ELIZABETHTOWN — It’s been three months since Congressman Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh) announced his retirement from the House of Representatives after a four-year stint, a decision that kicked off an immediate rush from candidates from all ends of the political spectrum to replace him in a race that has already started to attract national attention as a swing district crucial in drafting the electoral road map for House control.
For ballot access, major party hopefuls had to submit signatures equal to 5 percent of the enrolled voters of the political unit (or 1,250 signatures) by Friday, April 10. To meet the filing deadline set by the state board of elections, candidates and their campaigns have been criss-crossing the expansive district, which is some 16,000 square miles and contains over 400,000 enrolled voters, in the quest for support.
Here’s how they made out and what comes next in the race.
Aaron Woolf, the New York City-based political novice who narrowly avoided derailing his campaign with a monthlong period of silence following his endorsement by 11 of the 12 Democratic committee chairs on Feb. 12, passed the ballot threshold and will appear on the primary ballot.
“Our campaign is thrilled that we obtained nearly three times more signatures than needed to make the Democratic Party primary ballot and twice as many signatures as needed for the Working Families Party ballot,” Woolf campaign manager Stuart Rosenberg said in a written statement. “We are excited by the momentum that is growing in our campaign throughout the district and look forward to continuing conversations with residents in the 21st Congressional District on how, working together, we can create jobs and grow our economy here in the North Country.”
Essex County Democratic committee chair Bethany Kosmider said her organization was “exuberantly happy” over the amount of support that Essex County and all the counties of the 21st Congressional District have given to Aaron Woolf.
“Petition signatures for Aaron far surpassed our expectations and that speaks volumes of the grassroots enthusiasm that our candidate has.”
Woolf, who maintains a seasonal residence in Elizabethtown, was the only candidate aside from Stefanik who released his campaign’s first quarter fundraising numbers by the time this story went to press on Tuesday, April 15:
Records provided by his campaign show the candidate raised $205,000 in the 40 days since establishing his fundraising account with the Federal Elections Commission on February 21, 2014.
More than 300 citizens offered donations, said the report, with over 60 percent of the funds coming from within the state and over 60 percent of the donors to the campaign giving less than $250.
“I am extremely proud of the great start to our campaign and can feel the momentum as we speak with residents throughout the 21st Congressional District,” Woolf said in a written statement. “This election is about priorities and the priorities of Elise Stefanik and Matt Doheny are misplaced and misguided.”
Steven Burke, the Macomb town board member who jumped into the race following Woolf’s initial monthlong silence and has been given the cold shoulder by the party establishment, said he met the filing deadline and turned his signatures to the board of elections on Thursday, April 9 and received an official letter of confirmation, which he recited to the Valley News during a phone call.
“Let the race begin,” he said.
Burke, who was nailed to the wall by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise last month for allegedly lying about his age, said he now plans on visiting each county ahead of the primary and collecting signatures for ballot access was an “eye-opener.”
“Going door-to-door meeting with people across the district and speaking with them really put things in perspective: their needs and expectations from the government. People are worried about the economy, worried about jobs and they just want a good living in the North Country,” he said. “And of course, there’s always the complaint about taxes.”
Barring legal challenges by either of the campaigns, the two Democratic candidates can look forward to nine weeks of campaigning across the expansive district before registered Democrats hit the polls for the primary on June 24.
Elise Stefanik, the 29-year-old Willsboro resident with strong national ties to the GOP and 2012 Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan, collected four times the necessary amount of signatures to land on the GOP ballot, ensuring a primary face-off on June 24 with Matt Doheny, a Watertown-based investment banker and three-time congressional candidate who also passed the threshold.
On Friday, April 10, Stefanik also netted a coveted endorsement by the state Conservative Party after collecting over 700 signatures, far more than the required 281:
“I’m honored and humbled that after such thoughtful consideration, the Conservative Party has entrusted their faith in me to win back New York’s 21st District this November,” she said in a statement on Friday. “As a principled conservative, I understand that we cannot win back the North Country as Republicans without the help and support of the Conservative Party.”
Stefanik had said earlier that she plans on running a positive campaign and looks forward to a unified GOP race later this fall.
Reports from her campaign annouced a first quarter haul of $268,000 by 414 individual donors, 310 of which kicked in donations at or below $250.
