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Entry of Stephen Burke into Congressional race draws confusion from district’s Democratic leaders

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The entry of Stephen W. Burke into the race for the seat of U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, drew skepticism and confusion from party leaders in the district.

On Tuesday afternoon, St. Lawrence County Democratic Committee Chairman Mark J. Bellardini said he was disappointed in Mr. Burke’s decision, primarily because of how late he announced his decision.

Mr. Bellardini said Mr. Burke did not contact him or any other party representative he knew prior to the Feb. 12 endorsement of Aaron G. Woolf by the district’s Democratic county chairpersons.

“He didn’t bother with us at all,” he said. “He just jumped into it.”

Mr. Burke, who announced his candidacy Monday, is a member of the Macomb Town Council, and was a member of the Heuvelton Central School Board of Education. His political history includes bids for positions in St. Lawrence County, the U.S. House of Representatives against John M. McHugh and a brief gubernatorial run.

Most confusing, Mr. Bellardini said, was that he and other party representatives have not seen any petitions for Mr. Burke’s candidacy. Mr. Burke will need 1,250 signatures in order to get on the June 24 primary ballot.

“It’s one thing to say you’re a candidate, but you gotta produce the petitions with the signatures,” Mr. Bellardini said. “It doesn’t seem like a tough process, but you really gotta hit the pavement.”

Mr. Woolf, in a statement, disputed Mr. Burke’s critique of his motivation for entering the campaign.

“I am not a paid political operative or a frequent political candidate,” he said. “I am a husband, father and small businessman who cares deeply about the residents of the 21st Congressional district.”

Mr. Owens on Tuesday afternoon said that he had not met Mr. Burke before, and only became aware of him when his name came up in the press. Asked about the challenge Mr. Burke will face in getting enough signatures to get on the ballot, Mr. Owens said doing so would be “not impossible, but difficult.”

If Mr. Burke gets the necessary signatures, it would mean primaries for the Democratic, Republican and Green parties to choose candidates for Mr. Owens’ opening seat.

Ronald H. Cole, the Democratic Party’s Jefferson County chairman, said Mr. Burke has every right to circulate petitions to get on the ballot, but the candidate’s entry into the race does not affect his previous endorsement.

“I’m not wavering my support for Aaron Woolf,” he said.

Mr. Cole said he had known Mr. Burke for about 30 years, though their connection was not always close.

Asked about Mr. Burke’s career history and multiple political runs, Mr. Cole said “I think I’ll let his record stand on its own.”

The district’s 12 Democratic chairs affirmed their support for Mr. Woolf in a statement issued Monday afternoon.

“Aaron has been focused on going around the district, hearing from voters about their ideas on ways we together can strengthen the district’s infrastructure, create new jobs and get the North Country’s economy moving again. That’s his main focus right now,” the statement read. “We, the twelve Democratic Party County Chairs in the 21st Congressional District affirm our support for Aaron, and know that he is the best candidate for moving the North Country forward.”

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