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.
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.
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.