NY-21: Interview with Phil Steck
Originally Posted on The Albany Project
"You can't get change by going along and getting along simply with the accepted ways of doing business, and that's what I've always been doing."
--Phil Steck, candidate for Congress, 21st District of New York
On Tuesday, five Democrats will face off in a highly competitive primary for the nomination to replace retiring Representative Mike McNulty. One of those Democrats is Phil Steck.
Below the fold, he tells much more about his life, his politics, the race he is running in, and the issues of the campaign in the final issue in a series of diaries interviewing the four major contenders for New York's 21st Congressional District in a year that has become synonymous with the word "change."
* Soundpolitic's diary :: ::
When Congressman Mike McNulty announced that he would not seek re-election after twenty years of service in November of 2007, a short list of possible candidates was published in the local papers that included the names of local political heavyweights and insiders. A handful of these hopefuls made big news simply by announcing that they would not run for Congress, and a couple of those from the early short-list are still out there campaigning as a five-way Democratic primary enters a heavily competitive home stretch.
Absent from the early pundits' list of future representatives was Albany County Legislator Phil Steck, who actually became the first candidate to announce his bid to go to Washington in December of last year. At the time, I wondered whether someone holding such a small office could actually make it to the endgame. Nine months later, Phil Steck is still around and is on many a pundits list of most-likely-to-win, yet the primary is still five days out. When I first met Phil to volunteer for his unlikely campaign, he told me that he enjoyed being the underdog in a field of well-known opponents.
Phil Steck grew up in Colonie and attended the Albany Academy for Boys, where his father, a World War II veteran, was both a history teacher and renowned football coach. "My father was a strong disciplinarian and I think that I got my work ethic, which has served me well in politics, from my father." Phil described the Academy as a very heavily Republican establishment that forced him, as a young Democrat, to "agree to disagree" and added with a smile that he wouldn't have had any friends otherwise.
Steck's mother was also a teacher at the Hackett Middle School in Albany. "My parents instilled in me a great respect for history, which I think is very critical in politics." After the Academy, Phil Steck went on to Harvard College as a government major, "not necessarily for having the highest SAT scores," he said, "but perhaps by being one of the hardest workers."
After Harvard College, Phil attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "The choice came down to did I go for a degree in political science or did I go for a law degree. And I didn't want to be someone who stood on the sidelines analyzing what other people did," said Steck. "I wanted to be an active participant in the community, I had a strong sense of social justice, and I felt that being an attorney would enable me to help people who are facing difficult challenges in their lives."
I asked Phil Steck what he thought of criticism of "Ivy League" politicians or that there were too many lawyers in government. He said that he was always interested in coming back to the community instead of going to big cities to make "a lot of money" and pointed out that the civil rights and employment law he practiced differentiated him. He added, "The typical Ivy League graduate who wants success in politics doesn't do stuff like run a door-to-door campaign for County Legislator. They tend to hang around the centers of powers like the New York State Legislature. I've never done that. I've always been a grassroots political person."
Throughout the interview, Steck would re-iterate his commitment and experience in grassroots politics. His education, he said was helpful to him in analyzing issues, but said "In terms of my political life, I am more down to earth than most."
Of his early employment and practice as an attorney, Phil started out with labor union law in Chicago, but he yearned to come back to New York. His first few jobs back home, he said the corporate law he was working in did not satisfy him. He then entered public service in New York City as Assistant District Attorney in the drug unit. Soon after this, his mother died, and he moved back to be closer to his father and work as ADA in Rensselaer County. Most of his work during this period dealt with prosecuting narcotics crimes, but "the pay was very poor" and he had just married his wife, Tricia.
It was at that point that former State Senator Howard Nolan asked Phil Steck to join as partner in a law firm that was called Cooper, Erving, Savage, Nolan, & Heller. He still works at the firm, now Cooper, Erving & Savage, as civil rights and labor attorney after a brief stint in commercial litigation. Steck went through an extremely long list of cases in which he had defended workers who had been fired for several bogus reasons: workers with diabetes and obesity, employees who had their pensions taken away, fired for taking time off for sick children or fertility treatment. Of the laws he's litigated, Steck mentioned the Family and Medical Leave Act, Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I wondered which one was most personally satisfying for Steck. "These cases are tough," he said. "I'd say anytime you win one these cases, it's really satisfying." One of his recent victories, however, was in defense of his former basketball coach who had been fired for speaking out against the school's administration and had gone all the way up the Supreme Court after six years of litigating the issue of First Amendment retaliation.
