An interview with the very accomplished Evelyn Farkas might have started ‘anywhere’ but we started with her raison d’etre for being ‘back in Chappaqua,’ her childhood home, and her ‘connection’ to the 17th District: “I grew up here, and I never really left… I don’t have my own nuclear family, so this is where I come back to as often as possible, for holidays and more…
“I left my town to serve my country,” she added pointedly. “I came back to serve my country,” said Farkas, whose campaign announced over $460,000 raised by the first filing deadline, just six weeks post launching.
The 52-year-old Farkas, MSNBC National Security contributor and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for President Obama, speaks proudly of her parents who raised her here–94- and 81-year old Hungarian immigrants who fled Hungary after the Communist Revolution failed. “They came to America for freedom and economic opportunity,” after moving from Manhattan’s ‘Little Hungary’ to Chappaqua when Evelyn was one month old; she and her three siblings graduated from Horace Greeley High School.
“When his ship docked in Brooklyn, my dad was 31, and he had to learn English. He knew a little from music and films, but that was all. He took odd jobs and eventually got his Master’s in Library Sciences from Columbia University. He had a Ph.D. and a law degree, so he was on track to be a judge in Hungary. My mother was 13 years younger, so when she came to the U.S. she did a year of high school and college in Oklahoma where she studied pharmacy. They moved to Westchester because he got a job as director of the Briarcliff Manor Public Library. They chose Chappaqua for the schools. I’m so grateful to this district and my schooling. When I got to college, I realized just how well prepared I was.”
I asked her what stood out the most for her in Chappaqua schools: “I learned to write really well–it was a fantastic education, starting at Grafflin elementary school. I can still sing the school song!” We shared a laugh as Farkas recited its lyrics. Greeley, she elaborated, gave her “a great start” with advanced placement in Social Studies, for example. She also recalled a guidance counselor who had a huge impact on her life; she said he helped her navigate college admissions–eventually landing at Franklin & Marshall College with a double major in government and German; she related that her mom worked at three hospitals to supplement her dad’s modest income, so that they could afford her years at F&M, from where, upon graduation, she landed a first job at the Council on Foreign Relations. She described a “massive debt” not paid off until many years later with federal assistance. Today she is on F&M’s board.
“I do pride myself on working my way up–being self-made,” said Farkas, who after two years overseas went on to graduate school outside Boston to get a Masters and PhD at Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. While she was there, she served as a fellow for the House foreign affairs committee, and worked inside Bosnia for six months. As a Human Rights Officer, “it was the most absorbing, meaningful job I’ve had to date.” What followed: The Marine Corps hired Farkas as one of its first two women assistant professors and eventually promoted her to associate after she finished her doctorate. It was on to the Senate Armed services staff for Senator Carl Levin (“a phenomenal member”) who endorsed Farkas to represent NY-17 in Congress in the late fall.
For nearly a decade, Farkas worked on “a whole swath of issues… combating terrorism but also narcotics, Asia Pacific policy, export control, and homeland defense after 9/11.” This led to a key appointment on a post 9/11 commission “getting to the bottom of the nexus between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.” She also worked at the American Security Project founded by Senator John Kerry with whom she worked closely with on environmental issues before returning to the Department of Defense and reporting to “the head of the U.S.-European Command.” Farkas then became the Sherpa to Secretary Leon Panetta for the 2012 NATO summit which led to her most pivotal role when appointed to become Obama’s Assistant Director of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Euroasia.
“Of course, famously, one of my countries invaded the other… I was alarmed to hear that the Trump campaign had this weird relationship to the Kremlin. I knew exactly what that meant because I knew how the Kremlin operated. And that probably represented something more serious. I went on national TV and raised the alarm. I said we need to get involved and Congress needs to get involved.”
Farkas barreled ahead, speaking and writing op-eds–while weathering time consuming and costly attacks by the far right, she related. “Ultimately the Republicans still in control of Congress made me testify. Of course, there was nothing to it, nobody was leaking to me. I just have a brain and I could put the dots together.”
The Pros of ‘Inside Washington’ Tenure
That brain and resolve eventually landed Farkas as a contributor at MSNBC. Ensconced in her role there, Farkas stated that she did not think she would be a politician. But then in the fall, after Nita Lowey announced her retirement, friends who had worked for Nita and strangers in the district convinced Evelyn to run.
“People said to me they wanted someone who understands national security issues, who’s a fighter, who will protect both our democracy and our economic opportunities; these are issues near and dear to me…”
“So is looking at gun safety and fighting hard so that our children don’t need to be afraid to go to school or working to make sure health care is accessible to more people at more affordable rates, Farkas added.
“I will fight, it’s in my DNA.” Farkas emphasized her national stature and that she knows how to get things done at the federal level. “For seven years, I drafted and passed legislation. I know the ranking members, the senior staffers… I already have a voice that people listen to. They follow me on Twitter, they watch me on MSNBC, and care what I have to say.”
Climate Change as a #1 Priority
She describes the ‘backdrop to everything’ regarding her priorities boils down to “protecting our freedom and our economic way of life,” and in that, her Number 1 priority, she makes clear, is the climate crisis.
“With the planet on fire literally and melting, we can’t ignore the climate crisis. While that’s my top priority, there are other issues. And we have to tackle them all.”
