GOUVERNEUR — Matt Castelli wants voters to see him as a different kind of Democrat as he runs for Congress in New York’s 21st Congressional District.
In an interview Tuesday, Mr. Castelli said he believes government needs to take a step back on some issues, focus on the economy, health care and national security, in order to regain Americans’ trust and bring unity back to the country.
“Maybe the best way to rebuild trust between the government and our communities is for government to take a step back and simply focus on the things we expect them to focus on,” he said. “Keeping our communities and country safe, doing our roads and bridges, extended broadband and cell service to our homes and communities.”
Mr. Castelli, a former CIA officer and counterterrorism official under Presidents Barack H. Obama and Donald J. Trump, was in St. Lawrence County on Tuesday leading a petitioning drive, working with volunteers to get enough signatures from local Democrats to appear on the primary ballot in June.
He is one of three Democrats seeking the party’s nomination in the race for Congress against incumbent Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville. The race has been going for months now, and Mr. Castelli has managed to garner an endorsement from 15 of the 18 county party committees, and from all 18 county party chairs in the new lines of NY-21. He’s also raised the most in campaign contributions among the Democratic field for two quarters in a row.
He said he has focused on touring NY-21, hearing from voters and local Democrats since he announced his campaign in September.
In that time, he said he’s heard about three main topics on people’s minds — high prices and growing inflation, access to affordable health care and the need for local infrastructure investments.
Much of the discussion around inflation and the economy has focused on recent supply and demand issues, which Mr. Castelli said are important but tend to ignore the fact that middle and lower-income families have watched their buying power shrink for many years.
“The rising costs of daily life have affected working families since long before the pandemic struck,” he said. “These issues have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and its aftermath.”
Things like housing and grocery items have gotten more expensive more quickly than inflation for years, and Mr. Castelli said there are clear ways the federal government can step in to help fix the balance.
“If I can distill it down and paraphrase James Carville, ‘It’s the supply side, silly,’” he said.
He said the pandemic recovery has been largely good, but the government should be stepping in to help stabilize the supply chain by investing in infrastructure to deliver goods, and boost domestic manufacturing of essential goods.
Mr. Castelli said the federal government can also step in to address some of the labor concerns that have kept some people from returning to work amid the pandemic, like child care and housing affordability.
“There’s a government role there for maybe some private-public partnership,” he said.
Mr. Castelli said economic issues tie in closely with health care issues in this country, so taking government action to reduce the cost of prescription drugs would help families with both medical and monetary concerns.
More broadly on health care, Mr. Castelli said he sees similarities between the American rural health care landscape and the landscape in other countries, with long lines at temporary, free clinics and long rides to hospitals.
“We need to have proximity to urgent care facilities, and we need to figure out the best way to do that,” he said. “That’s done at the local level with potentially federal resources and support.”
Mr. Castelli said that federal, state and local cooperation is vitally important if the government wants to make meaningful changes, and that Congresswoman Stefanik hasn’t had collaborative relationships with New York state and local governments.
“We don’t have a federal representative whose willing to collaborate and work in a cooperative manner with the state government, whether that’s the governor or state legislators,” he said.
He said collaboration and cooperation up and down the levels of government is also key to developing rural infrastructure and internet connectivity. Many communities in the district lack reliable cell service, and high-speed internet connections still don’t reach every Northern New York address despite millions of dollars over years of investments.
He said the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law by President Joseph R. Biden in November, includes important projects that would help close the connectivity gap in NY-21. Mr. Castelli criticized Congresswoman Stefanik for voting against it.
The congresswoman said she couldn’t support the bill because of its massive, multi-trillion dollar price tag and said it didn’t have large enough investments for NY-21’s internet infrastructure.
Mr. Castelli said he’s not sure the infrastructure bill included enough to fully fix the problem, but it was an important first step either way.
“We need additional investment here, to make sure that we have broadband services and cellular services available in every home and business throughout the north country, because that is a starting point for the kind of economy that we need to have right now,” he said.
In his run for the Democratic nomination, Mr. Castelli has been subject to some criticism from Congresswoman Stefanik and her campaign. Team Stefanik has pointed out that Mr. Castelli was born in Poughkeepsie and hadn’t voted or lived in NY-21 before announcing his bid for Congress. Mr. Castelli now lives in Saratoga, where Congresswoman Stefanik resides.
Mr. Castelli said he’s long been familiar with upstate New York, attending Siena College just north of Albany. After working for the CIA and the National Security Council as its counterterrorism director, he returned to New York to work as a sales director for Unite Us, a health care software company.
“I wanted to return to upstate New York to be closer to my friends from college and my family members,” he said.
He said the district also has the largest population of veterans in the state, and having served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the CIA, he wanted to be closer to a population that reflects his own experiences.
“I think it’s a strong testament to the kind of character that we have, folks who want to return to this particular region and make it home for a second phase of life,” he said.
He said his experience in the intelligence community for 15 years gives him a unique perspective on military issues. He said he has a familiarity with defense and foreign policy that not many other Democrats can offer.
“One thing the military always needs is resources, to make sure they’re able to execute whatever strategy is determined by our national-level policymakers,” he said. “We want to make sure we have full and thoughtful execution of what the strategy is to achieve U.S. national security objectives across the globe.”
He said it is imperative that the military have clarity in its strategies and objectives, and ample resources to achieve them.
Mr. Castelli said he’s critical of the Biden administration’s pullout from Afghanistan, which saw the U.S.-backed government collapse within days to Taliban forces, which now have complete control of the country.
Mr. Castelli is proud of the work he did as a CIA officer in Afghanistan, and said he and his colleagues worked to prevent another 9/11-style attack on the U.S.
“The work that my colleagues and I, in partnership with the U.S. military, particularly Special Forces, were able to achieve successfully during that 20-year conflict was to prevent another 9/11,” he said.
On the war unfolding in Ukraine as Russia invades the former Soviet republic, Mr. Castelli said he understands the fine line the U.S. must toe, providing adequate support to the Ukrainian people repelling the invasion without sparking direct conflict with Russia.
“I’m encouraged by the strong support we’ve seen from Congress, particularly in the Senate appropriating billions of dollars in support of Ukraine,” he said.
He said he continues to support the U.S. pushback against Russian aggression in Ukraine, and he’s proud to see the work the U.S. has done in unifying NATO in opposition to the invasion.
At home, Mr. Castelli said he’s focused on the petitioning drive and meeting voters across the district. He said he’s hopeful to build a coalition of supporters across Democrats, Republicans and independent voters, and he thinks his message is working well.
“We’re going to prosecute and push forward with an exciting campaign that offers a different alternative than what folks have gotten used to,” he said.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of county party committee endorsements Mr. Castelli has earned.