Overcoming to lead
Saranac Lake native credits his humble beginnings, caring teachers for putting him on the path to his run for Senate
TROY — Aaron Gladd attributes his run for New York’s 43rd state Senate District seat this November to what he learned growing up in Saranac Lake.
The Democratic candidate overcame childhood poverty to attend the Nelson Rockefeller College of Public Affairs, spent four years in the Army in the early 2010s — including a tour fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan — and six years working for federal and state leaders on both sides of the aisle.
“None of that happens if I didn’t have teachers like I did in Saranac Lake,” Gladd said.
Gladd considers himself lucky to have been given the opportunities he had growing up in Saranac Lake, and he wants to spread that luck to other kids like him in upstate New York.
From the look of the campaign office, you wouldn’t know he was working with half a million dollars. His team sits on thin futons and drinks out of red Solo cups. They are spending sparsely but have amassed a large volunteer base of over 100, which reportedly knocked on 10,000 doors last Sunday alone. The 43rd Senate District encompasses all of Columbia County and parts of Rensselaer, Saratoga and Washington Counties.
His opponent, Republican Daphne Jordan, has around twice the budget, supplied by the state Republican Committee, but Gladd, who is not financially backed by the Democratic Committee, has more cash on hand late in the race.
They are both running for an open seat, a rare opportunity, in a district with 57,955 active Democrats, 63,958 active Republicans and 53,234 active unaffiliated voters, according to Ballotopedia.
Gladd said he grew up very poor, and after he emancipated himself from his family at 16 years old, was living with friends or sleeping in his car. When his grades started slipping, he said teachers like Don Carlisto, Trish Preston and Chuck Bell showed they cared and set a higher standard for him than he set for himself.
Gladd said he supported himself through the rest of high school, bagging groceries at Tops on Saranac Lake’s Church Street and Price Chopper in Lake Placid, and serving at Great Adirondack Steak and Seafood in Lake Placid.
Gladd said Bell, who was his teacher, coach and senior adviser, would require him to show up to class if he was going to play in that week’s game, which is standard. He would push Gladd even further by requiring him to get a grade of 85 percent or higher on his math tests. Gladd said Bell recognized he was good at math, but wasn’t trying.
He said the teachers understood some students didn’t always have enough to eat and did their best to help them climb out of the cycle of poverty.
“If you weren’t showing up to class, they didn’t just punish you; they didn’t say, ‘You’re a truant,'” Gladd said. “They said, ‘Why aren’t you in class? Oh s___, you don’t have a home. Let me reach out and figure out how to help you.”
Gladd said growing up in Saranac Lake, he learned what it means to have an all-inclusive community.
“It’s so small that you can’t isolate. Poor kids … and rich kids … we’re all together,” Gladd said. “There are no silos because, physically, it’s such a small town. What that makes you do is it makes you confront hard realities. Yes, we’re different, but we’re all in this together. We all came on different ships but we’re all in the same boat.”
He spoke highly of his graduation class of 2004, around 100 of them in total. He listed off peers: Johnny Williams, Chelsea Haviland, Brad Hanpeter and Osita Ezumah, who returned to Saranac Lake to open Bitters and Bones; Jamie Duprey, a teacher in Saranac Lake; and Tyler Leidig and Brian Ohmann, who served in the military.
“Saranac Lake is all over the world,” Gladd said.
When Gladd had 40 soldiers under his command as a ground combat platoon leader in the 1st Calvary Division, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province, one of most dangerous zones at the time, he was receiving intelligence from a fellow 2004 graduate.
“Brian Ohmann, from down the street, one of my best friends growing up, was the guy watching my back in Afghanistan,” Gladd said.
Gladd has even received campaigning help from Saranac Lakers outside his district. Carlisto went to knock on doors recently, Williams was one of the people Gladd called when he was initially considering a run and Kirk Sullivan, who graduated a few years before Gladd, came back to town to film a television commercial for Gladd.
After serving in Afghanistan, Gladd moved to Rensselaer County to start raising his family and became the deputy policy director for Gov. Andrew Cuomo for three years. Before the military, he had worked for an equal amount of time in the office of Deputy Senate Majority Leader Tom Libous, a conservative Republican.
“I’m not particularly political,” Gladd said. “I don’t look at issues like feeding kids or making them read as Democratic issues or Republican issues. Both are just doing the right thing.”
Gladd has even been endorsed by Roy McDonald, the Republican who used to hold the state Senate seat he is running for.
Gladd says he does not consider himself to be part of the “Blue Wave” of Democratic candidates running in the 2018 election. He said he is part of the “New Wave” of candidates running to represent the average person.
“When you look at the lay of the land, you’ve got a bunch of wealthy lawyers who are in state government, not a lot of people like me, not a lot of people who want to make a difference,” Gladd said.
Standing outside his offices, a man walked past with half a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, carrying a paper bag, and immediately recognized Gladd, saying he was going to vote for him and wishing him luck in the election.
Much of Gladd’s policy and approach to politics is informed by his childhood.
“I think about, you know, I grew up on Upper Broadway. I think about a kid like me; how do you help them?” Gladd said. “Somebody, somewhere said, ‘We should develop a program with food stamps. We should develop a program like the heating assistance program. We should develop a program like CHIP to make sure kids have health insurance.'”
He cares a lot about education and said he wants to empower teachers to do more for students by creating a voice for them in the state government. He wants to stop evaluating teachers based on test scores, get more local food into school cafeterias and build a way to tailor education to rural, urban or suburban areas based on their different needs.
“We need a baseline that says every child should be able to read. Every child,” Gladd said. “We can do that as a government; we can actually get this done.”
Gladd’s wife, who is a school teacher in the Troy area, buys coats and shoes for students out of her own pocket. He wants schools to have programs for supporting students themselves.
Gladd supports universal access to health care and clean water. In the 43rd District, Gladd said the towns of Hoosick Falls and Petersberg have been drinking poison water. For nearly three years, residents of both towns have been aware that the water they were drinking had perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOAs in it. Both towns have developed high levels of thyroid and testicular cancer.
Gladd said this causes home values to drop, which makes people and businesses move away, which causes taxes to go up, continuing the cycle. Nothing has been done to help the towns find a new water source, despite protests from citizens.
“We can do that in the state government. If we put the politics aside, we can actually help people,” Gladd said.
(Corrections: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Gladd’s tour of duty in Afghanistan was four years long, said one of his high school jobs was delivering newspapers for the Enterprise [he did this when he was around 10 years old], misspelled Rensselaer and said Libous was the Senate’s deputy minority leader rather than deputy majority leader. The Enterprise regrets the errors.)