Where are they now?

Catching up with the ex-congressional candidates in New York’s 21st District

NY-21 Democratic congressional candidates, from left, Tanya Boone, Don Boyajian, Tedra Cobb, Sara Idleman, Ron Kim, Emily Martz, Patrick Nelson and Katie Wilson speak at a Citizens Acting Together for District 21 forum in January. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

New York’s 21st Congressional District race has been pared down to three candidates, but at one time there were 13 contenders for the North Country’s Congress seat, 10 of them Democrats.

Some of these candidates are now working with the competitor who beat them out, some are busy with new political races, and all of them recommend more people take part in the experience of running for federal office.

Campaigning for Cobb

Democrat Tedra Cobb won the primary election in June, beating out Emily Martz, Patrick Nelson, Katie Wilson and Dylan Ratigan. Sara Idleman, Don Boyajian, Ron Kim, David Mastrianni and Tanya Boone had dropped out beforehand. Cobb won with 56 percent of the vote.

NY-21 Democratic congressional candidate Dylan Ratigan speaking in his hometown of Saranac Lake in February. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Before the primary election, Paul Herrmann of Saranac Lake wrote a letter to the editor in the Enterprise predicting that Cobb would win, saying she should hire her opponents: Nelson as legislative aide, Martz as administrative aide, Wilson as constituent aide and Ratigan as spokesman.

On election night, Nelson and Martz held an event together where Nelson said they were “going to hit the streets tomorrow … to bring this party together, steamroll into November and take this seat back!” Martz said “We are going to rally around the winner!” Wilson also said everyone should “work like hell to make sure that Tedra Cobb in our next congresswoman.”

Of her nine opponents, two have wholeheartedly been campaigning for her, both of whom dropped out before the primary. Two are focused on new political races, and mainly the rest are loosely supporting Cobb.

Idleman was thrilled with the primary result, saying the other candidates were not ready for the general election race. She is active in Cobb’s campaign, coordinating more than 125 Washington County volunteers.

Idleman said it was hard dropping out but that it’s a privilege to work with Cobb.

NY-21 Democratic congressional candidate David Mastrianni said running for Congress was a “tremendous experience” and that he would encourage anyone to do it. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

“The transition from running against her to working with her was very easy, because from day one I knew that she was the person to beat,” Idleman said. “This is the most amazing campaign I’ve ever seen, and it’s just really exciting to be a part of it.”

She has previously worked on congressional campaigns for Democratic Reps. Bill Owens and Scott Murphy as well as unsuccessful Congress candidates Aaron Woolf and Mike Derrick.

Boyajian said Cobb was a “fantastic candidate” and that he is putting in plenty of energy to get her elected by canvassing in Washington County.

Some are involved in smaller roles.

Nelson said he and Cobb still communicate occasionally, with him advising in minor roles. Nelson believes the way for Democrats to win elections is not to run centrist moderates but to run grassroots progressives, which he said Cobb is.

Martz, of Saranac Lake, said she still talks with Cobb and that when volunteers for her state Senate campaign talk with voters, they also campaign for Cobb.

Ratigan is not involved at all in the Cobb campaign. The Saranac Lake native, who admitted he had never voted when he announced his candidacy in February, said he will vote by absentee ballot and that he was impressed with Cobb.

He said he does not believe in the illusion of candidates as a solution, though. He said many people feel that if someone they like has all the rule-making authority, they feel good, and if it’s who they don’t like, then they’re terrified. This is all a distraction, he said; the politics game and war of campaign budgets take attention away from the real goals.

“I don’t follow the news,” Ratigan said. “I know there’s money and commercials and things are being said about each other that are manipulative and based on either nothing, half-truths or reinterpretations.”

Wilson said Cobb deserves credit for the political movement she built and that she has been involved a bit in the campaign, though not as much as she offered.

“I’ve offered all kinds of assistance, and they’ve taken me up on some of it,” Wilson said.

Kim said he donated to Cobb’s campaign and that she’s doing a good job.

Boone said Cobb has a “fantastic” campaign and that she may host a campaign event at her recently renovated 1850s house soon.

Mastrianni said he has spoken with Cobb but has not worked with the campaign directly.

What now?

Some of the candidates have returned to the jobs and businesses they were working before their campaign, but several are continuing careers in politics.

