June 2016 Cover Story: The Business of Politics

All Politics is Local

AMANDA MORRISON n WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES Republican congressional candidate Elise M. Stefanik speaks on Social Security and Medicare during a press conference Tuesday afternoon in Watertown.

Republican congressional candidate Elise M. Stefanik speaks about Social Security and Medicare during an Aug. 26, 2014, afternoon press conference in Watertown. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

For those who operate In the fast-paced world of political campaigns, securing face time with voters makes all the difference on election day

By Brian Molongoski, NNY Business

As New York’s Congressional primary
elections were kicking into gear in June 2014, Anthony Pileggi’s day would start somewhere around 5:30 a.m.

From Glens Falls, he’d drive a little less than two hours north to pick up then-candidate Elise M. Stefanik from her home in Willsboro. Ms. Stefanik, at the time, was vying for the GOP nomination to New York’s 21st Congressional District seat, and Mr. Pileggi served as her deputy campaign manager.

From Willsboro, the first stop was Lake Placid, where Ms. Stefanik and her staff would have breakfast with community leaders. By afternoon, the team was in Warren County speaking with community leaders, followed by dinner in Fulton County with GOP committee officials. Then they had to go west. By midnight, Ms. Stefanik and her staff would reach Watertown, sleep, and meet with locals the following morning. Then it was back north with stops in St. Lawrence County, a journey east with a stop in Plattsburgh, and finally ending at the starting point in Willsboro.

At the height of Ms. Stefanik’s campaign, Mr. Pileggi said two-day marathons like these weren’t abnormal. This was business as usual, business that needed to cover the roughly 15,114 square miles within the state’s largest congressional district, which is home to more than 700,000 residents dispersed among remote towns, mountains and farmland that stretches for miles. And meeting as many of them as possible was the name of the game.

“That meant we had to get her around the district ad nauseam,” Mr. Pileggi said, adding that one of the key principles of the campaign was familiarizing voters with Ms. Stefanik by talking to them face-to-face, despite the sprawling geography of the district.

Come the following November, Ms. Stefanik won the general election with 53 percent of the vote, securing not only a seat in Congress, but a spot in history as the youngest woman to do so thus far.

That victory, Mr. Pileggi said, was the result of embracing “retail politics,” which involves going door-to-door and meeting voters individually. Similarly, Mr. Pileggi said, it’s the same way businesses have to devote time to their customers in order to rake in revenue. Only in political campaigns, votes are the true currency that pay dividends.

On a macro scale, the difference between a political campaign and a business is fairly indistinct. Mr. Pileggi said both are comprised of mostly the same components — the vision, the strategy, the budget, the staff. The process of building a campaign from the ground up generally follows the same path to creation.

In Ms. Stefanik’s case, a first-time run for Congress meant pulling together a core staff of nine people, a veritable army of volunteers, and raising money to sustain the duration of an arduous campaign that included a primary contest against Matthew A. Doheny, who was making his third bid for the seat.

By the end of her 2014 campaign, Ms. Stefanik had raised roughly $1.95 million and spent around $1.92 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

In Upstate New York, veteran political advisor Michael Schell knows this better than most. Now retired, Mr. Schell has decades of experience advising New York state politicians, including a stint as senior advisor to former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

From the get-go, Mr. Schell said the political field needs to be analyzed like it’s a marketplace. Candidates need a strong understanding of what voters are looking for and how it caters to a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. From there, it’s building a team, getting some money, and blasting a message, all while maintaining a budget.

Mr. Schell said the more local political campaigns get, the more imperative retail politics become. Candidates running for supervisor, mayor, city council and even Assembly, Mr. Schell said, are expected to be seen in person.

“It’s certainly one of the most important elements, and it’s certainly difficult to win if you’re not out there pounding the pavement every day,” he said.

Mr. Schell said this market analysis approach is particularly important in the north country, where voters tend to be more persuadable. The reason being, he added, is that north country voters tend focus more on the candidate’s persona rather than the party with which he or she is aligned, even though a majority of the Northern New York population is registered Republican.

Thus, candidates who spend more time connecting with voters, either in person or digitally, have a higher chance of winning an election, Mr. Schell said.

