February 14, 2022 by Ashley Onyon

CANAJOHARIE — Officials and residents in western Montgomery County are leaning into the outcome of redrawn congressional districts by getting to know their possible future leader at the federal level, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville.

“We’re really excited about what she brings to Montgomery County,” said Michael McMahon, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party, on Monday. “For redistricting, it really has been a good thing for Montgomery County. I can’t say that’s the case all around, across the state, but we are very happy with how we have come out.”

Redrawn congressional and legislative districts were passed largely along party lines in both the state Senate and Assembly this month before they were signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul. Republican state leaders have been critical of the redrawn maps they say would give Democrats an advantage in future elections.

The process wound up in the hands of state officials after the bipartisan Independent Redistricting Commission was unable to agree on new boundaries for state or federal elected positions.

Although she lambasted the redistricting process and acknowledged that a lawsuit seeking to have the redrawn congressional maps invalidated must still play out, Stefanik met with local business owners, farmers and officials in new territory added to her district in western Montgomery County on Monday.

“The reality is the lines, if you look statewide, were very gerrymandered to protect Democrats to eliminate the voice of upstate New York. I’m running for re-election in the newly redrawn 21st Congressional District,” Stefanik said.

“I’m going to work hard to earn the support of the voters of Montgomery County that are in the new district,” she continued. “My job is to make sure your issues are at the highest level, that you have a voice in Washington and I am committed to do just that.”

The redistricting process has stretched the already sprawling 21st Congressional District spanning the North Country from 12 counties to 18 counties due largely to population loss. The district will pick up western Montgomery County and Schoharie County, territories currently contained in the 19th Congressional District of Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck.

“There are a lot of similarities in terms of the economy, the need for rural broadband, agriculture, supporting small businesses, the number of seniors, veterans,” Stefanik said of the communities in the district. “We are going to work hard to represent every county of the 18 in this district.”

Eastern Montgomery County will remain in the 20th Congressional District currently held by Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam.

Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort was less enthusiastic about the “tricky experience” locally with redistricting, but is welcoming getting to know new faces who are likely to represent the county next year after the general election.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in Montgomery County, but we’ve done that through partnerships at the state and federal level. So to be able to start our relationship and hopefully work together over the next few years, I think it’s going to be a perfect fit,” Ossenfort. “I’m all about moving forward.”

Although she will have the advantage in the heavily Republican district, several Democrats previously filed to challenge Stefanik in the upcoming election before the redistricting process concluded, including Matthew Putorti, Matt Castelli, Birdie Farrell, Ezra Watson and Keith Sherrill.

Montgomery County Democratic Party Chairman Terry Bieniek anticipates endorsing one of the candidates after petitioning is completed in the spring and actively supporting Stefanik’s challenger.

“I guess it’s back to work,” Bieniek said. “It’s just going to be an interesting year.”

Bieniek, who did not take part in the introductory activities, was critical of Stefanik’s support for former President Donald Trump and focus on her standing at the national level. He expressed disappointment over the shift of western Montgomery County from Delgado’s district to Stefanik’s.

“I think Delgado just stuck with the issues and tried to help the district as much as he could,” Bieniek said.

Yet, several local farmers and business owners who met with Stefanik at Peruzzi’s Meat Market said Delgado has not had much of a presence locally since taking office in 2019.

“We’ve had several ag related events in this county and region and he’s yet to be at one. We’ve seen constituents from other counties and regions come here to see what we’re doing between Montgomery and Fulton Counties,” said Marybeth Shults, co-owner of Shults Farm.

The fifth generation farmer shared the biggest challenges facing her dairy and pastured-meat operation with Stefanik from the impacts of inflation to concerns about the possible transition to a 40-hour overtime threshold for farms.

“It’s not a 40-hour work week and it never will be a 40-hour work week,” Shults said.

Although state leaders have proposed subsidies that would potentially eliminate the financial burden for farmers, Stefanik blasted the recommendation from the Farm Laborers Wage Board to reduce the existing 60-hour overtime threshold over the next decade. Farm workers have lobbied for the change to ensure fair pay and equal treatment.

“When an apple is ready to be picked, apples have to be picked,” Stefanik said. “The Farm Labor Wage Bill, that’s written by someone who doesn’t live in an agricultural region.”

Stefanik expressed immediate interest in exploring options at the federal level to enhance K-12 education about farming’s role in producing food and the importance of whole food and dairy products in a healthy diet as suggested by Shults.

The congresswoman has also already signed on as a cosponsor of the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act of 2021 aimed at expanding access to whole milk of all flavors in schools to support student health and the stability of dairy farms.

Retired dairy farmer Duane Spaulding, who is involved in volunteer efforts to educate the public about the importance of farming, expressed openness to working with any representatives supportive of the agricultural industry. He noted that Delgado was another cosponsor of the federal milk legislation.

“I myself believe in crossing lines and fixing New York,” Spaulding said. “Anything that we can work together as a team and fix broken wheels in our agriculture and other things that need to be fixed.”

Stefanik’s first foray into new communities in her redrawn district on Monday largely found her engaging with like-minded officials and constituents who grasped onto her message that she will support local farmers.

“Maybe because she’s new this will be the only time she comes here, but I feel at least we have a voice, she understands what we’re saying,” Shults said.

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