“All of us are affected by what’s happening: Along the Hudson, Long Island Sound, Rye Brook: all affect the district and those who live here–connected to that are issues pertaining to the airport for example. We do have to manage our air quality and noise.”
Gun safety is a very close second priority, calling the current state of affairs “an appalling blemish on our society.”
“It’s also preventable… Do background checks. It’s so basic. Many of these shooters would not otherwise have had access to weapons. Mental illness would have disqualified some too. Farkas also advocates no fly/no buy legislation, noting her background in counter terrorism. “Appallingly, people who are banned from flying because of suspicion they might be involved with terrorism are not on a banned list for buying firearms!”
Another must do, she emphasized, is a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. “I worked for the military and saw weapons in Afghanistan and Iraq and been out to battle zones. Those weapons belong in the hands of our military, and after that, our law enforcement. I don’t want those types of weapons on the streets of America.”
Protecting women’s rights, Farkas stated, is also a high priority. “It’s bad enough that at the state level there was an attack on Roe v. Wade, and not only that but access to reproductive health care. We need to work harder at getting equal pay for women and even harder for women of color across the board. We need to rectify that.”
Speaking of women, Farkas said she has received words of encouragement from Hillary Clinton for whom she helped fundraise in 2008, and again in 2016, “joining a group of other Chappaqua women at that time. “I spoke with her recently about this race… she had a number of pieces of concrete advice; her last was my favorite, and that was: ‘Have fun.’ She also said, ‘call me anytime’ when I offered to keep in touch!”
Addressing Today’s Antisemitism
As I was working on shaping this story, antisemitism had passed a boiling point–with brutal and lethal attacks on Hasidic and ‘visibly” Jewish people, in particular in Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Jersey City and Monsey with memories of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting still searing through Jewish and public consciousness. How are we going to heal this country, I asked Farkas. How do we take this deep division developed over these last three years and bring this country back together? How would you address antisemitism, I asked.
Farkas said that knowledge of the Holocaust was “ingrained in me,” despite that her parents weren’t Jewish, she said her grandparents had friends growing up who were Jewish who were terribly affected… It was a horrible time period in Hungary’s history. Coming out of that, my parents wanted us to understand how horrible humans could be to each other and have an awareness so we could do everything to prevent it.”
Farkas explained that her family history shaped her world view and she geared her education choices toward preventing atrocities. The genocide in Bosnia, she related, was one of her doctoral topics. “I’ve been wanted to stop hate from the beginning of my life.
Taking on Trump
“But now I’m also disgusted by what Trump has done,” she continued. “He says he’s proud of his daughter and Jewish son in law, but he is aiding and abetting anti-Semitism, aiding and abetting ‘otherism’ and hatred of African Americans, the LGBTQ and Muslim communities.”
Farkas said she spoke at a Jewish Federation of Peace lecture series in Pennsylvania. She recalled that the series was named after a prominent survivor, Leo Camp, who had survived Auschwitz. “We have to remember so that it doesn’t happen again,” Farkas said. Referring to a recent article about another survivor, she added: “This man, who didn’t even want to speak to his immediate family about his experience, is now so alarmed by what is happening that he is speaking out publicly as much as possible. I know many of the survivors who are very old doing just that.”
In our discussion about antisemitism, Farkas noted that she is “absolutely opposed to the BDS Movement.
“I think it’s bad for Israel. It is bad for U.S./Israeli relations. At best, it’s misguided. When it comes to Israel, yes, we need a two-state solution. Israel has the right to remain a Jewish state and I believe the Palestinians should have their own state as well. We need to remain shoulder to shoulder with Israel on security. I’ve worked on that in the Pentagon…” She said that “giving Israel the “qualitative military edge in defense means giving Israel the ability to deter all the other bad actors in the area from taking military action against Israel.”
She stated that Trump has “done more to put Israel at risk, to diminish protections than any other President in my lifetime. Politically, it also concerns me that the Israeli government has enabled Trump and others to make support a partisan issue when it has always been a bipartisan issue. Some people–and Trump is at the forefront of this–are changing the bipartisan support. He says ridiculous things like only he supports Israel, only the Republicans support Israel… There’s Nita Lowey, there’s Senator Levin, and many others.”
Mandating Education to Fight Hate
Farkas said that we also can’t always assume negative intentions to those making criticisms of Israel any more than of any other country. “That said, we do have to educate. There are younger people coming into Congress who have probably never traveled to Israel. Our commitment to Israel isn’t just political and military–it is moral.“
“This is why if you have people not educated in the history–and even don’t know how we in America did nothing and turned Jews away during the Holocaust… we now have a moral responsibility to Israel and to the Jewish people. In Congress, I would rectify this lack in education. I also view it as a broader issue than Israel and antisemitism. I’m against all ‘isms.’”
Time was almost up. Early in the interview, Farkas had shared her motivation in breaking barriers: “I’m a Doer. Even though I can be a Thinker, I’m a Doer.” I asked her for a final thought. “Although I grew up here in Chappaqua, we did struggle. But we got by because of its excellent education system.
I feel I want to protect that for future generations–that political freedom, that economic opportunity. I will fight for this district. From day one, I will be able to deliver. Because I’ve already legislated at the Federal level.”
For more information, please visit evelynforny.com