While Phil was beginning his career as a young lawyer, he wasted no time in getting involved in Democratic politics. As the Town of Colonie had been heavily Republican for one hundred years, Phil Steck's first campaign for Town Councilman in 1985 at age 26 proved unsuccessful. "The Democratic Party was very disorganized and we were not running campaigns as well as we really should have at that point in time."
Steck said he had never really considered running for office, yet the former Senator Howard Nolan had tapped him in the 1990s as a hopeful candidate for Albany County District Attorney. But in 1999, he ran for Albany County Legislator, meeting many of the grassroots operatives that currently play a key role in his campaign for Congress. "No Democrat had ever won in Colonie in 100 years," Steck said, "But we won it with 62% of the vote in 1999. I was re-elected with 79% of the vote in 2004." That second term was won, Steck noted, in a special election in which Republican turnout was low, but his 2007 campaign was successful to the tune of 65% of the vote.
Of being a County Legislator, Steck noted many difficulties. "A lot of the things that we do, we either need approval from the State of New York or just implementing, at the local level, programs of the State of New York." His proudest accomplishment, he said, was that Albany County had the fourth-lowest per capita county property taxes in the state, even in the face of heavily unfunded Medicaid mandates.
He was also proud of a larger than average percentage of revenue sharing between the county and smaller municipalities and his constituent newsletter, the most widely distributed of any member of the Albany County Legislator, which Steck pays for himself out-of-pocket. "The most major things, though, have been related to health care," said Steck. He described himself as instrumental in making Albany County a self-insurer which he said "saved the County taxpayers as well as providing better coverage to our employees."
Steck's experience with the Medicaid program lead him to become a supporter of single-payer health care, and sponsored a successful resolution in support of that. But above all, he as most proud of standing up in the face of opposition and noted multiple instances in which he sponsored resolutions or legislation that was vehemently opposed by the Democratic majority in the County Legislature in the past, but are now up again and set to pass, such as reforming the Albany County Nursing Home.
One such resolution was one that failed, which opposed the War in Iraq. He often notes this move in his run for Congress. Steck had received criticism for this, saying the move was politically motivated, to which Steck laughed. "That's kind of ridiculous," said Steck. "I was an opponent of the Iraq War from day one and I spoke out in the County Legislature against the war."
"Now, at that time, Congressman McNulty was supporting the war. He subsequently changed his mind" Steck explained. "So I took a lot of heat. I was criticized from the floor of Legislature. Who do you think you are? Do you think you know more than Congressman McNulty?' that's what was said. But I felt that in the Legislature that we are representatives of the community and when it comes to an important issue like that, we should be heard." Steck noted that the "trickle-down" aspects of the spending on the war would begin to adversely influence local governments, which has happened, was another part of his opposition.
After having spoken so much about his experience as a County Legislator, I asked Phil Steck what he thought of the fact that most of New York's Congressional delegation had previously served in the State Legislature. "I think we need someone who is community-based in this position," said Steck. "I think it would be very advantageous to elect someone from local government."
Steck added that local government officials aren't subject to the lobbying that goes on in government at the state level, and launched into a specific condemnation of New York State government: "The State Legislature is not highly regarded by the public. I think it's been stuck in the mud for the last twenty years and under the leadership of Sheldon Silver and not a lot of progress has been made. I think this is a change election and I don't think folks want someone in the position who is simply going to bring down to Washington all the characteristics of the New York State Legislature." He again said, as he often has in his campaign for Congress, that no lobbyists, special interest, or PAC money has been accepted by his campaign and that over $400,000 has been raised by individual contributors from within the district in Steck's run for Congress.
Steck's victory in the Albany County Legislature lead to him becoming the Chairman of the Democratic Party of Colonie. With a bit of a laugh, Steck observed, "If you wanted success in politics, the last thing you would want to do is be Chairman of the Colonie Democrats." Even before the founding of the Town of Colonie 112 years ago (the town was formerly called "Watervliet" and included the city that now bears that name and the hometown of the current Congressman, the Town and Village of Green Island) the district had been staunchly Republican. In 2007, the Democrats won their first majority on the Town Board as well as the Supervisor's race, and Phil Steck has frequently made mention of this in his campaign for Congress. I asked him why we felt this victory was significant or relevant to his current campaign.
"I think it shows a real commitment to hard work against overwhelming odds." said Steck, and then took a veiled swipe at his opponents. "This is a Democratic seat. We have a lot of people who, when they see an opportunity to get a position in Congress, there's a lot of self-seeking involved. My record shows that I've never been a self-seeker in politics. If was, I would have hung around the corridors of State power or Albany City Hall." Of his work as a chairman of the second-largest municipality in the 21st Congressional District, he described the tasks as greater in magnitude than any of his opponents.
