Winners and losers in last night’s NY 21 debate

Congressional Debate

From the wings of the NY-21 Congressional Debate. Photo courtesy Glens Falls Post Star / Steve Jacobs

Last night’s debate from Time Warner Cable News’ TV studio in Albany offered great fodder for voters still uncertain how to cast their ballots in November’s North Country House race.  All three candidates turned in strong performances, though they also misfired occasionally.  Here’s a look at the highs and lows.

ny-21DebateMapElise Stefanik – Republican

Stefanik, the 30-year-old frontrunner, did exactly what she needed to do:  Turn in a strong, assertive performance without committing the kind of major gaffe that would force voters to re-evaluate the race in a big way.  When you’re sitting on a big lead, as she is, the first rule is “do no wrong.”  She accomplished that last night.

She also continued to defuse any concern about her youth and her lack of experience living and working in the North Country.

While Stefanik continues to exaggerate her role as a worker in her parents’ lumber business — does anyone really believe this Harvard-trained DC-based policy expert moved to Willsboro last year to hawk plywood to contractors, as she continues to claim? — in every other respect she sounds knowledgeable, hard-working and competent.

Kirsten Gillibrand did the same kind of quick-study leg-work when she won a North Country House seat and it paid off.

Stefanik’s biggest stumble last night was when she tried to zing Aaron Woolf for not understanding the minimum wage laws in New York City, where he owns a business.  Stefanik got her own facts wrong and came off sounding pugilistic and uninformed.

Aaron Woolf – Democrat

Woolf, the documentary filmmaker and political novice, also stepped up last night, making a much more confident case for his candidacy than we’ve heard before.

He also managed to drive home his argument repeatedly that Stefanik was deeply involved in crafting the Republican Party’s controversial 2012 policy platform, which included plans to privatize parts of Social Security and Medicare, while also promising to ban all abortion, including cases involving rape, incest or health risk to the pregnant woman.

Stefanik was forced on the defensive, insisting that she “didn’t write the platform” and didn’t have editorial control over its contents.  She made it clear that she disagrees with some of the more controversial aspects of her party’s agenda.  She was articulate, but those moments still kept her on the defensive.

Woolf himself had one awkward moment when trying to talk about Stefanik’s “white collar” background.  Republicans have claimed that he was being “sexist” when he suggested that Stefanik probably didn’t have experience as a manual laborer, while he and Green candidate Matt Funiciello did. (Why would he assume that Funiciello had done blue collar work, while assuming that Stefanik hadn’t?)

It wasn’t a full-blown gaffe, but it was a risky gray zone for Woolf, who definitely needs strong support from women voters in the district.  It showed that he’s still trying to find his voice on the campaign trail.  (If you’re running for office in the North Country and still talking often about taking “umbrage” at things, that means your script still needs polishing.)

Matt Funiciello – Green Party

Funiciello, the bakery owner from Glens Falls, also turned in a strong performance, giving concise, solid arguments for progressive ideas:  universal, single-payer healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, and even a long-term transition for the Watertown area away from reliance on Fort Drum as an economic engine.

Often, third-party candidates can serve as a distraction in debates like this one, with zany antics and far-out ideas.

But Funiciello, a long-shot to win, drew attention again and again to concerns about relatively affluent and privileged politicians like Woolf and Stefanik dominating America’s political process.  He helped to ground the conversation by talking about his own lack of health insurance, the struggles of his own small business.

We also saw Funiciello’s inexperience as a candidate.  At one point, when Stefanik spoke genially about wanting to socialize with Funiciello after the campaign, he joked awkwardly that he was “involved” in another romantic relationship.  He suggested a moment later that he was “teasing,” but it was a rough-edged moment in an other wise confident outing.

Final thoughts

This is a deeply flawed election cycle for the North Country.  Two of the three candidates — both of the major party politicians, in fact — have only the thinnest roots in the 21st district.  We’ve also seen huge interventions in the process by Karl Rove and other outside big-money donors.

Much of the conversation so far has been blitheringly shallow.  Jeff Graham, the Watertown Mayor and blogger is a staunch Stefanik supporter, but in his blog this week he nudged the  Republican to “explain positions in terms that go beyond talking points.”

Woolf, meanwhile, has been a clumsy messenger for the policy ideas he supports.  As a multimillionaire, he has significant investments in the very energy and agribusiness companies that he often criticizes.  His wage and labor problems at his Brooklyn business have muddied his role as a standard-bearer for working Americans.

Funiciello, finally, has been force to spend time explaining his non-conventional views on the 9/11 terror attacks and he’s also failed to make a convincing case that he can actually win this election, a fact which will likely give rise to growing “spoiler” talk as election day approaches.

All that said, last night’s debate offered a ray of hope.  The conversation was spirited and fierce, but it was also far more detailed and robust.

Viewers and voters have a much clearer picture of who these candidates are and how they would represent the North Country if they win.  With just under a month before we all head to the voting booth, let’s hope this was a pivot toward more substance and more facts.

You can watch the complete video of the debate here at Time Warner Cable News.

10 Comments on “Winners and losers in last night’s NY 21 debate”

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  1. I know most people who comment on this website – including myself – have already decided. I’d be curious to know how much these debates actually influence those who are undecided or not set in stone with their particular candidate.

