When the polls closed Nov. 3rd, Rep. Claudia Tenney of New York’s 22nd congressional district enjoyed what looked like an insurmountable lead of 28,422 votes over her Democratic challenger, Anthony Brindisi.
But a funny thing happened to the outspoken conservative on her way back to Washington: Despite the election night results, Tenney’s victory would not be certified until early February, making it the last race to be decided in the 2020 election cycle. By then, Tenney’s lead had been whittled down to 109 votes. The lead changed so many times that a political scientist dubbed the post-election night contest “a Ping Pong match.”
Mail-in ballots played a big part in stretching the timeline for Tenney’s race. Brindisi picked up more than 70 percent of mail-in votes, which continued to pour in for weeks after Nov. 3rd. A judge was tasked with examining hundreds of mail-in ballots—there were ballot challenges by both candidates.
The electoral chaos in New York’s 22nd congressional district would make Claudia Tenney a warrior for the cause of election integrity, co-founder of the House’s “election integrity caucus.” In 2020, the issue of election integrity would migrate from think tank white papers and musty civics textbooks to the center of American politics. COVID-19 allowed many states to experiment with universal mail-in voting, long an item on the Democratic wish list, for the first time.
Democrats now want to make the 2020 changes permanent, especially universal mail-in voting. But that is not all. Suddenly, the requirement of an ID to vote is coming under attack, including from the President himself, who has gone on the warpath against the state of Georgia because of the state’s new voting laws that seek to prevent fraud. President Biden smeared the requirement for voter identification as “Jim Crow on steroids,” a reference to the legal system that enforced racial segregation after the end of the Civil War. As co-chair of the election integrity caucus, Tenney is especially worried about efforts to federalize and otherwise radically alter the way Americans vote. The Constitution put the states in charge of voting procedures.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, alleging concerns over COVID-19, refused Tenney the one visitor she wanted in the gallery for her swearing-in: of course, it was her son, Marine Captain Trey Cleary.
“Unfortunately, 100% of the Democrats voted for it,” Tenney notes. “If you watch any of their commentary, you know that their number one initiative in Congress is not healthcare, or infrastructure, or any of those big topics they talk about. It’s about overhauling and politicizing elections and giving the federal government power over elections which is not currently constitutional. So, what is it that H.R. 1 one would do? The most critical thing is that it would make requiring a voter ID illegal. Officials wouldn’t be able to verify who you are or whether somebody else is using your identity. Many states do use voter IDs, and I might add many of those states, most of them, didn’t have any problems at all with the voter ID system because it secures the one person one vote idea, and it makes that sure your vote counts, and your vote is sacred. If there is an ID system, your vote can’t be diluted or stolen by having other people vote in your name.”
Proponents of H.R. 1 and efforts to outlaw voter IDs imply that voter fraud isn’t a real concern, but Tenney knows that it is a real problem.
“We did have a situation in our race where it appears that one person voted multiple times. The judge actually addressed it, and he threw out those votes. We have situations where people were not actually registered to vote, and were not legal citizens, or were not 18 years old, and those votes weren’t counted. This bill, which started as H.R. 1 and is now S. 1, would make it harder to stop this and open the door to undermining the integrity of elections. It encourages vote harvesting, which undermines the right to a secret ballot. It’s one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation that has come around. Not only that, it would force taxpayers, rather than candidates, to pay for elections.”
She continues, “I want to make this really clear because part of the Democratic narrative is that Republicans don’t want people to vote. Quite the contrary. I am a mother of a Naval Academy graduate. He’s a captain in the Marine Corps. Thankfully, he’s healthy. He hasn’t been deployed overseas, but not all of his classmates and colleagues have survived. Many have lost limbs, or been injured, or have PTSD. So, while millions have sacrificed for our country, I wish every legal voter would vote and realize how sacred our right to vote is and how critical it is to our country and why the cheapening of it and the reducing of the integrity in our elections actually undermines our sacred right to vote.”
