ALEXANDRIA BAY — As Sandra K. Doheny sat waiting for her hair appointment at a friend's salon on Margaret Avenue in the village, she casually watched the small television across the room. A "breaking news" event then interrupted the scheduled program.
The day was June 2, 2009, and President Obama was announcing his pick for Secretary of the Army, the north country's own congressman, John M. McHugh.
Mrs. Doheny's hair could wait. She promptly left her friend's home and drove to her High Street home a few blocks away. As she rushed to open the front door, she could hear her phone ringing, as if on cue.
Just as she expected, it was her son, Matthew A. Doheny. The political moment they had discussed many times was now unfolding.
"We had talked about when Mr. McHugh might retire," Mrs. Doheny said. "We had thought it would be 2012, but as soon as I saw it on the news, I knew I'd better get home because he would be calling."
Her son has never held elected office outside of college, but Mr. Doheny has had his eye on Congress for more than two decades, say family and friends. They all say it was just a matter of time that Mr. Doheny would seek the congressional district seat that includes 650,000 residents living in 181 towns and six cities, stretching over all or portions of 11 counties.
"The district had a titan in John McHugh," said Mr. Doheny, "and when the opportunity presented itself when he was named Secretary of the Army, I knew I wanted to take advantage of it."
Mr. Doheny first made his political intentions publicly known a year ago when he sought Republican county committee support to be the party nominee for the special election to fill Mr. McHugh's seat. However, Assemblywoman Dierdre K. Scozzafava received the Republican nomination early in the summer.
Left out of a three-way race among Mrs. Scozzafava, Conservative candidate Douglas L. Hoffman and Democrat William L. Owens, Mr. Doheny sat on the sidelines, although he supported Mrs. Scozzafava with a $2,400 donation, the most allowed to be given by an individual to a candidate.
This year, he is one of the three seeking the seat. Mr. Doheny will need to fend off Mr. Hoffman, who became an icon of the national Conservative movement last fall, in a Sept. 14 Republican primary. And only then can he square off against Mr. Owens to try to win the job he has wanted for two decades.
Matthew Doheny, 40, whose solid build and sharp-as-a-tack approach to topics stand out immediately upon meeting him, grew up with his brother, Mark, in the close-knit village of Alexandria Bay. His parents owned a modest home, the same home his mother still lives in.
Jeffrey D. Cooley remembers walking daily to Mr. Doheny's home where sports were a mainstay.
"Whether it was hockey or football or golf or anything else, we were always playing," said Mr. Cooley, who today is a case worker for Monroe County. "As a kid, we used to almost live at his house. There was pretty much a core of six to 10 of us that would hang out. No matter where you wanted to go in Alex Bay, you were always within walking distance, so kids from the neighborhood would come over all the time."
Mr. Doheny, who was a budding hockey goalie, said sports, like academics, instilled in him a simple mantra: preparation breeds success.
"If you stop 500 biscuits (pucks) during (hockey) practice, 40 or 50 isn't going to look so hard during a game," he said. "It's work ethic. The harder you want to work, the better prepared you're going to be when it counts."
Mr. Cooley remembers the hard work, but he also fondly recalled the teasing Mr. Doheny took because he wore protective glasses during games.
"He was a goalie and he'd have to wear these rec specs, which were these thick, bubbly glasses," Mr. Cooley said. "He'd have on the rec specs during (games) and they were always fogging up. People were running around calling him 'Recs'."
Working for success was a constant theme in the Doheny home.
"The boys grew up with the upbringing that if they want things to happen, then they need to make sure it happens," said Mrs. Doheny, while sitting in the living room where she raised her sons. "I've always told them to live to their fullest potential."
Politics was infused into Mr. Doheny at a young age. Mrs. Doheny, a Republican, was a stalwart of Alexandria Bay politics for decades and her husband, Richard, was registered under the Conservative party.
Mr. Doheny said politics has always been in his blood, although his mother said, "I've never told them what they need to do in terms of politics and getting involved. That's for the Kennedys."
But Mr. Doheny recalls chatter around the dinner table focused on school, sports and politics.
"It was either the news, a game or Ronald Reagan on the TV," said Mr. Doheny, who was 10 years old when Mr. Reagan became President.
Mr. Doheny's father died from a heart attack in October 1994, when he was attending Cornell University's law school.
