Sean Eldridge, the husband of young business magnate Chris Hughes, would like to be the Democratic Congressman from the 19th district in New York. But an unflattering new profile on Politico presents Eldridge as a cross between a carpetbagger and a cipher who is spending a vast amount of his husband’s money to secure his political future.
Eldridge, 27, is undeniably ambitious. His roots in the financially depressed district where he has chosen to run date back only to 2011, when he and Hughes spent $1.9 million to buy a house in the Hudson River valley. (They moved north one Congressional district when the first one didn’t pan out.)
Eldridge then started a venture capital firm, Hudson River Ventures, that has made millions in loans and equity lines available to local companies. Whatever the motive behind the venture capital investments, the move at least gives the appearance of attempting to curry local favor with cash. It doesn’t help that there’s a lot of overlap of between the venture capital firm and the campaign. (According to the story, Hughes, who owns and operates the liberal New Republic magazine, does not participate in campaign strategy.)
And cash is the language of Eldridge’s campaign. He has spent $700,000 to date and is promising to match contributions dollar for dollar. Eldridge is on track to make his race one of the most expensive this year, thanks to the couple’s enormous wealth. Eldridge, who was born in Canada, is the son of two physicians. While he had a comfortable upbringing, he was not to the manor born. He met Hughes while at Harvard, where Hughes became one of the founders of Facebook with fellow student Mark Zuckerberg. The outgoing Eldridge and the more introverted Hughes make a glamorous young couple who have the means, charisma and savvy to influence national politics for years to come.
Eldridge’s Republican opponent, Chris Gibson, grew up in the district and lives in the house where he was raised. He is in the bottom fifth of wealth for members of Congress, with savings between $100,000 and $250,000. Gibson, a former college professor, served 24 years in the military and was wounded on one of his four tours of duty in Iraq.
Unsurprisingly, Gibson doesn’t have a lot of good to say about Eldridge. “This is about him and his political aspirations, and I think that’s going to be a problem for him. He married well, he married into money,” Gibson told Politico. “But there are some things money can’t buy.” Gibson is moderate by the extreme Republican standards of today (he co-sponsored ENDA, but only supports civil unions).
However, in the Politico story, it’s not just Gibson who complains about Eldridge. Shayne Gallo, the Democratic mayor of Kingston, the largest city in the district, said that he has yet to meet Eldridge, although he did get an email request from his campaign for an endorsement.
“I was extremely surprised, and I was offended,” he said. “I would think it would be prudent … if not politically polite and respectful, to reach out to those who’ve gone through this process and who are local yokels and who are stakeholders in the community you hope to represent.”
In fact, Eldridge has kept a low profile with local media as well. His campaign schedule is usually not shared with local reporters, and Eldridge declined to be interviewed by Politico for the profile. By contrast, Eldridge was an active media presence when he worked on the campaign for marriage equality in New York.
Alan Chartock, a liberal talk radio host who interviewed candidate Eldridge, said “he’s right on all the issues, but what I think people are looking for is a person. He’s extremely bright, has all the assets that you need to run. But it’s cookie cutter.”
Eldridge wouldn’t be the first candidate to take advantage of personal wealth to run for office. Many of the 50 wealthiest members of Congress owe their money to their marriages or families. It’s a club that crosses party lines. And by all appearances, Eldridge has what it takes to be a great leader one day, given time and experience.
The question the Politico story raises is different. It’s not just about money. It’s about political gravitas. That’s the quality that Eldridge will have to demonstrate to voters if he wants to earn their votes and not just buy them.