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Republican Matt Doheny poses with Carol Enslow, left, and Chris Whitmarsh, two women who run the Am Vet post 11 Ladies Auxiliary Wednesday lunch. Photo: David Sommerstein
Republican Matt Doheny poses with Carol Enslow, left, and Chris Whitmarsh, two women who run the Am Vet post 11 Ladies Auxiliary Wednesday lunch. Photo: David Sommerstein

NY-21: Does Doheny have a likeability problem?

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Three of the four candidates for the North Country's seat in Congress will take questions at a public forum tonight in the Warren County town of Hague. Republicans Elise Stefanik and Matt Doheny and Green party candidate Matt Funiciello plan to attend. Democratic candidate Aaron Woolf is not scheduled to be there.

The Republicans will face off again tomorrow night in Watertown in a debate that will be broadcast here on North Country Public Radio. Stefanik and Doheny face a GOP primary election on June 24. In advance of the debate, David Sommerstein joins Martha Foley to offer a profile of Matt Doheny (you can find our profile of Elise Stefanik here.)

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

Martha Foley: So we know Matt Doheny quite well. He ran for this seat twice against Congressman Bill Owens in 2010 and 2012 and lost. He also sought to run in the special election in 2009, but GOP leaders chose Dede Scozzafava instead.

He’s been around. He says proudly that he’s visited all 194 towns in the district. So remind us of Doheny’s story.

David Sommerstein: Matt Doheny will be 44 in July. He grew up in Alexandria Bay in the Thousand Islands, and went to the high school there. He owns a consulting firm in Watertown called North Country Capital, LLC. He’s married and lives in Watertown, and since we saw him last on the public stage, he and his wife have had a baby boy, named Declan. Below is Doheny's ad reintroducing himself to voters.

MF: Doheny is a self-made multi-millionaire. He owns an island home on the St. Lawrence River. He made his money turning around troubled companies on Wall Street. How is he using that experience to persuade voters?

"I'm a self-made businessman"

DS: His message is that he has real-life experience as a businessman who can create jobs. At last month’s debate, he said it more than a dozen times. Just some of them:

"Look, I'm a self-made businessman..." "Being a businessman..." "We need an outside businessman..." "In my business, and the businesses I'm involved with..." "I know the difference between a balance sheet and an income statement." "Like a businessperson..." "As a businessman, I want a change in Washington..."

At that debate, Doheny said as Congressman, he said wants to be "the point person to help recruit businesses" to the North Country. To make the North Country more-business-friendly, he talked about better infrastructure, like improving Route 11 across the northern North Country – he supports the so-called "rooftop highway" - but also 21st century infrastructure like cell phone service and high speed internet. Doheny also railed against regulation.

"I hear it all over the district. People tell me, 'taxes are bad enough, but to add insult to injury, the regulatory burden continues to be great,'" Doheny said at the debate in May. "Now certainly part of it is the state as well. But certainly on the federal impact, when you think about Obamacare as the granddaddy of all regulations, people have had enough, and they say, 'please go to Washington, please pull it out by its roots.'"

Doheny wants to repeal all of President Obama's health care law. In fact, this week in Glens Falls, Doheny said his first legislation in Congress would be to start with a repeal of a tiny part of that law – the medical device tax. By the way, the man Doheny wants to replace, Democrat Bill Owens, also wants to repeal that part of the law, even though Owens was a key vote in favor of the full health care law.

MF: So Doheny wants to repeal the health care law. What else has Doheny talked the most about?

DS: He talks about two other big issues: he signed conservative icon Grover Norquist's pledge to vote against any tax increases, and he's railed against New York's SAFE Act, the gun control laws.

For a local guy, Doheny has remained relatively vague about specific, local, North Country issues. I asked him about that at a campaign stop in De Kalb a couple months ago. He said those issues will be coming later. Right now, he wants to be clear about the touchstone, national, conservative issues.

"At the outset, we want to make sure people know where I stand on taxes, health care, and guns," Doheny said at the American Legion in De Kalb in early May.

Accusations of outsourcing and job-cutting

MF: Doheny is not the mom-and-pop Main Street guy we think of when we think of a "small businessman". He worked for the one of the largest financial firms in the world, managing troubled assets. How has that been an issue during his political career?

DS: During the last election, Democrats made it a big issue. Bill Owens and his surrogates hammered Doheny for being a Wall Street mogul, claiming he outsourced jobs and stripped jobs from those troubled companies he managed for Deutsche Bank and Fintech Advisory.

Outsourcing and layoffs are very common strategies to boost corporate profits and improve the bottom line, both during the 2000s in the lead-up to the financial meltdown and Wall Street bailout, and today.

