In the far reaches of upstate New York, two Republicans are seeking the 21st congressional district seat of Democrat Bill Owens, who is retiring according to a January report from the Daily Kos. Owens is serving his third term in Congress after originally being elected in 2008. Joe Gilbert, a retired army veteran and Tea Party conservative, will face off against Elise Stefanik, a businesswoman
Joe Gilbert was born in Ogdensburg, N.Y. in 1966 and joined the army reserves at 18 while he was still in high school. After an abortive attempt at Potsdam State University, he joined the active duty army. In 1987, he began his military career in Germany guarding the strategic Fulda Gap opposite a Cold War Soviet army. During this time, Gilbert says he “caught glimpses of the misery and poverty that resulted from an all-powerful government on the other side.” At the same time, Gilbert began studying college courses. He earned degrees from the University of Phoenix and the University of Maryland and was selected to attend Officer Candidate School. Gilbert specialized in military intelligence and after 9/11 served three tours in Iraq.
After retiring from the army, Gilbert became the Director of Emergency Services for St. Lawrence County, N.Y. In that position, he is responsible for 41 fire departments, 28 ambulance squads and more than 2,000 employees and volunteers. His policies have resulted in savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars to St. Lawrence County taxpayers. Gilbert also served as a contributor to Examiner.com in the role of Watertown Tea Party Examiner until 2013.
According to BestPlaces.net, Plattsburgh, one of the main cities of the district, has an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, just below the national average. Nevertheless, incomes are well below the national average and job growth has been declining. Gilbert’s platform is based on opposition to the tax increases and health care reforms of the Obama Administration. He believes that these policy positions will help to bring economic relief and spur job growth in the district.
He is also a friend of the Second Amendment and is a member of the National Rifle Association. The right to bear arms has been under assault in New York in the past few years with the passage of the SAFE Act, which placed strict limits on ammunition and magazines and extended New York’s “assault rifle” ban.
In New York, local party officials have the power to choose a candidate instead of using the traditional primary system. If other candidates do not accept the party’s choice they can insist on a primary.
In February, WAMC Radio reported that businesswoman Elise Stefanik was the choice of district Republican leaders. A third candidate, Michael Ring, immediately endorsed Stefanik, but Gilbert exercised his right to a primary.
Elise Stefanik grew up learning her family business, a distributorship of wood products in upstate New York. An honor graduate of Harvard, she became the first member of her family to graduate from college. During the administration of George W. Bush, Stefanik served on the White House staff where she worked on economic and domestic policy. In 2012, she worked as the policy director of the Republican National Platform and served as the debate coach for vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Having won support of 11 of 12 counties in the district, Stefanik must be considered the favorite for the primary as well.
The Syracuse Post Standard reports that district Democrats have chosen Aaron Woolf, a documentary filmmaker, to be the Democratic candidate. Woolf has no political experience, but has produced award-winning films that highlight the societal effects of government policies. In the time since beginning his campaign, Woolf has been somewhat reclusive. According to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, he has given no real interviews and says that is a “press release kind of guy.”
Whether the Republican candidate is Gilbert or Stefanik, the Republican candidate will face a stiff battle. The district has voted Democrat in presidential elections since 1992 and has been represented by a congressional Democrat for the same length of time. This year a retiring Democratic incumbent paired with widespread dissatisfaction with President Obama’s policies may reverse that trend. Two very capable Republicans against a weak and inexperienced Democrat may boost the GOP’s odds.