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House Race In New York's Hudson Valley Turns Into A Debate About Race


One of the most competitive and expensive House races in the country is in New York's Hudson Valley. And it has turned into a debate about race. As reporter John O'Connor with member station WNYC explains, it all starts with a 12-year-old rap album.

JOHN O'CONNOR, BYLINE: Before he ran for Congress, Antonio Delgado was a lawyer, graduate of Harvard Law School and a former Rhodes scholar. Back in 2006, he also cut a rap album. And that's the part of Delgado's past that national Republican groups are focusing on.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: But as a rapper, the real Antonio Delgado criticized democracy and mocked the war on terror.


ANTONIO DELGADO: (Rapping) Contradicting Democratic precision in the name of a war against terrorism.

O'CONNOR: The ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee, or NRCC, is one in a series from outside GOP groups focusing on Delgado's music, especially his songs protesting the war in Iraq. The ads include snippets of lyrics, dusky images of Delgado, who is black, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and refer to him as a, quote, "big-city rapper."

DELGADO: It's to otherize. It's to distract from the issues. It's divisive.

O'CONNOR: That's Delgado. Delgado says on the campaign trail, voters ask him about health care and other issues, not his rap album.

DELGADO: The opioid epidemic, Lyme disease - these are the things that I'm confronted with all across this district. And very little of it has anything to do with what we're hearing from Faso's side of the aisle.

O'CONNOR: His opponent, first-term Congressman John Faso, is a former lobbyist and state lawmaker. He didn't respond to interview requests. But Steve Stivers, the Ohio Republican who runs the NRCC, said Delgado should have to answer for his lyrics.

STEVE STIVERS: There are legitimate issues that come up in campaigns where you want to define your opponent for who and what they are.

O'CONNOR: York's 19th District is considered a tossup and is crucial to both parties' efforts to control the House next year. The mostly rural district stretches from the Vermont border across the Catskills. It's about 90 percent white, and voters there backed President Trump in 2016. None of the voters I talked to would defend the ads.

JOHN COREY: Anyone can see the clips they take out of lyrics are taken out of context.

O'CONNOR: John Corey is a 63-year-old retired engineer who lives in the hamlet of Melrose. He's not registered with a political party, a crucial bloc in a district where a third of voters are Democrats, a third are Republicans and the rest something else.

COREY: It feels racist. It feels crooked. It feels wrong on every level.

O'CONNOR: Another voter, 25-year-old Peter Kiley-Bergen, says the ads don't reflect his priorities like health care and fighting climate change. He recently registered as a Democrat. Like Corey, he's enthusiastic about voting this fall.

PETER KILEY-BERGEN: What Mr. Delgado said 12 years ago is not that relevant. What Congressman Faso has done over the past almost two years is much more relevant.

O'CONNOR: So far, Republicans seem set to keep talking about Delgado's rapping. The latest NRCC ad in the race once again calls him a, quote, "big-city rapper." For NPR News, I'm John O'Connor.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say in this report that Rep. John Faso had not responded to requests for an interview. In fact, reporter John O’Connor did not make those requests to the congressman or his staff.]

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ CAM QUARTET'S "REBIRTH OF COOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 14, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
We incorrectly say in this report that Rep. John Faso had not responded to requests for an interview. In fact, reporter John O'Connor did not make those requests to the congressman or his staff.
John O'Connor