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Antonio Delgado is a first-time Democratic candidate for Congress in upstate New York's 19th congressional district, looking to unseat Republican John Faso in the election this year. In a crowded Democratic primary (there are at least six other candidates vying for the nomination), Antonio stands out. He's a Rhodes scholar, and Harvard Law grad who decided to put his law school training to use as a hip hop artist (under the moniker AD Tha Voice) and a record label founder. He later became a litigator who worked his way from assisting a solo practitioner into BigLaw gig at Akin Gump. Vault interviewed Antonio about his non-linear career path and his congressional campaign.
Vault: Why is it that you decided to go to law school?
Antonio: I went to law school after spending a couple of years at Oxford studying philosophy and political theory, and I wasn't quite sure at that point what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to go into academia, if I want him to practice, I just wasn't sure. And there was a gap between my time at Oxford and law school. That was the year 9/11 happened. I was working at a boarding school trying to figure some stuff out and when 9/11 happened, it made me really think about reengaging and figuring out how to take some of the more abstract stuff that I had been studying and just kind of get more practical with it. And it just felt right. The law degree was the best way to go about doing it without any real sense of what I want to do with a law degree after having received one.
Vault: And what you ended up doing, I think is a little different than most Harvard Law grads. You went into the entertainment industry. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Antonio: Absolutely. One of the things that I learned while at law school--it was a great history lesson and certainly helped me think critically--but I knew pretty early on that going to work at a law firm right away was not something that I was particularly interested in doing, and I started TAing for a Professor Lani Guinier who had a great class that talked about groups who've been marginalized throughout history through the law. And I started thinking a lot about hip hop culture and the ways in which the culture itself could be used to inspire a movement, a political movement of sorts that helped young ,people from underserved communities get empowered to get more civically engaged and to really see their strength in the culture and start to experiment with how to use the culture--as someone who loves it and has grown up and been raised in it--in a way that could be more politicized.
Antonio: I wrote my third year law school paper about the culture, and then from there I partnered with a friend of mine from Colgate and started our own independent music label. The thought was to tell my own individual story, one of academic achievement and upward mobility and try to get folks within the culture to get more excited about what they can accomplish through the culture. Entertainment was very much a part of it, but entertainment only really scratches the surface in terms of what we were fundamentally trying to accomplish.
Vault: How did you use what you learned in law school when you were working at Statik Entertainment?
Antonio: It's funny, I didn't spend an awful lot of time using my law degree. I mean, obviously it helped with contracts—signing artists or production companies or distribution agreements—it helped to have that kind of experience. But beyond that, I wore the artist hat quite a bit and so I was really on the creative side more than I was on the legal side or the business side. I mean, I had a hand in it for sure. I was a partner, but fundamentally my focus was on the art.
Vault: From there, you actually got into litigation. How did you make that transition?
Antonio:I spent five years trying to get this label off the ground, trying to tell stories and it was difficult. You're operating within an industry that has a certain formula, particularly when it comes to hip hop music, that we really weren't buying into and certainly were budding up against. Over time it just got to a point where it had run its course and my partner and I thought it was best to move on and figure out what was next in our respective careers. Uh, I did have a law degree that I really wasn't using at that point and I thought I should probably try to use it and at the very least get some visibility into the law firm life, not knowing exactly what the future would hold. ,So at that point I started to make the transition back into law, took the bar and found myself practicing first at a small solo shop out in L.A. for about a year. And then I moved back home to New York with my wife who was living in New York—also a Harvard Law Grad, but, she's actually a documentary filmmaker—and she brought me back home, we started our family, and then I started working at Akin Gump in 2011.
Vault: So you didn't actually even take the bar right out of law school, you waited until a few years later?
Antonio: Yeah, I waited, which a lot of folks thought I was crazy. I ended up taking the California bar and then within a year, maybe year and a half, I find myself having decided to come back to New York and sitting for the New York bar as well. So I took both the California and New York bar.
Vault: What was it like trying to get the job at Akin Gump? You'd been doing a little bit of litigation work at that time, but your background is a little non-traditional to say the least for an Akin Gump associate.
Antonio: I had worked at the solo shop for a plaintiff's side attorney who was really a trial attorney and his strengths were more in the courtroom than they were in research or brief writing, or even depositions. And that gave me a leg up because I was able to really develop my skill set and do things that most young attorneys don't get to do for years in a law firm. I was arguing in front of three-judge panels and I was taking depositions and direct and crosses, and this is all within a year of starting practice. And so when I sat down for my interview—and the reason why I got the interview at Akin Gump is because a classmate of my wife's was actually working at Akin Gump and got my resume in some folks' hands and then at that point it was up to me to have the interview and hopefully get the offer. So I got my foot in the door and then I got a few interviews and I think what really moved the needle was all the experience that I had—that definitely was something they hadn't seen before. I think that was what allowed me to jump in and get going.
