Protests to politics

Grassroots progressive groups produce candidates in Tri-Lakes

Eventual Democratic congressional candidate Katie Wilson of Keene, brown coat, and others hold up a sign in protest of North Country Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik outside the Crowne Plaza hotel in Lake Placid in February. (Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

SARANAC LAKE — Nestled inside a residence overlooking Moody Pond, Jack Carney of Long Lake and Fred Balzac of Jay lead a multiple-hour discussion past dusk in late June. It touches on the current state of national and local politics five months into Donald Trump’s presidency, and what they want to do about it on the local level.

About a half-hour into the discussion, as an intrigued straggler walks in and finds a seat, the conversation has dovetailed from items related to the immediate wake of Trump’s election to some of the oldest parts of political history in this region: how the Iroquois people who once inhabited the North Country held women and mothers in high regard, how elements of Iroquois identity were passed through maternal lines and how women elders nominated chiefs for life.

The conversation sprawls to this tangent as the five North Country residents — including just one woman — touch on what elements of women’s and civil rights should be part of the political platform they are there to brainstorm. It’s the platform of a group Carney and Balzac don’t yet have an official name for, though in their planning process they regard it with a working title Grassroots Independents of the North Country.

On this rainy Tuesday evening on Forest Hill Avenue, as a rainbow juts up from the pond toward Baker Mountain, Carney and Balzac use this chat to further finalize their platform for what they regard as an “independent, non-established” political party. They want it to have ballot lines with candidates for local races this coming fall.

The project, they say, is an outgrowth of the women’s marches that took place in Washington, D.C., and throughout the North Country in January. The marches were smack-dab in the middle of a spike in political awareness, interest and fervor in a Tri-Lakes region where, just months later, there are already two announced Democratic congressional candidates from the Tri-Lakes region who want to unseat Republican Elise Stefanik come November 2018: Emily Martz of Saranac Lake and Katie Wilson of Keene.

Democratic congressional candidate Emily Martz (Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

Two other candidates, 2016 Bernie Sanders delegate Patrick Nelson of Stillwater and former St. Lawrence County legislator Tedra Cobb, have also announced, while several others may join the fray as well. The Green Party’s 2014 and 2016 congressional candidate, Glen Falls bread baker Matt Funiciello, has also said his party will run at least one candidate in 2018, though he has said he is still unsure if he will enter the fray again. Amid this early moving and shuffling between North Country progressives, Stefanik has tacked a bit more to the center at the start of her sophomore term.

Among the Democrats, Cobb is the only one who has served in office before. She, Nelson and Martz attended a “Progressive Summer Camp” earlier this month in Saranac Lake, sponsored by Adirondack Voters for Change, a political action group based in Saranac Lake. The camp featured several inward-looking sessions, including one dubbed “Why We Got Skunked” in the 2016 elections.

Martz and Wilson — both new to politics — got their starts just months ago through their own grassroots efforts.

Whether it be Carney and Balzac’s modest meeting in a Saranac Lake living room or something more prominent such as Wilson’s July appearance on the statewide “Capital Tonight” show, hosted by Liz Benjamin on the Spectrum News cable TV station, the current wave of progressive grassroots political outreach here in the North Country has remained high since January. It’s only been amplified here in the Tri-Lakes region, where there is a lot of noise about trying to defeat Stefanik in 2018.

It won’t be easy. Republicans still outnumber Democrats here, and Stefanik embarassed Democratic candidate Mike Derrick by more than doubling his vote total in November’s election.

From left, Patience Whitman, Glenn Arnold, Jack Carney, Fred Balzac and Walt Linck pose for a photo in late June following a discussion about national and local politics in an attempt to finalize the platform for Grassroots Independents of the North Country. (Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

The Democratic candidates hope the political interest that has bubbled since November reflects not just a wave against Trump, but a wave against Stefanik as well. Because without it, they know they’ll have no shot. Stefanik bested Derrick by nearly 100,000 votes on the same night Donald Trump became president-elect.

