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NY-21 GOP candidate Elise Stefanik (left) and Democratic candidate Aaron Woolf. NCPR file photos
NY-21 GOP candidate Elise Stefanik (left) and Democratic candidate Aaron Woolf. NCPR file photos

No clear "North Country" candidate in NY-21 race

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Congressman Bill Owens shocked the political establishment and the entire North Country when he announced last month he wouldn't seek re-election. That decision set in motion a wide-open race, with both parties scrambling to find the best candidates.

Republican party leaders are gathering around Elise Stefanik, a former aide to vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Stefanik has spent much of her life in the Capital district and says she moved to Willsboro in the 21st district last year.

Wednesday, North Country Democrats surprised everyone when they endorsed Aaron Woolf, a documentary filmmaker and a political newcomer.

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

Now that the two main parties have chosen their candidates, David Sommerstein and Martha Foley talk about where the race stands.

Martha Foley: Whew, lots of speculation—names floated, then dropped—wists and turns. So things are just getting underway.

People are curious, to say the least, about these two candidates. The focus of this campaign is quickly turning to their North Country roots. What do we know?

David Sommerstein: Both could safely be characterized as longtime summer residents until recently. Both were registered to vote outside the district until recently.

Elise Stefanik’s just 30 years old. Her bio says she was born and raised “in Upstate New York.” It mentions her family’s business, Premium Plywood, which is in Altamont just outside of Albany.

Stefanik moved to Willsboro in Essex County to run a race against what she was expecting would be Bill Owens. She announced last summer.

St. Lawrence County Republican chairman Tom Jenison says she’s already put 46,000 miles on her car criss-crossing the district: "Elise basically has been spending the last six months on the road in all twelve of the district's counties, so she’s not an unknown. She obviously has to reach out more. He has to reach out 100%."

MF: That "he" is Aaron Woolf, who was not a politician at all until the day before yesterday. What do we know about the Democratic candidate?

DS: The press release from the 12 North Country Democratic chairs said Aaron Woolf and wife own a home in Elizabethtown on land his family has owned since 1968. He has a daughter named Eloise. His bio on the website of his Peabody award-winning documentary King Corn says he serves on the board of the Adirondack Council. He owns a food shop in Brooklyn. But there’s a lot we don’t know.

I spoke with the chairwoman of the Democratic group yesterday, Sheila Comar of Washington County. She said she didn’t know where or when Aaron Woolf was born, where he went to high school, or whether Elizabethtown was his full-time or summer residence growing up.

But she did say he spoke intelligently and passionately about issues like Fort Drum and the North Country economy. And she said as a documentary film maker, he’s the guy to tell the story of the region in Congress: "In an industry where you look at the big picture, his documentaries and he’s done a lot of investigative things. So he is looking for problems that he might see and if there are ways to look into finding those solutions."

One note that may belie some discomfort with the timing of all this and his relationship to the North Country—Aaron Woolf’s twitter feed was locked shortly after the announcement of his candidacy, and the account description was changed, from that he “owns a food shop in Brooklyn” to simply “small business owner.”

MF: So at least among the party-blessed candidates, we have no one who has deep North Country roots, someone like Bill Owens who lives in Plattsburgh and has been a community leader there for decades. How is that playing so far?

DS: Well, there’s been some pushback, even some outrage. Long time North Country Republican insider Tony Hall wrote an editorial in the Adirondack Almanack yesterday, questioning Elise Stefanik’s connection to Willsboro. He wrote that Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward—also a Republican—who lives and grew up there, said that she’s never heard of her family and has never met Stefanik. He called for another Republican to run.

MF: And on the other side of the district, the Watertown Daily Times was pretty harsh. The editorial page criticized Democrats for not recruiting Dede Scozzafava.

DS: Right. And the paper implored two-time candidate Matt Doheny to run “a vigorous campaign” against Stefanik in a Republican primary.

So, we’re going to hearing accusations of “carpetbagger” quite a bit, from both sides. And it’s an opening for other candidates with stronger North Country ties to jump in. St. Lawrence County conservative Joe Gilbert is staying in. Doheny hasn’t ruled out a run. Neither has Democrat Darrel Aubertine.

MF: And just to think back to the last couple of campaigns when outside money and strategists played a pretty heavy hand in this district—we don’t know yet how many millions of dollars the national parties will pour into the race as they’ve done in the past.

So there could still be more twists and turns early on here.

DS: One thing we do know is we’ll find out more about Aaron Woolf soon. His campaign put out a press release yesterday saying he's “eager” to discuss his ideas and that he’ll offer more details about his campaign “in the coming days.”

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