Doheny, who appeared on the Conservative ballot in 2012 and was endorsed by five of the six organized committee chairs in this campaign (and collected 1025 signatures from the 5600 registered members of that party), appeared displeased and criticized the committee’s decision on Friday:
“The sad fact is the Executive Committee of the State Conservative Party is just another Big Brother,” he said in an email statement. “While disappointed with today’s decision, we are not deterred and with the Republican and Independence party lines our campaign will continue. Like the people of the North Country, we don’t quit. Our campaign will continue to reach out and work with all like-minded Conservative, Republican and Independent voters to spread our message of lower taxes and greater opportunity. Together the will of the people will win out over the will of Washington insiders.”
On Monday, his campaign offered a succinct one-word statement to comments Conservative Party chairman Mike Long made to the Glens Falls Post-Star on Friday that he preferred to see Doheny drop out to better Stefanik’s chances of uniting the GOP for the general election:
Both Stefanik and Doheny circulated petitions seeking the Conservative Party’s support. While both collected more than enough signatures to appear on that party’s line, since both are GOP members, they needed the Conservative Party’s executive committee to play kingmaker.
The endorsement means Stefanik will be listed on the Conservative ballot line for the general election in November while Matt Doheny will appear on the Independence line, meaning that voters can look forward to a potential internecine race in November regardless of who wins the Republican primary on June 24.
“Elise is extremely bright and is a wonderful speaker,” said Essex County GOP Committee Chair Ron Jackson, who endorsed Stefanik’s campaign shortly after her announcement to run last August, during a phone call with the Valley News. “Anyone who listens to her speak comes away impressed. I think she’s going to win the primary and fall right into the job, an effective representative for the North Country from day one.”
Joe Gilbert, the GOP hopeful whose campaign failed to gain traction despite strong Tea Party support and impeccable military credentials, failed to submit petitions for the Republican line by Friday’s deadline, thus effectively removing himself from contention unless he decides to run on a third-party line.
Gilbert cited family issues for his decision and told the Valley News in a phone call that he still may run on the Constitution and Libertarian Party lines in the event he decides to re-enter the race:
“I’m not in a position to pursue this full time, but I’m prepared to give everything I’ve got after assessing my personal life,” he said. “I’m still going to raise hell from the sidelines whether I’m in the race or not.”
Matt Funiciello, a Glens Falls-based baker running for his party’s nod in a rare primary, said he collected the requisite amount of signatures and will face off against Don Hassig on June 24.
“I look forward to a rewarding race introducing myself, my ideas and those of the Green Party to the people in our district and to becoming the first Green Party member elected to Congress,” said Funiciello in a written statement. “I see no reason to expect that voters seeking meaningful and historic change in their representation would not choose to vote for me. It is the brave thing to do. And we are a brave people.”
Hassig told the Valley News that he has collected enough signatures and looks forward to a competitive race.
“A primary will be very productive of news media coverage on the issues of our two campaigns. The issues are the essence of Green Party participation in the electoral process,” he said.
Party brass have repeatedly said they will not endorse a candidate for the primary and have distanced themselves from Hassig after the candidate made statements that were perceived as xenophobic at a forum in Wanakena in 2012.
Hassig, unlike the other candidates, has openly told the Valley News that he doesn’t plan on winning this year and is using his candidacy as a way to garner attention to his signature issues, namely fracking and cancer conspiracy theories, for a race in 2020.
A written statement by Hassig to the media on Monday, April 14 described the candidate needling a state official about persistent organic pollutants, for example, as opposed to the more conventional statements issued by the other candidates.
The race has already started to elicit early attention from the national parties, both of which view the purple district as a keystone in electoral roadmaps for House control, with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) placing the race on its Red to Blue watchlist, a designation singled out for the most competitive races.
Seventeen seats are needed to move the chamber back into Democratic control for the first time since 2011.
“We are very confident about increasing our majority in 2014 and winning back Republican-leaning districts like the 21st will help us do that,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ian Prior told the Valley News. “Both Republican candidates in this race are extremely impressive and vastly superior to New York City transfer Aaron Woolf, who last time we checked was getting lost trying to find his way from the East Side of Manhattan to Watertown.”
DCCC spokesman Marc Brumer said that “New Yorkers can’t afford one more rubber stamp in Washington whose only allegiance is to the far right wing special interests and the Tea Party’s out of touch agenda. By refusing to stand up to Paul Ryan and his radical plan to end Medicare as we know it, raise taxes on middle class families and slash education, both Matt Doheny and Elise Stefanik have both already proven their only concern is advancing their own political careers.”
Brumer’s statement follows last week’s passage by the House of the Ryan Budget, a non-binding plan that advocates say would reach a fiscal balance in 10 years by cutting taxes, repealing the Affordable Care Act and cutting social programs.