Is He The One?
Columnist Joe Queenan ponders whether
musician John Hall has what it takes to defeat longtime
Republican Congresswoman Sue Kelly in the 19th District
By Joe Queenan
Congressional elections are supposed to pit plucky Republican attorneys against feisty Democratic lawyers in catfights choreographed by their campaign managers.
But the catfights rarely turn out to be much fun because congressional candidates tend to be pretty interchangeable: they work hard, they love their country, they agonize over what kind of world we will bequeath to our grandchildren. Unlike senators and governors, congressmen are never fabulously wealthy; unlike top jurists, congressmen are rarely brilliant; unlike mayors and district attorneys, congressmen are infrequently colorful. True, without our industrious lower-house legislators, the Republic could not go on. But if you’re looking for drama or entertainment, you’re better off looking elsewhere.
If nothing else, John Hall is challenging this stereotype by injecting some pizzazz into the 19th District congressional race. A founding member of the â€˜70s pop-rock band Orleans, and co-author of the mammoth hits “Still the One” and “Dance with Me,” Hall is one of nature’s miracles: a celebrity-turned-politician who is not a clown. (Think Sonny Bono. Think of the guy who played Goober on The Andy Griffith Show. But mostly think Sonny Bono.)
Precocious (he entered Notre Dame University at age 16), an almost lifelong New Yorker (raised in Elmira, now a 31-year local resident, he currently lives in Dover Plains with his wife, Pamela, a fellow musician and attorney), Hall made his name as a much-sought-after instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer. With 18 albums under his belt, he has performed with or produced material for Bonnie Raitt, Bobby McFerrin, Little Feat, Janis Joplin (who once dated virtue czar Bill Bennett) and Chaka Khan (who did not), among others. Throughout the past three decades, he has worked strenuously to promote safe, alternative sources of energy. Now he is hoping to grab the Democratic nomination to run against six-term Republican Congresswoman Sue Kelly. Wind him up and off he goes like a house on fire about windmills, photovoltaic cells, cleaning up the Hudson. He does all this with a zeal and command of detail that cannot be acquired overnight.
Windmills are swell but the real issue in this campaign, as in many set-tos across this nation this year, is Iraq. Hall, perhaps taking his cue from Ned Lamont, the one-hit wonder over in Connecticut who whipped Joe Lieberman in August’s Democratic primary, is determined to paint his prospective opponent as a tool of the Bush administration, as one of Tom DeLay’s accommodating henchwomen. Usually, this type of guilt-by-association does not work, because congressional elections almost always hinge upon local issues.
But this year may be different, and what started out as a quixotic undertaking could conceivably — conceivably — culminate in success come November. (Even before the Democrats have settled on their candidate, Kelly has begun running TV ads; moreover, the Kelly Web site barely mentions that she is a Republican.) True, without voter anger about Iraq, neither Hall, nor any of the other Democrats, would probably have any chance of unseating Kelly. But voters are angry; just ask Joe Lieberman.
Despite his unimpeachable tree-hugger credentials, Hall does not exude the New Agey, touchy-feely vibe one associates with those who preach the Gospel According to Prius. For one, he doesn’t look soft. On a blistering hot August afternoon, Hall and his entourage swoop down on Yorktown’s village hall for a press conference announcing that a competitor is throwing in the towel and endorsing him. Yorktown Councilman Jim Martorano stands beside Hall saying all the right things about party solidarity. The contrast between the two is notable; Hall looks like a tough customer, the way Democratic pols used to look when the party was run by proles. Balding, intense, blessed with the kind of prominent jaw that George McGovern probably wishes he’d had when he got creamed by Richard Nixon in 1972, Hall exudes a combativeness notably lacking in many other antiwar candidates (Connecticut’s frat boy LeMont comes to mind). Clad in his natty blue pin-striped suit, Hall could almost be mistaken for a Republican, save for his scuffed, unpolished wingtips and his politically correct mode of transport — the classic Subaru Outback “I Voted For Dukakis” station wagon.
“It’s his wife’s car,” says a member of his staff, defensively.
