Under the deafening sound of millions of dollars of stainless steel machinery injecting crystal clear spring water into thousands of see-through plastic containers running swiftly along conveyor belts, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, toured CG Roxane’s Crystal Geyser water bottling plant.
Amy McCray, CG Roxane’s East Coast Human Resources & Safety Manager, led the tour, explaining to Stefanik the oxidation process used to kill bacteria in the water and how the 85-percent automated plant is able to produce about 40 million units of bottled spring water per month.
CG Roxane’s 176,757 square foot water bottling plant is located on 400 acres on Old Sweet Road in Johnstown. The plant opened in 2013. Employment at the facility has expanded steadily over the past seven years. McCray said she was the 18th employee at the location, but now there are 46, and the company might expand even more. McCray said the company recently expanded from four boreholes to six boreholes, which could allow expanded shifts.
Stefanik asked McCray if workforce development was a problem for the company.
“We’ve only got about 2 percent turnover,” McCray said.
“That’s incredible,” Stefanik replied.
“The last person who left actually retired,” McCray said.
Stefanik conducted her tour of the factory on Oct. 15, one of many business stops she’s made throughout the sprawling 21st congressional district over her six years in Congress, but was made different by the coronavirus pandemic restrictions put in place over the last six months. Masks were worn in addition to the sterile garments already required by CG Roxane.
Stefanik has embraced wearing masks at all of her public events, although she was criticized for taking her mask off at President Trump’s Tulsa rally in June. According to a detailed explanation from her staff, she wore a mask into the indoor BOK Center, kept it on for most of the time she was there, but then took it off while sitting in a crowd of people who she believed to be safe from having been tested. During his speech, Trump gave Stefanik a shout-out, calling her a rising GOP star for her staunch defense of him during House impeachment hearings. She put her mask back on after leaving the venue.
Touring the CG Roxane plant, Stefanik talked cordially with its workers, one wearing a Trump 2020 mask. She elbow-bumped another worker as a form of greeting.
Stefanik asked McCray what steps CG Roxane had taken to handle the coronavirus, about how it was able to procure personal protective equipment and whether or not it was able to successfully work with local and state officials.
McCray said CG Roxane, which is a family-owned company based in Europe, began preparing for the virus in January, obtained its own PPE, set up a 24-hour health assistance line for employees, diligently adhered to all U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and watched Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus briefings every day during the heart of the crisis. She said to date zero employees had contracted the virus.
McCray said CG Roxane actually improved business throughout 2020.
“I would say we saw a spike,” she said. “Normally this is a very seasonal Memorial Day to Labor Day [business], but we saw a spike very early, end of February, early March, that kind of took the parameters outside of that normal feel.”
After the tour Stefanik took questions from reporters, many related to national issues often raised during her reelection campaign against Democrat Tedra Cobb.
Stefanik showed her willingness to partially separate from President Trump’s remarks during the first presidential debate where he called on the far-right group the “Proud Boys” to “stand back and stand by.”
“Obviously, any statement like that, I’m glad he clarified it and said there’s no tolerance for any form of racism,” she said. “I’ve been a leader in the region of speaking out against racist rhetoric in the Adirondacks.”
Stefanik then vented her frustration that she thinks her opponent has not been asked enough tough questions, including whether she thinks it was appropriate for Joe Biden to say a Black person isn’t really Black if he’s not voting for him.
“She has not condemned that. She should. You should ask her,” Stefanik said. “You guys aren’t asking her key questions in this race. You’re not even asking her who she would vote for. You should. I hope you will.”
Stefanik vs. Cobb
Stefanik and Cobb are facing off in a rematch of their 2018 race where Stefanik defeated Cobb by 14 percentage points, receiving 131,981 votes (56.1%) to Cobb’s 99,791 (42.4%).
The 2018 race was relatively cheap for both candidates compared to the 2020 version. Stefanik spent a total of $2.8 million, compared to Cobb’s $1.5 million in 2018.
For 2020 both Stefanik and Cobb have been bolstered by national attention given to Stefanik during President Trump’s House impeachment hearings, and her prime time GOP convention speech.
George Conway, a conservative pundit married to Trump’s 2016 campaign manager Kellyann Conway, attacked Stefanik calling her “lying trash” for what he perceived to be a stunt during the hearings when Stefanik broke House impeachment hearing rules and got into a verbal exchange with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
Conway, an ardent Trump critic, started a social media hashtag #trashystefanik and encouraged people to donate to Cobb’s campaign, which they did, pumping $650,000 into Cobb’s campaign in less than 24 hours.
Since then both Stefanik and Cobb have raised and spent far more money than the combined cost of their 2018 race.