"He was a great man," Mr. Doheny said. "Unfortunately, he went to work one day and never came home. We have a very close family; it was hard."
The elder Mr. Doheny, a regional representative for a Dallas-based chemical company, spent much of his career on the road, working in many of the towns in the 23rd Congressional District.
"My parents never took a vacation," Mr. Doheny said. "There was no waste in our household. They worked very hard."
Mr. Doheny said his parents were living examples of making a community better.
"Whether my mom was on the school board or on the village board or my father with T-ball, my parents were always an example of how to get something done when you felt it was best," he said. "My parents were always politically minded and public service was always something in our house."
Alexandria Bay is a tourist village where the night lights of bars, bands and partying can easily lure youths away from career goals.
Mr. Doheny's family and friends say such excesses never steered him away from his ambitions. And they say that his single-mindedness in pursuing his dreams is the reason they are not surprised he is running for the congressional seat now held by Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh.
By several accounts, Mr. Doheny's eye for future elected office began at an age when most guys walking the halls of Alexandria Central High School were thinking about girls and another summer on the river.
"He's an unforgettable student," said Paul A. Sayyeau, Mr. Doheny's high school French teacher and adviser for the National Honor Society. "He was a very serious student. He had a sense of humor, but he always wanted to be first and be the best."
Mr. Sayyeau remembers Mr. Doheny admonishing other students he believed were not doing their best in class.
Both sports and political ambition followed Mr. Doheny throughout school.
Mr. Doheny graduated from Alexandria in 1988 and attended Allegheny College in Meadeville, Pa., that fall. He took the talent he grew on the rinks and fields of Alexandria Bay to the collegiate level, playing goalie on the hockey team and free safety on the football team, both for four years.
In 1990, his football team won the national Division III championship.
He also served as student body president for two years.
"I have nothing but positive things to say about Matt," said Daniel F. Sullivan, the former president of Allegheny who most recently retired as the president of St. Lawrence University, Canton.
Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Doheny met regularly to discuss student issues.
"He was not just an outstanding student leader, but also a student-athlete," Mr. Sullivan said. "He's one of those kids you want to go out of your way to help."
Even then, Mr. Doheny's conservative views were well known at Allegheny.
"I think it's a good thing for the north country that he's running," said Mr. Sullivan, "but if we were talking politics, we would definitely be on opposite sides of the spectrum."
Mr. Doheny debated politics during summer jobs he held in college docking boats and helping sightseers at the now-defunct Empire Boat Lines, said a former co-worker.
"There were always a lot of discussions about politics," said Aaron S. Capone, Watertown. "Matt's a good guy. He was driven even at an age when guys were thinking about partying and girls."
Twenty years later, Mr. Capone said he remembers Mr. Doheny telling him his plans to earn a college degree, go to New York City and make money, and then return one day to the north country and run for Congress.
Said Mr. Doheny: "For me, going to New York meant I was going to get out of debt as quickly as possible. That was my goal."
After completing law school at Cornell University in Ithaca, Mr. Doheny clerked for law firms in Syracuse and New York City. During that time, Mr. Doheny made weekend drives back to Alexandria Bay to visit his recently widowed mother.
In New York City, Mr. Doheny said he lived in cramped apartments with roommates to save money. He worked as a corporate lawyer, and eventually dropped law to work in business.
"I just didn't love law," he said. "I was successful at it, but it just wasn't for me."
Mr. Doheny eventually landed as an investor at Deutsche Bank Securities in 2000.
He lived throughout Manhattan, renting apartments the Murray Hill, Kips Bay and Yorkville neighborhoods.
"Some of the people I met in New York were outstanding," he said. "I had some good times and made once-in-a-lifetime friends."
Saving money in New York, and earning seven-figure salaries have helped him build a small fortune for his campaign, in which he is facing equally well-heeled opponents.
Mr. Owens earned more than $4 million in 2009 through his law practice and maintained heavy investments in NBT Bank, the congressman's personal financial disclosure shows.
Similar forms show Mr. Hoffman earned about $380,000 for accounting fees last year and more than $500,000 in dividends and business income from various companies he is affiliated with.
Mr. Doheny reported $830,555 as a base salary last year from Fintech Advisory Inc., 215 Washington St., as well as a $6,124,864 "performance fee."
His Fintech office in Watertown is nothing more than a reception room with a dorm-size cooler, a small conference room and a back office that holds stacks of newspaper clippings, a three-screen computer and some sports memorabilia.
