By David Sommerstein
Funiciello says he's not beholden to the major parties based in Washington which will pour millions of dollars in campaign cash into the race this fall. "I am the genuine candidate," says Funiciello. "The question is will the voters catch on within the next 90 days, go to the polls, and make the day-after-my-birthday present that I actually get to represent the people of this district that I love."
Based on past showings of third-party candidates in the North Country, Funiciello faces long odds against Republican Elise Stefanik and Democrat Aaron Woolf. But his campaign is drawing high praise from the media. The Albany Times-Union wrote Funicello's brand comes across as "refreshingly honest." The Glens Falls Post-Star said in an editorial it likes Funiciello's "forthrightness" on the issues.
Funiciello visited North Country Public Radio's studios recently for a sit-down interview. He told David Sommerstein he's running a different kind of political race.
Matt Funiciello: We have a corporate entitlement system where most people in Congress right now are corporate lobbyists right now, or are going to become one when they retire. Almost every single congressional representative currently is a millionaire or better when it comes to finances. And I think if we want to break that system we have to stop looking at Democrats and Republicans to do that. They are the ones who created the system. If we want a democracy and we want there to be representation rather than false leadership and corporate agenda, we have to elect real human beings to office who are not shackled by their sponsorship. I'm that guy; I'm a worker, an empowered worker as a small business owner, and I practice a trade.
David Sommerstein: So if you were elected into Congress, practically speaking, who would you caucus with? Who would you team-build with?
MF: It's a good question, and I think it is actually a couple of different questions, so I'll answer all of them with not a pat answer, but an answer I'm very comfortable with. We need to ask ourselves as voters "What has happened in my lifetime--I'm 46 years old--that impressed you in Congress?" What legislation did Democrats or Republicans put forward that actually worked for workers, for the working class, for the middle class in this country?
What we've seen is the death of the middle class, we've seen a huge disparity in income that's bigger than it's ever been in the history of our country. And we're looking at our robber barons no longer being American; they're multinational in nature. So all of our public money is leaving the country to go into banks in Sweden and Denmark and Costa Rica, and in the interim we've lost all our manufacturing jobs. When I go to Congress am I going to work with the people who've engineered that? God no, of course I'm not. I don't have any intention of doing that. I want to change the discussion. I want us to talk about how to redevelop micro-economies and regional sustainable farming. I'm not interested in continuing their false political theater.
DS: OK. Let's talk about Fort Drum a little bit. You have talked openly and pretty forcefully about wanting to make huge cuts to military spending, to the military-industrial complex. What would that mean in reality for the Fort Drum region? We're talking about a region that is about 25 percent of this district and making huge cuts to its largest employer and economic generator by far.
MF: First and foremost we need to look at this--the federal government does not contain me in it right now. I am simply an active citizen and my desire to cut the military budget has very little to do with the soldiers at Fort Drum. And yet right now, the federal government is talking about getting rid of 8,000 soldiers and employees who are in Watertown at this moment. That has nothing to do with me, it also has nothing to do with Bill Owens desire to keep Fort Drum open, or to not reduce troop size. It's going to happen regardless. The fed will do what it's going to do. We aren't powerful enough in this congressional district as a constituency, to stop the federal government from doing what it would like. That said, where is the money going when we spend half our budget on the military? The reality is it's not going to soldiers and their families; it's not going to cover VA treatment and hospitals, apparently. What it's actually going to is to buy a $2.8 billion stealth.
DS: But you're asking voters, residents who live in an area that benefits to the tune of $3 to 4 billion of economic activity a year to vote for you, who's saying "Hey, I want to make cuts to the military and I'm not powerful enough to fight for Fort Drum" as our lawmakers say.
MF: I think it's important to remember the lesson the Plattsburgh Air Force Base has to teach us, which is that there's no congressperson who is going to stand up pre-election and tell you they are for a military base as a form of economic development, who really means it. What they're really telling you is a lie; they are saying I support this. That's like saying, I support our troops, and sending them to Afghanistan and Iraq. I know the guys who come back; I've employed some of them and I will tell you we didn't support them and we don't support them now. It's a lie. I'm not going to lie. I'm going to say the federal government is talking about reducing numbers at Fort Drum and if we want to do something adult about it, it would be to actually talk about a transition in which everyone can thrive including the soldiers and their families who will be displaced from the economic train.
The military should not be economic development; it's defense. The prisons should not be economic development; they should be a penal system designed for people who are a danger in society. The health care industry should not be economic development; it should be a way to take care of people who are sick in our country. We have a very backwards idea about how it is we should spend federal money and who should be administrating it.
DS: You say the military is not economic development, the prisons are not economic development, the hospitals are not economic development, but those are the largest, by far, sources of jobs in the North Country. So that is economic development.
MF: If we stop looking at all of these very industrial systems as economic development, and instead look at them as a drain on our federal resource and on our wallets, which is what they are, and we look at alternatives that are actually far cheaper and far more effective. I look at sustainable farming. When you look at farming in upstate New York, we primarily support dairy farming. Why are we only supporting the large centralization of mono-crop agribusiness in upstate New York instead of supporting farmers markets, and the steady growth and progression of small family farms that are sustainable or organic or variegated? And the answer is there is no one in the federal government who is actually lobbying for that.
We need to have something like the WPA again. Ralph Nader had suggested a green jobs program. Howie Hawkins is running on that platform for governor, where we look at public transportation within the Park, we look at rebuilding the railroads. We look at and try to fund sustainable energy like photovoltaics. Why are we not exploring that? Public utilities--these are things that actually benefit human being who live right here in upstate New York we could be spending federal money on, and it would give us jobs that are sustainable.
DS: Have you been a voter in the past? When you don't have the choice of a Green Party candidate, have you voted Democrat or Republican?
MF: I spent my school years in Ottawa, Ontario. When I came back here it was to vote in the first election where Bill Clinton won the primaries over Mondale. I didn't learn my American history thoroughly enough in grade ten American history in Ottawa to understand fully what corporate politics had become here. And I voted for Clinton. And then I watched NAFTA and GAT get passed, and I watched the fake health care reform debacle put on by Hillary Clinton that Bill didn't even want to talk in public about. And I said "Oh, my God, have I been hoodwinked" and I'll never make that mistake again. I have not voted for a Democrat or a Republican since and I won't.
I believe again, if you take corporate money, you're not my representative at all; you're representing the corporations that support you. If you're a millionaire I don't begrudge you having millions of dollars, I guess--I mean it's way more than you need to live on and you might want to share it with the rest of us who work for a living--but I will say, that's your right. I will also say you're not my representative. I want somebody who's been in the mines. I want somebody who also knows what it's like to get up at two in the morning and go to work every day. I'm not interested in your fake struggle; I'm interested in the real struggle of people who work in this Congressional District and that's why I will be a better representative than the two people you're being offered by the mainstream parties.