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In Depth: Three Candidates Battle for GOP Nomination in 22nd Congressional District

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Republican voters in the 22nd congressional district will have three candidates to choose from when they go to the polls on June 28th.   In an effort to inform voters, WAER News has produced a series of reports on how Steve Wells, George Phillips, and Claudia Tenney are presenting themselves to voters; how they would improve the local economy; where they stand on foreign policy and national defense; and, how they're positioning themselves for the general election.   

THE "OUTSIDERS"

The pending retirement of three-term Utica-area Representative Richard Hanna has resulted in some fierce competition to fill the open seat in New York’s 22nd district.  The contentious Republican primary includes three candidates attempting to distinguish themselves as “outsiders.”  Businessman and political newcomer Steve Wells hopes to bring to Congress what he’s learned from founding and operating American Food and Vending Corporation.

“The skills and experience that I have are I believe exactly what we need," Wells said. "People who frankly aren’t politicians, who haven’t been involved but have common sense, who have actually done something, created jobs, balanced a budget, this is what the country needs.”  

Wells adds that he was motivated to join the race out of concern for where the country is headed and what he sees as the erosion of key American priorities.  Meanwhile New York State Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney argues that she has been fighting the political establishment for years, challenging Hanna in the 2014 Republican primary.  

“I’m an outsider runs a business who only got involved in politics to try to tell the truth and to try to reform the way government operates so that it operates more for our constituents, our business community, and our family farms," Tenney said.  "I think that I represent what the voters are looking for.”

Tenney believes that political headwinds from the ongoing presidential election will help make her candidacy a success, citing voters’ desire for change in Washington.  Another contender is American history teacher George Phillips, who after an unsuccessful bid in 2010, is running again in the since redrawn 22nd congressional district. 

“What we’re hearing is that people are fed up with the mess in Washington I think they want an outsider like myself, a teacher," Phillips said.  "But I think the key is that voters are very upset and we’ve seen the rise of the outsiders. I blame our party nationally for having a lack of ideas.”

Phillips hopes to center his campaign on conservative alternatives that contrast with recent policies of the Obama administration.  

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Steve Wells

UPSTATE'S ECONOMY

The three candidates seem to agree that Upstate New York’s economy could be doing better.  There appears to be a disparity between the numbers and how strong the economy really is.  Recent statistics released by the State Department of Labor show unemployment rates decreasing across the region as the national economy continues to improve. However the three candidates in the wide open Republican primary say the Upstate economy is still in need of serious help.  State Assemblymember Claudia Tenney believes New York has become a hostile place to do businesses.

“Nothing has really changed in New York its only gotten worse," Tenney said.  "As New York State has plummeted to one of the worst states in the nation to do business, it’s one of the worst tax burdens, the second highest energy, the largest out migration rate, the largest loss of manufacturing jobs those are the issues.”

Tenney says this economic climate has forced many manufacturers to leave for more business friendly countries overseas.   Another candidate, American history teacher George Phillips, says recent economic programs are ineffective.

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Hear the story about "Upstate's Economy" from WAER's Scott Willis.

“We’ve had so many different economic programs, so many of them are more government spending," Phillips said. "That’s our money it went to Albany it went to Washington its being recycled its coming back; less of it. I’m not saying we don’t need money for infrastructure and for research and development but the only way we’re going to get Upstate New York going again is for the small businesses and the entrepreneurs to be lifted up from these high tax and regulatory burdens.”

Phillips has proposed an Upstate New York Jobs Plan which creates zones of tax and regulatory relief at both the federal and state levels.  Meanwhile, businessman Steve Wells has focused his economic message on reducing federal regulations on farmers.

“And as you know agriculture is so vital and critical to our Upstate economy," Wells said.  "And what I’m finding is that tremendous pressure is being placed on these farmers with overreaching regulations that are causing them to barely stay afloat.”

Wells also believes our current tax structure is hindering how competitive we can be in the increasingly globalized economy.

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Claudia Tenney

NATIONAL SECURITY AND TRADE

The three candidates are critical of missteps in foreign policy that they say effect both national security and the local economy.  American history teacher George Phillips believes the United States should be taking a lead role in combating the Islamic State.

“It’s absolutely pathetic that after the Paris attacks France is asking us where to hit ISIS, how come we hadn’t hit those targets already? I’m calling for a nothing in, nothing out embargo of all the territory ISIS controls except for humanitarian supplies going in," Phillips said.  "Why is ISIS selling oil on the market, why are they selling looted goods? We need to strangle the beast we need to destroy ISIS for good.”

Phillips desires a more active national security policy, also calling for regime change in Iran to become a priority. Meanwhile, businessman Steve Wells hopes to focus on strengthening national cybersecurity.

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Hear the story about "National Security and Trade" from WAER's Scott Willis.

  “Probably not too many things that are more important to the 21st century than being at the forefront of cybersecurity and I got a lot of concerns about our own ability here in the United States to protect ourselves," Wells said.  "You probably see it, everybody sees it in our own home lives.  But certainly it’s a threat to the business the danger it poses that it poses to our critical infrastructure frankly everywhere you turn.” 

Wells says installations at Griffiss in Rome, which is part of the 22nd district, are on the front lines of innovation in cybersecurity.  Additionally, New York State Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney is critical of recent trade deals that she says threaten our economic security. 

“TPP or the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the free trade deals that I think have been poorly negotiated," Tenney said.  "That’s something we need to correct. These are big issues we need to create jobs, not to send jobs overseas the trade deficit is so great now because of these so called free trade deals that we need to reverse that trend.”   

Tenney blames the leadership in both parties for these deals, and cites this as a key difference between her and the establishment.

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George Phillips

BEYOND THE PRIMARY

The GOP candidates seeking the vacant congressional seat in New York’s 22nd district not only have to win with Republicans in the June 28th primary, but also position themselves for the general election in November.  They’re hoping to succeed a moderate republican who’s represented the district for nearly six years.  With Broome County Legislator Kim Myers already set as the Democratic contender, the three candidates vying for the GOP nomination are arguing that they have what it takes to win. Businessman Steve Wells believes that the issues he cares about have crossover appeal.   

"What America needs, and what Upstate New York needs, is economic security and our own national and personal security," Wells said.  "Whether that includes the heroin epidemic plaguing us, cybersecurity, and obviously our own national defense.  These critical issues...they're not Republican or Democrat."

Wells hopes that urgency to solve these issues as well as a general distaste for Washington politics will help propel his candidacy forward. Meanwhile, New York State Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney believes there is no question that she can win in the 22nd district currently represented by retiring moderate-Republican Richard Hanna.

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Hear the story about "Beyond the Primary" from WAER's Christian Unkenholz.

"I don't think people look at you and say you're a conservative, this moderate," Tenney said.  "I mean, what is a moderate?  Moderate on what issue?  I don't see this whole artificial description of what's a moderate, who's a conservative,  who's a what.  I believe that I align pretty much perfectly with this district on almost every issue."

Tenney cites both her conservative record and past union support as evidence that she is well positioned to be competitive in November. Also hoping his conservative credentials will help him is American history teacher George Phillips, who has a more measured outlook on the upcoming race.

"The key is leading with conservative values, articulating a conservative position that can resonate with other voters," Phillips said.   "We may not get every vote in November.  But we can articulate the conservative position in such a way that we win over independents and win over some democrats."

Phillips has the endorsement of the American Conservative Union and thinks it’s time for the Republican Party to get back to its roots. 

The congressional primary is June 28th.  

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at srwillis@syr.edu.