DEKALB JUNCTION — On June 28, 1985, Joe Gilbert graduated from high school in Ogdensburg, a small city in St. Lawrence County.
The following day, he found himself at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training.
“I joined the army right out of high school,” the GOP hopeful told the Valley News during an interview conducted as the candidate sat on the back porch of his farm in Dekalb Junction. “Back then, during the Reagan years, the country was on the upswing — there was a sense of optimism and a good economy. That’s the country I wanted to serve… and I did.”
After 24 years, Gilbert returned to the North Country and touched down to a changed landscape.
Manufacturing jobs had left the region and factories were closed. Family-owned dairy farms faced tough times and several of Gilbert’s family members, including his uncles, were out of work.
“It wasn’t the North Country I left,” he said.
Gilbert, 47, said the country is in a prolonged state of decline, a direct result of what he views as a sharp tack away from its founding principles as laid out in the Constitution in 1787.
“It’s the government’s job to defend our rights and they’re acting well beyond their original scope. Federal agencies are being used as a weapon against the people,” he said, citing the recent IRS and NSA scandals.
“Something was off-track and needed to be righted — and that’s why I’m running for office.”
Gilbert, who demonstrated an easygoing air and showcased little of the fiery rhetoric that has been a hallmark of the Tea Party movement to which he is aligned, said the federal government should limit themselves to the 18 enumerated powers listed in the Constitution.
Those powers include the right to levy taxes, defend the country, coin money and regulate international commerce, among others.
He cited the phrase “to promote the general welfare” in the document’s preamble as the opening that lawmakers have historically used to expand the scope of the government.
“Just because something needs or should be done, doesn’t mean it needs to be done by bureaucrats — it can be handled by state or local governments,” he said. “There are four levels of government between from where I’m sitting and the federal level. Ninety-five percent of governance should come from people you can walk down the street to talk to.”
Gilbert, a father of two young children, cited the controversial education initiative Common Core as an example of government overreach.
“The federal government should not be involved in education — the Department of Education, which isn’t in the Constitution, sucks up millions of dollars just running itself. Every single one of those dollars come from the states and their policies are derived from special interest groups imposing what they hope will become national standards.”
Gilbert said he didn’t want his 4-year-old son Ethan, named for his cousin Ethan Allen, the war hero who helped capture the Fort of Ticonderoga from the British in 1775, to be subjected to federal mandates, including President Obama’s proposals to standardize early education for pre-schoolers and the First Lady’s push for a healthier citizenry.
“I think I can handle what my daughter can eat for lunch,” he said, referring to Mackenzie, who is six.
Gilbert said while he considers himself a conservationist and doesn’t want to see the environment degraded more than anyone else — he commented on the beauty of the pond on his 131 acres and the turkeys and deer clambering around it — the White House, he said, is burning the candle at both ends when it comes to charting the nation’s energy policies.
On one hand, he said, you have green advocates who are against any form of fossil fuel.
“It’s on their agenda to push green energy systems that are not economically viable,” he said. “The federal government pumps taxpayer money into them and they fail, like Solyndra,” he said, citing the thin-film solar cell manufacturer that received a half-billion dollar loan guarantee by the Department of Energy before going bankrupt and shutting down in 2011 because it was unable to compete against more traditional solar cell technology.
Gilbert said the federal government makes existing energy sources — like coal, for example — so expensive through excessive taxation, it makes the green systems more attractive. But those systems exist solely on government subsidies from the EPA, he said, and prices rise when coal plants are closed as a result before the total energy supply is then diminished.
“I’m all for green energy once it becomes viable,” he said. “But let the free market innovate first and when they get on the same playing field as fossil fuels, then it’s time to rock and roll.”
Gilbert said there’s only a few things the federal government can really do to create jobs.
First, he said, is reaching the state of energy independence. As the district’s representative, Gilbert said he’d approve permits and projects like the Keystone Pipeline that would lower energy prices.
