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New district to bring new challenges for representative

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The distance between Watertown and the suburbs of Saratoga Springs is a little more than three hours by car, but they’ll be worlds apart for whoever represents the 21st Congressional District in 2013.

“Those might just as well be a million miles from Watertown,” said Cary R. Brick, a Clayton resident who was a congressional staffer for more than three decades.

The north country’s new congressional district, which will go into effect in January, brings a new portfolio of issues to face and more than 200,000 new residents with whom to get acquainted. But even as candidates for the House of Representatives crisscross the Adirondack Mountains to cover the territory they hope to represent, experts and the politicians themselves say the typical voter won’t even notice the difference.

Every 10 years, the state redraws its congressional boundaries to account for shifts in population. Because of Northern New York’s relative population loss, the district had to gain tens of thousands of residents — all while the ice floes of other districts around it were shifting in the decennial spring melt.

To meet constitutional requirements, a federal judge added population in Essex, Warren, Washington, Herkimer, Saratoga and Fulton counties. The district lost Oswego, Madison and Oneida counties.

It marks a stark southeastward shift for the district.

“The Adirondacks are like the Great Wall of China for the congressional district,” Mr. Brick said. “It takes forever to drive from Watertown to Plattsburgh. You can’t do it in a straight line. I’ve done it a thousand times. I know.”

That east-west separation leaves two regions with distinct interests. The western side of the district concentrates on dairy farming, while the eastern side grows apples, Mr. Brick said. Then, there’s the 10th Mountain Division, the western region’s most significant economic engine.

“Fort Drum is not a big deal in Clinton and Essex and Saratoga,” he said.

The suburbs of Saratoga Springs are closer in character to Albany than Watertown, and with chip-maker GlobalFoundries, have seen unparalleled prosperity, said Garry Douglas, executive director of the North Country Chamber of Commerce in Plattsburgh.

“Saratoga County, that’s another world,” Mr. Douglas said. “It’s entirely different from the north country.”

The city of Glens Falls would become the district’s first Census-designated metropolitan area, too, bringing an urban focus to the district. Paper mills compose a major part of Glens Falls’s economy, Mr. Douglas said.

“Any time a district shifts, the makeup of issues and projects that are on that member of Congress’s plate certainly shift accordingly,” Mr. Douglas said.

The voters, too, will shift. The district got marginally more Republican, based on the 2008 presidential vote.

In 2010, Rep. Chris Gibson, a conservative Republican of Kinderhook, won the Saratoga County vote, 44,143 to 34,698, against then-Rep. M. Scott Murphy, a Democrat. That count includes the city of Saratoga Springs, which won’t be in the new district. Mr. Gibson also took Warren and Washington counties.

Republican Matthew A. Doheny, who is hoping to unseat Plattsburgh Democratic Rep. William L. Owens, likes his chances in the east.

“They’re great Republicans,” Mr. Doheny said. “This is a region that Congressman Gibson carried pretty heavily.”

But some analysts suggest that geography matters, too. Mr. Doheny lives in Watertown, on the other side of the Adirondacks, while Mr. Owens lives in Plattsburgh, just up the road from many of the new voters by Interstate 87.

“If I were Bill Owens, I would be pleased that so much more of the new district is on his side of the district, because they can relate better to him than they can to somebody from Watertown,” said Mr. Brick, who worked for Republicans. “Then again, Matt Doheny has been working that area as well. So he’s not totally unknown over there. With social media, the whole scenario changes.”

But when the election dust has settled, the residents of the north country — or the Capital Region, as it were — shouldn’t notice a difference. Just because the western part of the district doesn’t represent more than half of its population as it used to doesn’t mean the average voter will be ignored, Mr. Brick said.

“I don’t think Potsdam, Ogdensburg or Lowville will be any less represented — not if the incumbent is doing his or her job,” Mr. Brick said.

Mr. Douglas concurred.

“I don’t like that kind of thinking, that somehow, with the balance of population, you count heads and call shots,” Mr. Douglas said. “(Rep.) John McHugh was evenhanded; Bill Owens is evenhanded. I think that kind of thinking is a little bit silly.”

For his part, Mr. Owens said he believes the new district and the old district have much in common — a rural makeup, small towns, agriculture-focused. But he said he’s continuing to represent the 23rd Congressional District, with an eye on November, when he’ll be running for the newly named 21st.

“I think that we’ll just try to get out our message of job creation and keep up the level of activity we’ve engaged in since we’ve been in office, and essentially try to get the message out to those people,” he said.

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