It's just over four months before the November election and Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello is making his first campaign stops around the 21st Congressional District.
Funiciello says he's running to win the North Country's House of Representative seat, hoping to follow in the footsteps of other maverick members of Congress.
A long-time business-owner and founder of the Rock Hill Bakehouse in Glens Falls, Funiciello says he hopes to peel away disgruntled voters who in the past might have backed Republican or Democratic candidates.
"You have Crossroads PAC and wealthy millionaires simply buying the seat," Funiciello says. "Those people can't ever represent us. They don't live here, they don't really care about us. They're just repaying their corporate campaign donations."
Big ideas, including an end to the "military and prison industrial complex"
The first sense you get from Funiciello, sitting at a picnic table outside a health food store in Lake Placid on Friday evening, is that this is a guy having a great time.
A lot of candidates out on the trail seem sort of tight-wound and cautious, especially around reporters.
But the Green candidate throws out game-changing ideas the way other politicians throw out bite-sizedtalking points. On the future of military spending in the U.S. and Fort Drum near Watertown, Funiciello says huge cuts are needed.
"We need to, though, look at the military and the prison industrial complex as big mistakes," he insists. "I'm not going to get elected to congress and shut down Fort Drum, that's not what I'm talking about."
But he describes as "ridiculous" the use of the military as an economic development and jobs program.
A small business owner slams "corporate" politics
Another idea that comes up again and again when Funiciello talks is the role of money and corporate campaign donations in politics.
The noisy and often bitter Republican primary saw hundreds of thousands of dollars pour into the district. Funiciello says he refuses to accept any support from Super PACs or corporate donors.
"You have Crossroads PAC and you have wealthy millionaires simply buying the seat," he says.
Because of his commitment to grassroots donations, Funiciello is running what by modern standards is less than a bare-bones campaign. So far, he says he’s spent just five thousand dollars.
He’s hoping that voters will relate to his message and his personal story, as a small businessman campaigning in the hours after he gets off work.
Can the Green Party expand its appeal?
While Funiciello talks, a small group of supporters begins to gather. Ray Losso, from the town of Jay, is already a Green Party member and says he's curious about the candidate's message.
"I'm interested to hear what Matt Funiciello has to say."
Fred Balzac, who ran unsuccessfully for Jay’s town board last year on the Green Party ticket, also turns up and says Funiciello's campaign is "exciting."
He argues that the Glens Falls man has deeper roots in the district than the Republican or Democratic candidates. "He's got an impressive background as a business owner and he's from the region."
In the past, the Green Party has often seen spirited but eccentric campaigns in the North Country, racking up few votes.
Two years, ago, environmental activist Donald Hassig from St. Lawrence County ran on the Green ticket but sparked controversy for comments suggesting that migrant workers should be deported and was eventually denounced by the Green Party of New York.
But this year, Funiciello hopes to spark a different kind of drama. "I'm honestly running to win." He says Greens are running more credible candidates, including gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins.
Still, he acknowledges that his party is sometimes dismissed by voters who aren't familiar with the Green movement. He hopes to help change that perception.
"There are lots of very serious Greens running," he insists.
Is Funiciello "a spoiler?"
But Funiciello is already facing questions – even from some of his supporters – about the "spoiler" issue, the fear among some left-of-center voters that he could drain key votes away from Democratic candidate Aaron Woolf.
"What I'm worried about, my daughter brings up the point often, why would you split the vote and get in the way of the Democrats," says Rosamund Lincoln-Day, a registered Green from Upper Jay. "My feeling is the Democrats are almost exactly like the Republicans."
Fred Balzac, who is a former Essex County Democratic organizer who shifted three years ago to join the Greens, says it’s a reality that carving out space for Green candidates could damage some Democrats.
"I've wrestled with this. Unfortunately there are going to be races where there's going to be a good Democrat running and there's always the possibility that a Green will take votes from a Democrat."
But Balzac says Democrats have taken too much money from "corporate interests" and he argues that the Green Party might help expand the number of voters who go to the polls.
For his part, Matt Funiciello says the whole spoiler issue is a non-starter. He says he is disgusted with the Democratic Party and has no interest in helping documentary film-maker Aaron Woolf get elected.
"I like Aarron, he's a nice guy." But Funiciello says they part ways on issues like single-payer healthcare and cuts to military spending. "He's not me, we have nothing to do with each other at all."
Funiciello argues that he has "a fire" to make change in Washington, D.C. that he believes Woolf lacks. "I'm angry. I'm angry in a nice way. I want to make some change."
A campaign with little money and provocative ideas
Funiciello insists that he’s running this year to win, but he acknowledges that he has a tough climb, in part because he’ll be outspent by his opponents.
But also because he’s carrying messages that are certain to be controversial, including his argument that spending on military programs and prisons should be slashed. Both of those industries provide thousands of jobs in the North Country.
Funiciello also says the North Country’s agriculture industry needs major reforms, including the downsizing of big farms and a shift of public funding and support to small family and organic operations.
"I say not that we should shut down large dairies tomorrow, but that we should understand that this is not how we yield to ourselves good, healthy food to eat," he says. "It doesn't make any sense to me."
Funiciello says he’s confident that voters are ready for what he describes as straight talk about the need for fundamental change and about the possibility of shifting the North Country’s economy in profound ways.