Tag Archive | "Watertown"

A North Country Perspective on the 23rd District Race

By Alec Johnson

Until I moved to Manhattan in August, I lived most of my life in an upstate city that most people have never heard of. But after yesterday’s election, people around the world know the name of Watertown, the heart of New York’s 23rd Congressional District. Depending on which report you read, the vote was either a referendum on President Barack Obama or the right-wing of the Republican Party or even the star power of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, who sang the praises of the Conservative Party candidate, Douglas L. Hoffman.

But forget the pundits for a moment. If you want to understand what really happened in Watertown, take a look at the scalpers hawking Yankee tickets in the Bronx or the street vendors selling knockoff watches, sunglasses, and handbags nearly every day on the streets of New York City. Those are scams, as I quickly learned when I arrived. So was this election – right up until the moment when the votes were counted.

The Republican Party, with its sights set on luring the conservative right, tricked the district out of a qualified moderate candidate. The scam might have worked, but the voters were savvy. In the end, the seat went to a Democrat for the first time in a century.

The results might have surprised some people who associate anything north of the Bronx with right-wing gun nuts. But the 23rd is very different from what New Yorkers might imagine. It covers 13,000 square miles of rural farmland, the Adirondack Mountains, hundreds of small communities, and one large Army base. At first glance, it couldn’t be more different from my current beat, the three-square mile 16th District in the Bronx, the poorest district in the nation. But these two areas – 320 miles apart – actually have something very important in common. They both are home to many people who need government support to survive.

I grew up in a yellow house in Watertown, the district’s largest city with a population of 27,000. We had a big back yard and friendly elderly neighbors who fed their leftover meatloaf to my chocolate lab. But just a short drive away were the rolling hills of some of the most fertile dairy farms in the country; which depend on federal milk subsidies to stay in business.

The race for the 23rd began in June when the popular longtime congressman, John M. McHugh, was selected by Obama to become the Secretary of the Army. We in the North Country were happy for him. At the same time however, we realized that we had lost our influential voice in Congress and that the looming special election would be a challenge. Over the years, McHugh has been a champion for the North Country in securing much needed federal dollars that have kept the region alive.

Local Republican Party leaders selected Dierdre  Scozzafava, a state assemblywoman, to run on the Republican ticket. The Democrats chose Bill Owens, a lawyer from Plattsburg. Scozzafava, well-versed in local issues, had  a 150-year history of Republican control on her side. Then the street peddlers with the $20 Rolexes came to town.

National Republicans saw the pro-choice, pro-same-sex marriage Scozzafava as too moderate to support and cut her off from the party. They chose Doug Hoffman, an accountant with no political experience who lived outside the district to run on the Conservative Party line, financed by the Republican Party. Hoffman campaigned on conservative federal issues such as small government, anti-abortion and anti-gay rights and failed a Watertown Daily Times local issues quiz. Republicans attempted to fool voters by placing Hoffman in a shiny box wrapped in big-name conservatives, like Sarah Palin, thinking he would be an easy sell.

But the Republican Party tried tricking the wrong voters. Although the district was red for many years, red is not what makes people in the North Country tick. We’re mostly moderates with a core that is uncomfortable with extremism, on either side. We’re dairy farmers, mechanical tradesmen and generally middle of the road hard-working people.

These moderate values cause voters to vary their support between local and national elections. Locally, moderate Republicans hold office, because North Country residents vote for like-minded people, who happen to call themselves Republicans. Local races are focused on issues most important to the community.

But for years, the North Country also supported a very liberal Democratic senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and last year, Obama carried the district.

The ultra-conservative party saw the district as an opportunity for a litmus test to prove they could shove an unknown into the race and win an election. But Scozzafava foiled that plan by dropping out on Saturday and endorsing Owens, the Democrat, on Sunday; because he is moderate and can better represent the district.

In the final weeks, both parties pulled the stops and got every big name they could to stump for their candidates. The day before the election, Vice President Joe Biden attended a rally at Watertown’s largest community center for Owens. And the same day, Republicans brought in Big from the country music duo Big & Rich who sang Hoffman’s praises alongside Fred Thompson.

In the end, my fellow voters in the 23rd voted for the person they thought would best represent them. He may be a Democrat, but he’s really one of us.

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