While a digital presence is important for all elections, Mr. Schell said, it’s even more important for bigger campaigns that cover more ground. He said he was first exposed to the power of social media during Mr. Spitzer’s 2006 campaign, and he credits Mr. Spitzer’s win with quickly adapting to online tools and hiring a younger generation of staffers familiar with how those tools work.

But if building a digital presence from scratch is too much to handle for one campaign, this is where consulting firms enter the picture.

Leonardo Alcivar, communications coordinator for Ms. Stefanik’s campaign, has been working with the congresswoman since her first campaign. He also works as director of client strategy for Targeted Victory, one of the largest Republican consulting firms in the country. Though Ms. Stefanik does not use Targeted Victory, as Mr. Alcivar works with her on a volunteer basis, his firm helps develop digital campaign strategies and works with many candidates at the congressional, gubernatorial and presidential levels.

Mr. Alcivar said a strong online identity can be just as important as in-person contact with voters. Sometimes, if needed, he said it’s best to leave the development of digital strategies to a third party.

“When it comes to a digital presence, it is often better to allow for outside experts who have the ability to scale upward and have the tools that have been proven to work rather than trying to recreate the wheel in house,” Mr. Alcivar said.

“At a moment in history when all the eyeballs are online, every campaign should devote significant resources to a digital platform to drive fundraising, to drive social media communication, to drive messaging, and in some cases to drive ticketing and public speaking events.”

Mr. Schell has similar thoughts, noting that more local campaigns for a seat on the state Legislature also make use of digital consulting firms, which work closely with the state’s Democratic and Republican campaign committees of both houses.

While businesses and political campaigns parallel in a number of ways, Mr. Alcivar said there is one stark difference between the two — time.

Whereas businesses are built to go on for as long as possible, the lifespan of a campaign is finite. Come November of an election year, it’s over, and the results speak for themselves. Smart campaigns, Mr. Alcivar said, need to work backward. Plan for Election Day first, and then set a timetable from there. He noted that it’s about using the limited timeframe as an asset and not a liability, so that means taking advantage of every minute possible, especially when the competition isn’t looking.

In Ms. Stefanik’s case, Mr. Alcivar said it was about making extensive trips across the 21st District, going door to door and meeting constituents in person at a time when political activity was at a lull.

“She used that quiet time when nobody was paying attention to build a grassroots presence that was unmatched by other candidates in the race,” he says. “Building a grassroots presence on the ground for any campaign is vital at the outset.”

Mr. Alcivar added that this plays into the “customers first” attitude of a business. A solid relationship with constituents, he says, becomes groundwork needed for each part of the campaign to work, from the digital to the fundraising teams. Without it, success could be harder to grasp.

“Any good campaign will listen to and learn from voters,” he said. “That information then allows for a campaign to build and make informed decisions about how to spend resources, where to spend time and reach voters who might not otherwise participate in the process. If you don’t invest in that early, just like if you don’t invest in R&D early, you won’t be able to monetize the campaign.”

Mr. Alcivar and Mr. Pileggi agree that high above all other components of a campaign is the vision of the founder. And depending on what that vision is, it can make or break a campaign.

For Ms. Stefanik’s first run two years ago, Mr. Pileggi said it ultimately boiled down to her desire to connect with voters individually and the commitment to traveling thousands of miles over the course of a year for their feedback.

Looking back on 2014, Mr. Pileggi recalls naysayer arguments that driving around, knocking on hundreds of doors in a district as big as NY-21 would be a poor way to run a campaign. But Ms. Stefanik’s campaign did it anyway.
“And it paid off,” Mr. Pileggi said.

Brian Molongoski is a Johnson Newspapers reporter who covers politics for the Watertown Daily Times. Contact him at 661-2347 or bmolongoski@wdt.net

March 2016 Cover Story: Women in Public Service

Women answer the call for public service

Sharon A. Addison, 52, was appointed Watertown city manager in 2012 following a 27-year career with the National Security Agency, Fort George G. Meade, Md.

Sharon A. Addison, 52, was appointed Watertown city manager in 2012 following a 27-year career with the National Security Agency, Fort George G. Meade, Md.

From county and city managers to district attorneys, an assistant
attorney general, state lawmakers and the youngest woman ever
elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, north country women have blazed a progressive — and impressive — trail in public service.