Vault: Jumping ahead a few years, you'd been working at Akin Gump since 2011 and then you decided to run for Congress last year. How did you make that choice?
Antonio: It's interesting. My time at Akin Gump was great, but I never saw myself as working there indefinitely or spending my entire career or even making partner, it just wasn't stuff that I had thought through, in terms of my career. I'd thought about politics over the years, but that wasn't something that I just felt compelled to do it at any one point in time. But my wife and I had always talked about returning home—she's from Woodstock, I'm from Schenectady, so both of us are from upstate New York. My parents have retired now and healthy. Her mother is a small business owner in the area and her is as well. And we have twin boys, so it was sort of in the back of our minds that we would come home at some point to raise our children, just didn't know professionally what the next play was. When Trump happened, I'm 40, partnership was coming up next year, there's a lot on my mind and obviously felt extremely unsettled by what happened with his election. I felt very disturbed by the outcome and I just felt at that point, the first thought was, let's just go home. And with that I knew what I was doing, which was, that was, creating a new space, a new environment for me to sort of push myself and figure out what more I could do, whether it was politics or some other endeavor. Once we got home and I started to really, dig my heels in, meet with folks, connect and listen and understand what was going on here. And it became clear to me that there was an opportunity for me to to be a art of some real significant change both here locally, right at home, by unseating a very vulnerable, freshman Republican congressmen. But also hopefully part of a larger dynamic across the country that push back against the politics that I find quite disturbing coming out of DC.
Vault: What do you think that you can bring a to Congress?
Antonio: I think it starts with my upbringing and where I come from. You know, I think a lot of folks who are in Congress right now, either have been there way too long or they'll come from, uh, the margins. They haven't lived a life that allows them to appreciate the value of real opportunities and a good education. I came from a working class family; my parents worked for GE for many years, but I remember growing up in small apartments and cutting coupons and putting clothes and appliances on lay away. And I remember how important those jobs were for my parents and how those jobs allowed us to work our way up into the middle class. And I remember how they stressed my education and told me it was the gateway to opportunity. These are the things that are lived and that as a result of that, I was able to go on and go to Colgate, do the the Rhodes scholarship and Harvard and all that. But I've never forgotten what it took. I think where we are right now is in a place where too many of our political leaders don't seem to get that. They don't seem to fully appreciate that their job is to promote the general welfare, not to encourage private greed. I think that we've gotten way, way away from the true role of government in society. And I think unless we get people in Congress who understand that and come from opportunity being provided for them and understand the importance of education, we're going to keep these god awful trends. And I think that I, come from that perspective and with the ability to think back to my own set of experiences I could really be an advocate for working families.
Vault: You're in a fairly busy Democratic primary. How do you think you stand out from the other Democrats who are trying to unseat Faso?
Antonio: I think I stand out pretty significantly. [Ed note: Antonio is the only black candidate in the race]
Antonio: Everybody has their hearts in the right place and I think has a genuine desire to want to have an impact here and flip this seat. But there is a difference between having the desire to do something and actually the wherewithal and the skill set required to achieve the outcome. And I think that's where I just sort of stand out. My ability to work, and I mean work harder than everybody else, and that stems from my working class roots. And my ability to raise money, which again comes from that work ethic. I've raised the most money of any challenger in this race by significant amounts. In fact I'm the only one to out-raise the incumbent every quarter in 2017—we've raised more 1.5 million dollars. We are putting together a very, very strong organization from the bottom up from field organizers to the finance teams to the volunteer staff. We're the first campaign to have a TV ad on the air. We're just outclassing the field in a number of ways. And then lastly, I think it's about inspiration. I you are trying to figure out fundamentally what the most important thing a candidate must be able to do in this environment, in my opinion, it's to inspire turning out the vote. You've got to get folks, particularly on the left side of the aisle here, to really believe again that we can make a difference and that we could have an opportunity to do something special. And I think, my skills, my experience over time as both a litigator but also as somebody who's operating in the, the music industry, I think I just have the ability to really pull a lot of groups together and mobilize and excite people in a way that other candidates just can't.
Vault: One final question for you. I know that Bernie Sanders cut himself a folk album at some point, but do you know of any hip hop artists in Congress yet or do you think you'd be the first one?
Antonio: That's a great question. I think there's a good chance I might very well be the first one.
Vault: That would be a really cool first.
Antonio: I couldn't agree more.
Vault: You certainly wouldn't be the first lawyer in Congress!
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