Funiciello looks for working people’s votes

LAKE PLACID – Matt Funiciello hasn’t quit his day job while running for Congress, and he pitches that as a reason to vote for him rather than a reason to doubt his commitment.

The Green Party candidate says he works 45 to 50 hours a week as the owner and manager of the Rock Hill Bakehouse in Glens Falls. He says he pays himself $18 an hour (which works out to roughly $40,000 a year) while his average staff baker makes $14 to $15. He says he couldn’t afford health insurance before the Affordable Care Act – which he calls a “a corporate bailout” of insurance and drug companies – and still can’t.

Therefore, he says, he’s more representative of northern New Yorkers than the other candidates for the House seat being vacated at the end of the year by U.S. Rep. Bill Owens.

He said he had put in 10 hours of work at his bakery in Glens Falls Friday, June 27 before coming that evening to the Green Goddess Natural Market in Lake Placid, where about 15 people turned out to hear his views and ask him questions. It’s the farthest he’s traveled for a campaign event since he announced his candidacy in February. It’s a busy time of year for the bakery, he said.

Republican and Conservative candidate Elise Stefanik and Democrat Aaron Woolf have many hundreds of thousands of donated dollars backing their campaigns, so they can afford to tour around New York’s huge 21st Congressional District without worrying about personal expenses. Independence Party candidate Matt Doheny, an investor and former Wall Streeter, can also afford to do so if he returns to campaigning after losing the Republican primary to Stefanik on June 24. Funiciello, on the other hand, had raised just $7,000 going into the Lake Placid event.

That’s one reason why Funiciello says you should vote for him. Unlike the other candidates, he said, he’s not bought and paid for; he’ll never take corporate money the way Stefanik did from super PACs like American Crossroads, a coalition of anonymous donors marshaled by national Republican strategist Karl Rove.

“To me, that’s not democracy; it’s not a democratic republic, either,” Funiciello said. “I don’t like it, and I’ve never met a voter who does. We just cynically go along with it.”

Just as the recent farmers market movement established a viable alternative to processed food, Funiciello says he wants to help build an alternative to big-money politics. There are few registered Green voters in the district – about 1,100 – but he expects his populist message to appeal to many frustrated Democrats and Republicans.

He has no problem castigating Democrats. President Obama is “following the Bush agenda as if he was George Bush,” Funiciello said. He sees Gov. Andrew Cuomo as “a Republican who takes Koch brothers money.” As for Woolf, “I like Aaron. He’s a nice guy, and I actually think he’s pretty smart,” Funiciello said. “But he’s not going to get elected. He’s just not. There’s an underwhelming quality in him that will not get him elected.”

Meanwhile, Funiciello says he talks with many Republicans while doing business in Glens Falls, and they’re not the tea party straw men Democrats fear. He especially finds kinship with libertarian-leaning ones like Ron Paul, whom he said he admired for voting for abortion rights even though Paul believes abortion to be wrong and would not perform it as a physician. That’s representation, Funiciello said; it’s the kind of thing he says he wants to do for northern New Yorkers.

Funiciello would be happy to scrap the entire Farm Bill and other economic development grants commonly called “pork,” which he said “doesn’t work anyway.” He said most North Country dairy farmers he’s talked to just want a level playing field; they mostly want the subsidies so they won’t all go to larger competitors.

Despite Funiciello’s early-rising baker’s hours, he didn’t seem a bit tired at the Green Goddess event. What he said was supposed to be a brief introduction to a question-and-answer session turned into a medium-length speech that left relatively little for people to ask him about. Demeanor-wise, he was at once frank and friendly, worked up and easy-going, as if he’s so used to political outrage that he can live inside it without it upsetting him. His free manner of speech contrasts with the guardedness of Woolf and Stefanik.

He takes pride in seeing himself as a straight talker. He said that at a candidates forum in Hague, someone asked, “If you’re elected, will we ever see you again?” Whereas Doheny vowed to hold town hall forums in every town in the district and Stefanik promoted how she’d serve constituents with a mobile office, Funiciello says he doesn’t think people would elect him to attend their county fairs. He thinks they’d prefer him to spend that time fighting for their interests in Washington.

Likewise, he differs from other candidates in not vowing to keep Fort Drum open. He thinks the U.S. military needs reduction and doesn’t promise an exemption for the Watertown area Army base.

Funiciello’s early childhood was spent in Saratoga County, on a farm where he said he and his family had to work very hard.

“I didn’t appreciate any of it until I was much older,” he said.

His parents divorced, and he moved with his mother to Ottawa, where she still lives. Living in Canada was formative, and he strongly advocates for a single-payer health care system like Canada’s. It’s not perfect, he says, but it’s “at least 10 times” better than health care in the U.S. For one thing, it cuts the costs of billing and claims departments, and of middleman profits.

“We have such a catastrophe of a health care system here,” he told the audience in Lake Placid.

He insists that U.S. taxpayers are already paying about as much per person for health care as in countries like Canada, yet Americans are charged extra for it and receive an inferior product.

“The system is already socialized,” he said. “We already pay for it, we don’t have access to it, and the care we get is terrible.”

After finishing high school in Ottawa, Funiciello took some college classes there, thinking he’d like to be a journalist, but he dropped out and decided to educate himself by reading instead.

“I don’t like to be told what to think,” Funiciello said. “That’s been a status quo for me my whole life, and I think it will serve me well in Congress.”

He returned to live near his father in Saratoga County and eventually opened the bakery with his brother.

Another of his platform goals is raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. He admits he doesn’t pay all of his own workers that much now, but he says he pays them more than his accountant advises: $10 per hour during training and $12 after two weeks, with raises following.

Asked about environmental issues by Fred Balzac of Jay, Funiciello said he opposes the Keystone XL oil pipeline but thinks “it’s a done deal,” and he sees hydraulic fracturing of shale for natural gas as “a terribly desperate act.”

Asked about education, he said he opposes curriculum homogenization that limits teachers’ innovation, and he supports teachers against Cuomo.

“Just because their union allowed them to make a little more money doesn’t mean I should be jealous of them,” he said.

Funiciello doesn’t expect to transform Congress by himself if elected, but he said he appreciates the Iroquois concept of doing things to benefit people seven generations into the future. He doesn’t think he can accomplish his goals in his lifetime, but he says voting for him would start that change process. Voting for any of his opponents won’t change Congress at all, he said.