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Matt Doheny (R) with Saranac Lake Community Store general manager Craig Waters. Photo: Brian Mann
Matt Doheny (R) with Saranac Lake Community Store general manager Craig Waters. Photo: Brian Mann

NY21: What's Matt Doheny's business background?

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The 21st District congressional race is shaping up to be the most negative and expensive political fights in North Country history.

The campaigns of Democrat Bill Owens and Republican Matt Doheny have spent more than a million dollars apiece, slamming each other with attack ads.

Americans for Tax Reform, a "Super PAC" using money from anonymous donors, has also pumped more than $800 thousand into TV spots blasting Owens.

One of the biggest messaging battles is the effort by both candidates to brand themselves as common sense businessmen, with the kind of skill and experience that will help revive the region's long-suffering economy.

It turns out the two candidates each have strong but very different records in the private sector. In the first of two stories, we look at Matt Doheny's background in business.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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So let's start with the attacks, the stuff the campaign of Democrat Bill Owens wants you to remember when you go into the election booth. 

Owens says his Republican opponent Matt Doheny is a sort of corporate raider, the kind of guy who shuts down American companies to boost "fat cat" executive pay.

"He took over vulnerable companies, then fired workers and cut benefits to maximize his profits," Owens claims in one TV spot.

That line of attack is being echoed by Owens supporters. In an ad paid for by the Democratic congressional committee in Washington, Democrats claim Doheny "called it a restructure, but 500 workers lost their jobs and executives got $40 million in bonuses."

In his own advertisements, Matt Doheny has pushed back hard against Owens' accusations, calling them lies. 

"Matt was raised in the North Country, never owned a company in the Cayman Islands, and helped save thousands of American jobs," Doheny's TV spot counters.

In an interview with NCPR, Doheny said he earned his wealth providing a valuable service, restructuring troubled companies.

"I would work with companies, invest in companies, and basically turn them around," he argued. "So what does that mean? There are all kinds of different problems. Sometimes a company has too much debt. Sometimes their operations are mismanaged."

Doheny also acknowledged that sometimes "there are reasons that businesses fail."

"Sometimes there's obsolescence. I mean, there's a reason that you don't peel out the Montgomery Ward catalogue anymore."

Out on the campaign trail, Doheny has worked hard to portray himself as the kind of guy who, after years in high finance, understands Main Street issues. 

At a whistle stop at the community department store in Saranac Lake he spoke with company president Melinda Little. "So what would success be?" he asked. "One dollar more in the till than you spent?"

But in the years following the bailout of Wall Street, many Americans are skeptical about the kind of role that Doheny — who was educated as a lawyer at Cornell — played at Deutsche bank and Fintech Advisories.

Those firms don't look like the typical Mom and Pop Main Street businesses that we have in the North Country. His companies didn't put people to working making widgets or manufacturing a new device.

Some of that suspicion was evident in a question about the outsourcing of jobs overseas, asked by a voter at a forum in Wanakena: "How many jobs went overseas went overseas while you were turning [companies] around and why?" the voter asked.

"The answer is zero," Doheny replied.

Outsourcing and downsizing are common strategies to help companies improve their corporate profits and boost share prices, especially during a restructuring. But in an interview after the Wanakena forum, Doheny said that his efforts didn't send American jobs to other countries.

"The answer is no," he said. "There was no outsourcing of jobs. That's just not what happened here."

The Owens campaign argues that Doheny's work on Wall Street did result in the loss of American jobs, as companies downsized. But Democrats acknowledge that they have no evidence that firms advised by Doheny outsourced jobs.

What is clear is that Doheny's work on Wall Street and in Watertown made him very wealthy. In 2010 alone, Doheny's corporate work earned him more than $8 million in wages, according to a report in the Watertown Daily Times.

Doheny argues that it's this — his success — that has drawn fire from Democrats. He describes the ads questioning his business background a kind of class warfare. "My opponent is attacking me. He's attacking success. He's attacking the fact that a kid from Alexandria Bay could actually grow up with modest means to actually go out and live their own American dream, that I'm somehow not qualified for congress because of that."

Whatever its rough edges, the kind of restructuring operation Matt Doheny performed, which some economists describe as "creative destruction," is an established practice in modern American capitalism. So too is the practice of rewarding top executives with high salaries and bonuses. 

Some of the firms that Doheny worked with, like Air Canada and Pacific Gas and Electric, have re-emerged as stable firms employing thousands of people. It's also a fact that while Bill Owens has attacked Doheny's record, the Democrat's own reelection campaign has been funded to a large degree by big American corporations, companies that operate with the same kind of business practices and restructructuring Matt Doheny used in his business career.

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