SARANAC LAKE - After four weeks of mostly media silence following his endorsement by county committee chairs, Aaron Woolf, a Democratic Party candidate to represent New York's 21st Congressional District, did a phone interview with the Enterprise on Friday.
Woolf said his strong impulse was to talk to people on the ground first, before talking with reporters, but this week he gave a series of interviews to North Country media.
He told the Enterprise about why he decided to run for office, his beliefs on important issues and some about his background and personal life.
(Enterprise photo - Matthew Turner)
"I am running for Congress because I feel this part of the country is at a crucial crossroads," Woolf said. "We're seeing so many of our towns, on Main Street, with boarded-up businesses. The 2010 census showed we are losing a lot of young people, clearly our most precious resource.
"But we are also seeing these kind of seeds everywhere, and certainly in Saranac (Lake), a kind of a new economy."
Woolf is a documentary filmmaker, most widely known for his 2007 "King Corn," about Midwest crop subsidies. This is the first time he has sought public office.
"I'm not a politician or a political operative that runs repeatedly for office," Woolf said. "But I have been motivated to get involved in this election because Washington is so dysfunctional."
He hopes to buck that trend.
"If there is one thing I think we do really well in this part of the country, it is sit down with each other," Woolf said. "We have shown, in this era of such polarization, that in the North Country you don't have to agree with everybody about everything to get something done."
Woolf said he and his family split their time between homes in Elizabethtown and New York City. He owns an organic food store in Brooklyn, Urban Rustic, and his wife Carolyn works at a university there, a career he said she has continued.
"This came up very suddenly," he said of his decision to enter the congressional race.
They have a 2-year-old daughter, Eloise, who was at home with him on Friday in Elizabethtown and could be heard in the background of the phone interview.
He changed his voter registration to Elizabethtown on Feb. 7, five days before the chairs' endorsement. Asked if he has taken any other steps toward making that his primary residence, he said, "Home is where the heart is" and that his heart is in Elizabethtown.
"I understand the sentiment, 'Is Woolf one of us? Can we trust him? Does he represent our interests?'" he said. "One of the things I would say is that I've chosen to be here over and over again in my life."
In a follow-up email, Woolf told the Enterprise, "Just to be clear ... my primary residence (is) in Elizabethtown NY where I own my house."
North Country ties
One project in which Woolf was heavily involved is well known in the North County. He was an early leader of the Go Digital or Go Dark fundraising campaign to upgrade the region's vintage, non-chain movie theaters with digital projectors, an expense the owners couldn't afford on their own. The Adirondack North Country Association and Adirondack Film Society were the lead agencies, and ANCA Executive Director Kate Fish confirmed that Woolf was a major player early on.
"He was one of the first people I talked to about that, knowing he was a filmmaker and would have an insight," Fish told the Enterprise Friday. "He actually made the trailer and was involved in the early calls to people about how was the whole thing going to work."
Lee Keet of Saranac Lake has known Woolf as a fellow board member of the Adirondack Council, an environmental group based in Elizabethtown. He said he supports Woolf's campaign enthusiastically.
"He has proven to be an articulate, thoughtful, intelligent advocate for the people and ecology of the Park," Keet wrote the Enterprise in an email. "When he asked my opinion, I encouraged him to run, as I believe we need more thoughtful, centrist, citizen politicians of Aaron's caliber and fewer self-serving agitators from either party."
Another prominent Saranac Lake Democrat said he hasn't met Woolf yet.
"I've heard a lot of good things about him," said Paul Van Cott, a village trustee who led the most recent village Democratic Party caucus. "I look forward to getting to know him better and getting him to know more about Saranac Lake."
Woolf was a board member on the Adirondack Council from 2011 until he resigned on Jan. 31.
"I was really drawn to their goal of thinking about how both human and natural communities could survive," Woolf said of the council, "and the idea that our great Adirondack Park - unique in the country and the world, I would say - could be an economic driver and not an impediment to growth."
He said he is glad the federal government has, over time, been able to require air scrubbers on the smokestacks of Midwestern power plants.
"Some environmental regulations come at a short-term loss in favor of a long-term benefit, and that's exactly what my philosophy is," Woolf said.
Asked about America's natural gas boom, he said, "It's a blessing," but one that needs to be conserved.
"We almost need to think of it as a bank account," he said. "We struck the lottery and need to be very responsible with the winnings."
Working with Republicans
There are a few areas he said he shares in common with some Republicans - for instance, the idea that public programs should be in the service of the private sector and not to its detriment. He said he is "kind of obsessed" with ideas for improving infrastructure and thinks he and Republicans could agree on a long term-vision for that: not just broadband Internet, cellphone service, roads and bridges, but also things like farms. Farmers are getting older, and feeding the nation is a long-term concern, he said.
On Republicans' calls to cut spending, Woolf said there is waste and inefficiency in federal agencies that needs to be fixed.
"Twenty dollars well spent is worth more than 2,000 dollars poorly spent," he said.
"What we have is a very flawed piece of legislation, called the Affordable Care Act," Woolf said. "My strong sense is that this piece of legislation should be fixed and not repealed. We cannot go back to the days when insurance companies would not cover people with pre-existing conditions."
Woolf said he approves of certain parts of the ACA, like allowing young adults to be on their parents' health insurance plan until they start a career of their own, but he disagreed with other pieces of the legislation.
"I think we should repeal the medical device tax," he said. "Medical device technology is one thing done in the U.S. incredibly well. That seems to me like punishing success."
He said he has seen Elizabethtown Community Hospital grow into a top-notch facility - he said he had to go there recently after a dog bit him - but he's not sure other North Country hospitals are as good. In addition, he said, he's aware of a need for better rural mental health, especially due to his wife's background in psychology.
Woolf said he is gun owner, hunter and supporter of the Second Amendment.
"Guns are a part of the culture of this district, and I would say further than that, safe gun use is part of the culture of this district," Woolf said. "When you learn as an adolescent how to handle a firearm, I think you are much more likely to handle that with responsibility."
Asked about federal gun-control initiatives, he said he would prefer a broader approach to reducing gun violence that included mental health.
Woolf said he was worried when he heard about the allegations that the National Security Agency spies on American citizens' phone records and online communications, as well as recent allegations that the Central Intelligence Agency spied on Senate staff.
"Like many Americans, I'm deeply concerned about the kinds of information gathering we've learned about through the NSA revelations and those of the CIA as well," he said. "But I'm also very cognizant of our security needs. ... Balancing that will be the challenge of our lifetime, how to grapple with that issue."
Following in Owens' footsteps
Woolf said Rep. Bill Owens, a Democrat from Plattsburgh who decided in January not to seek re-election, has been supportive of his efforts, professionally and personally.
"He has been an incredible congressman," Woolf said. "His ability to listen ... and his ability to thoughtfully assemble varied opinions is a good model. I'd be proud to follow in his footsteps."
Woolf also said he'd be proud to walk in the footsteps of Owens' predecessor, Rep. John McHugh, a Republican from Pierrepont Manor.
Managing Editor Peter Crowley contributed to this report.