The Hayseed vs. Hillary

William Brenner is a small-town guy with a big ambition

Never mind the new Stop Her Now movement, here's the plain truth about mounting a challenge against Hillary Clinton: Even the most seasoned politician would face a hell of a time unseating New York's junior senator in 2006.

So what does that mean for the first person willing—foolhardy?—enough to say he'll take her on, a self-styled Republican everyman named William Brenner?

Last month, the Sullivan County attorney announced he was up for the task. Brenner—most folks call him Bill—is a virtual unknown outside the hinterlands of Grahamsville, his adopted hometown. Clinton, on the contrary, is a leading and world-famous Democrat. Brenner's political pedigree consists of three failed runs, twice for State Assembly, once for U.S. Congress. Clinton is an experienced hand who managed to delight leery New Yorkers on the 2000 campaign trail—and keeps doing it today. To wit: the 51 percent of residents who told pollsters last week she's already got their vote.

Local hero: Clinton opponent William Brenner, in the heart of Grahamsville
photo: Steven Sunshine
Local hero: Clinton opponent William Brenner, in the heart of Grahamsville

And then there's the cash factor. In 2004, when Brenner took on U.S. Congressman Maurice Hinchey, he had a war chest of $6,500, most of it from his personal bank account. For her 2000 bid, Clinton collected $42 million. These days, she's in a fundraising league all her own—she brought in $10 million last year, $3.9 million in the first three months of 2005. Last weekend, she held a $1,000-a-head party in Wayzata, Minnesota.

In other words, Brenner versus Clinton seems a lot like David versus Goliath. Or, in the words of Martin Donnelly, of the Delaware County Republican Committee, "It's kind of like Don Quixote with the windmill."

None of this stopped Brenner from joining the embryonic Senate contest. On March 23, he penned a letter to 62 Republican county chairmen announcing his desire to take on Clinton. On March 29, he went public with his candidacy, making news from Brockton, Massachusetts, to Washington, D.C. Last week, he began trolling for support among GOP activists, visiting county committees, attending political dinners.

He even scored face time with the state Republican Party president Stephen Minarik, one of the authors of the New York-level Stop Hillary Now drive. The hope, however vain, is to knock her out in '06 so she can't be a favorite in the presidential race two years later. Minarik is joined by Arthur Finkelstein, the adviser behind the careers of the likes of George Pataki and Jesse Helms, who's planning the Stop Her Now campaign—which, with its Swift Boat-style charges, could get ugly.

Meanwhile, the anxious party base is speculating over who could possibly have the right big-name-big-money mix to wage a valiant fight (see sidebar).

Brenner believes he's the one. "I know I'm not the favorite," he cedes. At least one county chairman has already tried to dissuade him. "He said, 'You're crazy going up against Hillary Clinton's machine—she'll chew you up and spit you out.' "

That Brenner, 64, a small-town guy, has set his sights on Clinton's Senate seat—and thus on the 24-7 bustle of Capitol Hill—seems completely out of character with his everyday life. Grahamsville, part of the Town of Neversink, is the kind of place where birds drown out cars, hay bales get sold roadside, and cell phone service disappears.

Around here, he's something of a big cheese. He oversees the 18 Brenner Income Tax Centers throughout Sullivan, Ulster, and Orange counties, and maintains a "country law" practice assisting folks with everything from speeding tickets to divorce and foreclosures. His company, based in an old farmhouse, dominates the heart of Grahamsville, a one-light intersection with a smattering of uninspired storefronts.

Sitting in a wood-paneled office filled with law books and amateur art, Brenner looks right at home. Bespectacled and broad, he exudes an affable, homey demeanor. He hardly notices when his employees walk through his office to get to the bathroom, or when his assistant's toddler son wakes from a nap crying. "It's a country office," he says with a shrug. "I like the life."

So why leave it behind to battle Clinton?

"The economy," he responds, meaning the one in New York, the one upstate in particular. That's why he went from community leader—he's a 25-year volunteer firefighter—to political hopeful.

"We're in a pitched battle to save jobs and industries," he says, reading from notes scribbled on yellow legal paper. As Brenner gives his spiel, his face becomes flushed, his voice animated. His passion takes over, and he lets go of the notes.

He has heard working people's frustrations. "They tell me, 'I want to work. I need to work.' But their jobs are being outsourced."

This sad economic situation has only continued since Clinton assumed office, he says. If he were elected, he'd work more closely with corporate leaders, employee unions, and state officials to make New York business friendly.

Brenner has refrained from slinging mud so far—indeed, he sent Clinton a letter this month saying he'll run "an honest, worthy, and issues-based campaign." But he has a hard time hiding his dislike for the woman he calls "an opportunistic carpetbagger." And now that she's all but announced a White House run in 2008, he asks, how can anyone think she'll represent the best interests of New Yorkers?

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