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Antonio Delgado’s New Job Spells Trouble for House Democrats

On the surface it would seem strange to quit your hard-won post as a two-term congressman serving in the House majority to spend your days traveling to community meetings in Plattsburgh and Fredonia. Yet that is what Antonio Delgado did Tuesday morning, with New York governor Kathy Hochul announcing she had selected him as the state’s new lieutenant governor, replacing Brian Benjamin, who was arrested last month on campaign finance charges and promptly resigned, while denying the allegations. The move, though, makes perfect sense for Hochul and Delgado, in pragmatic ways. Its implications for national Democrats, however, are fairly grim.

Hochul began pursuing Delgado shortly after Benjamin quit. A Harvard Law and Oxford graduate, he’d been representing a sprawling 11-county Hudson Valley district. The 45-year-old congressman’s other attractive qualities are more politically pragmatic to Hochul, whose job-approval numbers have been sinking as she campaigns to win her first full-term as governor. He is an energetic, seasoned campaigner; a prolific fundraiser with nearly $6 million in his campaign finance war chest; and he is of Afro-Latino heritage, a significant asset when trying to connect with crucial voting blocs in New York City.

For the congressman, the appeal of the lieutenant governor post increased greatly last week, when a New York state appeals court tossed out new congressional district lines, saying they had been gerrymandered to help elect Democrats, and ordered that new lines be drawn by a court-appointed special master. To make it all even more uncertain, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has now requested that a federal court reinstate those district maps. Delgado, who was first elected in a 2018 win during a strong cycle for Democrats, almost surely would have faced a tough general election contest no matter the shape of the new district north of New York City, especially after state Republicans made big gains last fall. “Even Delgado running as an incumbent, that would have been a tough district to hold in a shit year,” Democratic consultant John Del Cecato says. “We don’t know how it’s going to be redrawn, but it definitely isn’t going to be on the gimme list.” Delgado’s office did not return a request for comment.

House Democrats currently hold a slim 12-seat edge, and all current signs point to a midterms debacle. If Delgado survived his reelection bid, he would probably have returned to Washington as part of a minority party, in a New York delegation where he’s outranked or overshadowed by Jerry Nadler, Hakeem Jeffries, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ritchie Torres. Nancy Pelosi, whose speakership will be at stake in November, was gracious about Delgado’s departure. “The people of New York will be well-served by his intellectual brilliance, tireless work ethic, strong values, and his extraordinary talent for communicating with his constituents,” she said in an official statement. But Pelosi must be less than thrilled about Hochul poaching one of her incumbents this late in the electoral cycle. Delgado is getting a promotion by becoming New York’s second-highest elected official in state government, but his bailing out of Congress is yet another indication that House Democrats are looking for lifeboats: He is the 31st Democrat to exit voluntarily in advance of the midterms, compared with 17 House Republicans.

Being New York state’s lieutenant governor has recently proven to be a decent career gamble. The official duties are largely ceremonial. The real responsibilities are to avoid doing anything that overshadows your boss and to stay alive, just in case anything bad happens to the governor. Two of the past three elected L.G.s have moved into the top job, thanks to scandal. David Paterson abruptly replaced Eliot Spitzer in 2008, and last August, after Andrew Cuomo quit amid a barrage of sexual harassment allegations, Hochul stepped up.

Delgado could have waited for the redistricting legalities to settle and then run for reelection in his swing district, whatever shape it turns out to be. Maybe he would have won; maybe he would have lost. Either way, he would have been fighting the good fight for the larger Democratic team at a crucial national moment. Naive, I know. “You’re never surprised by electeds being ambitious or opportunistic,” a realistic House Democratic campaign operative says. “I don’t think any one race makes it harder to hold the majority.” Delgado chose the safer local route. His likely reward will be spending the next four years in Albany.

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