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Former CIA Officer And Counterterrorism Official Matt Castelli Announces NY-21 Congressional Bid

Castelli Campaign Website

A former CIA officer and counterterrorism official is the latest candidate to launch a bid to unseat New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of the 21st District. Matt Castelli, who worked in both the Obama and Trump administrations, announced his bid for the Democratic nomination in a video Wednesday. The Saratoga County resident took aim at the actions of Stefanik – the number three House Republican in her fourth term – following the January 6th riot at the U.S. Capitol.

A spokesperson for Stefanik called Castelli a “far-left Dem” and criticized Castelli for mentioning the 9/11 attacks in his campaign announcement as a reasoning for his career path.

Democrats Matt Purtori, Bridie Farrell and Ezra Watston are also running for the seat. Republican Lonny Koons has also announced a bid.

Castelli spoke with WAMC's Ian Pickus Wednesday:

I'm running for Congress because northern New Yorkers are struggling, especially because of the pandemic. And we need somebody that's going to put country before party, someone that they can trust to have their backs when they need it most. Instead, what we have is Elise Stefanik, a career politician who's gone full Washington, who spends her time tearing us apart rather than solving problems, and who consistently puts herself and her interests before the needs of this district. Now, what do we have to show for that? We've got a declining population, we've got more job loss. We've got families that are working too hard for too little. Our veterans in our rural communities are still struggling to access care. And I'm struck by the fact that we're approaching the 20th anniversary of 9/11. And the unity and common sense of purpose that we found after those attacks is what inspired me to serve our country. I joined the CIA, and for nearly 15 years, I combated terrorism, I led teams hunting down some of the world's most dangerous terrorists in the same department that found Osama bin Laden. I served in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, on the frontlines of intelligence collection, and drove counterterrorism operations. And I served in both President Obama and Trump's White Houses, because I believe that our national security transcends partisan politics. I am not a politician. I've spent my career serving missions that make this country stronger and safer. But that's exactly what we need. We need someone that will put country before party to get the job done. And I believe that the folks in the North Country can count on me to put this country and their community ahead of partisan politics, certainly ahead of my own interests, to solve problems for them and ensure that they have a representative that they can trust when they need it most. And that's why we need someone in Congress that's going to put this district and this country before their party.

Let me set a bit of a baseline for our listeners. How old are you? Where do you live? How long have you lived there?

I am 40 years old. I live in Saratoga County. And as I just alluded to, I spent nearly 15 years at the CIA, I went to Siena College in the Capital Region, not far from the district…I went to go serve my country after 911. I left the CIA about a year ago. And it was largely due to the COVID pandemic, those events, we started to have a 911 every day. And so I left CIA and I left that career behind. And I joined a wonderful veteran founded company. That is a technology company reducing barriers to care for our veterans, for rural communities for my minorities, and it's based here in New York. Obviously, the COVID pandemic, you know, delayed return back up to this region, but I longed to return it for my family and friends. And that's why I live here now.

What qualifies you to be in Congress having not held office before?

Well, I think what qualifies me is a long history of having already served my country. And I think that that's what's required. We need somebody that that knows some of the top issues that are facing our national security, the security of our communities, and someone who has consistently put country before party. Listen, the folks we have in Washington right now, like Elise Stefanik, I can't tell you how many people I talked to that think that she's getting it wrong. She's consistently putting her own interests ahead of those of the district and we wonder why Washington doesn't work. We need folks who have a record of service, who are willing to put their country before their party in order to get the job done for them.

The Stefanik campaign criticized you for announcing your campaign in the run-up to the anniversary of September 11th. What's your response to that?

Well, September 11th, as I just noted, was a moment of great national unity. In the aftermath of that mourning which inspired a generation of folks to serve their country, to put country before party and advance our national interests, and that's what it was for me. Now, Congresswoman Stefanik violated her oath to the Constitution and violated the role and responsibility of a representative that we entrust to put our interests ahead of her, particularly in the aftermath of January 6. And I'm struck by the fact as we approach the anniversary of 9/11, that the domestic terrorists that attacked our Capitol achieved something that even the 9/11 hijackers were not able to achieve, an attack against the Capitol, an attack directly against our democracy. And anyone like Congresswoman Stefanik who downplays the events of January 6, they do a disservice to those brave patriots who took that plane down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, as well as the countless thousands who have served our country since 9/11. And given the ultimate sacrifice in order to preserve our democracy.

You say that the North Country is not getting what it needs from Congresswoman Stefanik and is looking for a change. However, she's been elected and reelected. She's now in her fourth term. I think it's fair to say she had embraced her role as a very close Trump surrogate in time for the last general election, and she overwhelmingly won reelection. Granting the fact that there will be a round of redistricting and the district might look a little different, don't the results from the voters counter what you're saying about her popularity?

