NY-22 Minute: How Heath Phillips Seeks to Differentiate Himself By Luke Perry
Heath Phillips of Cincinnatus recently declared his candidacy in the NY-22 race. “I have a national name but I don’t have a local name,” Phillips said during his campaign launch in Cortland.
Phillips attended Tompkins Cortland Community College and was Cortland County’s Democratic Chairperson until stepping down to run for Congress. His Linked-In profile states that Phillips works on legislation in Washington and is a “trainer and speaker for the Department of Defense on military sexual trauma issues and bystander intervention."
Phillips is a Navy veteran, who considers himself an advocate for veterans and human rights. He has been interviewed by several news organizations, including Time and The Baltimore Sun, regarding his experiences with sexual assault in the military and two decades of subsequent related challenges.
Phillips was motivated to challenge Congresswoman Tenney because she “won’t stand up to Trump.” Phillips appears to have little campaign infrastructure in place thus far. His campaign related website solicits donations through Act Blue. The only candidate-related content states he is running “because the American dream is worth fighting for -- we are worth fighting for. While my name will be on the ballot, this election is about us. It’s time to clean up Washington and restore America's basic bargain to our district. America thrives when we all thrive.” (emphasis original)
The campaign has a Facebook page that shares photos and messages of meetings with individuals and groups around the district. The post on July 12th, after declaring his candidacy, provided an indication of how Mr. Phillips may frame his candidacy, as a political outsider and liberal populist.
Phillips expressed appreciation for “all the support and the massive amounts of emails asking me to run.” He knows people “are tired of the career politicians, your all tired of fluff and empty promises.” Phillips describes himself as “someone who already has several years worth of experience in DC working on Legislation to help others.” He will continue this once elected because “this about the "people", ALL PEOPLE to have a voice and opinion. I heard you all and I listened and I answered.” (emphasis original)
Phillips correctly understands himself as an “underdog.” There is no clear path to victory in taking on two candidates with substantial support and home field advantage in the largest county in the district.
The first question is how Phillips will seek to differentiate himself from Anthony Brindisi. Will he run to the left or the right of Brindisi’s record in the State Assembly? Primary voters tend to be more ideological, so candidates typically move toward the edge, not the center.
It will be interesting to see how grassroots liberal organizations respond to his candidacy. If Phillips goes left, such groups will be essential to his success, but Brindisi has been well supported by these people so far, particularly in the Northern part of the district.
The second question is how Phillips further develops his vision of liberal populism. Liberals value greater inclusivity, which he referenced, but anti-elitism is more popular among conservatives, who will not be voting in the primary.
Campaigning against Washington is not uncommon, particularly in taking on an incumbent, but lack of political experience may be viewed negatively by Democrats. Just 8 percent of all Democrats approve of Donald Trump, the most prolific political outsider in the country. Conversely, Bernie Sanders, the most prominent liberal populist, has been a member of Congress for 37 years.
Luke Perry (@PolSciLukePerry) is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College.
Read the NY-22 Minute for timely and comprehensive analysis of the campaign.