Hall, who favors a “quick, safe and orderly departure from Iraq,” does not buy the theory that an American defeat in the Middle East will serve as a brilliant recruiting device for Osama Bin Laden and his satanic crew. “As [former congressional candidate] Paul Hackett recently said, you don’t establish democracy at the end of an M-16,” he maintains. That’s a nice, statesmanlike sound bite. But given that the loftiest elected position Hall has ever held is as a member of the Ulster County Legislature (one term in 1989), and given that the most recent position he has held is as president of the Saugerties Board of Education (one term), the question can legitimately be asked: “Who died and left you in charge?” In fact, this is the very question Sue Kelly might ask.
“My response would be, she’s got experience raising the debt limit five times, she’s got experience supporting a war where we have no real strategy for success, she’s got experience in keeping her head down and doing what the administration wants,” he fires back. “That’s how I’d respond to a question about experience.”
Hall’s camp is well aware that the opposition may raise the red flag of Hollywood money, and drag in the whole culture wars thing. But Orleans, a harmless band, was not AC/DC, “Still the One” was not “God Save the Queen (and the fascist regime),” and John Hall is most assuredly not Johnny Rotten. When I asked him if he was excited about the recent reunion of the proto-punk, cross-dressing ensemble the New York Dolls, he civilly replies, “I had extensive musical training. I was not a fan of the Dolls.” Who has he been listening to lately? “Steely Dan, Robin Ford, Dar Williams.” Well, Steely Dan is about as countercultural as Cheerios.
A while back, registered Democrats in the 19th District (which contains all of Putnam County, and parts of Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, and Rockland) allegedly started getting mysterious calls from “pollsters” posing theoretical questions about a candidate who sounded just a wee bit like John Hall. Some of the questions involved character. Years ago, Hall briefly developed a substance abuse problem, which he has never denied. But he is not forthcoming with all the details, exhibiting a perhaps naÃ¯ve hope that it will not become an issue during the campaign he hopes to wage against Kelly.
“I was a rock musician and I was briefly tempted by a certain lifestyle,” Hall explains today. “But that was 22-and-a-half years ago and I left that all behind. I was never arrested, I was never charged with anything.” What if Kelly, like any meddlesome reporter, were to ask what his drug of choice was 22-and-a-half years ago?
“I’d say it was none of her business,” he replies. “What would you rather talk about: a drug problem buried long in the past or a woman who helped produce our massive federal deficit?”
Since drugs are fabulously sexy, and since the public has trouble dealing with numbers larger than $3.50 a gallon, the answer to this question may not be the one Hall is seeking. Clearly, the rock-star lifestyle and the year he spent sailing after divorcing his first wife are topics that Hall finds tangential to the real issues. He is on record as saying: “I am putting my career aside to run for Congress.”
This may not sit well with all parties; in addition to smacking of noblesse oblige (“I have come down from the mountaintop to aid the campesinos”), it suggests that being a congressman is something anybody can just walk in off the street and master. But as Alan Ehrenhalt pointed out a few years ago in his book The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power, and the Pursuit of Office, congressmen work harder and are more attuned to their constituents’ views than senators, because being a congressman is a really good, well-paid job, at least in most parts of the country, and because they have to stand for reelection every two years. So how does Hall convince voters that he’s in this thing for the long haul?
“I’ve been elected to public office three times and each time it was to accomplish specific goals,” he replies. “My entire adult life has been spent working for the environment and renewable energy. Of course, I’m realistic; I know that a freshman congressman is not going to get everything he wants right away. But I will stay a congressman until I feel that I’ve accomplished everything I set out to accomplish.”
And what about his first love: music?
“I’ve been very lucky; I’ve had great success as a musician; I’ve written a few songs that everybody knows,” he replies. “But when you think about global warming and nuclear energy and whether we’re going to continue to have unstable regimes that control the oil flow all around the world, my career as a musician pales by comparison.”
Joe Queenan, the author of nine books, has written for GQ, The New York Times, Men’s Health, and Movieline. He lives in Tarrytown.