Democrat Matt Castelli talks about his congressional campaign in New York’s 21st district
Five Democrats are running in New York’s 21st Congressional District primary, hoping to challenge incumbent Republican Elise Stefanik in the 2022 general election. Matt Castelli is a former CIA officer and counterterrorism expert who served in the Obama and Trump administrations. In November, he embarked on a listening tour across the district and this month 11 of the 12 county Democratic committee chairs in the district endorsed him. Castelli tells WAMC's Pat Bradley he is the only Democratic primary candidate who has visited all 12 counties in the 15,000-square mile district.
Castelli: Everywhere that I go I hear from people who can't afford some combination of housing, childcare, health care, prescriptions, groceries, transportation. And I think it's important to note that middle class and working families have been struggling to afford the cost of living long before this pandemic struck and the pandemic has only exacerbated those issues. Now, I've spent my career as you know working on missions that make this country stronger and safer. And I think that the gravest threat that we now face is the economic security of Northern New York and it's one that requires urgent action. The other thing though that I've heard from folks all across the district is just how long it's been since they've seen Elise Stefanik in their community listening to their concerns. In some cases it's been years. And I think it's important to note that she's been spending more time in Mar-a-Lago this year than she has in places like Massena or Malone.
Bradley: Matt, when you take a look at the first part of your response and talking to the constituents about the fact that they're having trouble keeping up with the economy, with your military background how can you approach that in Congress? How can that mesh with your background and be able to deliver those services to the constituents?
Well one thing that I'll note is that I did not serve in the military. I served at the CIA. There is a bit of a distinction there. But I think to your specific point, I think it comes back to this whole concept of putting country before party and actually solving problems facing average Americans. I think, folks in this district, and one of the key reasons why I'm running is because we need someone who will put country before party, someone that we can trust to have our backs and protect it protect us when we need it most and to address the top issues that are affecting voters here in this district. And that's why my top priority of all of this is lowering costs for middle class and working families. But I think on a related note we need to help bring an end to this pandemic once and for all. That will also play a role in helping our economy fully recover. And then the third piece of this is forward looking that the kind of investments that we need in our infrastructure that can allow the 21st District to compete in and win the 21st century. Because when we do all of these things we can ensure that the North Country can be a land full of opportunity and where working families can thrive.
Your challengers in the primary, the Democratic primary, say very similar things. So how do you distinguish yourself from your democratic opponents when you're talking about what needs to be done to move forward to defeat your opponent in the general election, that being Elise Stefanik?
Well you know as I've said before I applaud anyone who's willing to serve their community and their country and step forward in doing so. But I'm the only person in this race who spent their career serving their country. I spent nearly 15 years serving our country at the CIA. 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 Afghanistan and Iraq. Later I served in both the Obama and Trump White Houses. Because throughout my career of public service I learned that key lesson that I keep referencing and that's by protecting our communities, protecting my family and yours, not just from terrorism, but from a pandemic or from economic insecurity that requires putting country before party and my belief in that has never wavered. And that's not just a slogan for my campaign: country before party. That's my lived experience. And I'm the only candidate with a record of service to our country and our community that stands in stark contrast to Elise Stefanik's record of service to herself.
Matt Castelli you've been doing fairly well with fundraising. You've actually outraised your primary opponents. But you still have significantly less money than the incumbent Republican Elise Stefanik. Given having to spend for a primary race and then the general election and the difference, the massive difference, in how much you have versus what the incumbent Republican has do you think you can successfully win the seat?
Absolutely. I mean this election is a referendum on Elise Stefanik and her failure to put our district's interests ahead of her own during her nearly eight years in Congress. You know Congresswoman Stefanik has sponsored a grand total of two bills that have become law during that entire tenure: a commemorative coin and the renaming of a post office. And I think it's becoming a little bit more readily apparent that time and time again she has failed to put the needs of our district ahead of her own. She's voted against the needs of our district from voting against efforts to help families and businesses recover from the pandemic to most recently voting against bipartisan infrastructure funds that we so desperately need. I'm also hearing from independents and many Republicans who are not only just disappointed with her but actually excited about replacing her with someone who will put country before party to represent New York 21. So yes I am pretty confident that I can defeat Elise Stefanik.
Matt Castelli, 11 of the 12 Democratic county chairs endorsed your campaign. Given that we may see redistricting was that premature?
Well unclear what redistricting is going to bring in terms of the lines. And I am honored by the support of the chairs of those county committees. And I'm grateful for the support that I've received from Democrats throughout the district to have placed their faith in this campaign. We all share a goal. And that goal is to ensure that we have someone in Congress that puts the needs of the North Country ahead of their own personal ambition or their political party. And my goal is to unite the party, build the broadest coalition possible, give New York 21 the representative we deserve.
Well, Matt talking about uniting the party with that endorsement by the county chairs there's been some controversy. I'm sure you've heard about it regarding the Saratoga County chair. Bridie Farrell, the woman who's in the primary race, said that the Saratoga County chair told her that: "As a man I'm not comfortable meeting with you alone." The county chair Todd Kerner has disputed the nature and accuracy of that exchange. One of the other primary candidates Matt Putorti wants Kerner to resign. The incumbent Republican Elise Stefanik is using the whole situation as a fundraising opportunity. So when you're talking about bringing everybody together how does your campaign counter everything that's swirling around that?
Well, you know, I know Bridie. We see each other frequently at events. We have always had a good relationship. We're going to continue to. I welcome her participation in this race. I don't have any particular insight into their private conversation so I'll leave that to them. But my focus is on uniting Democrats and a broad coalition that will include independents and Republicans to take on Elise Stefanik and win next November. And that's got to be the focus
Matt Castelli, Congress is extremely polarized. Why do you want to be a member of Congress?
You know earlier this year I actually got a similar question from a good friend of mine who works on the Hill. He said this place is a circus. Why would you ever want to come here? And my response to him was because it shouldn't be a circus. You know we've become so focused on these performance artists in politics, the Elise Stefanik's and Marjorie Taylor Green's of the world. Those who treat legislating like it's professional wrestling and it's come at the expense of helping the middle class and working families get ahead. It's threatened our democracy like it did on January 6th. It's taken the lives of 800,000 Americans. It's harmed our standing in the world. I don't think people expect government to solve all their problems. But they do expect our government to work to get things done, to be there for people when they need it most, to deliver results and to protect them. And so that's why I want to go down there. Because we need a representative who's willing to put country before party to do the right thing and get the job done for our country and our district
You're very passionate when you answer that question.
Yeah, well you know, I took an oath to the Constitution of which our government is founded upon and I believe in that oath. It's an oath for life. And it's one that I am disappointed in the way that politicians like Elise Stefanik have treated it so flippantly. The job is to represent our communities, our neighbors, our families and to do the work on their behalf. Not to play this game about who's going to you know have the most power, who's going to be out on top, who's going to deny others the opportunity to advance legislation that might benefit Americans. We're dealing with a lot of serious problems in this country and we need serious people interested in solving them. And I'm one of them.
Other Democrats in the field are, Bridie Farrell, Matthew Putorti, Ezra Watson and Keith Sherrill.