The small, nondescript office, he said, is largely for personal use. Most of his business is on the road.
"I'm an everyday guy from the bay," he said. "Have I made a lot of money so far? Yeah, you bet, but everything I've earned from working hard."
The green he's earned restructuring companies has helped him buy a pair of neighboring islands on the St. Lawrence River that guard the mouth of Goose Bay.
"As soon as I had two nickels to rub together, I knew I wanted to get something the family could enjoy," he said.
He purchased Caprice Island in 2007 for $335,000 and Shamrock Island in 2003 for $360,000, property records show.
The islands, his mother said, were more of an investment than a spot buy. Property, after all, is more stable than say, stocks and bonds, especially in an economy that shows few signs of stability.
Mr. Doheny recently walked around Shamrock Island, a 1.2-acre haven with a boathouse, outdoor basketball court and a picturesque view of the river, with his girlfriend, Marie E. Reidy. The pair inspected stairs and railings that needed replacing and praised landscaping put in this year.
Ms. Reidy, a New York City-based lawyer who specializes in corporate bankruptcy restructuring, makes the occasional trip up to the north country with Mr. Doheny.
Caprice Island, a 2.2-acre neighbor, is where Mr. Doheny is building another five-bedroom home for himself. The property, he said, had nothing more than a one-bedroom house, trees, and the staircase that once led to a home that stood on the island decades ago when he purchased it. He had architects incorporate that staircase into the footprint of the new home.
"He has a passion for this," Mrs. Reidy said. "To say he works 16 hours a day is an understatement."
For Mr. Doheny, who thinks fast, speaks fast and can change conversation points in a flash, eating isn't always a sit-down event.
That was the case on a recent day as he entered the Jrecks Subs restaurant in Alexandria Bay. Within seconds, Mr. Doheny was chatting with patrons and fist-bumping cashiers. He ordered a pair of six-inch subs, jokingly lamenting that he hasn't found a sandwich he doesn't enjoy.
Jrecks, Alex Bay, the St. Lawrence River — they are all part of the reason Mr. Doheny left New York City, friends said.
"I think he's always been driven to come back home," Mr. Cooley said. "For the longest time he was always telling me that he wanted to come back, that Alex Bay is where he wanted to be."
Mr. Doheny said his permanent residence is in Watertown at 303 Paddock St., which he bought in 2006. His home is about three blocks from his downtown Watertown campaign headquarters, a three-room office in the HSBC Building, 120 Washington St.
Mr. Doheny said he choose the obscure location, accessible by a service elevator, to save money. Besides, the office will primarily be used by his staff, not the public, he said. The brunt of his campaigning will be done from the driver's seat of "Bessy," Mr. Doheny's 1994 Ford Explorer.
"We've done something like 900 miles in a single day," he said. "We're going 16 hours a day, seven days a week."
The odometer, he said, will not stop spinning if he is elected. Mr. Doheny vowed he will visit all 181 towns and six cities in the congressional district annually, to catch up with constituents' concerns.
North country residents are worried about runaway government spending, Mr. Doheny said. That is why he always pushes his business background when he campaigns.
"I'm a true conservative and the facts are the facts," Mr. Doheny said. "Right now I'm trying to articulate my positions and let people know what I stand for. I grew up on High Street in Alex Bay, I drive a '94 Ford Explorer and I work very hard for what I have. I'm not different from the people of the district I want to represent."
"I believe my skill set works well with this particular office," Mr. Doheny said, adding that his knowledge of financially unstable companies will help fix the "economic crisises our country is facing today."
That campaign issue resonates with Republican leaders.
"I support Matt because he will support north country issues, no matter how local, when he's in Congress," said Franklin County Legislator Paul A. Maroun, who initially campaigned against Mr. Doheny, seeking the Republican nomination himself. "I support him because I only support winners. Matt has traveled a lot to Tupper Lake and I know he's a winner."
"We have the most liberal speaker in the House that I've ever seen," Mr. Maroun said. "Matt will go to Congress and tell them that the people of this district don't have those liberal views."
For Mr. Doheny, going to Capitol Hill to voice the north country's concerns is his idea of giving back to the region.
"The idea of public service has always been pressed upon me," he said. "I've always believed that I should go out and make something of myself, but then to also give back to your community."