SARANAC LAKE — Tedra Cobb, the Democratic candidate for New York’s 21st Congressional District, spoke with Adirondack Daily Enterprise staff on Sept. 6 about her race against incumbent Republican Elise Stefanik, talking over the differences between their campaigns, policies and legislative styles.
These differences are interpreted differently depending on one’s assumptions about how a “good” campaign is run, what “good” policies look like or how “good” legislation is crafted.
Cobb, of Canton, has not received support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the general election race, a point which Stefanik’s campaign has capitalized on. Stefanik’s communications director Lenny Alcivar has dubbed Cobb “the worst congressional candidate in America.”
Cobb said she does not consider herself to be “abandoned by her own party,” as Stefanik’s campaign states. Rather, she sees herself as a “true grassroots” candidate. She said she also does not consider herself to be part of a new slew of Democrats in the “blue wave” running on progressive and democratic socialist platforms in the wake of the election of President Donald Trump. She said she is running to do what is best for the North Country.
“[Alcivar]’s key competent of my being the worst candidate who has ever run, ever, in the history of the Democratic Party … is that I’m not supported by the DCCC,” Cobb said. “My response to that is, I think that might make me the right candidate for this region.”
She said she is not trying to be an “up and coming” or “rising star” politician, as Stefanik’s campaign describes Stefanik. Cobb said Congress is her end goal, and she is not aiming for higher Washington prominence.
Cobb said she doesn’t need DCCC funding to run a grassroots, North Country campaign, adding that she doesn’t know of any other campaigns nationally that are as grassroots as hers.
She has done a fair amount of fundraising herself, saying she isn’t shy about it due to her nonprofit experience. She said it “is arduous, and you just have to do it.” However, according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan political watchdog organization, 69 percent of her donations come from within her district and 25 percent from outside. Around 6 percent does not have data associated with it. By comparison, Open Secrets says Stefanik has 10 percent from inside the district, 77 percent from outside and 13 percent unaccounted for.
Cobb has raised $452,127 compared to Stefanik’s $1,972,762. She also only has $93,048 cash on hand next to Stefanik’s $1,588,389.
Cobb compared running her campaign to making a dish her mother used to prepare for her and her nine adopted siblings called “chicken surprise.”
“ ‘You find the chicken, I’ll be surprised,’ ” Cobb said, quoting her mother. “I ran this race lean, knowing that we were going to raise money predominately from inside the district and that it’s a modest district.”
In the general election, she said she safeguarded money early on for television advertising, believing that to be the best way to reach a wide audience of non-active voters.
Where Cobb’s campaign is not lean is human capital. She had amassed around 900 volunteers by the end of the primary election and now has around 1,500, she said.
Cobb explained her quotes in a now-infamous video filmed in May that Republicans released in July. In a conversation with teens on the campaign trail, she said she believes assault rifles should be banned but that she cannot say that if she wants to win.
Cobb said she wasn’t being two-faced in that moment but was rather speaking with knowledge of the legislative process and considering more than just her personal beliefs in her law-making decisions.
“That’s always the balance as an elected official; it is always that you have to balance what your community wants and what you want,” Cobb said. “The only way to do that is to be in a community, and Elise Stefanik is not in this community.”
An eight-year member of the St. Lawrence County Legislature, Cobb said she understands that she still represents people who disagree with her personal politics and won’t propose legislation without input from NY-21 residents.
Cobb said she looks up to former President Jimmy Carter, who said he did not agree with the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, but agreed to uphold it as law.
She said the 2008 New York SAFE Act is an example of poor legislation. Though she agrees with several of the gun control measures passed in the SAFE Act, she believes it was rushed through the legislature and that passing the bill with no hearings, no testimony and no time for opponents to make a case to their legislators was irresponsible.
“Good legislation takes time; we can’t pass it in the middle of the night,” Cobb said. “People have a right in this country to feel that they are a part of the democratic process. I understand the fear of another school shooting and wanting legislation to somehow fix it. I’m not sure that the SAFE Act necessarily is the thing to fix it.”
When asked if voters could trust Cobb to go through the lengthy process she described, she said, “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”
The first time she ran for the county legislature seat, the Democrats were in the minority.
“When you’re in the minority, in order to get anything done, you have to work with the majority,” Cobb said. “You have to listen; you have to collaborate.”
St. Lawrence County was in the midst of building a county jail, and Cobb wanted a project labor agreement. She said that at public hearings in packed legislative chambers the room was usually split, with around 75 people against the agreement and 75 for it.
“At the end of the day, I had to listen to everybody’s voice and then make the decision that I thought was the best one for the community, for the taxpayer and then the one that lived my values,” Cobb said.
Sometimes the process takes a long time, but it is worth it to go through the correct law-making channels, she said. Her ethics law in St. Lawrence County took two years to pass and came out the other end identical to the original bill, but everyone had their voice heard in the process.
Cobb said before she passes any significant legislation, she would meet with groups of constituents across the district.
“ ‘Here’s legislation. Here’s a town hall on this legislation. What do you think?’ That’s how I roll,” Cobb said.
One piece of legislation Cobb said she would like to get passed as soon as possible is health care reform, but she was noncommittal when asked if she would try to ram it through if her party controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency.
“We spend more on health care than any other country, and yet we have more people uninsured,” Cobb said. “We know that if everyone had access to health care — you can call it insurance — and they had preventative health care, that the cost would go down.”
Cobb said many studies of health care and insurance do not factor in the cost of the uninsured on the current system, and how insuring everyone would bring health care costs down across the board. She said many people get insurance “too late” and that if more healthy, young people were included in the system, the cost would go down.
When asked about Stefanik’s support of aspects of the Affordable Care Act — people staying on their parents’ insurance until they turn 26 and covering pre-existing conditions — Cobb said the congresswoman contradicts herself, saying one thing and voting another.
“She may say, ‘I support those two things,’ but Elise Stefanik voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement,” Cobb said. “It doesn’t matter if she says, ‘Yeah, it’s important for people with pre-existing conditions to have health care,’ Wait a minute. You voted to take that away from people.”
The Cobb and Stefanik campaigns are vastly different in most ways, but there is one thing they share in common: their belief that the other is not able to legislate properly.
Green Party candidate Lynn Kahn is also challenging Stefanik on the November ballot.