A crowd of about 125 people had gathered in the Saranac Lake High School auditorium by the time the forum started, and more trickled in later. Voters for Change, which organized the event, said it counted 171 people enter.
Six of the seven people vying for New York’s 21st Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives attended. These include five Democrats running in a June 26 primary — Tedra Cobb of Canton, Emily Martz of Saranac Lake, Patrick Nelson of Stillwater, Dylan Ratigan of Lake Placid and Katie Wilson of Keene — plus Green Party candidate Lynn Kahn of Schroon Lake. Incumbent Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik was absent, despite being invited. She has not attended any of these forums.
Health care and education were the issues singled out for longer discussion. Lightning rounds that followed covered job creation, gun violence, where the candidates’ campaign donations come from, the environment, infrastructure, abortion, college loan debt, opioid drugs and immigration.
All six supported expanding Medicare to the general population, but some would push for it faster than others. Nelson was strongest in arguing for a guaranteed right to health care, whereas Wilson said that since Americans are so divided on the issue, “It’s the job of the representative to compromise.” As a “bridge,” she supports a bill that would let people buy into Medicare if they choose.
“I would disagree that this is a divisive or a polarizing issue,” Nelson said. “The majority of the American people are on board with a Medicare-for-all system.”
Ratigan, Cobb, Kahn and Martz also support Medicare for all, but Martz said many people will require convincing. She said her ANCA experience qualifies her to do that, starting with business owners.
Kahn warned that big government health care systems can have big problems, and if you don’t believe it, “Ask a veteran.”
Ratigan said he saw, as a TV host, how the health care industry influenced Democrats in 2009 to stop short of including a public option in what became the Affordable Care Act. Nelson later turned this on Ratigan, setting up the afternoon’s most heated exchange.
“Four out of the six of us on this stage have publicly said that we will not accept corporate PAC and lobbyist money,” Nelson said. “Today I’m asking you to help us make it five.”
Ratigan sharply responded that he is the only candidate who has accepted zero PAC dollars. He noted that Nelson has accepted money from a PAC called Justice Democrats.
“They’re a PAC, but not a corporate PAC,” Nelson replied.
(After the event, Ratigan said, “I will take money with anybody I agree with,” and compared the pledge to “playing games.”)
Ratigan then turned back to the crowd.
“The political system has been completely corrupted at a level that you cannot comprehend,” he said. “You are kidding yourselves if you believe that simply sending somebody who believes what you believe will solve your problems. You need to send somebody to Washington, D.C., with a history of actually standing up to our politicians for what is right, and my history will show that very clearly.”
Wilson followed, saying the main question for primary voters is who would be best against Stefanik.
“Dylan has a good point,” she said. “He’s been the angry guy on TV. He can tell it like it is. But who on this stage, when put next to Elise Stefanik, is not going to go blank, wilt, or not have a really good rebuttal.”
All six candidates support strong education funding. Martz mentioned pre-kindergarten and special ed; Cobb added Head Start to these. Kahn backed free education options from pre-K to college, including for adults who go back to school. To pay for it, Martz mentioned closing tax loopholes whereas Kahn suggested cutting government waste.
Wilson focused on trade schooling, saying the college-for-every-student goal isn’t realistic.
“We don’t actually have a lack of jobs in NY21,” she said. “We might have a lack of jobs that are paying enough, but what we do have is a lack of qualified individuals to fill those positions.”
Ratigan said “the world right now is going through what I call the third industrial revolution” and that teaching people how to solve problems requires solid funding for teachers.
Nelson said society needs to untie education from property taxes to stop the way “the people who live in the nicest houses get the best schools.” He also said higher education should be a right and that some tuition-free higher ed is needed.
All candidates agreed student loans are a problem. Martz suggested raising the Pell grant income limit to include the middle class. Cobb recommended capping the federal loan interest rate at 2 percent, Kahn suggested 0.1 percent, and Nelson suggested the rate at which big banks are allowed to borrow.
Nelson, who mentioned his own seven-figure student debt, cited a study by the Sanders Institute that said the economy would grow faster if Congress forgave student debt than if it used that same amount for tax breaks for the rich.
As the candidates mingled with the crowd after the forum, retired lawyer Paul Herrmann said he loved having this opportunity.
“I don’t know how you can make an informed decision without listening to all the candidates,” he said.
He’s made up his mind to vote for Cobb.
“I think she’s the best organized,” he said. “She’s the only one with legislative experience, and I think she’s good on the issues.”
Steve Erman has been to several of these forums, but this was the first since Ratigan joined the race in February. He plans to vote for Ratigan.
“He has a gravitas to not only win the primary but move on and beat Elise Stefanik, and I hope he does,” Erman said.
A group of four college students who graduated from this high school last year said the forum helped them chose whom to vote for.
Witter Swanson said his biggest takeaway was the number of people in the room.
“Especially in past elections, the way it’s been pulling teeth to try to get Democratic candidates, the fact that we have so many candidates and that so many people from Saranac Lake were here to watch, I think that’s really exciting,” he said.
“I really liked Tedra, I liked Patrick, I think Emily Martz had some really good points, but I’m still narrowing down who I’m going to vote for.”
So is Elodie Linck.
“We need to find the person at that table who is going to beat Elise Stefanik, and we can all have personal opinions about who we like for this reason or the other, but we have to sort of look for the good of the order,” she said.
Iris Glinski and Jada Meadows are both leaning toward Nelson.
“I feel like Katie is the type of person who people want to vote for, but I feel like Patrick had the right answers and I agreed with everything he wanted to say,” Glinski said.
Meadows said she found herself agreeing with all the candidates, “but it’s not the opinions that you need to agree with, because most of them have very similar opinions on issues. But it’s kind of how they’re relaying them and how they have a plan to change things put those into action.”