THIELLS, N.Y. -- John Hall -- once the bare-chested guitarist for the 1970s band Orleans and the only rock musician ever elected to Congress as a Democrat -- was asked whether his entertainment background helped inoculate him from the anti-incumbent frenzy sweeping the nation. "Somewhat," he said, pausing to contemplate my question. "But now that I've been in Congress for three-and-a-half years, some people say that I've gone Washington."
Talk about political heresy: a Democrat in a tough reelection race
in 2010 actually volunteering that maybe he has changed because of his service in Congress. "To be truthful," Hall explained as we sat in a pizzeria in a tiny strip mall, "I've spent a lot of time in Washington and I know a lot more how the system works. But I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing as long as I'm in touch. . . . Accessibility is important for me."
Unlike many celebrity politicians, the 62-year-old Hall stubbornly resists speaking in sound bites -- and so far his cerebral style has meshed well with New York's affluent suburban 19th
district, bisected by the Hudson River, much of it about 90 minutes north of midtown Manhattan. "There's one quote of George W. Bush's that I've always liked," said Hall, who was partly motivated to run for Congress in 2006 because of his opposition to Bush and the Iraq War. "They've misunderestimated me. Most people think that a guitar player, a musician, doesn't know how to talk about issues."
There is a gravity to Hall as he plays against type – a songwriter who composed "Half Moon"
for Janis Joplin's final album, who flunked his Vietnam draft physical, now re-created as a passionate advocate for veterans as the chairman of the House subcommittee on service-related disabilities. (Yes, West Point is in the district.) Dressed in a blue blazer and tie on a scorching afternoon last week, Hall had to be coaxed by an aide into unbuttoning his jacket to appear more natural as he posed for pictures with veterans after he announced liberalized rules covering Agent Orange
at an American Legion hall.
In a difficult year for Democrats, there is no guarantee that Hall is still the one
. (A promise: no more song titles). Barack Obama narrowly carried this swing district in 2008, while Hall won 59 percent of the vote against a lackluster opponent. In Congress, Hall has been a reliable vote for Obama, supporting the president on the economic stimulus, cap-and-trade energy legislation, health-care and the war in Afghanistan. Asked what his hardest-to-explain vote has been, Hall mused for a few seconds before saying, "Probably the vote to support the president's request for continued funding in Afghanistan. . . . My progressive Democratic supporters would have been happier had I voted against funding."
This year, the national Republican Party has enthusiastically embraced first-time candidate Nan Hayworth
, a 50-year-old Princeton-educated ophthalmologist who has raised more than $700,000 and loaned her campaign an additional $500,000. As a result of Hayworth's partial self-funding, Hall, who had collected $1.1 million by the end of June, concedes, "Ever since she got into this race, I expected to be outspent."
New York's 19th District -- where both campaigns say that their private polls show the race as deadlocked -- provides an intriguing test case of whether Republicans can again win House races in the Northeast. Currently, there are just two GOP congressmen in New York and New England combined (51 House seats). "There are some districts in New England and New York that we'll never get back," concedes Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, the official arm of the House GOP. But there are also some 2006 wave babies like John Hall and Carol Shea-Porter in New Hampshire that the pendulum is running against."
Social and cultural issues -- particularly anti-abortion fervor and evangelical religiosity -- have made 21st
century Republicanism a hard sell in the Northeast. But Hayworth is among the roughly 10 GOP challengers in competitive House districts nationally who are abortion-rights supporters. Hayworth stresses her opposition to federal tax dollars being used to fund abortions, except in the rare cases already covered
by the Hyde Amendment. But she also acknowledges that her husband, Scott Hayworth, an obstetrician and gynecologist, had in the past performed occasional abortions "as a very minimal part of a suburban comprehensive practice."
During a lengthy and discursive interview at a diner a few doors down from her campaign headquarters in Carmel, Hayworth came across as that cultural anomaly -- a Rush Limbaugh fan with mostly left-of-center friends. In a telling moment of self-definition, she said about growing up in Indiana, "How many 9-year-olds in Muncie called 'The Producers' their favorite movie?" Asked whether she ever followed Orleans, the band that John Hall co-founded, Hayworth (who now boasts a suburban blazer-and-VFW-flag-pin look) said, "I was more of a head-banging rocker."
The roots of Hayworth's entry into politics were long hours in her car listening to talk radio during the 2008 campaign as she commuted into New York for her job as a medical adviser to a communications and advertising firm. "I don't believe that everything that Rush Limbaugh says is the revealed truth," she says. "But I did listen to him and there were many things we had in common. Mark Levin would play great speeches
like Ronald Reagan's 'A Time for Choosing.' I became so impassioned as the only conservative and the resident voice of smaller government at the [communications] agency."
For all of Hayworth's free-market conservatism ("Moderate, that M-word, bothers me because I'm passionate about what I feel"), she faces a challenge on her right flank in the low-turnout Sept. 14 Republican primary from the under-funded Neil DiCarlo
, who through late August had devoted nearly half of his campaign expenditures ($25,000) to lawn signs. DiCarlo, who works on the floor of the stock exchange as a compliance officer for a small brokerage firm, is staunchly anti-abortion and supports deporting all illegal immigrants. Asked about whether he would vote for Hayworth if he lost the primary, DiCarlo said flatly, "No."
The contours of the Hall-Hayworth race are obvious even if neither candidate has yet broadcast a TV ad. (Because of the prohibitive cost of the New York media market, television time buys on both sides will be limited to cable-only advertising, lessening the power of 30-second attack ads). Hayworth is airing a 60-second radio spot in which she declares, "I'm running for Congress to stop the John Hall and Nancy Pelosi spending spree."
Hall, who has agreed to debate Hayworth (assuming she wins the primary), has already honed his attack lines: "She calls herself the Tea Party candidate. And she has basically espoused repealing financial regulatory reform and repealing the health-care bill. . . . She's saying all the things that the far right is saying. Maybe that's because she has a primary. Or maybe it's because she believes it. I don't know which." Hayworth herself is more charitable in describing Hall's motivations: "I disagree passionately with his philosophy. But I sense that he's a true believer."
Trying to sort it all out as a world-weary political reporter, my own sense is that the voters in New York's 19th District have been given a rare gift -- two thoughtful candidates in a hotly contested race who insist on being (at least so far) real people instead of robotic recyclers of poison-pen partisan talking points. John Hall got it right when he said with a dash of humility, "This is a democracy. The good news and the bad news is that the voters get to pick. And I'll live with whatever the result is."