It’s a cold, blustery morning in mid-December, but you can feel the warmth when Justin Chaires steps inside Grand Street Community Arts.
The women handing out free breakfasts smile and chat with him; another volunteer greets him like an old friend. The mood is relaxed and friendly, but Chaires’ visit has a serious purpose: He’s running for office.
And not just any office, either.
Little-known outside his home base of Schenectady, Chaires is running against U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, one of the most recognizable faces in local politics, in next spring’s Democratic primary.
Since declaring his candidacy last summer, Chaires has been pounding the pavement, attending events and meetings throughout New York’s 20th Congressional district. He’s been chatting with residents, asking questions, listening to what they have to say, trying to earn their vote.
He makes a favorable impression, and speaks with passion and insight about a range of issues.
But he has a big challenge ahead of him, and he knows it.
Tonko, now in his sixth term, hasn’t faced a primary challenger since his first run for Congress, in 2008. At the end of September, he reported over $1 million in campaign cash; Chaires just $4,513, according to records filed with the Federal Elections Commission. (Tonko’s Republican opponent, Liz Joy, has amassed over $151,359.)
“It’s David and Goliath,” said Chaires, who has a friendly smile and easygoing manner. “We’re going to keep taking small donations and outworking (Tonko).”
“Change can be scary,” he continued, while strolling around the Schenectady Greenmarket at Proctors. “But the more people see me, the more serious they realize this is. A lot of people are coming around and supporting me the deeper we get into the campaign.”
The question hovering over Chaires’ campaign is whether voters want change, or are content with the status quo.
At this stage of his career, Tonko, 72, might not excite voters the way some of his younger and more dynamic House colleagues do. But he’s a reliable and familiar presence, and most Democrats seem comfortable with him. He hasn’t become a target of ire for the party’s left-leaning members and his voting record is generally consistent with Democratic priorities.
“I like Paul,” one local politician with strong progressive bona fides told me.
It’s a sentiment shared by many, but Chaires, 31, believes he can convince voters that it’s time for a new voice – that Tonko has represented the Capital Region in Washington, D.C., long enough.
In our conversations, Chaires mostly steered clear of direct criticism, but questioned whether Tonko is really in touch with the needs and wants of the 20th Congressional District, which covers all of Albany and Schenectady counties plus parts of Saratoga, Montgomery and Rensselaer counties.
“It’s not that people don’t like Tonko,” Chaires said. “It’s that they know we need change, that it’s time for fresh blood. This is not a hostile takeover. It’s more of a changing of the guard.”
“When you become a career politician, you forget how and why you’re there.”
Carl Williams, a newly elected member of the Schenectady City Council, said Chaires has a “genuine understanding of the magnitude of running against Paul Tonko.”
“The way I interpret Justin’s campaign is that he’s not taking anything away from Tonko,” Williams said. “But if the only voice that’s being heard is Paul Tonko’s, whose voices are we not hearing? … Justin wants to remind people that they have options.”
In a statement, Tonko praised Chaires, while also making it clear he’s intent on beating him in the primary.
“Justin and his family have been a positive force in our communities for years, and I commend him for his desire to get involved and better our neighborhoods,” Tonko said. “I always welcome more local voices to the race, and I look forward to making my case to voters on why I should continue to serve them in Congress.”
That voting record includes backing President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill after initially withholding his support, saying he couldn’t vote for it unless it contained measures to combat climate change.
With the bill now on life support, Tonko, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee’s environment and climate change subcommittee, told Politico that, “The elements of Build Back Better are very important, all of them. But I want us to get climate done to the best of our ability.”
Chaires said he wanted to see a more forceful reaction from Tonko to Sen. Joe Manchin’s rejection of Build Back Better, which dealt the legislation a near-fatal blow.
“If Manchin’s personal interests are affecting the entire nation, I’d like to hear a stronger condemnation,” he said.
Two other Democrats, Cole Francis Matthews and Rostislav Rar, have also filed paperwork with the FEC indicating they plan to run for Congress in the 20th Congressional District. Neither candidate had reported any financial data as of the end of September.
Concern for youth is one of the big drivers of Chaires’ campaign.
His background is education, and his campaign website describes him as a “Teacher for Congress” who is “well-versed in educational issues and believes in fully funded education.”
“We can’t push education and tell youth how important it is, and then there aren’t any jobs that pay a livable wage,” Chaires said. “I feel we can do better, and the time is now.”
Chaires’ most recent full-time job was at Albany Community Charter School, teaching math to sixth and seventh graders. He’s currently substitute teaching – a flexible gig that makes it easier to focus on his campaign.
A 2008 Schenectady High School graduate, Chaires has ties to a well-known Schenectady family. His cousin, Mark Chaires, was the city’s first – and only – Black police chief, serving in that capacity from 2008 to 2012. His uncle, Arthur Chaires, was the city’s first Black police officer.
Chaires has taken an interest in law enforcement, and considers himself a proponent of police reform.
He’s served on Schenectady’s civilian police review board, which investigates police misconduct. He was also part of the panel charged with reviewing the city’s policing policies and submitting a report to the state as part of a process mandated by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the wake of the anti-police brutality protests following the death of George Floyd.
“We need to create a system that’s fair and just for all,” Chaires said. “The system we have now is not fair and just for all.”
Among other things, Chaires supports state legislation that would make it easier for incarcerated people to obtain parole and return home.
One bill would require that anyone 55 or older who has already served 15 years in prison be considered for parole regardless of their crime. Another would shift the criteria for release, requiring the parole board to focus on an inmate’s rehabilitation, rather than the original crime.
Chaires believes in a model of policing where officers build relationships with the people they serve and establish roots in the community. He sees his advocacy as carrying on the legacy of his cousin and uncle, both of whom were known for walking the beat and getting to know residents.
“I think I’m on the right track for something my uncle would be proud of,” Chaires said.
The youngest of five, Chaires is married to a nurse and has a three-year-old son and three older stepchildren. He’s also a vice president of the Schenectady NAACP.
For Chaires to succeed, he needs Democrats to see him as a viable option.
“We’re rooting for him here,” Toni Smith, one of the women serving free breakfasts at Grand Street Community Arts, told me. “He’s in the community spending time talking to people, finding out what their concerns are.”
Smith didn’t have any particular complaints about Tonko – indeed, she seemed to like him, too.
“Tonko’s a formidable opponent,” she said. “He and (Justin) should be working together.”
One Democrat willing to publicly back Chaires is Williams, who became close to Chaires during his successful bid for the Schenectady City Council.
“He is like a long-lost brother,” Williams said. “He’s been a confidant, someone I’ve leaned on. Knowing Justin, he’s moving forward with the understanding that if he stays the course, he will be successful. He’s extremely measured. He does his research.”
“Justin is a joy to work with,” said Rev. Nicolle Harris, president of the Schenectady NAACP. “ “He has done a lot of work in the community. At the end of the day, politics is about service. He helped with our Toys for Tots event. He’s helped register people to vote.”
For his part, Chaires is betting that his work ethic and the boots-on-the-ground nature of his campaign will impress Democratic voters.
“The way you change things is by being a part of things,” Chaires said. “I know who I am, and I know who I’m fighting for.”