Stefanik has raised the most, $11.4 million, and had spent $8.7 million, as of the Oct. 14 pre-general election campaign finance filing, leaving her with $3.1 million on hand, more than her entire expenditure in 2018.
Cobb has raised $5.3 million, and spent $4.6 million, leaving her with $737,748.
The 21st congressional district is normally considered a safe Republican district, but it does contain seven so-called “pivot counties” — Broome, Saratoga, Essex, Franklin, St. Lawrence, Warren and Washington — which voted for President Obama in 2012 and then flipped to President Trump in 2016.
Stefanik has become one of the most high-profile supporters of President Trump, even though she has been one of the few Republicans in Congress willing to break with him on major policy issues. She voted against the Trump tax cut in 2017, has repeatedly criticized his use of trade tariffs, calling them “taxes on Americans,” and has said she vehemently opposes his abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and planned redeployment of troops out of Germany.
Fivethirtyeight.com — a website created by pollster Nate Silver and owned by the Walt Disney Company — shows Stefanik voted with Trump-supported congressional bills 65.5 percent of the time during the 116th congress, 11.8 percent less than what would be predicted based on the margin Trump won the 21st Congressional District in 2016. Stefanik’s support for Trump policies has declined 89.6 percent during the 115th Congress, giving her an overall percentage of 78.3 percent.
Healthcare and Russian bounties
Tedra Cobb conducted a campaign rally in the parking lot of the Johnstown Mall on Saturday. In Republican-dominated Fulton County, the crowd of approximately 50 people was stronger than typical for Democrats, who rarely field candidates to oppose Republicans in many local elections.
The event was touted as an early voting get-out-the-vote rally, but didn’t start until after 1 p.m., and early voting only ran until 2 p.m. at the Fulton County Board of Elections.
Staff from Cobb’s campaign told her supporters the long voting lines are a sign the Democratic message encouraging people to vote is succeeding.
Cobb told the crowd she served two terms in the St. Lawrence County legislature from 2002 to 2010, even though when she ran for office she was repeatedly told she had no chance to win. She said she’s going to prove doubters wrong again this year.
Cobb said healthcare is her most important issue. She said she was inspired to run for Congress because of the threat of Republicans overturning the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare. She said when her daughter, Aida, was diagnosed with a degenerative disk disease she was able to obtain healthcare, but only just barely.
“We were lucky because we had insurance through my job, so Aida got the surgery she needed,” she said. “A month after Aida’s surgery, I lost my job, and we lost our insurance. This is a story I hear too many times, so in 2017 when Elise Stefanik voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and kick 64,000 people in this district off their healthcare and to eliminate the protections for people with preexisting conditions — that was it, I knew I had to run.”
Stefanik has disputed Cobb stating she supports legislation to protect pre existing condition protections to prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage, as was common prior to the Affordable Care Act. Stefanik said Cobb has been inconsistent on whether or not she supports “Medicare-for-all,” a position taken by Vermont Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Democratic presidential primary.
Cobb, during her Johnstown rally, said she supports Joe Biden’s plan to provide a public option health insurance.
“I will work with Joe Biden and we will get a Medicare Public option passed, so that anyone who wants to can buy into Medicare and those people who want to keep their insurance can do it,” she said.
Cobb has gone on the attack regarding the controversy over whether Russia has placed bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan. Trump received a written Presidential Daily Briefing referencing intelligence supporting the claim, but claims not to have read the briefing. He has called the story “fake news” and has stated he has not complained about the alleged bounties to Russian President Putin.
Cobb said Stefanik has failed in her duty by not condemning the Russian bounties and calling on President Trump to complain to Putin about them. She also criticized Stefanik’s attendance record at House Intelligence Committee hearings since February, but Stefanik’s campaign pointed to 20 meetings the congresswoman had attended.
Stefanik has defended her absence from the intelligence committee meetings because both open and closed-door sessions were conducted virtually via an internet program, although she first stopped attending them in February before that practice was put in place. Stefanik did attend the April 28 virtual hearing discussing the nomination of Texas Republican congressman John Ratcliffe to the role of Director of National Intelligence.
Stefanik denies the validity of the Russian bounty scandal.
“First of all, it’s false, the Russian bounties, according to all of the military experts, the commanding generals, found no substantiating evidence, so she is spewing falsehoods from the New York Times, ignoring experts in the military,” she said. “My No. 1 priority is force protection for the men and women in Fort Drum. I’ve been the leading voice protecting Fort Drum from devastating defense cuts.”
