Two candidates, two different offices – neither complete newcomers to public service but each, in his own way, relative newcomers to political battlefields.
The Freeman’s Journal / Hometown Oneonta spoke last week with Matt Castelli, a Democrat looking to unseat Republican Elise Stefanik in the 21st Congressional District, newly drawn to include the Village of Cooperstown and the northern half of Otsego County. The newspapers also spoke with Harry Wilson, the Johnstown, New York native and Harvard University graduate running in the Republican Party primary for governor of New York State.
That primary election takes place June 28; Mr. Wilson is competing against putative frontrunner Rep. Lee Zeldin, Andrew Giuliani, and former gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino for the chance to run against the winner of the Democratic primary, which pits incumbent Kathy Hochul against challengers Rep. Tom Suozzi and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
“I’ve spent 30 years turning corporations around,” Mr. Wilson said. “In just about every circumstance, a company’s failures come from mismanagement by leaders at the top. We’ve got a professional class of politicians leading the state. We need a turnaround expert.”
His overarching plan hits common campaign notes – lower taxes, tough on crime, improved quality of life for New Yorkers. His difference, he said, is his skill set. Referencing a state Legislature today dominated strongly by Democratic majorities, he said, “It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve dealt with hostile interests.”
“Every company I’ve gone into, I’ve been met with a lot of resistance,” he said. “No one embedded in the company wants to make the changes they need to bring them back to life, but my first question to them is always this: ‘How’s that working for you?’”
“My method is pretty simple,” Mr. Wilson continued. “Don’t attack anyone personally. Lay it out: here’s the goal, here’s the path – a data-driven path versus political rhetoric. I’ve found that can be enough to get the swing votes from moderates or independents who believe in a vision to move the state ahead but need leadership to do so.”
At the top of his policy agenda – a reform of New York’s bail and discovery reform laws that he and others say have led to a spike in crime throughout the state.
“We need some common-sense standards,” he said. “We need to give discretion back to the judges so they can differentiate among the different degrees of crimes being committed, a dangerousness standard.”
“The changes to the discovery process have been a disaster,” he continued. “District Attorney offices have become paper-pushers. The huge burden they face already is made even bigger with all this unnecessary paperwork that even the defense attorneys say they don’t want. It has no bearing on the work they need to do.”
He cited fentanyl trafficking as among the biggest societal and criminal challenges facing the state.
“They’re selling Xanax on Tik-Tok and Snapchat,” he said. “We need to dramatically increase the penalties. It’s affecting every city, every town, every village in the state.”
Matt Castelli visits Cooperstown
Democrat Matt Castelli is unfazed by reports suggesting incumbent 21st Congressional District Representative Elise Stefanik is on former President Donald Trump’s shortlist for a possible vice president running mate should he choose to run for election in 2024.
“It has me even more energized,” Mr. Castelli said in a May 27 visit to Cooperstown. “I’m running against a person who endorses ‘The Big Lie,’ questions whether January 6 was an insurrection, and has pivoted to extremism for her own political gain rather than concentrating on her constituents.”
It’s the first foray into elected politics for the Saratoga Springs, New York, native, who joined the CIA after graduating from Siena College in Loudonville. He led intelligence collection and counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Iraq – a part of the team that found Osama Bin Laden – ultimately serving as Director for Counterterrorism in President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. He stayed in that position in the first year of the Trump White House.
His ‘tipping point’ to get into the race for the 21st, he said, came in the immediate wake of the January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington, D.C.
“That event threatened and jeopardized the way that we live,” he said. “My seven-year-old niece saw the news on television and called me – she knew I was in Washington – and she wanted to know if I was okay.”
“It frightens me that the ‘big lie’ that incited insurrection is something that people think gives license for political violence,” he said. “It’s the same sort of thing we saw with jihadist terrorism. Look at Buffalo. Extremist rhetoric espouses radical action.”
Mr. Castelli said he has been driving himself around the sprawling 21st District – which comprises 15 counties and much of the state’s North Country – since announcing his run for office in September 2021. He jokes that he counts the number of miles he has driven through the number of required oil changes to date – five in total – but it has introduced him to the people and decision-makers throughout the region. He boasts the support of the Democratic Committees in each of the counties included in the newly-redrawn district.
“I see what people are going through in the district,” he said. “Hey – I feel it every time I fill the car up with gasoline. It’s a real challenge for farmers, for everyone who uses diesel. With a global marketplace there are certain things I think we can do to alleviate pain supply. There’s a failure by both parties here to address it head-on.”
He said driving around the district allows him to be ‘on the ground and accessible’ – qualities he intends to keep should he win the November election.
“Health security, economic security, job security, the nation’s security,” he said. “Those are the things people say are important, and I want to be accessible to them. I’m not a politician, I’m a public servant. I know enough about Washington, D.C., to understand the mechanism, but I know enough about the 21st District to understand the true sense of the electorate and how to put the country before a political party.”
“When I said I was going to run, my friends asked me why I’d want to be a part of ‘that circus’ down in D.C.,” he said. “It is a circus! My thing is, though, is that it doesn’t have to be.”