The Post Star - NY-21 CANDIDATES SHOW CONFIDENCE AND SOME TENSION AT SARANAC LAKE FORUM

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SARANAC LAKE — You could tell that these six candidates had participated in many public forums by the way they stuck to the time limits.

Giving crisp, pithy responses to high-stakes questions is hard, and Sunday’s event packed a bunch of big issues into an hour-and-a-half. But these candidates are used to this by now. It wasn’t until about halfway through the program that one of them got fed up with the 30-second-response lightning rounds. It came during a question about what they would do to prevent school shootings.

“This is important, and I’m sorry, but 30 seconds is hardly enough time to even address it,” Tedra Cobb of Canton told the moderator. “It’s almost disrespectful.”

A crowd of about 125 people had gathered in the Saranac Lake High School auditorium by the time the forum started, and more people trickled in later. Voters for Change, which organized the event, said they counted 171 people enter.

The candidates

Seven people are vying for New York’s 21st Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and six attended the event Sunday. These include five Democrats running in a June 26 primary: Cobb, Emily Martz of Saranac Lake, Patrick Nelson of Stillwater, Dylan Ratigan of Lake Placid and Katie Wilson of Keene. Green Party candidate Lynn Kahn of Schroon Lake was also there. Incumbent Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik was absent, despite being invited. She has not attended any of the candidate forums.

They summed up their varying priorities in their opening statements. Ratigan, a former national cable TV host who grew up in Saranac Lake, said he is running because he wants to reform how “our government is entirely beholden to their donors and makes policies at the direct expense of the people of this country.”

Wilson said she wants to give a voice to the North Country’s lower-income socio-economic classes.

“I am exactly the kind of candidate that Elise Stefanik is terrified of,” she said.

Cobb said she would be a candidate who listens to North Country people and works for them.

“Right now Congress is doing more harm than it is good,” she said.

Kahn said she was born in the Bronx to parents who grew up in orphanages, so “I get poverty,” but mostly she touted her experience as a government efficiency consultant.

Martz noted how she helped grow businesses such as Apex Solar and Birch Boys chaga tea company while working at Adirondack North Country Association.

“Hard work, it should be rewarded,” she said.

Nelson said his priorities are to get the nation off fossil fuels and address climate change, to guarantee health care as a right and to “transition our economy away from rabid individualism and ‘Screw you, I got mine’ economics to something that works for everyone.”

Health care and education were the issues singled out for longer discussion. The lightning rounds that followed covered job creation, gun violence, where the candidates’ campaign donations come from, the environment, infrastructure, abortion, college loan debt, opioid drugs and immigration.

Health care

All six supported expanding Medicare to the general population, but some would push for it more faster others. Nelson was strongest in arguing for a guaranteed right to health care, whereas Wilson said that since Americans are so divided on the issue, “It’s the job of the representative to compromise.” As a “bridge,” she supports a bill that would let people buy into Medicare if they choose.

“I would disagree that this is a divisive or a polarizing issue,” Nelson said. “The majority of the American people are on board with a Medicare-for-all system.”

Ratigan, Cobb, Kahn and Martz all support Medicare for all as well, but Martz said many people in the North Country will require convincing. She said her ANCA experience qualifies her to do that, starting with business owners.

Kahn warned that big government health care systems can have big problems, and if you don’t believe it, “Ask a veteran.”

Ratigan said he saw, as a TV host, how the health care industry influenced Democrats in 2009 to stop short of including a public option in what became the Affordable Care Act. Nelson later turned this on Ratigan, setting up the afternoon’s most heated exchange.

“Four out of the six of us on this stage have publicly said that we will not accept corporate PAC and lobbyist money,” Nelson said. “Today I’m asking you to help us make it five.”

Ratigan responded sharply that he is the only candidate who has accepted zero PAC money, and also the only one endorsed by unions. He noted that Nelson has accepted money from a PAC called Justice Democrats.

“They’re a PAC, but not a corporate PAC,” Nelson replied.

(After the event, Ratigan said, “I will take money with anybody I agree with,” and compared the pledge to “playing games.”)

After his retort to Nelson, Ratigan addressed the crowd.

“The political system has been completely corrupted at a level that you cannot comprehend,” he said. “You are kidding yourselves if you believe that simply sending somebody who believes what you believe will solve your problems. You need to send somebody to Washington, D.C., with a history of actually standing up to our politicians for what is right, and my history will show that very clearly.”

Wilson followed, saying the main question for primary voters is who would be best against Stefanik.

“Dylan has a good point,” she said. “He’s been the angry guy on TV. He can tell it like it is. But who on this stage, when put next to Elise Stefanik, is not going to go blank, wilt or not have a really good rebuttal.”

Education

All six candidates supported strong education funding, though they spoke of different priorities: Martz mentioned pre-kindergarten and special ed; Cobb added Head Start to this. Kahn backed free education options from pre-K to college, including trade school for adults who go back to school. To pay for it, Martz suggested closing tax loopholes, whereas Kahn said government waste should be cut.

Wilson focused on trade schooling, saying the college-for-every-student goal isn’t realistic.

“We don’t actually have a lack of jobs in NY-21,” she said. “We might have a lack of jobs that are paying enough, but what we do have is a lack of qualified individuals to fill those positions.”

Ratigan said “the world right now is going through what I call the third industrial revolution” and that to teach kids how to solve problems will require solid funding for teachers.

Nelson said society needs to untie education from property taxes to stop the way “the people who live in the nicest houses get the best schools.” He also said higher education should be a right and that some tuition-free higher education is needed.

All candidates agreed student loans are a problem. Martz suggested raising the Pell grant income limit to include the middle class. Cobb recommended capping the federal loan interest rate at 2 percent, Kahn suggested 0.1 percent, and Nelson suggested the rate at which big banks are allowed to borrow.

Nelson, who cited his own six-figure student debt as an example, cited a study by the Sanders Institute that said the economy would grow faster if Congress forgave student debt than if it used that same amount for tax breaks for the rich.

Patrick Nelson