was going through your head in that regard?
AB: Well, just like you said, it was it was mixed emotions for me at the time. As you're watching that you do have relief that you're not there more so for your family, because I know that my wife and children, if they were watching that on television, would have been very worried for my safety. But a piece of me really wanted to be there, especially the point where the House and the Senate went back to finally certify the election. I'm very glad that the leadership despite all the chaos of that day, went back that evening, to certify the election and fulfill their constitutional responsibility. I thought that was a great moment for our democracy.
GR: And so maybe you're not going to be the candidate. Maybe you are, you have filed for 2022. So let me squeeze in this last one, in terms of looking at what the big issues are right now for the country, and the big one that other than the impeachment. And I think it's pretty clear how you would have voted on the second impeachment, given how you voted on the first. The big one for Congress right now is, of course, this new stimulus package. Are you in favor of the larger version, this, almost $2 trillion stimulus? Or would you be advocating for something much smaller, like, Democratic Senator Manchin of West Virginia?
AB: I've been saying for quite some time, even last year, that this is the time really to go bigger, and by bigger I don't mean, throw everything in the kitchen sink at it. It has to still be targeted to the needs of the pandemic. But given all the needs by our state and local governments, and the needs of our healthcare system, the need to get more vaccines out there as quickly as possible. I would say that it's time to go bigger here, recognizing that, because I do consider myself more of a fiscal conservative, that in times of prosperity, that's where we really have to start watching the spending. And that's something that I would urge Congress to look at moving forward here as we get out of this pandemic, and the economy improves.