By Norah Machia | Photos By Justin Sorensen

There are many women in the north country who provide invaluable leadership in the public sector as a result of their strategic skills, energy, knowledge and commitment. [Read more…]

Watertown’s mayor-elect actively preparing for office

WATERTOWN — Mayor-elect Joseph M. Butler Jr. joked that he’s taken an active role to get ready for taking office on Jan. 1 as the city’s top elected official.

When asked what he’s been doing to prepare for the job, he joked, “pushups, sit-ups and the 40-yard dash. I’m in the best shape.”

Mr. Butler, whose father served as mayor from 2000 to 2004, easily defeated incumbent Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham in the Nov. 3 election.

He’ll be joined by new council members Mark C. Walczyk and Cody J. Horbacz on the first of the year. Mr. Butler has served as a council member for the past eight years.

“I’m as excited as I was when I first took office,” he said. “I can’t wait to start working on making Watertown a better place.”

Since the election, the mayor-elect has been meeting with a variety of city staff, state officials and U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Willsboro, to see how they can work together on issues facing the city.

He’s sat down a few times to talk to City Manager Sharon A. Addison and city department heads about the priorities he would like to see the city work on over the next year. They’re already talking about what he would like to see in the next fiscal year’s budget.

Getting an outside firm to help go after grants is a possibility, he said. It might be a better strategy to get funding for city projects through the North Country Regional Economic Development Committee, possibly getting some money to complete Western Boulevard, so some additional commercial businesses can be attracted to that area.

Among the state officials he’s met with is Lt. Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul. He talked to her about what will happen with Jefferson Rehabilitation Center’s sheltered workshop and the others around the state.

They talked about the state’s current plans for making some changes with the programs around the state.

The state planned to shut down the sheltered workshop and eliminate 60 jobs for the developmentally disabled working at Production Unlimited. State officials are now looking at ways to preserve the workshops.

By Craig Fox, Times Staff Writer

Stefanik touts biomass as potential growth sector for north country

LOWVILLE — Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Willsboro, toured Lewis County on Wednesday, touting job creation and economic development and hailing the biomass industry as a potential growth sector for the north country. [Read more…]

Fort Drum commander rallies community advocates against Army cuts

WATERTOWN — With just about a month before a hearing for advocates of Fort Drum to argue against potential Army cuts, the post’s commander rallied the community’s advocates.

“We can’t afford to take it for granted that Fort Drum and the 10th Mountain Division will all be here,” Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend said. “We need to let the Army know how important it is.” [Read more…]

Stefanik says health care reform coming


LAKE PLACID — U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik spoke with members of the Medical Society of the State of New York on Saturday at Lake Placid about a Republican-led effort to reform the Affordable Care Act.

The Mirror Lake Inn’s conference room was filled with about two dozen doctors and health care professionals eager to hear the congresswoman’s perspective and to offer their own input on the state of health care. Ms. Stefanik, 30, a Republican from Willsboro who has been on the job for about three weeks, addressed the room for several minutes about her health care goals, and afterward there was a more extensive question-and-answer period.

Ms. Stefanik said her goals include having both high-quality and cost-effective treatment, and increasing health care accessibility for rural communities. Because “health care is a complicated issue,” Ms. Stefanik said she would make an effort to reach out to hospitals, patients and physicians.

“These groups need to be represented,” Ms. Stefanik said.

David Welch, a doctor from Saranac Lake, told Ms. Stefanik that making “little repairs to a broken system clearly isn’t working” and said that a whole new approach to health care is needed.

“Now that we have a new Congress fully controlled by one party, what kind of new concepts are coming up?” Mr. Welch asked.

Ms. Stefanik said there is not a specific health care replacement package being presented by Republicans yet, but it will happen.

“I think the most important part of formulating a replacement package is making sure that you have input from physicians, from hospitals,” Ms. Stefanik said. “I think that over the course of 2015 you will see a replacement package.”

“I think there is going to be a willingness to work with Democrats, something that I think was a failure of the Obama administration,” she added. “Certainly, I believe the Republicans have a responsibility to put forth a replacement package.”

