Staring Down Impeachment Vote, Freshman Democrat Seeks Legislative Victories
RHINEBECK, N.Y. — On a recent Friday, as impeachment investigators were releasing new evidence of President Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine and John R. Bolton, the former national security adviser, was refusing through his lawyer to tell Congress what he knew about “many relevant meetings and conversations” in the matter, Representative Antonio Delgado’s mind was elsewhere.
Driving through his Hudson Valley district under a light snow, Mr. Delgado, a first-term Democrat, was preoccupied with legislation he was pursuing, toxic chemical cleanup provisions he was fighting to include in a must-pass defense bill, the farmers he was scheduled to meet and his push to hold 33 town hall-style meetings by the end of December.
Before the sun set at 4:45 p.m., Mr. Delgado would trek 175 miles across the district, scarfing down a breakfast of fluffy pancakes with his wife and twin sons early in the morning so he could attend a school assembly, then making last-minute edits to a speech in the car in between events. It barely left time to brush up on the latest news in the impeachment inquiry consuming Washington.
With five legislative days remaining before Congress leaves for its holiday break, the House is charging toward a party-line vote on impeachment articles against Mr. Trump that will make him only the third president to be impeached. The vote is a politically risky one for freshman lawmakers like Mr. Delgado who won by narrow margins in districts that supported Mr. Trump in 2016, and one that the president and his political allies have argued will cost them their seats.
Mr. Delgado has signaled that he is willing to face the consequences. While he has not announced formally that he will support the articles of impeachment when they come to a vote next week, likely on Wednesday, he said in September that the president’s pressure campaign against Ukraine “by itself, is an impeachable offense” and concluded that articles were warranted.
That has made it all the more important for Mr. Delgado and Democrats like him to find ways to show voters they are getting things done in Congress, which is why he is crisscrossing his district through flurries, working on local issues and connecting with constituents.
“You feel the tempo, you feel the strain of it,” Mr. Delgado said, describing how he has adapted to the life of a congressman. “And then you adjust for it.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has had members like Mr. Delgado at the top of her mind throughout the inquiry, and it is their concerns that have compelled her to sandwich next week’s impeachment vote in between passage of critical legislation to fund the government and a sweeping revision of the NAFTA trade pact.
Ms. Pelosi knows, as many moderate Democrats do, that the important question is not necessarily how they explain a vote to charge the president with high crimes and misdemeanors, but whether they can show that they are delivering on an agenda of legislative work that affects voters’ everyday lives.
Mr. Delgado has not completely shied away from impeachment. When news broke of Mr. Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president that is at the heart of the charges, he announced that Congress should begin drafting impeachment articles, going further than most of his moderate colleagues, who tentatively endorsed investigating the allegations. The House Republican campaign arm, eager to tie Mr. Delgado to the liberal wing of the party, called it a “political death sentence” and has repeatedly accused him of “pandering to his socialist base.”
Through it all, Mr. Delgado has tried to strike a balance, cultivating relationships with Republicans — with his wife, he was one of only a few House Democrats to show up this week at the White House Congressional Ball, even as the Judiciary Committee was debating the articles of impeachment — while offering unsparing criticism of the president’s conduct.
“There’s an abuse of power,” Mr. Delgado said after the Ukraine allegations surfaced, speaking to voters in the town of Clinton. “And the abuse of power, too, layers over that crime in a way that I think really creates a level of urgency.”
But Mr. Delgado would prefer to talk about other things: his work on three committees, the enactment of his bill to ease financial burdens for farmers, and a grueling schedule traveling to all corners of his 8,000 square-mile district.
“It matters a lot to go back home and say I introduced a bill,” Mr. Delgado, a lawyer, Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law graduate, said in an interview. “Even if it’s not law, they know that their congressman is working on an issue they flagged.”
“Do you know how powerful that is?” he added. “That democracy is still humming ahead a little bit?”
A black congressman in a district in which voters are more than 80 percent white, Mr. Delgado is an unmistakable presence. At 6 feet 4 inches, Mr. Delgado — a former basketball player and Upstate New York hall of fame inductee — is rarely introduced without some quip about his height. And he is the only African-American who holds one of the 14 districts that flipped from voting for President Barack Obama to backing Mr. Trump in 2016. His victory came after a campaign in which Republicans used decades-old lyrics from his brief tenure as a rap artist to suggest he was misogynistic and anti-American, a line of attack widely denounced as racist.
But since January, Mr. Delgado, who was born just outside the district and moved back to the area after the 2016 election, has also amplified his engagement in one of the most rural counties represented by a Democrat. He has held nearly three dozen town hall-style meetings — three in each of the 11 counties in his district — and made a point of introducing bipartisan legislation with a number of his Republican colleagues. Sometimes, he includes his twins in his trips through the county — including a visit to a local bookstore on a recent Saturday, where he posed with a Muhammad Ali biography and his sons’ book selections. (Mr. Delgado, who considers Mr. Ali a personal hero, frequently wears a wristband that reads, “Find greatness within.”)
His first television ad — believed to be the first from a House Democrat in the 2020 campaign — focused on his litany of events and legislation introduced, even as Republicans sought to tie him to calls for impeachment and more liberal members of the caucus.
“He’s been good to work with,” said Jake Ashby, a local Republican assemblyman who recently participated in a veterans’ event with Mr. Delgado. Pointing toward some of the bills Mr. Delgado has championed, he added, “He’s been able to get them through, and that’s been encouraging to see.”
At one October gathering, Asejah Lazerson, from Pleasant Valley, N.Y., came to see Mr. Delgado after she wrote a letter about her challenges finding employment and taking care of her children. Mr. Delgado had followed up with a 30-minute phone call.
“It feels like my voice isn’t being heard, and there’s so much gridlock in Washington, all this bitter fighting and nothing is getting done,” Ms. Lazerson, who is black, said in an interview. “For him to call me and let me know that he heard my letter, and read my letter, and it touched him — it was very reassuring.”
“Every time I tell my story, I don’t know if anybody cares,” she added, after wiping away tears. Her son ended up writing a report on Mr. Delgado for school.
At a Veterans Day breakfast last month, Walter O’Neil, a Marine veteran, shook Mr. Delgado’s hand and cheerfully informed his congressman, “I didn’t vote for you.”
“That’s all right,” Mr. Delgado replied with a smile. “I’m still serving you.” (In a brief interview afterward, Mr. O’Neil conceded that Mr. Delgado “is doing a good job.”)
But moments later, a couple rushed to Mr. Delgado’s side, professing to be his biggest fans and asking for a picture.
“It was like meeting a rock star,” said Barbara Holms, 64, who came to the event with her husband, Michael, who served with the Navy during the Vietnam War. “He doesn’t lip sync. He shows up.”
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