An Afternoon With a Congressional Candidate
I recently volunteered to help with Matt Funiciello’s campaign for Congress in New York’s 21st Congressional District. Matt ran as the Green Party candidate for the District in 2014, and garnered more than 19,000 votes, or just over 11% of the total votes. The Democratic candidate underperformed the previous Democratic incumbent by nearly 70,000 votes and the Republican candidate in a district with a significant Republican registration advantage underperformed the previous Republican challenger by approximately 30,000 votes. Matt is running again as the Green Party candidate.
It is safe to say that Matt’s campaign had an interesting impact on the election in that voter participation in the district was actually higher than the rest of the state. Voter turnout dropped off dramatically in New York from 2012 to 2014 or even versus 2010.
While I had volunteered to help with Matt’s campaign, I live four hours from Matt on the opposite side of the district, and he suggested that I meet with him before I actually become involved as a volunteer because I was volunteering to contribute a considerable amount of time.
On Friday, I drove down to meet with Matt, making the lengthy trek from just outside of Carthage to Glens Falls. The fastest route across the district involves leaving the district on Route 12 in Oneida County, and taking the New York State Thruway to Fultonville and Fonda before re-entering the district in Fulton County, with a brief exit from the district once again in Saratoga Springs before finally re-entering just before the Warren County line and Glens Falls. New York’s 21st Congressional District is a sprawling. It encompasses all of 10 counties and part of 2 others. It includes the Adirondack State Park which is bigger than Yellowstone National Park, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the shores of Lake Champlain, and the shores of Lake Ontario. It is a giant rural district, and the largest Congressional district east of the Mississippi.
Matt had invited me to meet him at his cafe in Glens Falls at the end of the lengthy drive, with a plan to share lunch. It was a long drive and my mother accompanied me on the trip for company and for something to do on a lazy Friday. My mother is retired, so a road trip is one of the more exciting things she can do on a weekday. Matt had sent me a text message while I was driving down asking about my progress, but I didn’t notice it until I arrived at his cafe an hour and a half after he sent the text.
Because I hadn’t responded, he had pushed an interview he had agreed to do with a political science student for his college research paper back a bit that morning and was running late. We exchanged a couple of texts after my arrival and he suggested grabbing a table and ordering while he made the 15 minute trip to the cafe. I went in and ordered a sandwich as did my mother, and a few minutes later Matt walked in wearing an old Eddie Vedder for President hoodie. We both recognized each other quickly from our Facebook pictures and Matt arranged for us to get a bigger table.
When my mother and I first walked in, the cafe was bustling and the only table left was a table for two. A few minutes later, a four seat table was clear and we all moved over there to talk. Matt’s girlfriend had originally planned to meet him for lunch, but her schedule changed at the last minute, so it was just Matt, my mother, and I talking for a while. We quickly started to talk about things that needed to happen to help the campaign become a success and we of course talked a great deal about policy and what is going on in the Presidential contest for the two major parties.
We both talked a little bit about the evolution of our political thinking over the years as we waited for our food to come. When lunch arrived, it took a while to eat as Matt, my mother, and I were all far more busy with the conversation than eating. As we continued our discussion, several people stopped by to say hello to Matt, including his girlfriend’s daughter, and a local attorney friend of Matt. When we were well into the meal and the discussion, Matt’s friend John, who has been working as a volunteer coordinator on the campaign joined us at the table and he asked me about what was happening in the Watertown area and what my thoughts on my side of the district were. We had a lengthy discussion about the concentration of Democratic voters in the Town of Wilna and Carthage. We talked a bit about the factories that had closed down in the area over the years, and we talked about places to potentially hold events for the campaign in Jefferson county.
At some point during the conversation Matt asked about looking at the computer he had been using for the campaign to see if it had the horsepower to host some of the video chats I had suggested be incorporated as part of the campaign strategy. I agreed that I would follow him to his apartment to look at the computer. It was a little after two in the afternoon when we left the cafe headed for Matt’s house to inspect his computer. Matt pulled his small white Ford around behind the cafe and we followed him down the road in our SUV.
We twisted and turned our way down the busy streets of Glens Falls and drove to Matt’s apartment. He lead us into his living room and gave us a quick tour of the place. It had an interesting history in that in a former life it had been the office building of a factory across the street from the apartment building. All of the heavy wooden doors in the apartment had dead bolt locks on them, and his tiny kitchen appeared to have previously been a pay office for the factory. A small window counter looking into the kitchen had likely been a pay window for the factory.