“All of us are who we are because of this region,” Martz said. “And (the increased interest) tells us that we firmly believe that this region — right here within it — it has what it takes to help it grow.”

Martz, formerly the Adirondack North Country Association’s deputy director and director of operations and finance, began her own grassroots journey way back on Nov. 10, 2016, two days after, to her dismay, Trump won the presidency and Stefanik romped to victory. With Saranac Lake friends, Martz planned a Jan. 20 “Alternative Inauguration Party” at the Lake Flower Landing, and launched Now What?, one of a handful of progressive anti-Trump and Stefanik groups that sprung up or grew this past half-year. Others include Adirondack Voters for Change, RESIST, SAFE Saranac Lake and UNITE the North Country.

Fast-forward three weeks after Trump’s inauguration, and there Martz was in early February, protesting with others on the snowy streets outside of the Crowne Plaza in Lake Placid after they were told Stefanik was at the hotel — something the congresswoman never confirmed, though she was scheduled to be in the village. At the time, Martz and others kept up this full-court press on the congresswoman, imploring her to host a town hall meeting in the Tri-Lakes, something she never did, though she eventually hosted a few public sessions as well as a televised town hall forum in Plattsburgh in May. One hundred people were allowed into the television studio. Almost 200 protested outside.

One of the other people outside the Crowne Plaza in February was Wilson, who held up a sign that read “Come Home Elise.” It was the first time she met Martz.

Wilson, a small business owner and Keene native, may on paper be even more of a political outsider than Martz, who has worked with ANCA to secure grant monies for local businesses and to organize private and public partnerships.

In the days after Trump won the presidency, Wilson wasn’t planning a political campaign. Rather, after returning from an August car trip to bring food and supplies to those protesting the planned construction of the Dakota Access pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, Wilson carried the protest back to northern New York. On Nov. 15, she and two other local women were arrested while staging a nonviolent sit-in protest in a Plattsburgh TD Bank, whose parent company loaned money for the pipeline.

Looking back eight months later, Wilson said she is proud of the protest, as she said it accomplished its primary goal of raising awareness about Standing Rock locally. But nearly a year after she drove her Toyota Prius 1,800 miles to pitch a tent on the shores of the Cannonball River, she is now embarking on something very different: raising millions of dollars for her political campaign.

“I think people have been shaken awake by this current political climate,” Wilson said after she announced her candidacy this month. “And I think that some are almost atoning for their lack of involvement in the democratic process up until now. I think they are hungry to participate.

“And I think women have been shaken awake specifically,” she continued. “In particular, with the rhetoric we heard during the election cycle, I think women by and large are demanding to be heard and taken seriously, while also having the capacity for compassion and thoughtful planning and dedication to service that we are really lacking in many areas and that the country is in need of.”

As much as Wilson is excited, she also believes the longer Democrats remain fragmented between their choice of candidates to take on Stefanik, the less likely one of them has the chance to win. So Wilson is pushing for early debates and town-hall-type forums to “let people form their own opinions, feel out their options and meet the candidates.”

In Saranac Lake in June, Carney and Balzac were not quite at Wilson’s level of eagerness yet, as they were still in the formative stages of their own grassroots effort. But even if they are relatively invisible inside a living room on a rainy day, they are part of the groundswell, too. They made nuanced notes on hard copies of the 18-page second draft of their working platform.

Carney and Balzac say their candidates must “endorse a platform that is pro-democracy, pro-peace and diplomacy, and pro-human rights and civil rights.” Those planning to run on more established party lines, such as Democrats and Republicans are also welcome, though Carney and Balzac reinforce the independent nature of what they are hatching.

To them, it’s all about taking small steps to help control the future.

“This grassroots effort is being undertaken outside of the two major political parties,” Balzac said, “and beyond the control of any established political parties in New York state.”