Second Democrat joins NY-21 race

Collins, Holden set for Democratic primary as both seek to face Stefanik

Paula Collins announces her campaign to represent New York’s 21st Congressional District in front of Elevate ADK in Saranac Lake Tuesday. (Enterprise photo —Andy Flynn)

SARANAC LAKE — Attorney Paula Collins announced on Tuesday that she is running for the congressional seat currently held by Elise Stefanik, setting up a Democratic primary between herself and Democrat Steven Holden.

Collins, a cannabis tax attorney who made her announcement outside the Elevate ADK cannabis dispensary in Saranac Lake, lives and works in Manhattan and recently purchased property in Rensselaer County. She said she’s running because she believes that while Stefanik has climbed the ladder to a national profile, she feels the Republican has forgotten her constituents in the process, and “shapeshift(ed)” from a “compassionate Conservative” to a “MAGA militant.”

Jill Lochner is running against Stefanik on the Republican line and Brian Rouleau is running on the Working Families Party line.

Reasons for running

Collins bought property in Petersburg as part of a plan to build a house and start a small cultivation practice with colleagues to pursue hempcrete production. She said she quickly went to look up who her elected representatives would be.

“I was stunned to realize that Elise Stefanik was my representative,” Collins said. “I’ve watched her meteoric rise in the last several months. She’s clearly placing her personal ambitions above the needs of her constituents.”

She asked around about who was running against Stefanik and Vice Chair of the state Democratic Committee. Joe Rossi encouraged her to run. At first, she planned to run as a third-party candidate because Steve Holden is already on the Democratic line. But she was worried about taking votes away from Joe Biden in the presidential election on the same ballot, so she decided to run as a Democrat.

Collins said Congress needs to act on things like immigration, climate change, the economy and internet policy to protect the people of the North County, but that it is distracted.

“I would much rather have Congress discussing these sorts of issues that affect everyday New Yorkers, rather than discussing impeachment of (U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro) Mayorkas,” she said. “Every few months we’re having to spend a couple of weeks in Congress averting a shutdown of the federal government because we can’t seem to pass a budget for one entire year. What a waste of time.”

While she sees all of Congress “bickering,” she is particularly bothered by Stefanik’s recent statements that if she were Trump’s vice president in 2021, she would not have certified the vote for Joe Biden to win the election as then-Vice President Mike Pence did.

“In other words, she would have broken the law and gone against the will of the people,” Collins said. “Four years later she says she would have tossed out the results of the 2020 New York ballot in order to prop up the insurrectionist-in-chief. I say New Yorkers work too hard to see their votes tossed out.”

Other candidates respond

Stefanik Senior Advisor Alex DeGrasse called Collins “another radical Far Left Democrat from New York City who has never voted in Upstate NY and is now desperately running against Congresswoman Stefanik” who will “be absolutely demolished at the polls.” He alleged she is a “Defund the Police, pro-amnesty, anti-Trump, Downstate Democrat.”

“It’s interesting that they describe me as a ‘defund the police candidate’ because it couldn’t be less true,” Collins said. “I am very much in favor of supporting the police. No, I don’t support police brutality. But I do support law enforcement. And I’ve never ever participated in any activity that would lead people to think I was a ‘defund the police’ person.”

Degrasse said Collins voted for “New York City defund the police Democrats,” so therefore, “she is a New York City defund the police Democrat.”

“I have no idea what they are basing that on,” Collins told the Enterprise. “When did (Chuck) Schumer and Jerry Nadler support defunding the police?”

“She’s not a constituent and knows nothing about our values in Upstate New York,” Degrasse said in an email. “And by the way, voters in our district are big supporters of the Make America Great Again Movement.”

Collins also was baffled by the “radical far left” label.

“I’m about as fiscally conservative as they come,” she said.

The other candidates were more supportive of Collins’ joining the race.

“I welcome her to the race,” Holden said, “and to talk about the issues important to the people of the 21st district.”

He described the primary they are heading toward as being between a “centrist” and a “progressive,” with himself being the latter. Holden said he had anticipated a primary, and he believes it is a good thing for representative democracy. He also found it amusing that Collins’ last name is the same as his mother’s maiden name.

“I was making a joke about that with my wife and she said ‘Well, at least somebody named Collins will end up representing,'” Holden said.

“I’m always glad to see people get involved in the political process,” Rouleau said in an email. “I feel that I am the best candidate for NY-21, but I look forward to learning about Paula’s policies she supports and where we agree and where we differ. Good luck to her!”

Republican Lochner did not respond to a request for comment by deadline Wednesday.

The race

Collins’ property is in an area which could or could not be in the 21st Congressional district depending on what map a panel chooses to approve in a redistricting vote scheduled for Thursday. Her property is currently in NY-21. Collins said she may need to rent an apartment within the district if the lines change to stay in the race.

