Aaron Woolf, the Democratic candidate to replace outgoing Congressman Bill Owens, discusses gun rights with Blue Line Sports co-owner Matthew Rothamel and Clyde Rabideau last month in Saranac Lake.
ELIZABETHTOWN — As the race for New York’s 21st Congressional District enters the 90-day stretch before voters head to the polls in November, Democratic candidate Aaron Woolf said he perceives what he refers to as a “perceptible ramping up of momentum.”
Woolf, speaking to the Valley News after receiving an endorsement from the Central Trades and Labor Council last Thursday in Gouverneur, said his campaign has been focused on traversing the district and speaking with voters and small business owners.
The candidate said he felt moved by the spirit of bipartisanship, something is says is a quintessential North Country characteristic.
Office openings in Potsdam, Glens Falls and Watertown have added to his buoyancy.
“Each appearance seems to have more people than the last,” said the candidate, who also has the Working Families Party line. “Rooms full of twenty-something energy.”
On Tuesday, Aug. 12, the candidate, who lives in Elizabethtown, released his first television advertisement, a gauzy, half-minute ode to bipartisanship entitled “Walk Across the Aisle.”
In a half-hour phone interview, Woolf cited several issues that his Republican opponent in the race, Elise Stefanik, also discussed at a meeting of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board last month. They include controlling the spread of invasive species, examining the emerging biomass energy industry and developing tourism infrastructure, including roads, broadband and financial boosts for bicycle tourism, that will help bump the economy.
“We need to invest in research that will make renewable increasingly viable,” Woolf said. “We can and should be a model for the rest of the state and country.”
The candidate said biofuels demonstrate perhaps the most promising growth potential in the region.
Invasive species, he said, threaten the district’s tourism, one of its chief economic drivers. Citing past work on a variety of boards — including the Adirondack Council, where he served before resigning to run for office — he stressed the merits of conservation and preservation.
“I’m proud of bills sponsored by (State Sen.) Betty Little in terms of fighting invasives,” he said. “It’s an issue that can bring us together in a bipartisan way.”
Woolf cited the Adirondack Regional Assessment Project, the report released earlier this year that painted a grim portrait of the demographics within the Adirondack Park. Reversing the district’s ailing trends — young people are leaving, schools are closing and the population is rapidly transitioning from gray to green — are crucial to ensure a vital future, he said.
“Our stakes are palpably high,” he said. “The 2010 census was visceral. People are leaving and not coming back. My goal is not only to arrest the departure of young people, but bring them back. The lifestyle here is awesome: clean air, recreation and delicious food. This place has enviable communities. This place is going to thrive, but let’s give businesses the tools to do so right now.”
Woolf’s interviews and appearances are peppered with local references — service on boards, mutual friends, places, wildlife sightings, bluegrass jam sessions, new arrivals in the neighborhood — that flow appear to flow organically.
In the conversation, the filmmaker frequently referred to the value of walkable communities in Adirondack towns, including Elizabethtown, where he lives with his wife, Carolyn, and their three-year-old daughter, Eloise.
“You often think about walkable communities being an urban thing, but places like Elizabethtown used to be like that,” he said. “There is kind of little a density in a lot of our communities, especially in Elizabethtown, that pre-date automobile ownership. The same people making downtown Plattsburgh fun again could be doing the same thing in Tupper Lake and Elizabethtown — that’s why jobs are Number One.”
He frequently circled back to the 2014 Common Ground Alliance Forum in Long Lake last month.
“If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be running for this seat,” he said.
The forum was sponsored by the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA), a group that bills itself as the longest running nonprofit rural development organization in Northern New York. According to its website, the group fosters partnerships with local governments, non-profits, small businesses and universities to facilitate economic development.
“I went before I was a candidate, I went this year, and I plan on attending next year, whether or not I win in November,” Woolf said. “My real dedication is to this place. I’m going to work to improve to build the community and be part of the economy. No matter what happens in November, I’ll be here doing the same things I’ve been doing, whether it’s the movie theater project or serving on boards, in some capacity next year.”
At a meet and greet in Wadhams, Essex County, earlier this year, Woolf relayed an anecdote about his work boots, footwear that served a duel purpose as he embarked on his first bid for elected office.
The first was to offer protection from the effluent flowing from a pipe that burst on a cold and clear night in February on the eve of his pitch to the Democratic powerbrokers in Long Lake to win their support.
The second, as a symbolic shield against the sordid muck of modern politics, he said.
“If you do this, you’re going to get a lot of manure tossed at you,” he said at the time. “It seemed very emblematic.”
Woolf shrugged off several weeks of bad press that saw him taking heat on a variety of issues, including health violations at Urban Rustic, his Brooklyn-based grocery store, and the financial revelations that have allowed his opponents to paint him as a downstate millionaire.
“I think it’s hard to know exactly how you’re going to feel,” he said in regards to the attacks. “But this is a contact sport. I didn’t jump into this without talking to a lot of thoughtful people. I’m totally fine with it, but I’m little wary when my family becomes involved.”
He cited a visit to the Left Bank Cafe in Saranac Lake last month as a not-so-subtle reminder that he needed to schedule a date with his wife.
“Life has become very regimented. I have to put on the calendar things that would have been ordinary — even playing with my daughter.”
Woolf demured on punching back at his opponents, opting only to stress he would keep Medicare intact, unlike Stefanik, who Woolf said is an advocate of privatization.
“‘Modernizing’ is the term she used, replacing it with a voucher system,” said Woolf. “Those positions are well-known and cause some anxiety.”
The candidate said feedback from voters on the trail has been positive.
Asked about Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello, the Glens Falls-based baker who has repeatedly assailed Woolf as being unlikely to peel away right-leaning voters in the swing district, Woolf doubled back to Stefanik.
“I’m really focused on my Republican opponent,” he said. “And to be honest, just focused on continually going around the district and talking to voters.”