“This would make everything cheaper and increase the amount of disposable income, something that would spur economic activity — a rising tide lifts all boats,” he said, echoing Reagan’s trickle-down theory.
Another way to encourage job creation, he said, would be to facilitate more economic activity with Canada through increased trade.
Gilbert said the country’s fiscal policies, namely the high levels of corporate tax, discourage investment and he would advocate for strong incentives to bring investment back to American shores by eliminating corporate income taxes for companies who decide to move their operations from overseas back to their native turf.
“Our corporate income tax is the highest in the world and we wonder why companies are leaving,” he said. “The overall answer is to get the government out of the market. If you unleash America’s entrepreneurial spirit, it’ll open the floodgates to creating wealth and economic expansion. But the government itself cannot create jobs.”
Gilbert said Americans have been conditioned to depend too much on political promises.
“We need to be more self-reliant,” he said. “The American dream is still out there — we just have to go for it. Don’t wait for a politician to deliver it to you.”
Gilbert is the only candidate in the race who has served in the military.
His resume describes a quarter-century of service, including a stint as a Battalion Intelligence Staff Officer with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum in the late-1990s and as a Commander in the 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion’s C-Company, a unit that was assigned as the reconnaissance unit in support of the Iraq Survey Group in the search for WMDs in Iraq.
“I conducted over 200 intelligence raids and recon missions throughout Iraq and we captured over 500 tons of enemy weapons and other materiel of military significance,” he said. “It was the largest repatriation of enemy weapons since World War II.”
Gilbert said he is a strong advocate of national defense and disagrees with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s proposal last month to slim down the country’s armed forces.
“I come from a long proud family that has fought in every conflict that America has ever been involved in.”
Citing Al-Qaeda’s continued territorial creep, the meddling of Iran in Syria and Iraq, the current situation in Ukraine and Russia and China’s rise as a global competitor, one that has been increasingly assertive in seeking to secure natural resources and global mineral rights, Gilbert said now is not the time to downsize and “project weakness” across the world.
“The rapid deployment forces at Fort Drum are only found in a few places in the army,” he said. “Only two other divisions can do what the 10th does and we need to maintain a rapid, vibrant military across all of our branches.”
“The world is still a very dangerous place and threats are more viable today than ever.”
“I will not be satisfied with anything short of a full repeal,” said Gilbert on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Gilbert said Obamacare is a “job killer” and a “trumped-up response to a pre-fabricated crisis” that will cost 2.3 million full-time jobs by the time of its full implementation in 2020 and will eventually lead to rationed healthcare.
“It’s driving up costs,” he said. “The government is paying people to buy insurance and paying people to sell it.”
The candidate said there are free market answers to improving healthcare, including tort reform that would reduce the threat of frivolous lawsuits that drive up costs.
GUNS, CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS
“The Second Amendment is no more important than the rest of them,” said Gilbert before ticking off a list of the pro-gun organizations to which he belongs. “You’ll find no stronger advocate than I am.”
Gilbert said the Second Amendment was put in place so the public can defend the others, from the first — protection of speech, religion and the press — to the fifth, which lays out legal protections, including the right to due process.
“The government can’t take those rights away because they didn’t give them to us,” said Gilbert, returning to a frequent talking point during the half-hour long interview. “All of those rights and powers are limited: we are the sovereign masters of government — ‘we the people’ impose those limits on the government that very clearly establish the relationship between the government and its citizens.”
Gilbert said course correction for the country will not be a quick process.
“We have to first to stop the decline, then we can think about recovery. But the government is not royalty and we are not serfs — and that’s what my campaign is about,” he said.
Gilbert is slated to face challengers Matt Doheny and Elise Stefanik for the Republican nomination on June 24. On the Democratic side, filmmaker Aaron Woolf and Steven Burke, a Macomb town board member in St. Lawrence County, are running for their party’s nomination. Glens Falls-based baker Matt Funciello and anti-cancer activist Don Hassig are vying for the Green Party’s support.