Doheny was even questioned by a voter at a forum in Wanakena about outsourcing in 2012. At that event, Doheny said he never outsourced a job, and afterwards, he described his work this way:

"I would work with companies, invest in companies and basically turn them around. What does that mean? There are all kinds of different problems. Sometimes a company has too much debt. Sometimes the operations are mismanaged," Doheny said.

Democrats never brought proof of specific cases of Doheny outsourcing jobs. But with the Wall Street meltdown and the recession still fresh in people's minds, and with Elise Stefanik laying claim to the small businesswoman label, Doheny is vulnerable to these characterizations of his business dealings.

Claim to the title of "most North Country"

MF: OK, let's get back to that part of the Doheny ad, where he says his son was born "right here in the North Country."

Doheny is hitting home, of course, that he's from here. And that's become one of the biggest fights in this campaign – who's more North Country?

DS: And Doheny repeats his claim to the title emphatically. In De Kalb, Doheny told me, "people need to understand that there's only one candidate who is actually from this district, who actually lives in this district, and no matter what happens in this election process, will continue to live in this district, and that's me."

Doheny introduces himself to diners in Dekalb. One of his key challenges: to make sure they like him. Photo: David Sommerstein
Doheny introduces himself to diners in Dekalb. One of his key challenges: to make sure they like him. Photo: David Sommerstein
There's no doubt that Doheny is the more local guy in this Republican primary. He grew up and went to school in Alexandria Bay. He was a hockey goalie there.

But this also raises the biggest and most perplexing question about Matt Doheny.

On paper, he's a slam dunk to be the Republican standard bearer. He has campaigning experience. He has name recognition across this huge district. And he has lots of his own money.

And yet the GOP establishment has come in solidly behind Elise Stefanik. Eleven out of 12 county Republican committees endorsed her. Mitt Romney endorsed her. Vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan campaigned for her in Watertown. Karl Rove's American Crossroads is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in attack ads on her behalf.

And that 12th county committee that didn't endorse Stefanik? That's Jefferson County, Doheny's home county. Rather than make Doheny the hometown hero, they decided not to endorse anyone.

Doheny's hometown mayor, Watertown's Jeff Graham, is campaigning actively with Elise Stefanik. He endorsed Doheny in 2010 and 2012.

Does Doheny have a likeability problem?

MF: So, David, you went to Matt Doheny's hometown of Alexandria Bay, to see if you could answer some of these questions. What did you find?

DS: I walked around the knick-knack shops and the bars of the main drag of the tourist town. I was amazed at how few people even knew who was running for Congress.

But I found this real estate company, called Staie on the Seaway, next to Jreck's subs right off main street. In a way, this real estate office is the microcosm of Doheny's challenge.

Sitting at one desk was the owner, Vickie Staie. She said she's met Doheny at fundraisers and really supports him. "He wants to really prove himself to where he grew up," Staie said, "and show everybody what he could do and wants to do and help make our area better."

But she pointed to the next desk, which was empty - it was the end of the day. Staie said, "The girl that sits at that desk went to high school with him, and she has a very different opinion."

I heard this from several people who know Doheny. People said he comes off as arrogant, that he's an insincere backslapper. None of them wanted to talk on tape about it because it is a small town.

But it's this ambivalence regarding Doheny's character – in politics, they call it "likeability" - that seems to be the issue with some local leaders.

Former Franklin County GOP chairman Jim Ellis, who is backing Stefanik, says he's watched Doheny work a room and he doesn't like what he sees.

"I think that the back-slapping and the 'oh, I was with your mayor four years ago, when we all walked down the street'...c'mon," Ellis said. "'I've been to 194 towns.' he [Doheny] says. North Country folk are not like that."

Fourth time's a charm?

MF: I asked Brian Mann this question when he was here to profile Elise Stefanik. What's the big obstacle for Matt Doheny between now and primary day? What case does he have to make to voters?

DS: He needs to make the case that he's a likeable guy you can trust, and that his Wall Street business experience will be a valuable asset in helping the North Country economy grow.

One of his big supporters, Jeremiah Maxon, a first-time legislator in Jefferson County, says Doheny can do that. "He has the experience I want, as someone who knows how jobs are created, someone who understands what it takes to business in a very business unfriendly place, like New York State," Maxon said.

Doheny also needs to make the case to voters that "the fourth time's a charm" in his quest for Congress, not a burden.

Massena town supervisor and longtime Republican insider Joe Gray supported Doheny twice, but he's flipped to Stefanik. He says he's been turned off by what he sees as more negative campaigning on Doheny's part. And Gray says the party just needs new blood.

"There's a common term used in politics. Sometimes you become damaged goods if you keep running," Gray said. "And I'm not sure he doesn't fit that bill at this point."

Republican voters will make the big determination in the primary election on June 24. You can tune in to Doheny and Stefanik's second televised debate Thursday at 7pm on North Country Public Radio, WWNY-TV, and your local public television station.

 

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