Nelson has been in politics for a long time now, and soon after the primary he started receiving calls from campaigns around the state. He is just as passionate as when he was running and can talk about any number of campaign issues at length at the drop of a hat.

After he got his bearings in July, he went to Long Island to manage the campaign of Michael Marcantonio in Long Island’s 12th Assembly District race. Marcantonio lost a ballot challenge because he had voted in North Carolina while he was in college in 2012 and 2014, losing his “electoral residency” and barring him from running for state office for five years.

Nelson then went on to manage the re-election campaign for Christine Pellegrino in Long Island’s 9th Assembly District. He had previously worked on her special election win in 2017, which he called the “first cresting of this blue wave idea.”

Though he feels he can do the most good on Long Island right now, Nelson said he is excited to move back to the North Country. He is a member of the state Democratic committee, on the Democratic executive committee in Saratoga County and the vice chair of the Stillwater Democratic committee.

Martz said the night the primary results came in, while she was still thinking about the loss, people were already asking if she would run for state Senate.

“I was honestly disappointed; I wanted to serve the region,” Martz said. “It was a difficult decision, but I had to make it quickly.”

In nine days Martz and her team of more than 100 volunteers gathered 1,998 signatures, more than enough to put her on the ballot for the state’s 45th Senate District. Martz said she decided to run for this seat because she had not heard new ideas from incumbent Republican Betty Little and feels she can better listen to the people of the district.

Wilson said the primary loss was difficult.

“The biggest emotion was really just, I kind of felt like I let people down,” Wilson said. “It was a mix of gratitude and, like, remorse for not being able to pull it off.”

Soon after, she began working on a mixed-media project called Tribal States, which seeks to expand people’s idea of political tribalism beyond the idea of Republican-Democrat opposition.

She said America is much more nuanced, with countless “tribes,” and that when discussing tribalism, many people don’t consider independents or non-voters, which she said makes up the largest amount of people in NY-21.

Idleman is still busy as the Greenwich town supervisor, a member of the Washington County Board of Supervisors and delegate to the state Democratic committee. She said she will not run for town supervisor again because she feels 10 years is long enough and she wants to shift into being a mentor for people running for office.

Boone is almost finished renovating the 1850s home she bought around the same time she announced her candidacy. She said she spent much of the race with contractors coming in and out of the home. She is now working as a health care consultant for Sellers-Dorsey, helping hospitals across the country figure out their Medicaid strategies and expand federal money from Medicaid.

Mastrianni is back at his job as a physician administrator at Saratoga Hospital, and he is working with a national group physicians trying to enact health care reform.

Ratigan is working with his company Helical Holdings, which employs veterans to run solar-powered, hydroponic farming modules and sells produce in grocery stores. He said Congress was just a path on his mission of converting fossil fuel-based energy to non-fossil-fuel-based energy around the world. He has not been in the U.S. for several weeks now. In September he was giving a speech in southern Europe when he said he was approached by someone with a lot of resources and time offering an expansion opportunity for Helical. He has stayed in Europe since then.

Ratigan is glad to focus on solutions rather than fighting, which he said was a major aspect of running for Congress he enjoys being away from.

Boyajian had shifted his campaign into a bid for New York’s 107th Assembly District, but lost the primary in September.

Now, like Ratigan, he says politics was just a means to an end, fighting for the environment. He is working through his law practice in cases involving farmers, the environment and opioids, as well as helping several northern New York candidates, such as Martz and Aaron Gladd, a Saranac Lake native who is running in the 43rd state Senate District.

Kim is also back at his law practice, working on employment discrimination and consumer protection cases because he sees so much wrong in the world.

“The good thing about what I do in some ways is try to, maybe in my little world, right some of the wrongs,” Kim said.

Lessons learned

For many of the candidates, this was their first foray into politics, and it was a growing experience for all of them.

Kim found out he is good at “walking and chewing gum,” by which he means running a business and running for Congress simultaneously.

Mastrianni found the difference between lecturing and taking questions from people who disagree with you.

“I admire the people who are willing to do that on a regular basis,” Mastrianni said, adding that every word is under a microscope. “Really, how many of us say at least a dozen stupid things in a day?”

Mastrianni also said he learned how technical the petition process was and said he thinks it should be simplified. Signature problems killed his campaign.

Boone learned that candidates need a good infrastructure when jumping into something as big as a political race.

