Castelli fields voter questions at Saranac Lake town hall
Talks cost of living, vets’ benefits and assault weapons ban at SL town hall
SARANAC LAKE — NY-21 Democratic candidate Matt Castelli spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at the Saranac Laboratory Museum on Wednesday, touching on a range of issues — climate change, abortion, the rising cost of living, veterans benefits and his race against incumbent Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik. Election Day is Nov. 8.
While he got a lot of applause for pledging to support “common sense solutions” Stefanik has voted against, to be present in the district if elected, and for pledging to get Stefanik out of office, there was one issue where the applause turned into groans of disappointment — his opposition to an assault weapons ban.
“Would I support an assault weapons ban? My answer to that is ‘no,'” Castelli said.
When he said “no,” one woman in the audience gasped and hung her head in visible disappointment.
For others, his position was not enough to earn their dollar.
“I don’t think he’s got my donation,” one man said as he walked out, referring to Castelli’s not supporting an assault weapons ban.
Castelli said “assault weapons ban” is a vague term — too vague, and too divisive.
“An ill-defined legislation about style or assault weapons divides the kind of coalition we need to address the rise in gun violence right now,” he said.
Castelli said he’s a “strong supporter of the Second Amendment” but he believes there is an “epidemic of gun violence” in the U.S. It was the number one cause of death for children between the ages of 1 and 19 in America in 2020, he pointed out.
His platform is not to ban certain styles of weapons, but to fund efforts to keep all guns out of the hands of people who would do harm with them — he identified a few of these as “cop killers, kid killers, domestic abusers and terrorists.”
That’s hard to do, one member of the public pointed out, because predicting who can pose harm before they do harm is difficult.
Castelli said he wants to increase funding for law enforcement, schools and mental health to identify “troubled individuals” and to expand red flag laws and universal background checks. Stefanik opposes the expansions of red flag laws and background checks.
Castelli said that’s because Stefanik’s husband, Matt Manda, works for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Castelli accused Manda of “working tirelessly to keep firearms in the hands of cop killers, kid killers, domestic abusers and terrorists.”
Manda responded to reporting on his work in an letter to the editor to the Times Union in June, saying he is not a lobbyist and that insinuating his culpability in murders committed by other people was “repugnant.” He pointed to firearms safety projects he said he supported through his job, and efforts to include more records into background check systems.
Castelli spoke several times about the “rising costs of daily life,” which he said are rising because of numerous factors — including the coronavirus pandemic, war in eastern Europe and wages not keeping up with inflation.
Castelli said demand for all sorts of products is up, but supply is not. He said fixing this imbalance starts at home — increasing domestic food production in the U.S. He said, if elected, he would like to sit on the House Agricultural Committee.
There are solutions out there, he said, but he accused Stefanik of opposing solutions that would address child care, affordable housing and prevent price gouging. He accused Stefanik of not being interested in solving those problems and using “American pain” as a “political weapon.”
“The desire on her part is to keep Americans in pain because she thinks that will benefit her at the polls in November,” Castelli said.
He pointed out that she’s successfully sponsored two bills — the renaming of a post office and a commemorative coin, but said she claims credit for resources she voted against.
“It’s a scam,” he said.
Stefanik’s office occasionally promotes federal dollars coming in to the North Country from bills she has voted against, saying she is “proud” to announce the funds, but not disclosing that she voted against them. The Glens Falls Post Star wrote about one of these cases relating to the American Rescue Plan last year.
Saranac Lake resident and village trustee Rich Shapiro asked if Castelli believes he can overcome the “financial juggernaut” of Stefanik’s campaign. After plugging his website’s donation page, Castelli said he knows he cannot compete with Stefanik in fundraising.
“We will never have as much money as she does because she is beholden to those corporate PAC entities,” he said.
He believes he can “out-work her on the ground” with events like the Saranac Lake town hall.
He added that he is seeking donors around the country by telling them his is a “front-line battle for the soul of our nation.”
Joan Donaldson, from Lake Clear, asked Castelli if he is getting support from the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Not much,” Castelli said.
The DCCC is on the defense in many races nationally, he said, and he has also said he’s not “beholden” to the Democratic Party. He said he is running an independent campaign.
Castelli said he’s only a “relatively recent Democrat” and voted independent most of his life.
“Trump got something right,” Castelli said, quickly clarifying what he meant.
He said the term Trump brought to the forefront of his 2016 campaign — the “swamp” — referring to corrupt politicians in Washington D.C., is a real thing. Castelli says Stefanik is a “quintessential example of the swamp.”
