Actor promotes fellow Watertown native Bob Johnson in Congressional bid
By ROBIN CAUDELL
PLATTSBURGH - Dr. Bob Johnson, 23rd Congressional District candidate, is the real deal in the eyes of Viggo Mortensen.
Mortensen is critically acclaimed for his disparate acting roles in films ranging from "Lord of the Rings" to "A History of Violence" and "Hidalgo." Beyond screens, big and small, he is an accomplished poet and artist.
Mortensen revealed his political face with Johnson at a "Change the Course of a Nation" fundraising gala held at a packed Burgundy Room in Plattsburgh Thursday.
"I've never done this before," Mortensen said. "I've said what I thought before but I've never actively gone and campaigned for somebody. And I'm very proud to be of whatever service I can. I hope it's helpful because he really deserves it. And I think the people of the 23rd Congressional District deserve it, too ... at least to hear his voice ... to hear his ideas."
Watertown is the nexus for Mortensen, the local boy who made Hollywood-good, and Johnson, who has a thoracic practice at Samaritan Medical Center.
Common health-care views brought the doctor and actor together after Mortensen aired his concerns during his May commencement speech at his alma mater, St. Lawrence University in Canton. The "real deal" is how Mortensen describes Johnson, the opponent of incumbent Republican Congressman John McHugh.
"His opponent (McHugh) makes much of his connection to the military, I think, primarily because Fort Drum is integral to the economy of northern New York. But he did not serve as Johnson did, not that there's anything wrong with that. But he does, like a lot of Bush Republicans across the country, wrap themselves in the flag each chance he gets without necessarily speaking with any profundity about any issues including foreign policy or proper use of the military."
Johnson receives 95 percent of his campaign funding from inside the district.
"His opponent, unfortunately, who has served several terms, has gotten to the point where 95 percent or more of his funding comes from not only outside the 23rd Congressional District but from outside of New York state - mostly from the beltway of Washington, D.C. He's someone who, in a sense, is beholden to defense contractors, the big pharmaceutical companies and he votes accordingly. And that is not necessarily, often not, in the best interest of the people he purports to represent."
In response, Chris Mathey, McHugh's campaign manger, said:
"In more than 35 years in public service, Congressman McHugh has been an independent voice for the North Country. Whether fighting to bring crucial funds for the border crossing at Champlain and to develop the former Plattsburgh AFB, including the creation of Plattsburgh International Airport... or opposing the Bush administration's wrongheaded policies on such things as a permanent checkpoint on the Northway and the proposed passport-only rule for cross-border travel, John McHugh has always placed the needs of the people first."
Johnson's campaign resources are modest in comparison to McHugh's.
"He doesn't have those big corporate sponsors outside of the district that his opponent has to get TV and radio spots, to get face recognition and name recognition and voice recognition," Mortensen said.
Despite their political differences, he has a soft spot for McHugh.
"He, like I, was raised in Watertown, N.Y. and went to Watertown public schools, although he seems to be unaware of the fact. When he heard that I was coming to help Dr. Johnson, he publicly said that, basically, that was shameful or desperate on Johnson's part because he had to go to Hollywood to get some actor to help him out rather than someone who was from here."
Mortensen regularly visits his family in Watertown.
"So he either said that because he's so out of touch with his own district or he knowingly misrepresented. In either case, it's not a very positive thing."
Johnson's vocal stance is one thing Mortensen admires about him.
"He's well informed. His ideas make sense. They're common sense, workable ideas and he's not afraid to say what he thinks about tricky issues like stem-cell research and the ongoing occupation of Iraq."
Johnson supported sending troops to Afghanistan, but not to Iraq. And Mortensen agrees.
"Going to Iraq for reasons that turned out not to be true and which the president and his supporters, including Mr. McHugh, knew to be falsehoods, and to stay there out of stubbornness is wrong. We are, right now, we are wasting our gold. By that I mean our money and our blood. Those are things we are not going to get back. We're throwing away people's lives left and right out of pride, out of arrogance, and it's got to stop."
Mortensen expressed concerns about a Republican-controlled Congress, which, he said, promotes unchecked spending and the economy-is-great myth that is not a reality for many here in one of the poorest regions of the country.
A national health-care program is as workable as Social Security, in Mortensen's estimation. He said Johnson offers real solutions, hope, and a reclamation of the democratic principles America was founded on.
"People want to hear him speak. They see it is possible to have politicians who are committed, who are passionate, and sensible, and who are connected to the people of the district and not to interests in D.C. or big corporations elsewhere in the country."
Real heroes exist beyond movies, Mortensen said.
"People in this part of the country are really lucky to have him as a candidate," Mortensen said. "I wish there were more candidates like him across the country. We would be a lot closer to changing things."