Note: This is part one of a two-part series. Spectrum News 1 featured a three-part series on Stefanik’s rise in the Republican Party earlier this month.
Former CIA officer Matt Castelli, a Democrat campaigning for the 21st congressional district seat, said his middle platform would bring about much-needed change in the nation’s north.
After months of campaigning in New York’s new Upstate District spanning 15 counties, the political newcomer is hoping to gain ground in a Republican stronghold.
“Our country is on the wrong track,” he said. “People are tired of division, they’re tired of extremes, they’re looking for a moderate – someone who can bring us together and get things done.”
Castelli, 41, is also running on a moderate third-party ticket aimed at easing political tensions and extremism.
The Poughkeepsie native has his work cut out to unseat Representative Elise Stefanik, who is seeking a fifth term.
Castelli grew up in Poughkeepsie and graduated from Siena College in Albany County shortly after 9/11, which inspired him to work 15 years in apolitical public service. He led intelligence teams in Afghanistan and Iraq to track down some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, including the unit that found Osama bin Laden, and helped track down leaders of al-Qaeda and the ‘EI. Castelli served as director of counterterrorism in President Barack Obama’s National Security Council and continued in that role under President Donald Trump.
“It was always about putting the country before the party, and my service record reflects that,” Castelli said.
Castelli says it’s the opposite of what Stefanik did for the North Country during her tenure – criticizing her for flip-flopping on issues like initially being against building a wall to secure the southern border, voting to oppose the Pact Act this spring to help veterans exposed to burns and voted against a bill protecting access to contraception. Stefanik’s voting record, he argues, shows she puts her personal interests first to climb the career ladder in Washington, D.C.
“Repute Stefanik’s support for veterans and military families is well known and recognized in the district,” Stefanik’s senior adviser Alex DeGrasse said in a statement Tuesday. “She is stopped by constituents almost daily to thank her for her work on behalf of veterans.”
Stefanik helped pass the Blue Water Navy bill to support Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange, the MISSION Act to provide resources to veterans, and critical reforms to better serve veterans and won more than $5 million in VA benefits for upstate veterans, DeGrasse said.
“The PACT Act is of concern to several organizations because it will result in longer wait times for veterans on top of already unacceptable wait times,” he added.
Stefanik ran as a moderate Republican in her first election in 2014. She rose quickly in the Republican Party after supporting President Donald Trump, and is now the third House GOP member.
She accuses Castelli of being a far-left Democrat from Poughkeepsie who has no connection to the North Country. Castelli returned to the Hudson Valley from DC at the start of the pandemic, moving to Saratoga last year and Glens Falls a few months ago.
The congresswoman also disputes Castelli’s voting record, saying her opponent has never voted in New York since running for Congress.
Representatives of Castelli’s campaign say he has voted in three New York state elections since returning to Upstate after his 15-year career in public office.
Castelli said he often spent time visiting the North Country while at Siena College and decided to move there after his time in Washington.
“My service career took me out of upstate New York and after that service career I came back,” he said. “This is where I want to do a second phase of life to experience and enjoy the wonderful outdoors that we have…to be close to family and friends.”
Castelli has political positions on both sides of the aisle and says his past bipartisan experience makes him the ideal moderate voice Congress needs. As a gun owner, he supports the Second Amendment and opposes banning assault weapons.
He says state lawmakers passed a law too quickly this summer banning legal handguns in some areas and making it harder to get a concealed carry permit.
Castelli also supports safe and legal access to abortion and has denounced the “Defund the Police” movement, saying he would support law enforcement.
“The Defund the Police movement was both absurd and dangerous,” he said. “I will call as much on the extreme right as on the extreme left.
Castelli wants to address high costs for families by reducing prescription drug costs and investing in affordable housing and child care.
He is also for eight-year term limits and prohibits members of Congress and their families from trading in stocks.
“Voters can always trust, as someone who has always put his country and his community first throughout his career, that I will always put the interest of the community and the voters first, even if it means standing up to members of my own party.”
Castelli doubled down on that pledge and said if elected, he would not vote to keep Democrat Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House.
“The old guard in Washington is part of this problem…those who push party loyalty above all else,” he added. “And I think to address the acknowledgment here that Washington is broken, it’s broken because the people having the conversation need to be changed.”
Castelli plans to use his national security experience to deal with the migrant crisis on the southern border. He proposes that an independent commission assess border security and make recommendations for Congress to implement, including immigration reform.
“I and most Americans don’t trust any member of either political party to give an honest assessment of how secure the border actually is and what needs to be done,” Castelli said. “So let’s get it out of their hands.”
Stefanik’s campaign highlighted his voting record for funding the border wall and increased border patrols, including defending Border Patrol agents. The member received the approval of their union.
“Congresswoman Stefanik was endorsed by the Border Patrol union because not only is she leading the Republican Conference in holding the Biden administration accountable for its border crisis,” DeGrasse said.
With about six weeks to go until Election Day, Stefanik has $2.6 million in his campaign chest, six times more than Castelli’s roughly $431,000, according to the latest filings with the Federal Election Commission.
Reps from the congresswoman’s campaign said Stefanik was unavailable for an interview on those issues.