21ST CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT — While U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Saratoga, and her Democratic challenger Matt Castelli don’t agree on much — in fact, they are prone to describing each other as “far left” or “extremist” — they share similar opinions on a major issue in New York. Both are against the Farm Laborers Wage Board’s recent decision to recommend lowering the overtime wage threshold for farm workers.
“Make no mistake, I will continue to challenge this wrongful decision and stand up for our farms because upstate New York understands: No farms, no food,” Stefanik said in a statement after last week’s decision.
Meanwhile, here was Castelli’s take Monday.
“Farming is not a 9-to-5 job. The rules that have been recommended don’t take into account things like the various seasons, the weather,” Castelli said. “The needs of farmers are pretty unique, particularly in our district. So I oppose the recommendation. I’m encouraging the governor to reject it.”
Castelli’s comments came during a virtual press conference Monday as he described the platform of his Moderate Party line, which Castelli will be appearing on this November in addition to the Democratic Party line. The farm labor issue is one of several issues — from public safety to Second-Amendment rights — that could put Castelli’s stance as a moderate at odds with the stance of the Democratic party.
“I’m not afraid to call out the Democratic Party or members thereof if I believe that I disagree with them and they’re inconsistent with the values and interests of our district,” Castelli said Monday.
Last week, the Farm Laborers Wage Board voted 2-1 to approve a report that recommends lowering the overtime threshold for farm workers from 60 hours down to 40. If the threshold takes effect the way the recommendation currently stands, farmers will eventually be required to pay workers time-and-a-half for every hour worked past a 40-hour week.
The threshold would drop to 40 hours by 2032, with the threshold lowering by four hours per week every other year, starting with a drop to 56 hours in 2024. Following last week’s vote, New York state’s Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon has 45 days to review the report and its recommendations and announce her decision on the threshold ruling.
Stefanik and Castelli side with New York state farmers who say lowering the threshold hurts their business. Farmers argue the threshold will likely force them to have to cut workers’ hours — either by hiring additional staff or curtailing operations — and that move could lead to an exodus of farm workers from New York to neighboring states that don’t have overtime thresholds, they say.
Currently, agricultural workers are covered by overtime laws in six other states, with the nearest being Maryland, according to Farmworker Justice.
Labor groups and workers’ rights groups, which traditionally support Democrats, have championed the lowering of the threshold.
“We believe that this decision protects the rights of farm laborers while taking into account the needs of farmers,” Farm Laborers Wage Board Chair Brenda McDuffie, former president and CEO of the Buffalo Urban League, said during last week’s vote. McDuffie and Denis Hughes, former president of the New York State AFL-CIO, voted in favor of advancing the recommendations. David Fisher, the New York Farm Bureau president, voted against the recommendations.
Stefanik, who has represented New York’s 21st Congressional District since 2015, co-sponsored federal legislation introduced last month in the U.S. House of Representatives that would preempt state laws that provide a maximum work week for farm workers of less than 60 hours. If passed, the bill would effectively undercut a 40-hour threshold in New York.
Yet, even though Castelli is against lowering the overtime threshold in New York, he said the proposed federal legislation is a governmental overstep.
“Representative Stefanik’s proposed legislation strips away state’s rights, a betrayal of Conservatives and voters who don’t want more power handed to the federal government,” Castelli said, calling the bill “a publicity stunt with no chance of passing through this Congress.”
The farm laborer issue is one of several that could complicate campaigning for Castelli, a former CIA officer and director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, who served in both the Obama and Trump White Houses.
The Moderate Party, which Castelli created and petitioned for this summer via New York’s fusion voting rules, has a platform focused on safety and security, a strong economy, and protecting American freedoms and individual liberties, the candidate outlined Monday. Those tenants mean support for Second-Amendment rights and border security, as well as opposition to defunding police and to New York state’s bail reform, which could put Castelli at odds with some members of the Democratic party.
Castelli said he’s happy to appeal to the middle.
“Whether it’s [U.S. Sen.] Bernie Sanders and the Squad, or Elise Stefanik and ultra-MAGA, they are two sides of the same extreme coin that don’t reflect the views of the majority of Americans, our shared values and the desire to work together to solve common challenges,” Castelli said. “Blind loyalty to party and political figures instead of loyalty to the American people they were elected to represent continues to give oxygen to the extremes.”
During the press conference, Castelli noted he voted for U.S. Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential election and President Barack Obama in the 2012 election.
Stefanik’s campaign, which is running on the Republican and Conservative party lines, said Castelli’s Moderate Party line is a gimmick.
“This downstate Democrat is desperately trying to trick voters into pretending to be a Moderate,” Stefanik’s Senior Advisor Alex DeGrasse said in a statement. (While Castelli grew up in the town of Poughkeepsie, he now lives in Glens Falls.) “There is nothing moderate about downstate Democrats accepting the endorsement from [Gov.] Kathy Hochul and trying to hide it from voters.”
The Moderate Party, whose only candidate is Castelli, will not continue as a new party beyond this election without future independent party petitioning, according to Castelli’s campaign.
Among other issues, the party calls for increased funding for law enforcement and improved security at the country’s borders, according to Castelli.
“Those advocating to defund the police are advocating for a policy and messaging that is absurd and dangerous,” Castelli said during the press conference.
“Blue Lives Matter,” he added.
Castelli also addressed New York state bail reform, which passed in 2019 and prohibited cash bail in all but the most serious cases. The reform has since been scaled back, but detractors argue the current rules continue to allow potentially dangerous criminals to remain on the street, even after committing a serious crime.
“Bail reform has been a disaster. And it’s left our criminal justice system hamstrung and confused,” Castelli said. “Governor Hochul and state legislators need to step up to provide our law enforcement, district attorneys and judges with the power, trust and autonomy to keep our communities safe from criminals.”
On guns, Castelli said the Moderate Party will “protect and defend the Second Amendment,” while supporting measures such as universal background checks.
“We do not support an ill-defined assault weapons ban that fails to address keeping our cops, our kids and community safe,” the candidate said.
In response to the public safety and police reform elements of Castelli’s Moderate platform, DeGrasse touted Stefanik’s support from law enforcement.
“There is a reason why Congresswoman Elise Stefanik has been endorsed by every law enforcement union,” DeGrasse said in a statement. “It’s because Elise Stefanik proudly ‘backs the blue.’”
To be sure, there are issues in Castelli’s Moderate platform that are in line with the Democratic party platform, including protecting rights to abortion, working to protect communities from the dangerous effects of pollution and extreme weather, and protecting voters’ rights.
On the Moderate line, Castelli said, “This is an additive sort of flavor, if you will, about the kinds of priorities and platforms that I, as a representative, would espouse. I think, it creates a space for us to build the kind of coalition that is thirsting for representation.”
Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.