When I asked Phil Steck about the day-to-day operations as Town Chairman, a wide grin and sigh escaped his lips. "Aw, you don't wanna hear that," he said, in a tone that implied many long nights studying polling data, voter rolls, making phone calls, developing issues, fundraising, and motivating grass roots volunteers. "It also involves interacting with other chairs from other Democratic Parties and third parties. We've been very successful at forming coalitions within the Albany County Democratic Committee and also within our town with the Independence Party and dissident Republicans."
"You can't get change by going along and getting along simply with the accepted ways of doing business, and that's what I've always been doing." Steck concluded of his grass roots efforts in his campaigns for County Legislator and as Colonie Democratic Chairman. As these are the two pieces of experience Phil Steck has highlighted while still casting himself as an outsider, he has received some criticism of actually being an insider or political boss because of his positions. I asked him what he thought of this.
Phil Steck just laughed and said, "I think it's laughable!" He again noted that the party had been out of power for a century and had also survived numerous primary challenges in committee races. "It's a volunteer job, very similar in a lot of ways to working in any volunteer organization. That's just preposterous....the fact is I was trying to build for success and we didn't have any success and we didn't have any power to start with. What that is is totally political and has no basis in fact."
Part of Phil Steck's success in Albany County Democratic politics is his current endorsement from the Albany County Democratic Committee in his run for Congress. Yet this was one of the more controversial aspects of the race. After a non-endorsement resolution failed in the committee, several hundred committeemen who supported Steck's opponents Paul Tonko or Tracey Brooks walked out of the meeting before the final vote to endorse was counted; among those walking out was Albany Mayor and Brooks endorser Jerry Jennings. I wondered what Phil's thoughts were on this key endorsement and its effect on politics in the county in general.
"I think one of the things that the Mayor tries to do is portray everything as a conflict between the city and the suburbs." Steck responded. He did admit strong support of his candidacy from the suburbs of Colonie, Guilderland, and Bethlehem, but added, "You can't win an election in Albany County without support outside the suburbs. We never get one-hundred-percent of the suburban vote within the County Committee. So the reason that they walked out was because the support I had in the City of Albany and in the City of Watervliet made it quite clear that there was no way that anybody else could win the election."
Phil also noted that his campaign had garnered large support from some of the most diverse and minority wards in Albany and the City of Cohoes, as well as the fifty local elected officials that had endorsed his campaign early on in his efforts. "The reason that the other people walked out was because they knew that the election was lost for them," Steck concluded. "And even if they had stayed, we would have won by a substantial vote."
Having dwelled on local politics for quite some time, our conversation turned to the historic Presidential race of 2008. At the time this interview was conducted, Barack Obama was just days away from his formal acceptance of the Democratic nomination for President at the DNC (and yes, this blogger's excuse for waiting so long to post this interview was to make sure he could catch as much of that historic event as possible). But in relation to the primary in NY-21, Phil Steck differentiated himself early on by declaring his support of Barack Obama while the Presidential primaries were still going while nearly all of his opponents supported Hillary Clinton.
Steck described his coming to support Obama came about as a result of "an interesting process" based on the issues. "The turning point came when Barack Obama said the he would talk to other heads of state even if our government disagreed with them," said Steck. He explained how he couldn't agree with Clinton on this key issue and expected Barack Obama to back down to her attacks. "When he didn't back down, that gained him a lot of respect in my eyes and if I was to be consistent with what I believed, I decided at that time that my vote would be for Barack Obama." He described his position as a personal one and noted that he had made no efforts to persuade anyone else one way or the other.
I wondered if Phil Steck thought that the Presidential contest had any relevance to the Democratic primary in the 21st Congressional District. "I think Barack Obama has set the agenda for change," Steck said "And I really just don't see the other candidates as offering change."
"I like Paul Tonko," Phil Steck said. "I enjoy being on the dais with him. But Paul Tonko is a symbol of the type of government that we have in New York State. He is very close to Sheldon Silver. That's not change." He added, "I've been around this local community for a long time and I haven't seen much activism by Tracey Brooks in support of change." Phil Steck said that he believed his opponents were attempting to "co-opt" Barack Obama's message, and reiterated that he'd been fighting for change as a lawyer, legislator, and party chairman for over two decades in the community.
I had a hunch that Phil was basing his argument on his refusal to accept donations from lobbyists and political action committees in the same manner that Barack Obama had, and I asked him why so much of this money was involved in politics and if it truly had an impact as a hindrance to change. "People want their hooks into a Congressman, let's face it," Steck answered. Of special interests' donations to candidates, he said "They want power for their clients and so, for them, it's an investment in the candidate," and the expectation is that there will some kind of return.
