WASHINGTON – If rock and roll were the answer, singer and songwriter John Hall would fill the bill for New York's 19th Congressional District.
Formerly of the band "Orleans," Hall, a community activist and former school board president and county legislator, has a bevy of old school musicians in his corner to support his candidacy for the Democratic nomination to take on Rep. Sue Kelly, R-N.Y., in November.
Pals including Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, Steve Earle and Nancy Griffith are performing a benefit concert for Hall in New York City on Aug. 20 as well as lending financial support.
But that's not all the multi-talented guitarist is banking on. Hall has received the nod from three of the five Democratic committees whose counties are part of the district. He said he believes voters want to hear about getting troops home from Iraq, better health care and energy independence.
"I just don't think you are going to get a six-term incumbent to stand of up for change," Hall said of the congresswoman. "All these issues are coming up at the same time, and the president and both majorities in Congress seem to be going about blithely — business as usual."
Before he can take on Kelly, though, Hall has to face down other aspiring Democratic nominees on Sept. 12, including attorney and businesswoman Judy Aydelott, party activist Darren Rigger and high school principals Gary Suraci and Ben Shuldiner.
The winner will then have to succeed in a district that is slightly more Republican than Democrat, with a large plurality of independents. Bush won this district over Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., 54 percent to 45 percent in 2004, and over then-Vice President Al Gore 49 percent to 47 percent in 2000.
To achieve that end, Democrats are now trying to portray Kelly, who is not giving interviews about the race until after primary day, as a close associate of conservative crusaders like Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich.
"She's vulnerable," said Aydelott, who switched her affiliation from Republican to Democrat in 2003 because she opposes the Iraq war. "The whole administration, all of the Bush' policies — and Sue Kelly's policies as well — are all at risk."
Rigger said Kelly received little scrutiny during her previous elections, all of which were won by comfortable margins. But this year, as voters express high amounts of angst with the direction of the country, her record won't go unnoticed.
"The Democrats are slowly unveiling her," said Rigger, who worked for Democrats in campaign and policy positions on Capitol Hill and in New York. "I don't think she has been held accountable in the past."
Kelly, who before entering Congress worked as a botany researcher at Harvard University, a building renovator, a florist shop owner and a professor, cannot be easily pigeonholed, according to the National Journal's Almanac of American Politics.
"Kelly, with her middle-of-the-road voting record, has been whipsawed by criticism from right and left," reads the encyclopedia of elected officials, noting that while she supported the conservatives' Contract With America, she also supports abortion rights.
On social and economic issues, Kelly tends to land smack in the center. She is more hawkish on foreign policy issues, supporting the war in Iraq and making stopping terrorist financing one of her key issues as chairwoman of the House Financial Services Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
"I think she's been regarded in this district as an independent voice in Congress, who just happens to be a Republican," said Kelly spokesman Jay Townsend. "This year, you are going to find an avalanche of Democrats who are going to try to say otherwise, but she has an electorate here who have always regarded her as a moderate."
Nathan Gonzales, analyst for the Washington-based election tipsheet, the Rothenberg Political Report, said while Kelly is less vulnerable than many of her fellow Republicans this year, the current political climate has shaken things up.
"I think the national environment puts a lot of races in play that haven't been in play for years," Gonzales said, noting that New York Democrats are hoping that the popular, big-money campaigns of Sen. Hillary Clinton and state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who is running for governor, will produce a wave of votes for the rest of the Democrats on the ticket.
Townsend said he doesn't buy into that wishful thinking.
"It seems like [Democrats] think the voters don't have the ability to go up and down the ticket, and are all straight ticket voters," he said. "This is perhaps the most well-educated district in a state that is very well educated. I'm not sure that will translate automatically into a straight Democratic vote all the way down the ticket."
The 19th District incorporates the middle- and higher-income suburbs and exurban areas of New York City. Stretching across the Hudson River to the north of the city, the district's recent growth is attributed to city commuters — young transplants seeking better schools and affordable homes. It also has had a healthy infusion of Hispanic immigrants.
"It's an amazing microcosm of the country," said Shuldiner, founder of the High School for Public Service in Brooklyn, for which he won the 2003 Jefferson Award for Greatest Public Service by an Individual 35 Years or Under.
"More and more people are moving in from New York City … It affects the demographics tremendously," he added, noting that he believes the district is trending Democratic.
But Republicans say the late date for the primary is a big stumbling block for Democrats, who are also scrambling to raise money and garner as many endorsements as possible ahead of the September match.
"By the time the Sept. 12 primary rolls around, Sue Kelly will be sitting on well more than a million dollars cash-on-hand, and whatever Democrat emerges from this primary will be badly bruised with little or no cash on hand," predicted Ed Patru, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
"It'll be the penniless musician or the broke lawyer," he said, referring to Hall and Aydelott, who are considered the frontrunners.
So far, Kelly has raised $1.4 million, while Aydelott has raised $634,000. Hall has raised $421,000; Rigger $100,000 and Shuldiner $188,000, according to the latest Federal Election Commission numbers.
The Democratic money doesn't appear to be going toward pummeling one another ahead of the primary. But Patru said it's a waste of their cash for any of the Democratic candidates to try to portray Kelly as an arch-conservative.
"She has an independent voting record, and that's one of the problems you have when you are running cookie-cutter campaigns," he said of the Democratic talking points. "The attacks just don't jibe with her voting record in the district."