Tenney’s Marine Captain is Wayne “Trey” Cleary, III, whom Tenney raised as a single mother after a divorce when Trey was seven. She is intensely proud of Captain Cleary. “I’m lucky,” she says. “I feel blessed that I had a son who turned out so well—I do believe that the struggles we faced together helped make him who he is.”
Tenney’s family history makes her career in politics seem a natural fit. Her father was New York Supreme Court Justice John Tenney, who served in that position more than 30 years. Her grandfather was Republican Chairman of Oneida County. Her mother, Cynthia, was a Vassar graduate who had worked as an editor in New York City, before marrying the future justice. The family owned a printing business and published the Oneida Pennysaver and Mid-New York Weekly. She brought up her son in a house across the street from the house in which she grew up. Her parents still lived there. Despite the family’s prominence, Tenney’s path has been by no means cushy.
“Now the thing about my dad is he was a wonderful person, who in 2004, when my son was 12 or 13 years old, ended up in a wheelchair going blind. I never said this before, but my mother struggled with addiction. She was an alcoholic my whole life. It became challenging. I was trying to take care of my parents, with their own physical and mental challenges, and trying to get my son together and get him to school, and deal with our business, all those things were happening at the same time. So, whatever struggles I’ve been through in Congress, nothing was more acute than that period of time in my life where I really had to make it.
“There were weeks I didn’t get paid. I couldn’t pay myself. I had every single credit card that I could possibly get maxed out and I was paying maximum interest on it personally, not just in business. I was struggling to keep the business going in a declining economy, where all of our businesses were locally owned and operated, and they were getting displaced and closed by Walmart and the big box stores. I think that struggle that my son had to go through with me, and he had to help me through it, is what made him a better person—made me a better person, too.”
If there was an emergency during the night—and there often was—Tenney had to rush across the street to attend to her parents. But there were also fond memories. When Claudia couldn’t pick up Trey after school, he often took the school bus to his grandparents’ house.
Claudia got a Jack Russell terrier, Tessie, and Tessie “took care of my dad and my son and my mom. When I’d arrive, Trey would be lying in my dad’s hospital bed and Tessie would come flying out from under the covers. Dad and Trey would be watching the Yankees game. Dad would memorize all the players so he could talk to my son about the Yankees, even though Dad was a Dodgers fan. Dad always thought he’d get up from his wheelchair, and Trey drew a great little picture of Dad standing beside his wheelchair. The caption was, ‘Trey, I’m out of my wheelchair.’ Dad had it in his office, and now I have it in my little library.”
Tenney was a single parent. “I think that struggle that my son had to go through with me, and he had to help me through it, is what made him a better person —made me a better person, too.”
Judge Tenney died in 2004, and Cynthia Tenney lived until 2015, dying at the age of 81. In addition to working for the family’s print business, Claudia, a graduate of Colgate College (her father’s alma mater) was a law partner in a law firm and later owned her own firm. She earned her law degree from the University of Cincinnati.
She has also been a radio talk host. She worked with ABC News as an employee of the Yugoslavian Consulate to serve as an intermediate in arranging the 1984 Winter Olympics at Sarajevo. Tenney had spent a year as a student in the former Yugoslavia while enrolled at Colgate. She won her first political office in 2010, becoming the first woman to represent the 115th district in the state Assembly.
Considered a “Tea Party” candidate, Tenney lost her first bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014, but tried again and won in 2016. In 2018, she lost the seat to Brindisi, whom she successfully challenged in the long-drawn out election of 2020. When Tenney was at last sworn in, after the protracted race, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, alleging concerns over COVID-19, refused Tenney the one visitor she wanted in the gallery: of course, it was Trey Cleary. The Speaker’s office denied that politics was a factor.
That may be so, but Tenney rightly worries that politics is infecting many of our institutions, especially our election system, which is supposed to be the nonpartisan foundation of our democratic system of government. All of us voters, who want the right to have our votes count and not be cancelled by those illegally cast, can be glad we have Tenney as an advocate for this cause.