NY-21: Tedra Cobb builds campaign on experience as legislator, health advocate
North Country Public Radio
June 1, 2018
With the Democratic primary for Congress coming up on June 26, we’re hearing from each of the five candidates seeking to take on Republican incumbent Elise Stefanik in November.
Today, we meet Tedra Cobb from Canton. As a former St. Lawrence County legislator, Cobb is the only candidate in the race who’s ever held public office. She’s also an educator, a public health advocate, and a businesswoman.
Tedra Cobb in Waddington last month. Photo: Zach Hirsch
From long-shot to legislator
When Tedra Cobb ran for county legislator in 2002, it was a longshot. She was a newcomer to politics and a Democrat in a Republican-majority district. But she won. The longtime incumbent was out, and Cobb was in.
“This really shows, people will vote for who they want and who they think is going to be a good legislator,” Cobb told NCPR on the election night of her victory. “I know I am an unknown and I want to thank people for taking that leap of faith.”
Cobb was in her thirties then. Now it’s 16 years later, and she’s asking North Country voters to take another leap of faith. She’s up against four Democrats, a Green Party candidate, and a Republican incumbent who won the last two elections in a landslide.
But the difference this time is that Cobb has experience under her belt – including eight years as a legislator – and she’s used that experience to build a significant ground game across the district.
Cobb greeted many of her volunteers with a hug. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Cobb said she has 750 volunteers working for her. They helped her gather more petition signatures than any other Democrat. She’s also raised about $294,000 – also more than the other Democrats in the race.
Lessons from lawmaking: “it takes time”
On a hazy Thursday evening, she held court in the basement of the public library in Waddington, a small town on the St. Lawrence River near Massena.
“How are you, stranger?” she joked with one supporter.
It was her first day back in St. Lawrence County after campaigning in Jefferson and Fulton counties. About a dozen supporters and volunteers sat in a circle of folding chairs, getting to know their candidate. Cobb was warm, charismatic, and cracked a lot of jokes.
Cobb grew up near Rochester but has lived in the North Country for the past 30 years. She owns a strategic planning consulting firm, which she said has her working all over the North Country.
Cobb heard supporters’ concerns on issues like climate change, gun violence, health care, and infrastructure. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Cobb was a St. Lawrence County lawmaker at a time when the legislature was bitterly divided. Republicans on the board sometimes singled her out for criticism. Cobb said it wasn’t easy, but she loved the job.
“I liked going to the grocery store and taking 45 minutes instead of five. I liked it when people would stop me and ask me, ‘Tedra, you guys are voting on this, what do you think?’ or, ‘Tedra I’m really concerned about such and such.’ And to me, that’s what we’re missing in a congressperson. Someone who lives in the district, someone who knows the challenges that we face,” she said.
One of the things she’s proudest of was pushing for a new ethics law in the county. “It took us two years to get that passed. Which just shows you that things take time.”
She said that experience taught her some important lessons about how to negotiate, how to work across the aisle. And that’s the kind of approach, she said, that she’ll bring to Washington.
Photo: Zach Hirsch
“We can accomplish really good things when we’re working together,” she said. “But it also is important at the end of the day to have integrity and to vote the way, for me, the way I think is the – my values.”
Those values are informed by her work as a public health advocate.
Support for single-payer health care
Cobb spent seven years doing HIV/AIDS outreach and education. Then she founded the St. Lawrence Health Initiative, a community health services not-for-profit. She’s also served on hospital and hospice boards, and on a state commission working to improve access to health care in the North Country.
Cobb said what she draws from that experience is support for single-payer, government-run health care. And that’s what she told the gathering in Waddington.
Cobb sat next to volunteers Katharine Dinneen (left) and Dinneen’s mom, Deanna Shampine (center), who organized the event. Photo: Zach Hirsch
“I think that’s why Medicare for all – I think that’s why people like Medicare for all. Because people have Medicare, it works, it’s simple, they understand it,” she said. Her goal is “portable coverage that can be used anywhere and is affordable for all.”
One supporter pushed back a little bit. Given the gridlock in Congress, and lots of opposition to universal health care, she asked Cobb how she’d make her plan a reality.
“Should you be elected, what can you do to help push that rock uphill and try to make some progress there? And that’s kind of a real theoretical question at the moment, but still,” the supporter said.
“It is a theoretical question at the moment, but I also think that we need people in Congress who care about the health care of – that everyone has health care,” Cobb replied. She then shifted gears and criticized Congresswoman Stefanik, who voted to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
“We would’ve been in a crisis” if the GOP House bill had passed, Cobb said.
Problem solving and collaboration in Congress
Cobb also laid out some of her other positions. On guns, she wants universal background checks and other, stronger gun control measures. On education, she wants universal preschool and limits on student loan payments and lower interest rates.
But at the end of the day, Cobb said, she doesn’t have easy answers. She said her strength is as a practiced negotiator who would get things done in Congress.
At the end of the night, Cobb and a volunteer looked over the sign-in sheet Photo: Zach Hirsch
“In other words, I’m asking people to vote for me because I have – I am a problem solver and a collaborator. And I think that what we are missing in our elected officials right now, are people who are willing to and want to reach across the political divide. Does that mean I compromise my values? No.”
Madrid town supervisor Tony Cooper said what he’s looking for is a candidate who can bring people together, “and not be so divisive all the time. And you’re it,” he said during the meeting.
Later, Cooper told NCPR that he plans to vote for Cobb in the upcoming primary.