The first thing you notice in Matt’s apartment are the books. He has three large bookcases filled with books. There is no television in the apartment and from speaking with him it is obivous he has spent most of the time he avoids wasting on television reading the vast majority of the books on those shelves. He said that at one point he had more than 6,000 books and he had transferred most of them to the cafe where they were part of a lending library now for patrons. He said at first it had been a bit painful to let go of the books, but now he feels it was one of the best things he could do to declutter his life.
The other thing that is obvious from Matt’s apartment is that he is one of us, the ordinary working class people, who won’t be flying on a private plane anytime soon, and who are unlikely to build a stock portfolio worth millions of dollars. After the tour, I took a quick peak at Matt’s computer to confirm that it had enough power to host a Google Hangout On Air or run a conversation on Blab.im and both the current webcam and the computer had enough power to handle the task, which was a concern.
At Matt’s apartment, we couldn’t help, but continue the discussion of politics and the campaign. We talked about what I might be able to do to help with the campaign and we talked about what would likely need to happen to improve Matt’s results this time. I honestly believe he can win the campaign this time around, and it would be hard for anyone who spends some time with him to think he would be anything other than a very competent Representative of the district. That I think is is strongest quality, and it is probably why I feel he would be the best person for the job. The incumbent and the Democratic challenger for the position are running for their own reasons. Matt is running because he actually wants to represent people from Northern New York and the Adirondack region.
While I was with Matt his cell phone rang often and he needed to deal with several calls to manage issues at the bakery or the cafe that he operates. Unlike his opponents, Matt is juggling a 50 hour or more work week managing and working in his business while also running his campaign. Elise Stefanik has the advantages of a staff and funding to deal with her campaign. Mike Derrick has the advantages of early retirment. Matt knows that the toughest part of any transition period when he wins will be making sure that the right team is in place to keep the bakery and the cafe up an running while he is in Washington, so that his employees’ jobs continue without interruption.
Unlike his opponents, as a business person Matt has had to frugally manage a budget to keep the doors open in a tough business environment. That is probably one of the reasons why his campaign was able to successfully spend only about $2 per vote last election, while his opponents spent $10 to $20 per vote on their campaigns.
One of the most interesting things I learned in talking with Matt is that while he would like to break through the barriers that have kept third-party candidates out of Congress because he thinks it will begin to end the corruption, he does not want to be a Congressman for life. He wants to make sure a strong team is in place to manage the bakery and cafe while he is in Washington because he has ever intention of returning to his normal life at some point if he wins.
It has been a long time since the citizen legislator has been the norm in America, but Matt firmly supports the idea of the citizen legislator. He makes no claim of exceptional intellect or special qualification for the office, but as a reasonably well read person myself -who has spent a lot of time digging deep into policy- Matt is being too modest about his abilities. He understands what is happening better than most people do today, but what is more, he is actually on the side of ordinary working class and poor people.
He quickly had a story relevant to nearly any issue that we discussed, and he knew how to tell those stories well. He also listened carefully to things my mother and I had to say about the things and people who shaped our own thinking. He was quick to smile when I mentioned something that might be useful as a soundbite in the future and immediately understood how the right framing could turn his opponents apparent strengths into weaknesses precisely with the people who know the issues best.
Not all of the discussion had been about politics or policy, we all told a few personal anecdotes, and both Matt and I discussed our love for karaoke. At one point I commented that I had met Henry Rollins at a bookstore in Wilmington, NC where he was speaking in 1998. I made the comment because I noticed one of Henry’s book’s on Matt’s shelf. We both agreed that we liked Henry’s politics.
I don’t know that either Matt, my mother, or I really wanted the conversation we were having at his apartment to end, but Matt needed to return to the bakery to do some work, so around five o’clock we parted ways for the day. We were returning to Jefferson County with a better understanding of the candidate I had a few weeks earlier decided I wanted to help, and a yard sign to support the campaign. Our yard is on a road that gets 10,000 cars passing it each day, so hopefully that will be good advertising for the best candidate for Congress in New York’s 21st Congressional District.
As we were ready to leave, Matt, insisted on giving my mother a hug and thanked her for raising a son who cared about what was happening in the country, being a person who cares herself and spending some time with him that day. By the time I was back in Jefferson County it was already dark and it had been a long day driving through intermittent snow, but I feel more certain than ever that Northern New York would be best represented by Matt Funiciello in the US House of Representatives.
You can find out more about Matt and his policies at http://mattfunicielloforcongress.org