North Country Public Radio - IN NY-21, PATRICK NELSON PITCHES A SPRAWLING PLAN FOR RURAL PROSPERITY
This month, NCPR is out on the campaign trail with all seven Democratic and Green Party candidates in the North Country's congressional race. Today, we meet Democrat Patrick Nelson of Stillwater.
At 28, Nelson is the youngest candidate hoping to challenge Republican Elise Stefanik. Stefanik has already served two terms as the House representative for New York's 21st Congressional District.
Nelson's hometown is about a half-hour from Saratoga Springs. Calling himself a "true millennial," Nelson said he's jumped from job to job, working as a sound equipment salesman, a tech entrepreneur and most recently, as a political aide to Assemblyman Phil Steck (D-Colonie).
Through it all, Nelson said he’s been figuring out what resonates with Democratic voters in the North Country. "The winning message we should have is a strong, progressive, anti-establishment message," Nelson said. "We talk about responsible action on climate change, dealing with income and wealth inequality and reforming a corrupt campaign finance and electoral system."
Perfecting a "door knock" and a message
The day NCPR caught up with Patrick Nelson on the campaign trail, he was knocking on doors and dropping off campaign fliers in North Creek, a sleepy ski town in the southern Adirondacks.
Nelson — who wore Converse high tops with his button-up shirt and slacks — walked from house to house with his campaign director, Thearse McCalmon, tossing out jokes along the way. "That was the perfect door knock," he said, rapping softly outside an otherwise silent apartment. No one answered.
At another home, a barking dog met Nelson at the screen door. "I know! I know," he said, peering inside. "Who's home? Go get 'em!"
But the slow pace didn't seem to bother Nelson at all. It's been about 18 months since he started his campaign for Congress. Nelson has never held political office before, but he has worked on Congressional campaigns for Aaron Woolf and Mike Derrick — two Democrats who challenged Rep. Stefanik in 2014 and 2016, respectively, and lost. (Nelson also volunteered with Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign.)
Over the years, Nelson thinks Democrats have struggled to connect with regular people because their message isn't clear. "People are sick and tired of [politicians] that try to have it in the middle and try to appeal to everyone," Nelson said. "When you try to appeal to everyone, you appeal to nobody."
A sprawling policy puzzle
That's why Nelson is pushing for big policy changes — some of which wouldn't have been out of place in Bernie Sanders' platform back in 2016.
The changes start with our healthcare system. Like many of his fellow Democratic candidates, Nelson favors single-payer insurance, or as he calls it, "Medicare for all." To help pay for that expanded coverage, Nelson believes the government has to bring down the cost of healthcare overall. Cheaper, more accessible healthcare would encourage people to take more financial risks, Nelson said, and maybe start more businesses.
Creating jobs is one of the key issues in this Congressional race. But Nelson said he doesn't have one big idea for how to stimulate rural economies, so there are more opportunities for people to earn a living. Instead, Nelson offered up a whole bundle of ideas. They include new investments in broadband internet for rural communities and an overhaul of basic infrastructure. "We have to build an entirely new electric grid," Nelson said. "No, we get to build an entirely new electric grid, using modern technology."
To top it all off, Nelson wants to create a student loan forgiveness program for people who start their own businesses. That may sound like a straightforward idea. But as Nelson explains how it would work, it becomes clear that he sees debt relief as one piece of a much larger, much more complex policy puzzle.
"If you’re starting a business, those first years? You’re pinching every penny, you’re eating ramen noodles, trying to get a business off the ground," Nelson said. "Why are we saddling those people with a thousand dollars in student debt payments every month?"
"So if we couple student debt relief with Medicare for all," he continued, "which frees people from the fear that they will go bankrupt if they have a medical emergency while they’re starting up their business [and] we roll out the IT infrastructure that we need up here – by the way, it’s going to be jobs in terms of actually laying that physical cable — then we can create massive economic growth in areas like the North Country."
Pushing past sound bites
It’s clear that Nelson really believes in these ideas, but also, that they're difficult to talk about. Nelson is proposing complicated policies — and lots of them. "They interact all over the place," Nelson said, adding that the work of governing is full of details and overlap. "And yet we’re meant to communicate our messages on this in 30 second sound bites in TV commercials."
To get around that, Nelson's campaign has tried to focus on social media and lengthy town hall meetings with voters. But Nelson has also been speaking with people one-on-one.
Back on the street in downtown North Creek, Nelson approached yet another house. Two dogs bounded up to the front gate — but this time, a person answered. He introduced himself as Mark Erler, a local outdoors guide. "Sorry, I was just fixing some gear," Erler said, pointing to his drab green jumpsuit and the rag in his hand. Nelson asked if he had time to talk. "Uh, yeah, sure."
Instead of launching into his platform, Nelson said he had a question: "What are you concerned about? What can we do to at the federal level to help North Creek?"
"You're putting me on the spot," Erler said, hesitating slightly. "But I guess a big problem for the North Country is labor." Businesses were struggling to find good workers, Erler said. And there were problems with sewer service in North Creek. And also, with the real estate market. Before long, Erler had come out with a whole laundry list of concerns.
Nelson listened for a few minutes. "If we move to a Medicare for all system — which I support at a federal level — we would free up that 80 percent of property tax money to actually do the infrastructure, deal with vacant homes," Nelson said.
"And that's crucial," Erler said, nodding and rubbing his chin.
The conversation lasted 15 minutes before Nelson had to move on to the next house. Afterward, Erler said he got a pretty good impression. "He has great ideas. I like the enthusiasm and the experience working in the Legislature is key, I think," Erler said. "I think people who like politics and get into it end up being good politicians!"
Even so, Erler wasn't ready to commit to anything. There are still five other Democrats in the race and one Green Party candidate. When the primary rolls around in June, Erler said, he's not sure who he'll vote for.