  2. Brian Mann says:

    If I recall, the latest surveys show that roughly 1 in 10 likely voters haven’t made up their minds in NY 21.

    Brian, NCPR

  3. Michael Greer says:

    I’m gonna jump in here and take on the topic of Aaron Woolfe’s comment about Elise Stefanic’s work history. The comment had nothing to do with anyone’s gender, it has to do with the fact that too many rich kids get handed a job after graduation, which they may not be interested in, may not be qualified for, may have nothing to do with their interest and training, and may not have been even available to any other job seeker. Sometimes these jobs don’t even require the presence of the supposed worker, and are arranged merely to look good on some resume’. It’s a class thing, and not a gender thing.
    Since no one in Willsboro seems to know who this Elise person is, I suspect that her job was only window dressing in daddies business.

  4. Jim Bullard says:

    It’s nice to see that Jeff Graham is at least mildly disturbed by Stefanik’s lack of details bout her positions. Based on her website many of them are that she is “open” to discussing the issues after she wins election. To me that is the equivalent of Richard Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ to end the Vietnam war. Yes, it did get him re-elected but it would pay to recall how well that worked out.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it again, for a film maker/story teller Aaron Woolf has (so far) done a very mediocre job of telling his own story. He was virtually silent for a month after getting the nomination and hasn’t demonstrated much ‘fire in the belly’ since. At least he has more substance to his positions if you take the trouble to look at his website.

    Matt Funicello is the fantasy candidate who seems to sincerely believe that as a result of his extremely long shot election congress will become reformed and productive. The reality is that as a lone Green in congress he would be totally ineffective. It would be wonderful if our government worked the way he thinks it should but there is not yet enough grassroots support for that level of change. It would require 3rd party candidates being elected in a large number of districts, not just the 21st.

    If I had my druthers we’d go back to March or April and look for a different batch of candidates.

  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    If we are to have equality between genders then there should be no problem in discussing what type of job a person has whatever their sex.
    It seems to me it is somewhat sexist for Brian M to find it awkward. Do you assume that Woolf assumed Stefanik never did any real manual labor? Perhaps he has done some research. Usually when someone works in a family business it is a point of pride that they started out sweeping floors and worked every job up to the position they currently hold. It will be interesting to see if Stefanik comes out slinging lumber on this.

  6. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Maybe the real issue with Wolf’s comment isn’t sexism, maybe it is ageism. It is a common assumption that young people these days – male or female- are less likely to have ever held a manual labor job, or perhaps any job, before going to college. Especially if they come from an up-scale bedroom community and attend Harvard.

  7. The Original Larry says:

    People choose candidates by their apparent ideological orientation; thus we have many North Country liberals who favor a carpetbagger who, according to the Essex County Democratic Committe, spent “his childhood living in Baltimore, Maryland; Princeton, New Jersey; and several European cities”, went to an elitist college and owns a business in Brooklyn over a carpetbagger who grew up in the Abany area (at least), went to an elitist college and owns a townhouse in Washington. This campaign is an insipid parody of the electoral process and tolerating it ensures that the North Country will get the Representative it deserves.

  8. “Matt Funicello is the fantasy candidate who seems to sincerely believe that as a result of his extremely long shot election congress will become reformed and productive.”

    You should listen to him a little more carefully. He’s quite open about the fact that he will not change much on his own. He wants to get the ball rolling, to pave the way for other Greens and working people of other parties to get elected to Congress. Then when they become several dozen or more, they can influence things a little more strongly.

    But you have to start somewhere. We can’t elect 30 reps, just one.

    The way I figure it is this. Stefanik will do what her party and their donors tell her to do. Woolf will do the same, which is not that much since he’ll be in the minority. Funiciello will be in the minority to but he’s the only hoping of eventually (if not immediately) changing the awful dynamic in Washington. The other two merely offer slightly different flavors of the same Kool-Aid.

  9. Angus says:

    It’s really quite simple. If elected, each candidate will do as their party directs. So the big question is, what do the parties believe? The fact that Ms. Stefanik has spoken favorably about raising the minimum wage means nothing, unless Republican leadership thinks that is a good idea. And I don’t think that is about to happen. There is really only one progressive choice, and it’s Woolf. Funicello may be a great candidate with integrity and good ideas, I don’t know, but right now all he will do is hand the election to Stefanik. She should be grateful to him.

  10. I think one of the fundamental disconnects in this race is this.Woolf supporters see him as the solution to the problem. Funiciello supporters see Woolf as equally a part of the problem as Stefanik: millionaires representing the rest of the oligarchy.

    Woolf supporters seem to see him as a milder version of Funiciello. Funiciello supporters see Woolf as a milder version of Stefanik. Is Woolf fundamentally different than Stefanik or fundamentally similar?

    I believe they are fundamentally similar, which is why the Woolf supporters’ demonization of Stefanik as some sort of anti-Christ doesn’t work. Yea, she represents the One Percent. But so does Woolf. So why do I care if one of them or the other wins? They both represent the same oligarchs… ie: not me or anyone else who has to work for a living.

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