Collins hasn’t changed her address yet, but said she is in the process of doing that. Meanwhile, she wanted to announce and get in the race.

“I’m aware that I am putting my hat in ring fairly late in the game,” Collins said, adding that she’s in it for the long run. “It could be that I’m either late for this election or early for the midterms.”

She’s planning for an “old school” strategy of town hall meetings and shaking hands.

Collins said she’s reached out to county party chairs, but they won’t endorse candidates until after petitions and are waiting for word on redistricting. She said she’s got a “cadre” of staffers ready for their “marching orders” and is registered with fundraising platforms ActBlue and Emily’s List.

“I don’t have a lot of money,” Collins said. “I’m very sensitive to the fact that Stefanik has quite a bit of money behind her.”

Asked what makes her campaign different from previous unsuccessful Democratic challenges to Stefanik’s seat, she said she feels Stefanik has moved further to the “MAGA-right” while the people of the district have not.

Collins has ran for office once before, getting elected to the Manhattan County Democratic Committee — not a “glitzy” job, she said. Otherwise, she said she’s been busy with getting a law degree “fairly late in life,” working as a school teacher and layer, being a single parent and living in different states. She said she has a “breadth and depth” of experience, unlike Stefanik, she felt.


Collins said she wants to put in the long hours to work on “genuine” and “sensible” immigration policy reform.

“Having lived a bunch of years in Texas, I’m startled to realize what an issue immigration is on our northern border,” she said. “People who are not comfortable or not able to gain access through the southern border, somehow, by hook or by crook, make it up to Canada and then try to enter that way.”

She said immigrants need a pathway, and currently, there is not much for them, short of declaring asylum.

“The reason people are coming in illegally is because they can’t come in legally,” Collins said.

She said it’s been so long since America has had serious immigration reform that the system is “outdated and irrelevant” to the current waves of immigration.

“Who would have ever thought that our North Country counties would see overflow from the southern border?” she said. “We don’t want waves of migrants in our streets, but we need help from Congress for sheltering, feeding, and schools for families of immigrants who find their way to our communities.”

Artificial intelligence

Collins said she’s ready to go “toe-to-toe” with internet companies to protect children and personal data on the internet.

She’d prefer Congress be proactive on artificial intelligence, rather than have “wait and see” like it did on social media. She said AI poses a threat to data security, generative imaging and the automation of work, particularly in agriculture.

“We’ve even seen (AI) images of Elise Stefanik in a Nazi uniform,” Collins said. “Well, is that OK? That’s not really free speech, is it? That’s taking her image and likeness and manipulating it in a way that goes a little bit beyond free speech.”

She also said many parts of NY-21 don’t even have internet access.


Collins is a cannabis tax attorney in her solo practice “Law Office of Paula Collins.” She said she would support things in Congress like the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which would decriminalize cannabis on a national level and put money toward casualties of the “war on drugs,” or the SAFER Banking Act, which would make financial institutions work with state-regulated cannabis businesses. Currently, she said, licensed grow operations still have to only accept cash, which makes them vulnerable to crime.

These bills are both agriculture-related, she said, and would bolster what she sees as a new and exciting industry.


Collins said Congress needs to take “real action” on the effects of climate change.

“We need Congress to develop plans for sustainability that helps our North Country farms rather than burdens them with more compliance requirements,” she said.

Things like the Green New Deal acknowledge climate change, she said, but there is more that needs to be done to find new industries as snow cover diminishes and other environmental impacts hurt businesses.

“I can’t stop the climate, I can’t stop the weather, but I can, as a member of Congress, help to appropriate funding to create other pathways for getting people prepared for life in this new reality,” Collins said.

Economy and health care

Collins described a current “roller coaster economy” with inflation and interest rates hurting businesses and employees.

“I go around the district and I find farmers working two extra part-time jobs just to make ends meet,” she said. “College graduates, those who haven’t moved from the district, working for minimum wage because there are no other jobs.”

She said the federal minimum wage is not livable and felt Stefanik is missing valuable time having these discussions by trying to preserve the legacy of Trump.

“I’m ready to do the hard work to make sure that everyday working people like me and like you are left with more money at the end of the month, rather than more month at the end of our money,” Collins said.

She said she supports more low- or no-interest loans for small businesses.

Collins is surprised people aren’t talking more about health insurance or the cost of prescription drugs like they were a few years ago.

“We live in what I like to call the most expensive third-world country on the planet,” she said. “Because we could have the very best, sophisticated treatment available, but if the people of New York’s 21st Congressional district can’t afford it then it might as well not exist.”

The New York Democratic primary is scheduled for June 25. Election Day is Nov. 5.


A previous version of this article included an incorrect title for Joe Rossi. The Enterprise regrets the error.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today