The New York Times on July 3 published a story citing official sources that indicated a memo gauging the confidence of the U.S. intelligence community in the Russian bounty intelligence showed the CIA and National Counterterrorism Center viewed the information as being “credibly sourced and plausible,” a grade of “medium confidence,” while the National Security Agency had less confidence in the intelligence.
Stefanik has been more outspoken than most Republicans on the issue of protecting U.S. elections from Russian interference, or interference from other countries such as China or Iran. She sponsored a bipartisan election security bill that passed out of the House, but the Republican U.S. Senate has never voted on the bill.
During a stop at the Saratoga County Fair in July 2019 she talked about the threat of Russian propaganda on social media and other interference.
“I also support labeling Russian TV, which is a propaganda arm of Putin as a form of propaganda — that is not a free press entity like we have free press here,” she said.
Cobb said Stefanik has been inconsistent on her positions regarding Russian propaganda.
Stefanik posted to her Facebook account a Sept. 29 unclassified letter from National Security Director John Radcliffe to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. The letter declassified facts about the FBI investigation into the 2016 election that showed that in July 2016 U.S. intelligence agencies had “obtained insight” into a Russian Intelligence analysis alleging Hillary Clinton was planning to blame Russia for hacking into the computers of the Democratic National Committee.
Stefanik defended her by sharing the letter citing the Russian analysis on social media, but would not say whether or not she believed the Russian analysis was correct.
“The DNI released it; this is intelligence that’s been gathered by the United States that’s been declassified. I stand by the declassification, and I’m glad the American public are seeing it for the first time,” she said. “”I think transparency is a good thing. I trust our intelligence agencies. I trust our men and women who serve in our intelligence agencies. The Democrats love to pick and choose what assessments they like. I trust our intelligence assessments.”
Ratcliffe’s letter did not say the U.S. intelligence community vouched for accuracy of the Russian analysis.
“The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication,” wrote Ratcliffe.
Differences and similarities
Stefanik has repeatedly criticized Cobb for voting for tax increases while serving in the St. Lawrence County Legislature, calling “Taxin Tedra” in numerous social media posts.
Cobb has defended her record stating Stefanik is ignorant of the fiscal pressures placed on local governments in New York state, which often necessitate tax levy increases.
Stefanik has blasted Cobb for a video recording of her made during the 2018 congressional campaign during which Cobb in conversation said she would support banning assault rifles, but couldn’t discuss the issue publicly. Stefanik frequently describes Cobb as being a “gun grabber.”
Cobb said she does not support banning assault rifles. She said she was attempting to empathize with a young person discussing the issue of fears related to school shootings, and that young person turned out to be a political operative who recorded her. She said she does support more gun control measures than Stefanik.
“The vast majority of Americans agree that we should pass universal background checks,” she said. “We should close gun show loopholes, and we should pass meaningful legislation like the violence against women act; Elise Stefanik voted against every single one of those,” “I don’t support an assault weapon ban. Have I ever? No.”
Stefanik and Cobb appear to mostly agree on the issue of a municipal and state bailout package for New York state and its local governments.
The Democratic majority House passed the $3.3 trillion HEROES act in May, which included a large aid bailout for New York state and tens of millions of dollars in direct aid for municipalities in Fulton and Montgomery counties, however the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate has never allowed a vote on the bill.
Stefanik said she supports a bill that she feels the Senate would approve, which would include about half of the $1.1 trillion in government coronavirus bailout aid.
“I’ve advocated consistently for a bi-partisan package that includes funding for state and local governments,” she said. “The $500 billion I’ve outlined in the SMART Act as well as the additional rounds of paycheck protection program and direct funding for K-12 schools.”
Cobb said she’s uncertain how large the aid package should be for local governments, but she said she would not have voted for HEROES Act because it had immigration provisions she opposes.
“I can’t say exactly how much that we need, but we need to negotiate and the problem is they aren’t coming to the table and the Republicans have just shut down negotiation,” she said.
Both Stefanik and Cobb condemned the online QAnon phenomenon, which alleges Democrats and Hollywood elites rape children and then drink their blood to obtain magical properties from it. QAnon has gained support since President Trump’s refusal to condemn the group during a town hall event, stating he knows they are against pedophilia and so is he.
“I voted to condemn QAnon,” Stefanik said, referencing a House resolution.
Cobb said she’s against the shadowy group too.
“I think it’s a conspiracy,” she said.
One area the two will never agree on is who should be the Speaker of the House. Stefanik is against current Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, but Cobb said she’s undecided on whether she would ever support Pelosi for Speaker.
“I will support whoever is the best person to help me fight for northern New Yorkers,” she said. “That is who I will support. As was the case in 2018, other names came forward and whoever the person is who will work with me for northern New York, that’s the person I will vote for.”