Dems distinguish themselves at 21st Congressional District forum

Democrat Ronald Kim addresses a crowd of around 200 voters at a forum held by Citizens Acting Together for District 21 to showcase the ideas and opinions of the candidates running for Congress. Other Democratic candidates, from left to right, include Tanya Boone, Don Boyajian, Tedra Cobb, Sara Idleman, Emily Martz and Patrick Nelson. Katie Wilson sits out of frame to the right. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

GLENS FALLS — Eight Democratic congressional candidates running for New York’s 21st Congressional District seat attended a forum in this city Sunday afternoon. Attempting to distinguish their platforms from other candidates, they delivered strongly-worded critiques of Congresswoman Elise Stefanik –who did not attend — and received feedback from nearly 200 voters in the audience.

The forum, hosted by Citizens Acting Together for District 21 in the Moreau Community center, was standing room only, despite its conflict with the Buffalo Bills playoff game, which CAT21 co-founder Bob Lippman said was a sign of the district’s rising interest in politics. A straw pole of 176 attendee votes put Tedra Cobb as the favored candidate at the end of the three hour forum with 23 percent of the support. Patrick Nelson followed with Emily Martz and Tanya Boone close behind at 17, 14 and 12 percent support, respectively; Ronald Kim and Don Boyajian held around 10 percent support with Katie Wilson and newcomer Sara Idleman tied for 7 percent of the vote. Republican candidate Russell Finley received one percent of the vote despite not attending the forum.

Finley sent a statement explaining that he was in Syracuse with his mother who had emergency heart surgery.

“This is no longer about which Democratic candidate is going to be challenging the winner of the Republican primary,” Finley wrote in an email read at the forum. “Given that the Congresswoman has not attended any of the five forums, spent any time in the district with the voters, and especially because she has not announced her reelection, this race is now ‘Which one of the many Democrats will be challenging me as the Republican in the November election.'”

Stefanik, the Republican incumbent, declined to attend. In a statement in a Dec. 31 Post-Star article, Stefanik campaign spokesman Lenny Alcivar said:

Tedra Cobb addresses a crowd of around 200 voters at a forum held by Citizens Acting Together for District 21 to showcase the ideas and opinions of the candidates running for Congress. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone

“What is clear on the crowded Democratic side is that support has not coalesced around any single candidate. These Democratic candidates will continue to struggle to build strong campaigns in order to qualify for the ballot and will run further and further to the left of the voters in this district.”

Republican candidate Steve Schnibbe did not respond to a request to attend.

The forum was many voters’ first chance to meet Democratic newcomer Idleman, who joined the race at the start of the new year. Idleman, who said she stands out from the rest because she has lived her entire life in the district, is the Greenwich town supervisor and the only Democrat on a five-person board. She said after five wins and nine years in the seat she has learned how to work beyond political parties to benefit the community and remain civil with those she disagrees with.

With all candidates at the forum hailing from the same party, there were many similar answers to questions about health care, the tax bill, minimum wage, infrastructure spending and gun control. Despite the many similarities, there were plenty of differences in what people knew and plan to do if elected.

Sara Idleman addresses a crowd of around 200 voters at a forum held by Citizens Acting Together for District 21 to showcase the ideas and opinions of the candidates running for Congress. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Campaign contributions

A moderator’s question asking candidates to reveal and comment on their funding thus far in the race produced dozens of data points on everything from how many thousands of dollars they have raised, to how much of their funding comes from within the district and how large their average donations are.

All candidates claimed a majority of their funding originated within the 21st District, most in small dollar amounts from grassroots and publicly funded campaigns.

Nelson noted that he has been endorsed by the Justice Democrats, a national progressive political action committee, but pledged to not take money from corporate PACs or lobbyists.

“Some folks may think they can outsmart human nature, take corporate money and not be influenced; this has been the Democratic party’s deal with the devil for the last few decades,” Nelson said, pointing out that despite big budget spending on Democratic races, the party has lost locally and nationally in recent years. “What good is a deal with the devil if the devil fails to hold up his end of the bargain?”

Kim added his own proposal for a constitutional amendment to tax corporate political contributions.

Boyajian pledged to reject PAC money as well, lamenting that congressional campaigns require so much cash.

Idleman said that if there are PACs working to improve the quality of life for North Country residents, she will not turn down their financial support.

Boone expressed the same misgivings about the capital required to have a shot in politics and said she is proud of the contribution she received from a plumbers and pipe-fitters labor union.

Tax bill

All opposed the tax bill, saying it was poorly written, misguided and will benefit the wealthy while neglecting the middle class, especially in rural New York. Many candidates suggested that for Congress to actually benefit the middle class, the money spent on handouts and tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires should be spent on local infrastructure and industries.

Boone added that she supports the bill’s increase in the standard deduction, saying it will help working people. She was disappointed this change was paired with things like eliminating the state and local taxes (SALT) deduction.

“The biggest problem is the corporate tax rate,” Boone said. “The effective rate is 35 percent … no one really pays 35 percent. Corporations don’t pay 35 percent. My concern is when we reduce it down to 21 percent that the effective rate will be much, much lower than that.”

Wilson was one of the more vocal critics of Stefanik, using a chance to have an extra minute of talking to point out that the congresswoman is the Republican House deputy whip.

“That means that every bill that she votes against, she is out rounding up the ‘yes’ votes,” Wilson said. “She has never voted against a piece of legislation that couldn’t pass.”

Boyajian also spoke harshly about Stefanik and her work with tax overhaul advocate House Speaker Paul Ryan.

“Elise is one of the most dangerous members in Congress,” Boyajian said. “The most disingenuous, passionless kind of member. She needs to go. She says one thing and does another.”

Third-party campaigns

All candidates agreed to not run as a third-party if they are not chosen in the Democratic primary in June, with several pledging to give their remaining funds, employees and support to the primary winner.

Kim disagreed with sentiments he has seen online where people worry that too many Democratic candidates will be bad for the party’s chances of winning the election. He said more candidates is a a positive sign.

“We should have more candidates here, this is good for democracy and this is how we fight Donald Trump,” Kim said. “I admire all these people. I think they’d all be good candidates. Stop talking about ‘People need to leave.’ We need to continue this and this makes us stronger.”

A hand-raising poll of attendees revealed that though many were politically involved in campaigns and registered to vote, only around half invested in a candidate with their time and money, something CAT21 organizers hope to change.