“For example, it’s not a good idea to start a massive house renovation at the same time that you are launching a campaign for Congress,” Boone said.

She left the campaign in March after Ratigan announced he was joining because with she thought that with so many people running, it was hard to raise money and get a message out.

Martz said she realized how important television advertising is.

Ratigan said he understands failure better now.

“We’ll always have Herkimer,” Ratigan said, referring to the county he won, the only one Cobb did not.

For some candidates, running was a time of self-reflection and personal exporation.

“I learned a lot about myself,” Idleman said, “which has been true throughout my public service career.”

She said she learned what her strengths and weaknesses were, and advised anyone running for office to surround themselves with strong people smarter than they are.

Boyajian said that he doesn’t agree with the idea that politics changes who you are. He believes it shows you who you really are. Every day on the campaign trail he said he was forced to think thoroughly about what he really believes on a variety of issues.

Nelson said he learned the “heavy seriousness” of running when talking with veterans and parents of active-duty service members who asked what he will do for them.

“They’re looking to someone that they can trust to decide whether or not their child should go to war or not,” Nelson said.

“Having your name on that ballot does things — and I’ll be a little bit of a dork — does things to your neurochemistry that are just kind of unavoidable,” Nelson said. “You’re forever changed, I hope for the better.”

Wilson learned about the tribalism she is now using her media project to investigate. She found that she related less and less to her own supposed “tribe” of liberal voters who she felt only saw things in black and white.

“I found that oftentimes those rooms full of people that probably identified most with how I thought of myself were some of the most frustrating rooms to be in,” Wilson said. “A lot of that was simply because of how indoctrinated and rigid the ideals were.

“I got to the point where being in rooms full of liberal Democrats was far more frustrating than being in rooms full of Trump voters.”

As she appreciated the gray areas of the district, her campaigning style shifted, too. Wilson said she knew most voters in the district were somewhere in the middle, the gray areas, and she wanted to energize them. She wanted “whoever won the primary [to] have at least an open line of communication, potentially to that demographic.”

“We were running a general election strategy, and in retrospect, no wonder we didn’t win the primary,” Wilson said. “I think that Tedra is really personable, and if she could get in front of those people, then she likely could [get their vote].”

Wilson said she learned that she had to go where the people are and that it is best to campaign in “dive bars and outside grocery stores.”

Love for the race

Every candidate said their favorite part of running was traveling around the district, meeting people from all walks of life and talking politics with them.

Nelson said he fell in love with the district over and over again, seeing its vast range of people, places and politics

“It was a tremendous experience,” Mastrianni said. “I would encourage anyone to do it.”

Boyajian, at 33 years old, said it was the most fulfilling thing he’s done in his life.

“It never felt like work,” he said.

He wishes everyone could come knock on doors with him for a day. He believes talking to one’s neighbors (more than just the people in a neighborhood) improves an understanding of the world, improves communication and even improves oneself.

“We’re kind of in this mindset lately, as a country, where something is either right or it is totally wrong. And that’s just not the way reality works,” Boyajian said.

Wilson said she was surprised at how eagerly people would welcome her into their homes on the campaign trail, which made the difficult job of going door-to-door rewarding.

Kim said he liked liked going door-to-door because he saw different people than those who came to the forums.

Boone urged others to jump into politics if they feel passionate enough, and that she has no regrets in doing so.

Ratigan said running, “creates a level of purpose that otherwise doesn’t exist.”

Most of the ex-candidates said they are keeping doors open to running again. Nelson said he only considers running again “a few times a day.” Few committed to saying they would in the future, but few said outright their time in politics is over. All of them acknowledged that running was exhausting, and there was a general consensus that fundraising is the worst part.

“The most difficult part was, you know, spending eight hours a day on the phone begging for money,” Wilson said.

“Fundraising is so critical in terms of running for office, particularly at the congressional level, and I would say it shouldn’t be,” Boone said. “It’s really a perversion of what our democracy should be.”

Martz said the hardest parts were things like drinking enough water and doing laundry.

Kim urged more people, especially young people, to run in races in the future.

“We’re fighting fascism … and democracy is the cure for that,” Kim said. “More democracy is more candidates, more participation.”

The Enterprise has also interviewed former Republican candidate Russ Finley, and an article reflecting on his candidacy is in today’s paper.

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