"They're not going to be interested in a candidate like me," Phil added, and he used the issue of single-payer health care as an example, posing a hypothetical question: "When you're taking thousands of dollars in contributions from health insurers and interests that are opposed to something like single-payer, you can say in a campaign that you're for single-payer, but what are the chances that you're actually going to press for it?"
Steck described this as the single biggest differentiating factor between him and his opponents and concluded "If we're going to make change, it won't come about if people are beholden to lobbyists and special interests." He did add that people had a right to lobby their government and nothing was wrong with it, but the problem was with candidates accepting money from these interests with the expectation of getting something in return.
I told Phil Steck that one of the main reasons I personally support Barack Obama for President was his call for a new kind of politics free of distractions. I asked Phil is negative advertising was a part of those distractions, specifically noting an advertisement that the Steck campaign is currently airing pointing out the numerous contributions of this kind accepted by the Tonko and Brooks campaign, and whether he felt this was a negative advertisement and if it had a place in Obama's new politics.
"I think you have to tell the truth in any election," Steck answered. "and if you don't tell the truth, the public's got nothing to make judgments on. To allow other candidates to go out their and talk piously about all the things their going to do and all the special interests they're going to fight when, in fact, they're taking all sorts of money from these kinds of people, I don't think that's right."
"I think it's an issue." Steck declared. "In this campaign, one of the main issues is who is beholden to lobbyists and who isn't. This is the same-old-same-old; this is not change."
Having covered politics at the national level, our conversation turned to the race at hand. Phil Steck was the first candidate to announce his campaign in the Democratic primary, and I wondered why he announced in the first place and why so soon after Rep. Mike McNulty announced his retirement. Steck mentioned again his reputation for making change and his desire to be a part of that change.
Of making an early announcement, he said "You can't wait around while people decide what they're gonna do and how they're going to hedge their bets or who else is in the race. You have to move forward if you want to run a good campaign." He described how he tapped into the grassroots support that had been successful just a month earlier in the Democratic victories in Colonie and how quickly he racked up endorsements from local elected officials.
I asked what was behind each of these endorsements and why they were so important. "These people at the local level, they know that my word is good," Phil Steck explained. "And if I'm in Congress and they need help in their communities and they call me, they know that I'm going to get right back to them and we're going to get the job done." Steck recalled how one prominent local elected official had called Senator Clinton's office numerous times for help on an issue and yet received no response. "People know that I'm just not like that. Even people who disagree with me on particular issues know that I'm going to get back to them in a straightforward manner and also that I'm going to help in every way that I possibly can."
It was at this point that I explained to Phil why I had begun to cover the race on The Albany Project and DailyKos, including interviews of the major candidates, and it was because I percieved a lack of comprehensive coverage for such a historic election. This is the first time in over fifty years that an open primary has taken place for Congress in the Capital District. I also saw very little reporting on Steck's candidacy for quite some time while the mainstream media jumped on the announcement of Tracey Brooks and ran several stories on whether or not Paul Tonko would run before he officially entered the race. I wondered what Phil Steck's thoughts were on this personal opinion of mine
Phil Steck answered, "When the media doesn't cover a race very extensively, you have to rely more on paid communications, which inflates the cost of the race." Steck explained that the media, both national and local, tend to focus on "the process of running" such as fundraising and opinion poll numbers, but "not too much on what the candidates stood for." He also noted that much of the coverage was based on scandals, using the example of a recent sign-stealing flap in the 21st Congressional District.
But Steck did believe that the announcements of all candidates were well covered and that, as primary day came closer, coverage on the issues increased. "I think there will be enough information for voters to make up their mind." Steck said. "Yes, I would have liked to have seen three televised debates between the candidates. I would have liked to have seen more reporting comparing and contrasting candidates on the issues than there has been."
As far as my own efforts to do so on the blogosphere, I asked Phil Steck what his thoughts were on the blogs. "I have a real problem with people being allowed to blog anonymously," Steck said "People say all kinds of things that can't be verified under all kinds of psuedonymns," making specific mention of the blogs on the Times Union website. "When the blogosphere is presenting accurate information, I think it's as effective as anything," he said, and that the limited resources of newspapers made blogs a necessary adjunct to the print media. But he laughed as he said, "When you're running for office you're so busy, you don't have the time to read all this stuff."
Having satisfied what is admittedly this blogger's hunger for all things political and a greater depth of background the candidate, it was time to move to the issues of the race in hopes I could find a different angle than what is already being communicated. On women's issues, I asked Phil Steck if he believed that woman was more qualified to advocate on issues such as equal pay and their right to choose than a man was.
