By CRAIG FREILICH
POTSDAM – The campaign for Congress in the North Country took another step closer to its climax in November with a tour of some St. Lawrence County businesses Thursday by leading Democratic contender Aaron Woolf and current Rep. Bill Owens.
The two were on a “jobs and small business tour” that began at Ductman Mechanicals in Norfolk, and proceeded to Potsdam for talks at Potsdam Agway, Northern Music and Video, and Sergi’s Italian Restaurant.
Owens took the opportunity to announce his endorsement of Woolf as his choice to succeed him Congress. Owens, a Plattsburgh Democrat who has held the 21st District seat for five years, had refrained from officially endorsing a candidate until then.
At the Agway, owned by Daryl Kolanko, Woolf spoke about the changes that Agway has gone through since he used to visit the Agway in Wadhams to pick up feed for his goats.
After Agway went bankrupt years ago and closed many stores, Kolanko has been among Agway owners who kept operating under the brand and had to “evolve and adapt, part of the game,” Woolf said.
Kolanko noted that his competition has been coming from big box stores who can offer many of the types of products he now sells “cheaper than we can buy it for, so we have to take a side-step and see what we can do better.”
What was once mainly an animal feed and farm implement store on Pine Street has evolved into a home and garden store and a provider of quality pet supplies, among other things. He said that one the things he has done has been to feature “American-made pet food, very popular,” in the face of uncertainty among some consumers about the quality of products coming from elsewhere. “People might pay a little more, but the quality is better.”
He expressed concern about diminishing business expense deductions on federal taxes and the difficulty with some cross-border trade, things Rep. Owens continues to work on and that Woolf says he will take up if he wins.
Asked about what could be done to alleviate the lack of prosperity of many North Country residents, Woof said he would be emphasizing “infrastructure investment to create the workforce for the 21st Century.”
The two men then went to Northern Music and Video to speak with owner Chris Smutz about the business.
Smutz said that business was solid, but he was concerned about the decline in a part of their work, supplying musical instruments for students in school music programs, because of school budget cuts.
“That changes the line item, and it’s something we have to think about,” Smutz told Woolf and Owens.
Owens asked about cross-border business, and Smutz said there was an increasing amount, including Canadians who made the trip to Potsdam to come into the store, but he said he was hampered at times with getting shipments into Canada. He also said that “the ways to compete are ever evolving,” particularly with the convenience of internet shopping, “but the trick is to sell ourselves. It’s a battle.” One thing they emphasize, he said, was that “we service everything we sell here. That’s a great selling point.”
Woolf said that in a rural economy, part of community is “being in the same space, and that’s valuable, and the basis for endurance” in business.
Walking deeper into the store to take a look at some instruments, he said something about maybe having a guitar pick in his pocket.
“I’m a hack guitarist. In the ’70s, playing the guitar was a great thing to do – like being a filmmaker now.”
Asked what advice he had given Woolf, Owens said that the focus on “jobs and the economy have been the top subjects and have not changed in my five years” in Congress.
Woolf said he would be concentrating on “giving small business the tools to succeed: infrastructure, energy, and education form the workforce of the 21st Century. The focus has to be on the economy and job growth.”
He said he favored raising the minimum wage to “put more cash in people’s hands.”
He did acknowledge there would be substantial opposition to any ideas he might have from some members of the House. “I can’t see a clear path to immediate reform,” he said, but he believed that he would try to exercise the same characteristics that Owens had shown in office of “reaching across the aisle. My work as a TV producer and filmmaker has been to bring voices to the table.
“It’s very different being in front of the camera than behind it,” said Woolf, “but in the process of both you meet and speak with people,” which he said is vital to understanding what people in the district need and want.
“There will be some horse-trading,” but success will depend on finding common ground. “People don’t have to agree on everything to get things done.”
Other advice Owens had given him, he said, was that to be effective in Congress he would have to “listen to what people are saying.”
cuts in school music
While at Kolanko’s Agway store, Owens announced his official endorsement of Woolf, a resident of Elizabethtown and Brooklyn, to succeed him as the representative to Congress from the North Country.
“I believe he has the right positions on the Ryan bill” -- the budget plan from the Chairman of the House Budget Committee Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin – “and on immigration reform,” Owens said.
“Aaron understands the importance of agriculture in the district, of farm labor here, and border trade,” Owens said, speaking about issues that have been important to him in his five years in Congress.
“It’s an incredible honor to get his endorsement,” Woolf said.
If he is the nominee and the winner in November, Woolf said, “It will be an honor to follow in his footsteps and if I can, to have the success he has had.”
Woolf has the endorsements of the Democratic Committee leaders in each of the 13 counties in the 21st Congressional District, but Woolf may yet face a primary challenge from Town of Macomb Councilman Stephen Burke.
Other chief rivals for the seat include Republicans Elise Stefanik of Willsboro, a former Republican political aide in Washington, and Republican businessman Matt Doheny of Watertown, who has challenged Owens before and lost.