Well, I think we look at the results of what the those voters in this district are facing. And again, it's about a declining population. It's about more job loss. It's about families working too hard for too little. It's about veterans in our rural communities, still struggling to access to care. So while Congresswoman Stefanik might be popular with tweets, she's not delivering in terms of the results for this district. And in fact, she's voting against the interests of this district. This district needs further investment in its infrastructure, and opportunity for all upward mobility for all, so that we can create better opportunities for folks within the 21st.

You made mention of the fact, and so did I in the introduction, that you worked in each of the last two administrations. For whom did you vote in the 2020 presidential election?

I voted for Joe Biden.

And how come?

I voted for Joe Biden because I believed he was the best option of the two. And I am a Democrat. I'm a proud Democrat. I'm running as a Democrat.

Let me ask you about some issues. You keep mentioning access to care in rural stretches of New York-21. What type of health care system would you like to see? Are you a supporter of single-payer health care or not?

I'm a supporter of having options for folks. And so whether that's a public option, but I believe people should have the opportunity to choose their own insurance. But I think sometimes when we focus on simply insurance, that misses the point of the issues that are affecting folks in rural communities, it's not about, in some instances, whether they have access to insurance, it's about whether they have physical access to care, and investment in infrastructure in our communities, the ability to reduce the barriers to care. If you have to drive an hour and a half to go fix a broken arm or if you have to take a helicopter in order to deliver a baby. Those are serious restrictions in the ability to actually access quality care. And we should be empowering our communities with more resources by which to actually provide for the health and wellbeing for folks.

Well, specifically, how would you do that?

Well, I think that there's a lot of opportunity to be made in terms of investing in community based organizations. I've worked for the past year, in a company that has been, it's a private company, the ability to leverage private-public partnerships, to create innovative solutions to coordinate care, where health happens, health happens in our communities, it happens in our homes. And so the ability to deliver on broadband, you can't go anywhere within this district without talking to folks about the need for broadband. And so telehealth and being able to deliver health care in someone's home through adequate broadband is an incredibly important issue, but also providing for resources within our community. This is something that I've been doing over the past year in empowering community based organizations, nonprofits, who provide human and social services to folks, that's critical and actually improving the overall health and wellbeing for folks and having opportunities for investment and critical resources for those community based organizations where people live, work and pray. That is what needed.

Was it a mistake for the U.S. to withdraw completely from Afghanistan?

Listen, my colleagues and I served on the frontlines of our counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan. And I'm proud of the work that we did to degrade al Qaeda and prevent another 9/11. I'm hearing from friends, especially those of us who served in Afghanistan that are having a hard time. I'm having a hard time. I understand their frustration. And we owe it to the folks that gave the ultimate sacrifice, answers about what we have to show for 20 years of effort and trillions of dollars and thousands of lives lost in terms of the ability to preserve and protect America's long term vital interest in Afghanistan.

Now, there's plenty of blame to go around about the manner in which we withdrew from Afghanistan. The Biden administration shares some blame but most certainly, too, does the Trump administration for the terrible deal that they made with the Taliban. There have been 20 years of missteps across both parties. But while we talk about presidential administrations, we seem to be missing Congress and their role in this. Congress has a very important role in the conduct of oversight, and the authorization of war in the funding and regulation of our military. And folks like Elise Stefanik, who sit on the House Armed Services Committee, they've been absent in this process. So it's one thing for Congresswoman Stefanik to lobby out empty tweets and hollow press releases concerned after a crisis. But she had a role and responsibility to prevent a crisis from happening to begin with. And she had ample opportunity dating all the way back to when the Trump administration first announced in February 2020, about their with plans to withdraw from Afghanistan, to represent her constituents soldiers, those folks out at Fort Drum, the 10th Mountain Division, who have been the most deployed division since any since 9/11. To represent their interests and those of their families to ensure the manner in which we extricated ourselves from Afghanistan, continued to preserve the service and sacrifice that was made by those soldiers out there, and she was absent on the job. And so I view that as a dereliction of duty and our folks in the military understand that that's a fireable offense.

But is the policy that the U.S. has settled on, after 20 years, to leave, do you agree with that policy?