"I think it depends on the background of the candidate," Steck answered. "In this particular case, that is not true, because I don't know that there is a woman in the race who has a record of standing up on women's issues. Anyone can say what their positions are, but you have to look and see if people have any record of working on the issues." Phil Steck went on to reiterate the many battles in court he'd won as a civil rights attorney, representing women who had been fired, paid unequal salaries, even sexually harassed in the workplace. "That's a pretty darn good record of working on women's issues." Steck concluded.
Phil was eager to talk about single-payer health care, which he made a part of his earliest platform. Since the four major contenders in the primary have all declared support, I tried to shift Steck into general election mode and asked him what his response was to right-wing and libertarian criticism that such a program was either "socialist" or "unconstitutional." Steck seemed amused at this. "That's not what we're proposing. What we're proposing is a lot like Social Security, and if people think Social Security is socialism, so be it. It's the most popular governmental program in the history of the United States."
Steck rattled off a long list of savings that would result from a single-payer system and wondered why conservatives would be opposed to saving so much money. "Why are we duplicating all these sources of payment for health insurance when we should have only one plan?" Steck asked, listing off auto insurance, worker's compensation, Medicaid property taxes, keeping track of who is qualified and whether doctors are attempting to profit, and massive administrative costs as part of his reasoning that a single-payer system would cost Americans far less than the current private system.
"The enemy of progress in government is often ideology," Steck said. "What we're talking about is a free-market ideology that's being misplaced. The fact is that the health care markets are not free markets anyway. There's no perfectly competitive market in health care that we could possibly set up."
One of the biggest issues in this local race and across the country is energy, which is also the cornerstone of the campaign of one of Steck's main opponents, Paul Tonko. Instead of asking my own question, I asked one from many friends of mine who are frankly sick of having to buy gasoline: what would a Congressman Phil Steck do to get us off the stuff? Steck answered that he believed that cars will eventually go electric and that the best way to get the electricity to run these vehicles was wind and solar energy. He gets his own home power from wind power, but added that rural transmission lines from the Roosevelt era had to be updated.
"I've supported a windfall profits tax on oil companies, not for the purpose of punishing oil companies," Steck said, "It's time for them to give back to this country and we will use that revenue to fund alternative energy infrastructure." He also went into detail about the progress made by Germany in wind and solar energy and the large number of jobs that would be created should the United States take up similar initiatives.
As a final issue, as someone very much opposed to the war in Iraq, I asked Phil Steck, who has joined four of his five opponents in supporting a timetable for withdrawl, how he would, as Congressman, help bring the troops home. "I'm against funding the war," Steck said. "We're not going to cut the troops off in the field; we would fund withdrawl. But the way to get there would be to vote against funding the war and that will push us in the right direction."
Still, I wanted to know that if the six month timeframe being offered by the candidates went by and then another six months and then another six months. Phil Steck caught on to my point quickly, and before I could ask him what he would do said "I would have to speak out against it." Steck explained "We have to get people who are willing to stand up, even to the President of their own party if the President is wrong. There's been too much temptation in Congress to simply rely on what the President says."
Steck said that this was particularly true of foreign policy and the past forty years of U.S. intervention in third-world countries, saying that we cannot be the policemen of the world. He said that no matter how long America stayed in Iraq, the situation would be the same. "There's really nothing to be gained by lengthening our stay in Iraq. The only relevant question is who long should the withdrawl period be to provide for the safety of the troops."
While Phil had already gone well over the time he had originally allotted for the interview, I offered him the opportunity to talk about any issue I had missed, and the biggest one that came to his mind was grassroots campaigning. "I love going to these debates and hearing people talk about door-to-door campaigning," Steck said. "We've easily been the most grassroots campaign of any of the candidates. We have candidates who go and walk a little bit here and walk a little bit there with the goal of giving the impression that they're really out there working. We do it in this campaign to show that we respect their opinion."
He added, "I can say that in this campaign, either with myself personally or volunteers on my behalf, this campaign has knocked on the doors of 20,000 houses in this Congressional District. I think this shows the respect I have for the opinions of my constituents, not from a desire for publicity." He explained his pledge to hold monthly town hall meetings with constituents to discuss the issue if he is elected to Congress. Steck also noted that he had been keeping a seven-days-a-week regimen of retail politics for several months and was excited that only two weeks were left.
After asking me if there was anything else, I thanked Phil Steck for giving me much more time than I had originally asked and hoped for. Once he and his communications director Tom Nardacci had thanked me, he hopped up from the table to hit the streets once again.