‘Steady as she goes,’ says Nelson, pounding pavement in bid for Democratic nomination

PLATTSBURGH | Patrick Nelson sat at a downtown Plattsburgh cafe last week surrounded by stacks of paperwork, clipboards and campaign literature.

The candidate seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for New York’s 21st Congressional District has just three weeks to collect 1,250 signatures to get on the ballot.

Ray Bazydlo was among the clutch of volunteers suiting up for another day hitting the streets in an effort to wrangle in local support.

“A lot of people aren’t too informed as I’d like that we’re having a primary,” said Bazydlo, who had been out for four days straight collecting signatures in Westport, Essex, Elizabethtown and now, Plattsburgh.

“But I must say everyone is extremely receptive to signing our petition.”

Nelson went through logistical details with Bazydlo, who lives in Essex, before he zipped up his coat and took off into the frigid afternoon landscape.

Nelson followed close behind.


Only registered Democrats can sign petitions ahead of the April 12 deadline.

But the district has lots of mixed households, said Nelson, a 28-year-old political activist from Stillwater in Saratoga County.

“A more open process would be good," he mused.

Nelson jumped into a well-worn SUV plastered with bumper stickers blasting the incumbent, Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican who is seeking a third term.

Going out to collect signatures during the days can be slim pickings, he said.

Nelson parked on Bailey Avenue and hopped out, scanning maps compiled using NationBuilder, a community action platform, with a campaign aide.

“If folks are home, they’re usually not in the best of moods to talk to someone who knocks on their door,” said Nelson.

Like shift workers, for instance. 

Early evenings are usually better, he said, but there really is no perfect time to knock on someone’s door to ask for their support.

“You do get the risk of getting someone at dinner," he said. "But hey, it’s a democracy."

Since he’s hit the road, the president’s controversial statements have continued to loom large in the minds of Democratic voters, said the candidate.

“‘The president, ‘he’s gotta go’ is probably 40 percent of conversations I have with folks,” Nelson said.


A sign on a front lawn read “You are welcome here.”

The candidate knocked on the door, which Scott H. Smith immediately opened. 

“I’m Patrick Nelson, and I’m running for Congress,” Nelson told him.

Smith asked when the election was.

“It’s this November,” said Nelson. “Well, June. I’m running against Elise Stefanik.”

He signed the petition.

“Elise is not doing her job and she’s not talking to people,” said Smith.

But before he takes on the lawmaker, Nelson must first dispatch six primary opponents, including Don Boyajian, Tedra Cobb, Emily Martz, David Mastrianni, Dylan Ratigan and Katie Wilson, all of whom are also circulating petitions. 

More than one candidate making the ballot will result in a primary on June 26. 

In addition, Wilson has secured the Working Families Party endorsement, and Lynn Kahn has announced she is seeking to run as an independent and on the Green Party line.


Nelson bounded across the street, rapped on a door and stuffed a palm card into the doorframe.

“Generally you can hear some type of stir,” Nelson said. “Knock, listen.”

This isn’t the candidate’s first time circulating petitions.

Nelson, a former legislative aide, has largely modeled his campaign after U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), for whom he served as a delegate during the candidate's unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

He identifies himself as a Justice Democrat and earned the endorsement of a grassroots progressive group, People for Bernie, last week.

The candidate also boasts roadtested field experience, having run for local office and putting in time volunteering for the two previous Democratic nominees, Aaron Woolf and Mike Derrick, eventually running field operations for the latter's 2016 effort, which he lost to Stefanik by 35 points.

Lessons learned along the way in the mega-competitive petition process include telling prospective voters to “sign how they vote” and try to have information on the form pre-completed — except for their actual signature.

Following the petition deadline, it’s standard operating procedure for campaigns to litigate to have signatures invalidated.

“So long as the intent of the voter is there, it should be counted,” Nelson said. “But people can get nitpicky.”


The candidate continued to prowl the neighborhood.

Some folks weren’t home.

Several declined to sign. 

Others said they didn’t want to be bothered.

“I’m not interested,” said one man, who stopped and eyeballed the candidate, who had made it midway up his driveway. 

“Tell me one thing you can do to change Congress,” he said.

“I believe in single-payer health care,” Nelson responded.

In what amounted to a stand-off, the man warily eyed him before the candidate quickly segued into combatting the role of money in politics, a chief campaign platform.

The man dismissed him and started walking back inside, shooing off campaign literature.

“I won’t read it,” he said. 

But he told Nelson his wife might be interested, and to come back later.

“That went from a ‘go to hell’ to a maybe,” Nelson said.

But rejection is all part of running for office, he said.

And canvassing is always a mixed bag. Locking in signatures can be contingent on numerous variables, including how neighborhood house numbers are configured. 

Nelson has personally canvassed neighborhoods at least nine times since the petition process started on March 6, including in Lowville, Stillwater, Malone and Ogdensburg.

“We got hit with three snowstorms in the first week,” he said, “so that was tough.”


He studied his clipboard, knocked on a door and a woman named Kathleen signed.

“Do you have any questions about the federal government?” Nelson asked.

“No, thank you.” said Kathleen.

“The primary is on June 26 if you want to vote for me,” Nelson said.

The temperature was 30 degrees and dropping.

As the shadows grew longer, the candidate appeared to be in an enthusiastic mood, opining on everything from the current makeup of the Democratic National Committee, how to spur broader interest in civic engagement, government reform and what constitutes strong leadership from elected officials.

“Do you have any concerns?” he asked a woman.

“It’s been interesting,” she responded.

Nelson gave her his 30-second campaign pitch and she listened attentively. 

“Everybody wants the gold medal, but we all want our teammates to do well,” Nelson said, referring to his Democratic opponents, all of whom are clamoring to cross the signature threshold.

At another home, a man stuck his head through a cracked doorway.

He was in the middle of a private music lesson, he told the candidate, before quickly scribbling his name down.

“My wife isn’t home, but if you come back later, she’ll sign for you too,” he said.

In the background, a trumpet tooted.


Nelson trudged along for 30 minutes with mixed success, snaring signatures from a man in a soccer sweatsuit and a woman who blurted out unprintable language when told who Nelson was running against.

“Steady as she goes,” said Nelson. “I’m confident these are good signatures. It’s a good neighborhood — lots of Democrats. But folks aren’t home from work yet.”

He circled back around in an attempt to hit the addresses he missed.

And then he ended back up at the home of the voter who shot him down.

The door swung open and the two looked at each other.

The voter, who eventually identified himself as an independent, peppered Nelson with questions for 10 minutes, grilling him on his ideas on how curb the opiate crisis, treatment options for incarcerated addicts and health care solutions. 

His wife came out and signed, and the two shook hands.

“I’ll look for you,” he told Nelson before going back inside.

Nelson got back into the car.

“I’ll count that as a win,” he said.

Patrick Nelson