Don Boyajian: skier, ‘policy nerd,’ optimist
Congressional candidate's positive outlook and love of Adirondacks spur his campaign
(Editor’s note: The Enterprise has run profiles of other candidates in New York’s 21st Congressional District and will continue the profiles until the election.)
NORTH CREEK — As Don Boyajian rode the ski lifts up Gore Mountain on Saturday, the 33-year-old town attorney pointed out his favorite secret chutes, remembering the giant leaps he would take off cliffs and talking about other ski mountains visible in the distance.
Boyajian said his love of the Adirondacks is the catalyst for his Democratic bid for congressional office.
“I believe in this place, but it breaks my heart to see people not have a positive outlook for the future of the North Country,” Boyajian said.
He grew up in Vischer Ferry, near Clifton Park, and said he saw many of his friends leave for jobs elsewhere. His curiosity for nature led him to pursue environmental geography and biology at Colgate University. He became a legislative aide for New York Rep. Mike McMahon in the first year of the Obama administration. Boyajian now lives in Cambridge, east of Saratoga Springs in the southeast corner of New York’s 21st Congressional District.
Boyajian is a self-proclaimed “policy nerd,” writing op-eds that may never be published on the weekends, and researching and creating policies.
“I believe this job [a congressperson] is a policy job,” Boyajian said. “Politics is different than policy-making, and when it comes to politics, people love to give you silver bullet solution answers. Problems are complicated, solutions are complicated, and you have to have a comprehensive approach to address anything.”
He said the American government has failed its citizens on federal and state levels, and needs to focus on the fundamentals of the American economy: federally funded block grants for community development, a federal $15 minimum wage that increases with inflation and a bipartisan infrastructure bill that protects workers’ wages.
After learning how to draft, markup and pass legislation in Washington, he studied law at Cornell Law School and returned to NY21 to work as a town attorney in Saratoga County, representing municipalities in environmental matters, from PCB contamination in the St. Lawrence and Hudson rivers to installing stop signs.
Boyajian said he is “appalled by the lack of scientific literacy” in the House and says he could bring a scientifically educated voice to Congress.
“Our weather is more volatile, as we’re seeing this winter, and our climate is changing,” Boyajian said. “You can talk to anybody who does some backcountry skiing in the Adirondacks for any length of time. This time of year, February, we used to ski on stream beds.”
While riding Gore’s Adirondack Express II lift, he commented on the exposed rocks, patches of grass and unofficial chutes that were unskiable, saying that winters with such high temperatures, even rain, were unheard of in his childhood.
New York has more ski areas than any other state in the country, but warmer, shorter seasons mean less business, less tourism and a diminished image.
An avid hiker, fly fishing enthusiast and lifelong skier who enjoys tackling the backcountry, Boyajian said he participates in the activities that make the North Country unique and wants to see them preserved by revisiting the Superfund Act to fund the completion of environmental cleanups in the Adirondack Park.
Boyajian said veteran care and the opioid epidemic are both really health care problems and more examples of issues requiring the “comprehensive approach” he talked about.
Boyajian has represented several counties against Purdue Pharma for flooding the market with opiates it knew were dangerous. He said he has attended several funerals in the past few years for the children of friends and was saddened by the loss that he says was caused by a pharmaceutical company’s reckless practices. His solutions included more funding for Narcan (a heroin overdose-reversing drug), criminal justice reform through Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion and increasing the number of rehab beds in the North Country.
Boyajian has a long list of things he wants funded by the federal government. Nevertheless, he said he can keep taxes down by providing stability to the economy and being responsible with constituents’ money.
He said Congress is not regulating the financial sector properly, and that things like the Great Recession and high unemployment results are the result.
“Financial regulation is about consumer protection and preventing systemic risk,” Boyajian said. “When they say ‘bank to big too fail,’ they mean ‘systemic risk.’ When a financial institution becomes so large and so intertwined in the different areas of our financial market, and then if that institution starts to fail, it not only is failing individually, but it is creating a threat to the whole financial apparatus of our economy.”
Boyajian was working for McMahon when Congress was drafting the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which was created to improve accountability and transparency in the financial system.
He described the Financial Choice Act, which Stefanik voted for, as a direct attack on small business, a handout to Wall Street and rollback on the Dodd-Frank protections from bank activity that caused the 2008 recession.
He also said he would save taxpayer money by not voting for counterproductive and expensive bills, like the 2017 GOP tax bill and building a wall on the country’s southern border.
“A tax scam that is a handout to billionaires and that is going to cripple us in debt is not what this country needs,” Boyajian said. “Instead of building a wall, how about we do an infrastructure bill that will bring jobs to the North Country? Instead of building a wall, how about we pursue universal health care? Instead of building a wall, how about we finally address climate change in a real way?”
He voiced concerns over the general tone the president and much of the country is taking toward immigration, saying they seem to have forgotten that America is a nation of immigrants.
Boyajian himself if the grandson of Amenian refugees who came to New York 100 years ago to flee the Armenian Genocide.
“They came to upstate New York. They had nothing, they had no money, they had no education, but they basically found the American Dream right in Saratoga County,” Boyajian said. “We don’t even know if they’d be welcome anymore.”
When talking about the future, Boyajian has a bright view of the country’s path forward.
“There’s a lot of tension in the public discourse, but good things come out of difficult times,” Boyajian said. “The key is not not lose your optimism, because we’ve been through much, much worse periods in out country and we’ve come out of every bad time a much better country, a much more empathetic democracy, a more united democracy, a more inclusive democracy.”
He carries that sunny demeanor on the campaign trail, putting on “Bluegrass and Politics” events where he plays guitar and sings with local musicians. Music, he said, is the great unifier, and it doesn’t matter what political ideals someone subscribes to when they’re playing Merle Haggard songs.
Boyajian wasn’t always this optimistic, though. He said he was frustrated with the system for a while but learned that anger can only get you so far. Perseverance and hard work, he said, pave the path to success.
He recalled running track in high school: Knowing he wasn’t the fastest, he took the longest, most challenging races instead, and leaned in when he grew tired and his legs seized up with lactic acid to reach the finish line.
Though he is one member of a large field of Democratic candidates, he said he is in the race for the long haul.
“I want to be a withered, old man,” Boyajian said, “and people will say, ‘He did everything he could to change the North Country.'”