Castelli pledged to hold no more than four terms if elected, adding that he supports implementing term limits for all members of Congress. He also said he’s “sworn off” corporate PAC money.
Castelli said he would like to ban congressmembers and their families from holding stocks — a practice he said allows them to enrich themselves unethically.
One audience member said he was probably “speaking to the choir” — most attendees were Democrats and nearly all of them were already planning on voting for him, she said. She wondered how he plans to get other party voters.
Castelli said he doesn’t always preach to the choir. He said he does not cater to supporters and likes talking with people of all political persuasions. There were some independent voters at the town hall event.
Castelli was asked how he plans to approach debates. He said Stefanik needs to agree to debate first.
“She’s afraid,” he claimed.
Castelli agreed to three televised debates in this election cycle earlier this month. Stefanik has not agreed to debates yet, and her campaign accused Castelli of “colluding” with local media outlets.
Phil Newton, of Saranac Lake, asked how Castelli plans to campaign to college students, saying, according to 2020 Census data, there are 39,000 college students in the district.
Castelli said he is working to register students in his district.
One woman pointed out that Stefanik gets a lot of voters from the Fort Drum area. Though New York’s new redrawn district lines cut the majority of Watertown and Jefferson County out of NY-21, Fort Drum is still in.
Castelli said he hopes his national security cred earns the military vote, and that he wants veterans to see him as someone who will bring solutions to issues of affordable health care, housing and food.
Castelli alleged that Stefanik votes against veterans, citing votes she took opposing expansions to veteran health benefits, education benefits and benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.
Someone who identified as a “non-Democrat” voter, who said she came to the event “happily and quietly,” asked if these bills Stefanik voted against were lumped into omnibus bills, meaning she was voting on many things at the same time.
Castelli said these three were standalone bills.
The EVEST Act would automatically enroll veterans transitioning to civilian life in Veterans Affairs healthcare.
“The VA is a terrible bureaucracy,” Castelli said. “As somebody who worked for the bureaucracy, I understand it is not the most efficient means of delivering services.”
He said veterans struggle with bureaucracy to get benefits — they have to fight for them. Instead, he said the government should presume veterans are entitled to benefits, and opt them in immediately.
The Guard and Reserve GI Bill Parity Act of 2021 would expand education benefits for people serving in the National Guard or Reserve, putting their time toward their G.I. bill.
The Honoring Our PACT Act would expand health care services for people suffering health effects of burn pit exposure. Stefanik said she voted against this bill because it would create longer wait times for veterans seeking other VA health benefits.
Castelli called this “unconscionable” and “bulls***.”
All three of these bills passed the House, despite “nay” votes from Stefanik.
Peggy Lynn, of Lake Clear, asked about Castelli’s stance on abortion. He said, if elected, codifying the right to choose an abortion in federal law would be a day-one issue for him.
On Wednesday, Stefanik co-sponsored a bill which would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Castelli said this could override New York laws allowing abortions after 15 weeks.
“Despite being a woman, she is no friend to women,” Castelli said.
Sue Abbott-Jones, from Saranac Lake, asked about Castelli’s thoughts on climate change. He said climate change poses many threats, environmentally, economically and for national security.
He said the North Country’s economic future is tied to its environmental future. He also said the “challenge on our southern border” is partially caused by climate migration caused by climate change. He said as the U.S. competes with Russia and China for access to seaways relating to energy, it could lead to conflict in the Arctic, and the U.S. military is not prepared to fight there, he said.
One woman from Lake Placid asked Castelli to describe what he did at the CIA. She said it is vague term.
Castelli said his job was to collect intel on dangerous people and cut through the “noise” to find the truth. There’s a lot of “noise” in this campaign, he said.
While at Siena College, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center buildings on Sept. 11, 2001, Castelli said he got an internship with New York State Police in a counterterrorism unit. He thought he’d be looking at Al-Qaeda sleeper cells but he was working on far-right, white supremacist violence. That violence and extremism has been around for decades, he said.
Castelli spoke equally about the “far-right and far-left” groups using violence for politics.
This event was titled as an “Essex County Town Hall” on Castelli’s event page, but the museum where it took place is in Franklin County, a fact Stefanik’s campaign pointed out as evidence that her opponent “has zero ties to the North Country.”
The museum is 800 feet from the county line, and Essex County Democratic Chair Maggie Bartley said they chose it as the location because it’s in the village of Saranac Lake, which is divided between the two counties.
When Castelli began speaking Wednesday, he said “I just walked here from Essex County and boy are my legs tired,” drawing laughs.
Bartley said there are 1,347 Essex County voters in Saranac Lake. The audience on Wednesday was split around 50/50 with Essex and Franklin county residents.