Ms. Stefanik told the group she was optimistic about the repeal of the Medical Device Tax, which is an excise tax on the sale of certain medical devices. She said a repeal of the tax has bipartisan support and likely would pass the House and Senate.

“It’s strategically smart for Obama to approve,” she said.

There are several medical device companies within the 21st Congressional District, which Ms. Stefanik represents. The repeal of the medical tax was a campaign issue on which she ran.

Ms. Stefanik, when asked about medical malpractice lawsuit reform, said the Republican leadership, such as Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., want to make sure “tort reform is part of the package.”

Some doctors also raised concerns about “confusing” medical diagnostic codes to describe a patient’s injury and how the doctor treated it. The system existed before the ACA, but the act added thousands of new codes, which some doctors said was an added burden.

“We are given X amount of time to see a patient, and now I need to take 20 minutes to figure out the code,” said Hal Sokol, a pulmonary critical care doctor from Albany.

After the meeting, some of the doctors in the room expressed approval of Ms. Stefanik’s remarks. A few of them described the group of doctors as being conservative-leaning.

Robert Hughes, a doctor from Queensbury, said he thought Ms. Stefanik was “very astute” and “perceptive of the reality of what is going on right now.”

Dr. Sokol said he was a lot more impressed than he thought he would be.

“I think she really cares,” Dr. Sokol said.

John Kennedy, a doctor from Schenectady, told the room that Ms. Stefanik and his daughter were high school classmates at the Albany Academy for Girls.

“Two years ago my daughter said, ‘My friend Elise is the real thing; she ought to run for Congress,’” Dr. Kennedy said.

Dr. Welch said he was concerned that Republicans are still creating a plan but added that it’s also an opportunity to get health care right.

“Republicans have spent the last two years saying no, and now they have to come forward with something positive,” Dr. Welch said. “My concern is they don’t have a plan yet.”


By Matthew Turner, Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Congressional candidates weigh in on health care

Healthcare has proven to be a contentious issue in the race for New York’s 21st Congressional District, with all three candidates voicing displeasure with the Affordable Care Act, even as its provisions, once advanced as theoretical solutions, solidify into reality.

But the three candidates — Republican and Conservative nominee Elise M. Stefanik, Democrat and Working Families Party nominee Aaron G. Woolf and Green Party candidate Matthew J. Funiciello — have very different takes on how to fix the nation’s healthcare system.

For Ms. Stefanik, it’s a full repeal of President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare legislation, though the candidate, a former White House aide who lives in Willsboro, also acknowledged she would be willing to look at “immediate fixes” to the law in the meantime.

“I’ve made very clear since the beginning of the campaign that I would have voted no on Obamacare,” Ms. Stefanik said, using the term favored by Republicans. “I support the repeal but I feel that it is important to put forth what a comprehensive health care package would look like and, in the meantime, talk about those immediate fixes.”

To that end, Ms. Stefanik put forward a series of proposals last week to replace the law or at least temporarily fix the parts of it she said aren’t working well.

In contrast to Ms. Stefanik’s position, Mr. Woolf’s refusal to say whether he would have voted for the law have become a mini-theme on the campaign trail lately, cropping up at events centered on entirely different topics, as during a news conference on women’s issues last week in Watertown.

But from Mr. Woolf’s perspective, it is a “hypothetical” question that doesn’t pertain to his plans to fix certain parts of the law.

“Everyone knows where I stand on this piece of legislation,” Mr. Woolf, a documentary filmmaker with a home in Elizabethtown said. “This is what we have before us. And I think one of the things that characterizes a lot of the way I approach the world politically is fixing what we have before us.”

For his part, Mr. Funiciello, a bakery and cafe owner from Glens Falls, railed against the Affordable Care Act, calling it “anti-worker.” He advocated for a single-payer healthcare system in which the government would pay for all medical services.

“I think the ACA, to put it mildly, is the most anti-worker bill that has been passed in the United States since NAFTA and GATT were railroaded through by the corporate parties,” Mr. Funiciello said, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. “That one destroying our manufacturing base and this one forcing the working poor to buy for-profit health insurance. And the injustice and the brutality of that is that we are already supporting the healthcare infrastructure to the tune of 60 percent.”

