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21st district Democrats need some adult supervision

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The now-long running farce that is the Democratic Party’s half-hearted effort to retain control of the 21st Congressional District seat held by William L. Owens has moved from perplexing to absurd.

The 12 Democratic Party county chairpersons within the vast 21st district met Feb. 12 in Elizabethtown and when they emerged from their meeting, they announced that a little-known film maker and organic grocer from Brooklyn, Aaron Woolf, would carry the party’s banner in the race.

Mr. Woolf went underground before the meeting was over, and has remained there since. For the past 21 days, he has granted no interviews, made no public appearances, generated no press releases, provided no insight into his political philosophy. At a closed county party meeting in Potsdam last night, he emerged from his cocoon for about 120 seconds to say, in effect, “no comment”.

For the past three weeks, Democratic Party leaders in the district have tolerated Mr. Woolf’s reticence. Vague statements of support have been issued by party leaders, including St. Lawrence County Democratic Committee Chairman Mark J. Bellardini and Jefferson County Chairman Ronald Cole. Those statements are eerily similar, as if Mr. Woolf is the Manchurian candidate and the county chairmen have been brainwashed with him. You have to wonder if they’ve all swallowed the KoolAid.

Unfortunately, this is not some town council election. The 21st Congressional District covers a vast swath of New York state and its representative has to carry the political water for the entire north country, from Vermont to Lake Ontario. To drive from Wilton, Saratoga County, to Cape Vincent, Jefferson County, across the district, it takes four hours, 23 minutes and spans a distance of 226 miles, according to Google Maps. The district’s interests are varied, regional concerns fluctuate and its people don’t have the easiest lives in the state — it is a district of significant need.

Bill Owens understood this. When he committed to the race in 2009, he jumped into it with both feet. He very quickly discovered the feelings of the people in Willsboro, and of the people in Henderson. By the time the 2009 special election rolled around, Mr. Owens had done the work, met the people, shaken hands, kissed babies, eaten chicken and in general let everyone know he was one of ours.

Now, however, Mr. Owens has had enough, and the Democratic seat he wrested from 150 years of Republican control is in the wind. With a solid Republican majority across the district, the only way the Democrats can retain this seat is by fielding a candidate that is just as committed, just as intelligent, just as aware as is Mr. Owens. The race is short — roughly from February to early November — with a huge district to conquer. With a nomination made on Feb. 12, the Democratic candidate had just 264 days to convince voters he is a man that can represent Northern New York in the House of Representatives.

Aaron Woolf, however, has frittered away 21 of those days without a single public appearance, public statement, personal acknowledgement he is ready to run and up to the task. If he waits “a few weeks” to makes his formal announcement, he will have tossed off about an eighth of the campaign with nothing to show for it. I have a pet rabbit that understands what folly this will be.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party stands mute. Where are the adults in the room? Going back not so many years, St. Lawrence County’s June O’Neill and Jefferson County’s Michael Schell had the political acumen to keep the party relevant despite its disadvantage in registration numbers. Party leaders going back only five years had the good judgment to support Mr. Owens, and that judgment was rewarded with three election victories in three years.

Mrs. O’Neill has declined to even discuss the race this year after stepping out of her party posts in March 2011. It’s too bad, because her acumen is sorely needed now.

The selection of Aaron Woolf as a candidate has been impossible to assess to date because he has offered no one a glimpse of him. With his apparent commitment to remaining hidden from public view, however, this assessment is not unreasonable: he is completely inappropriate to seek the position.

In an off-the-record conversation last week, Mr. Woolf’s charm was obvious. He struck me then as a great guy to sit down and have a beer with. But we don’t elect candidates based on their charm. We elect candidates who convince us they will represent our interests in Congress.

So this congressional race is almost certainly going to be decided on June 24, when Matthew A. Doheny and Elise M. Stefanik face off in the Republican primary. By then, the Democratic candidate will be so far behind in fundraising, campaigning and learning about the district that he can never hope to catch up.

It’s a grand scenario for the Republican Party. But for the Democrats, and for the independent voters who supported Bill Owens in past elections, it has to leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

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