PLATTSBURGH — Following a campaign swing through Potsdam on Thursday, April 24, Congressman Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh) officially endorsed Aaron Woolf, a small business owner and filmmaker who lives in Elizabethtown, in his attempt to succeed the two-term incumbent as the district’s federal representative.
Billed as a jobs and small business tour, the trip took the pair through a whistle-stop trip through this small city in St. Lawrence County and marked the first time the Democratic duo appeared together in public.
Woolf said Northern Music & Video, a longstanding Market Street fixture he visited on the trip, was a good example of how small businesses can successfully distinguish themselves in the global marketplace.
“I’m really interested in how concrete and glass businesses compete in the age of the Internet,” said Woolf afterwards in joint interview with Owens with the Valley News. “This place provided something you can’t get online.”
Citing the business’ recent product expansion, Woolf said Mom and Pop can thrive in the online era if they provide something unique, like a sense of community, for example.
“One of the things the Congressman is teaching me is seeing how he speaks to business owners and echoes their concerns,” said Woolf, citing the discussions the pair had with multiple business owners on trade with Canada.
“It’s a powerful reminder on how to provide opportunity.”
What didn’t come up during these visits, said Owens, was complaints on excessive regulation that the candidates on the other side of the political aisle say strangles local economies and chokes small business growth.
“No one raised that issue with us,” said Owens. “What people really talked to us about were about what ideas could create more opportunities for them. When that question is raised, I get very little substantial response. That’s not to say there aren’t regulations we need to get rid of, but many who make that claim very rarely give a specific ideas even when pressed.”
Owens said these lack of ideas really point out the differences between the two major political parties:
“They offer no specifics other than to repeal Obamacare,” he said.
Woolf cited firsthand experience with small businesses as a co-owner of several food businesses in Brooklyn. After working as a producer of long-form documentary programs, he later told the Valley News in an email that he wanted to create a business that reflected the kinds of meals and community values he had found in the North Country.
The Lodge Restaurant opened in June 2005 as an Adirondack-style eatery. Woolf and his co-owners spent the first six months designing the place, milling boards in Elizabethtown and preparing menus.
They have 14 employees and plan on expanding and revamping their menus and interiors to celebrate their tenth anniversary.
The Brooklyn-based Urban Rustic opened in the end of 2007, initially as a grocery store, and it has since morphed into a market cafe with emphasis on New York-sourced ingredients from across the state.
It has since expanded to include a catering business and food carts.
Woolf and his co-owners employ a team of 30, from delivery drivers to management.
“Making a film is also an entrepreneurial act,” he said. “To produce each film, you have to design a product, find investors, create a budget, hire a team, make payroll and send deliverables on time.”
Woolf said while he supports the Affordable Care Act, the excise tax on medical device manufacturers should be repealed.
“It punishes success, something that is done incredibly well in this country,” he said.
He said the ACA is flawed and needs to be adjusted.
“Do you really want to go back to denying those pre-existing conditions and denying coverage to young people?” he asked. “What about the lifetime cap, those facing cancer and bankruptcy at the same time?”
Asked about a poll conducted earlier that day by the New York Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation that found respondents in three Southern states — Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina — would rather see Congress improve the law rather than fully repeal it, Owens said that this is the type of polling that’s reflected when you ask people more than if they simply like or dislike the ACA.
“People recognized something needs to be done with healthcare. I have always been a proponent of fixing it,” he said. “Our friends on other side of the aisle talk about repeal, but don’t have a plan — they are unwilling to meet halfway.”
During the trip, the pair visited the Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone and an adjacent 135 bed skilled nursing and assisted living facility.
“The challenges of delivering care are enormous,” said Woolf. “We need to look for efficiency whenever we can find it, including in the networks of our healthcare providers.”
Woolf said a holistic approach should be incorporated into health care.
“We need to look at root causes of disease,” he said. “Look at nutrition — especially in the schools.”
Citing the district’s graying population — the North Country is expected to experience a 23 percent increase in people 65 and older between now and 2020, a rate 15 percent greater than the region as a whole and a trend that will see the Adirondacks rivaling Florida’s west coast as having the oldest population in the country — Owens called it “a unique situation needs to be addressed.”
More primary care doctors are needed, he said. “We as a community need to make sure we’re creating an environment where physicians would want to come practice in our communities; to make a living and live in a more hospitable environment.”
Woolf said he would like to see a combination of “big picture stuff” to boost the district’s economy, including investments in infrastructure and education.
“We need knowledge in the North Country,” he said. “I think it’s important, especially in education reform, to respond to what teachers are seeing on the ground.”
Woolf said there are between 3-6 million consumers within an hour’s drive of the district — that number is boosted to 70 million within a day’s, he said — and the district should lean on its strengths, including agriculture and forestry products.
“Each community has to figure what assets are and figure out how to sell those to several million people,” added Owens.
As the candidate and Owens drove from Malone to Plattsburgh, the call was dropped several times.
“As you can see, the cell phone service here illustrates gaps in infrastructure,” said Woolf after calling back a reporter. “We can’t develop those markets unless we can talk to them and need to develop the type of grid that can accommodate taking advantage of these resources.”
Owens, whose retirement has been lamented by his constituents in several telephone town hall meetings he has conducted since his announcement — including one on Thursday, April 29 in which he discussed his work passing the Farm Bill, trade with Canada, his support for the proposed Keystone Pipeline and his disappointment at Republican opposition of a proposed immigration bill — said he is confident that Woolf will continue the measured, listening-oriented approach that he has facilitated during his four years in office.
“I think it’s helpful to understand how the legislative process works and I think Aaron will gain knowledge of that as we move forward,” he said. “It’s important to make sure you’re connected to the people so you can give assistance at the local level starting from day one.”
On Monday, May 5, Woolf toured Johnstown and Gloversville with Congressman Paul Tonko (NY-20) and other officials.
Woolf netted Tonko’s endorsement during the trip.
“In a very short time, Aaron Woolf has shown he has the dedication and commitment to log the miles and ensure New Yorkers in Fulton County and the rest of the district are well represented in Congress,” said Tonko in a written statement. “At a time when Washington is so divided, we need more people like Aaron who will work with both parties to find solutions to the challenges we face instead of using those problems drive us further apart.”
Last week’s decision by the state board of elections to deny Democratic challenger Steven Burke a spot on the ballot means that barring a successful appeal, Woolf will not endure a primary race and can start focusing on the general election in November.
Green Party hopeful Don Hassig was also tossed from the race because the board of elections received his petitions after last month’s deadline. Fellow Green Matt Funiciello collected enough signatures and will officially launch his campaign on Wednesday, May 7 at an event at the Rock Hill Bakehouse in Glens Falls, the bakery he owns and manages.
On the Republican side, Matt Doheny and Elise Stefanik will face off in a primary slated for June 24. As that race comes into sharper focus, the candidates have launched television and radio advertisements seeking to further define themselves to the electorate.
Photo: Woolf and Owens tour Northern Music & Video in Potsdam on April 24 / Provided by Woolf for Congress