Citing an article titled “Paying for National Health Insurance — And Not Getting It” published in Health Affairs by Steffie Woolhandler and David U. Himmelstein in 2002, Mr. Funiciello said that moving to a single-payer model would not be as onerous on taxpayers as previously thought.

The three candidates are running to replace Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, who is not seeking re-election. As one of his first acts in office, Mr. Owens voted for the Affordable Care Act — a position he spent the following two election cycles defending.

Ms. Stefanik and Mr. Woolf both agreed on repealing the medical device tax but differed on most every other point.

For instance, Ms. Stefanik said she would look to protect those with pre-existing conditions by continuing to allow states to fund the “high risk pools” that provide insurance coverage for some individuals who do not qualify for other plans. The Woolf campaign attacked this idea as one that would return the health insurance marketplace to a system where working families suffer under high deductibles.

On purchasing health care across state lines:

“It would expand choices and lower costs. Right now in this district, especially in the Clinton County, Essex County area, even Franklin County, there are limited options. But if you go across to Vermont, there are many more options in the Burlington area, so again, I think it’s rethinking how we focus on a 21st century economy,” Ms. Stefanik said.

“I also think its reflective of people of our age group who move around more frequently as opposed to our parents’s or grandparents’s generation. It allows healthcare coverage to be portable in a way it hasn’t before but ultimately that will help lower costs for everyone because you’re allowing the free market to thrive,” said Ms. Stefanik, who recently turned 30.

In a statement, the Woolf campaign said that Ms. Stefanik’s proposal would hobble states with strong patient and consumer protections in favor of states with weaker protections, ignores the varying rates of healthcare costs by geography and fails to take into account the fact that the Affordable Care Act allows for regulated cooperation over interstate purchasing.

On addressing tort reform and reducing so-called “frivolous lawsuits”:

“The cost of medical malpractice liabilities are rising so high, it’s forcing the practice of defensive medicine at the physician base but also for hospitals, and it’s ultimately driving the cost up for consumers. I think the way you can address tort reform is having a cap on what those lawsuits, basically more protection for our physicians, I think, so they’re avoiding driving up those costs and practicing defensive medicine,” Ms. Stefanik said.

“I’m all too aware how easy it is to sue a physician and the pressures our physicians are facing, seeing patients for 7 to 15 minutes, it’s all that much easier for somebody to find an error,” Mr. Woolf said. “I think it’s facile to say ‘tort reform’ as just kind of a blanket statement. We need to cut down on frivolous lawsuits but we need to make sure we have a system of justice when things go wrong.”

The employer mandate:

“Basically it incentivizes businesses to not hire above the 50 employee number… I think we should be encouraging companies to grow. I’ve heard from a number of companies who are at the cusp who are not hiring those additional three or four people because they don’t want to be above the line,” Ms. Stefanik said.

According to Yianni Varonis, Mr. Woolf’s spokesman, Mr. Woolf wants to give businesses enough time to meet the employer mandate and would be open to delaying the implementation of the rule further.

Mr. Woolf would also like to extend tax credits offered to businesses with 25 or fewer employees who offer health insurance to those who employ between 25 and 50 people, Mr. Varonis said in an email.

Mr. Woolf also proposed creating another, more affordable category for individuals who are purchasing health insurance on a state marketplace — something that would, for instance, fall below the “Bronze” plan on the New York state exchange.

On the Affordable Care Act

“I believe that everyone should have access to affordable healthcare and Obamacare is not moving us in that direction. I think that’s become pretty clear to any candidate you speak to… That’s an important vote, it’s not a hypothetical. It’s a vote that actually came up in Congress and it’s a vote that our current member of Congress voted the day after he was sworn into Congress. It’s one of the top issues in this election cycle. I think it’s an important issue to stake where you are,” Ms. Stefanik said.

“I absolutely agree that people have a right to healthcare. I feel like, when you’re sick you should be able to go to a doctor. I think what we have to do is continually tweak and improve a system that allows that to happen. I think there are particular challenges with rural healthcare delivery, I think this district has particular challenges but I think what we have is a significant number of residents who were previously uninsured that now have quality affordable healthcare and that’s an important step,” Mr. Woolf said.

By Daniel Flatley, Times Staff Writer