In North Country, Democrat candidate Woolf wants to "tell a new story" for change in Congress
This week, WRVO will profile candidates for Congress in central and northern New York. We begin with Aaron Woolf, the Democrat running for the open seat in 21st district in the North Country.
New York's North Country Democrats surprised everyone when they chose Aaron Woolf to try to succeed Bill Owens after he announced his retirement. Woolf is running against Republican Elise Stefanik and Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello.
Woolf has lived with his wife and daughter in Elizabethtown full-time for the last year in a house his family has lived in off and on since 1968. Woolf owns a high-end organic grocery store and restaurant in New York City. He is a documentary filmmaker who has made eight feature films, including the award-winning "King Corn," which is about farm subsidies that have driven the production and consumption of corn in this country.
Woolf told NCPR reporter David Sommerstein it was his work as a filmmaker that got him interested in public life in the first place.
Aaron Woolf: I was always trying to tease out a human story that illuminated what happens to real people when we make public policy. Take the Farm Bill, for example, this is an enormous document; I think the last one was 982 pages. It can be incredibly abstract, but it has an incredible impact on our world. So, “King Corn,” for example was an attempt to create a narrative, or find a narrative, that teased out what happens to real people because of our sometimes very abstract t policy making.
David Sommerstein: How does that story telling relate to running for political office? I get the policy part.
AW: Well, I think, if you’ve spent decades, as I have, looking at the ways that policy affects people; you begin to really want to make better policy.
DS: Why haven’t you talked more about being a documentary filmmaker during this campaign?
AW: You know, I have. I’ve talked about it selectively. I think, sometimes, a documentary filmmaker is a kind of a career path that is so unusual sometimes people really don’t know quite what to think when I say I’m a filmmaker. But when I say that my work has focused on people and telling stories, one of things I think is really important about changing minds and changing thought is finding a story; finding a beginning, middle, and end. When I have spoken about my filmmaking experience on the stump, I’ve talked a lot about how I want to tell our story in Washington.
DS: Elise Stefanik in the second debate called your campaign fledgling, less transparent, and less accessible to local media outlets. In fact, you refused to speak publicly for several weeks of your campaign. Even in the summer; in May, June, and July, when the Stefanik campaign was announcing public events several times a day, your campaign would hold one a week, if that. We had to ask your campaign a couple times, you know, 'Hey, where is Aaron Woolf?' Why did it take so long for your campaign to really kick in?
AW: My only real experience, I’ve never run for office before, I’ve never even run for student council. My real experience with approaching a task of this enormity was to do what I had done as a filmmaker. I went out and I tried to listen to as many people as I could. But, I probably should have said to you all in the press, 'look I am going to go do this for three or four weeks. This is my process and this is how I want to approach this.' But I am very grateful for that and I think the continuous ramp-up that you’ve seen has been reflective of the kind of ramp-up of our momentum. I feel that we are the candidacy that is rising now, and it couldn’t come at a better moment.
DS: You’ve said you’re the only candidate in the race not governed by liberal or conservative ideology. But looking at issues you’re treated in your career as a film maker—farm bill subsidies, human trafficking, immigration reform, public transportation—it suggests a sort of lean to liberal issues, I guess you could say? What are some examples of conservative thinking that you embrace?
AW: I’m a strong advocate for localism, in all forms. I don’t whether that’s exactly conservative, but I’m troubled by Common Core. I think that cookie cutter mandates on education disempower our teachers. I’m a strong advocate for gun rights. I believe that individuals in this district have a long and cultural experience with guns, including myself. And I think in a general sense, I believe that government has a role to play, certainly, in stimulating economies and investing in infrastructure. But I think the federal government should be empowering the local government, and not the other way around, and I think that has a conservative, if not a libertarian flavor to it.
DS: Let’s talk about some policy a little bit. You’ve often mentioned a plan, through your press conferences and in the debates, to save one hundred thirty billion dollars. . .
AW: To raise. . .
DS: Yeah, to raise that revenue, to pay for things like stabilizing social security, expanding infrastructure, better healthcare, federal support for renewable energy. First, tell us exactly where that money comes from? How does that stack up, that one hundred thirty billion?
AW: I think, in order to make a long-term investment, we have to put our money where our mouth is. And you’ll hear my Republican opponent say that our spending is out of control—that’s a kind of a Republican mantra. That fact is, our spending has gone up only one percent this year, less than the rate of inflation. But if we want to invest in rural broadband, if we want to invest in improved transportation and just fixing our water and sewers, we need to talk about how to raise that revenue. I have proposed a plan that includes stopping inversions and off-shoring in the tax code. That could raise as much as $59 billion. I’ve talked about stopping to subsidize big oil companies. That was a fine idea in 1916 when oil was the fuel of the future, but it ain’t anymore. That could get us another seven to nine billion dollars. I’ve talked about closing the corporate-executive pay loophole, which could get us another eight billion dollars. If we want to invest in our future, whether it’s in infrastructure or education, or giving tax breaks to small business, one of the things that’s been a central theme in my candidacy has been giving tax breaks to small business and leveling the playing field. That’s going to cost us some money.
DS: You support investing in renewable energies to mitigate the effects of climate change, yet you've also supported construction of the XL Pipeline for oil, So how do you square those two things?
AW: It seems counter-intuitive, but I think one of the worst things we could do to exacerbate climate change is to have a kind of economic collapse, an economic breakdown. Our economy runs on available energy and for the foreseeable short term that energy is a fossil-fuel infrastructure. Now I think we need to move expeditiously away from supporting fossil fuels such as oil and coal. We should stop the seven to nine billion dollars we spend in oil subsidies for big oil companies. But you know, in respect to Keystone XL Pipeline, it's a reluctant decision. My job is to represent the constituents of the New York 21st. We have got four times the oil transports going through by rail right in our neighborhood in Essex County and across the Champlain Valley. We've got that same Bakken crude oil coming down the St. Lawrence, both of which put us in an incredibly vulnerable position.
DS: You said that you represent this district with the oil trains, but you also represent this district with heavier storms, with flooded fields that have already cost an enormous amount of money for agriculture.
AW: I very aware of those immediate effects; I'm certainly aware of some of the catastrophic weather. I was here for Hurricane Irene in 2011. I drove my tractor from Elizabethtown over Spruce Hill into Keene Valley to help dig out some of my neighbors. Look, we are living in an era of challenging decision-making. Look at the Middle East. We are grappling with a number of unlikeable options. I think that part of being a politician—and particularly being a politician from the North Country where we shouldn't be driven by ideology or partisan politics—is trying to make straightforward and pragmatic decisions sometimes between options that are challenging.
DS: What do you think is the biggest misconception North Country voters have about you and what would you say to change their minds on that?
AW: I was at the post office the other day and I ran into my old friend Ben Morris, somebody I've known since I was a kid; I've known the Morris family since I was four. He said, "You know I've known you for a long time Aaron, but I never knew you were a Manhattan millionaire." That was a joke for Ben because that's not the way I've been seen by any of the people I've known for decades. But we live in an era—there's been a lot of spending to create that image of me. Elise Stefanik has had more than $2 million spent on behalf of her candidacy by people like Karl Rove. They found a way to peg that image on me, and frankly the only way I can kind of counter that is to be really out and meeting people, and I think when people meet me they don't feel that that's the image they associate with me anymore.