I agree with…I would have liked to have seen our ability to preserve counterterrorism capabilities in country in some way, shape, or form. Now, that's a different question than uniformed military officers, and having an active conflict. And so there were a variety of constructs that could have been explored. Now, the Taliban get a vote in this and the Afghan government and Afghan national security forces who did not stand up instead, in the absence of having the support from the United States. You know, we saw the rise of the Taliban takeover. And so there is a distinction here with respect to how we could preserve U.S. presence going forward in order to preserve our intelligence collected collection on the ground, which is critically important, and some sort of counterterrorism capability. And so it's a different question in terms of ending the war and what construct serves in a later iteration. And we'll see what happens with respect to that.

Let me go to some domestic issues while I can. The issue of guns has been a big one in this district, in particular in previous election cycles involving Congresswoman Stefanik and other Democratic opponents. What is your policy, in terms of gun reform or scaling back any sort of gun ownership rights as we as we talk here in 2021?

I support the Second Amendment, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and that includes the Second Amendment. As a former CIA officer, I carried firearms in the line of duty in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. I have extensive training on the Glock 17 and N4 rifle, which I carried in those war zones, and I will protect the rights of our hunters, sportsmen and women, lawful gun owners who want to keep their families and their communities safe. But on that latter point, there is more work to be done to keep our community safe from gun violence, and in keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals, and dangerously mentally ill. And let's be clear, I was a counterterrorism official, I want to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists. So if you're on a no fly list, you shouldn't have access to a firearm. These are common sense things. And we need common sense background checks, as most Americans and lawful gun owners agree on. But here's yet another issue in which Congresswoman Elise Stefanik puts her interests and special interests and her party's interest ahead of our country and have our community.

So would you support new limits on the types of weapons that the everyday American can buy separate from the issue of a background check?

What Washington has failed to do is listen to the voice of the people and that’s on a whole host of issues and failed to put their country first instead of the party to get something done. I will take a close look at any proposal that comes before Congress, especially those dealing with guns and make sure that it is right for the people of this district, because I will always put their interests first.

Recently, the state of Texas passed a gun law that just went into effect that allows open carrying of guns in public without a permit. Is that the kind of thing that you would oppose in Congress?

I will take a close look at any proposal that comes forward before Congress as it pertains on a federal level. But again, especially anything dealing with guns, I want to make sure that it's that it's right for the people of this district. And that is going to require conferring with the people of this district to make sure that I'm putting their interests first.

What about the issue of abortion? Speaking of Texas. Do you support a woman's right to choose what to do with her health?

Yes, women should make their own personal health decisions, not the government. Full stop.

In this Democratic field, I listed many other Democrats who are running with hopes of taking on Congresswoman Stefanik next year. What distinguishes you?

I applaud anyone who's stepping up to serve their community and their country. As someone that's done that their entire life, I can say that it's incredibly rewarding. And I believe that that's the big difference in this race, because Elise Stefanik has consistently put her party and her own interests ahead of this community and our country. She's a career politician, she's going full Washington, she spends all of this time tearing us apart rather than solving our problems. And she consistently puts her own interests ahead of this district and our country. So the reality is that we need someone who's going to put country before party. And that's not just our campaign slogan, that is an that is something that I've lived throughout the entirety of my career, I have served missions to make this country stronger and safe. I have served presidents of both parties, even at the White House, because our national security should transcend partisan politics. And I'm going to bring that same level of dedication of keeping this country safe to solving problems and uniting our communities in the 21st not dividing them.

Will you set any limits on yourself in terms of fundraising, in terms of who you take money from or dollar amounts?

Well, we just launched today, and I'm overwhelmed by the excitement behind this campaign. You know, folks are really ready for a change. But it's not lost on me that someone like Elise Stefanik has all of this special interests in her pocket, and they're going to funnel millions of dollars into her campaign. I will not be taking corporate PAC money, I'm going to instead match it by aggressively working up and down the North Country asking for $5, $10, $25 donations and making the case to each of them that we need someone in Washington, who is going to put country ahead of party and that is me.

Last thing for now. President Biden proposes to pay for his sweeping infrastructure, human infrastructure bill, which is in tandem with the infrastructure package for roads and bridges that's being discussed in Congress right now, by raising taxes on high earners. Do you agree with that approach? And what would a tax policy look like if you were in Congress? How would you vote?

I will always seek to keep taxes for our middle income Americans low. We do need to have a conversation about fairness when it comes to taxes. And so I will evaluate every proposal that comes in front of Congress is sort of that lens of whether it is fair, and whether it represents the interests of the district and community that I was elected to represent.

Should Congress move to forgive all student loans, as has been discussed recently?

Well, again, this is something that I will take in the context of the district and whether it represents the interests of this district to do so. But as someone who has student loans, I will say that this is an issue that is both personal to me, but my personal interest will never override those of the district and so that’s something I'll take a hard look at and make the best decision for the district.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.