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Father-son duo’s civic roots planted deep in Cape Vincent

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CAPE VINCENT — Son and father Paul F. and Darrel J. Aubertine share a lot in common.

Paul, 31, launched his political career this month by attending his first board meeting as the lone Democratic member of the Cape Vincent Town Council. Darrel, a proud parent seated in the audience during the Jan. 16 meeting with his wife, Margaret S., accomplished the same feat when he was elected by the town in 1994. The Democrat would later serve as the Jefferson County legislator for District 1 from 1996 through 2001. He then served in the state Legislature as an assemblyman and senator from 2002 until 2010.

Interviewed together by the Times on Friday, the duo talked about why Aubertine family members from multiple generations have been inspired to serve as officials in Cape Vincent. They also weighed in on the history of politics in the town, the importance of civic duty in the family and their future political aspirations.

Career-wise, the father-son duo has plenty of reasons to smile in 2014.

The elder Mr. Aubertine was hired by the office of the state comptroller as special assistant for external affairs this past fall, following three years as commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. He hinted on Friday that Washington, D.C., could soon be his next stop if he decides to enter the race for New York’s 21st Congressional District seat this fall — a possibility set in motion when Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, announced he would not seek re-election.

Paul, elected this past fall to Town Council, will be married this May to Kari M. Chavoustie. The newlywed couple plans to move into a house in town now under construction on Hell Street. Paul is employed by Woods Farms, a large-scale dairy operation in Cape Vincent.

Though Darrel’s entry into town politics arrived much earlier than Paul’s, they both worked as young men on the family’s Triple A Aubertine Farm, a sixth-generation Heritage farm that started as a dairy operation in the late 1800s. As an independent 17-year-old, Darrel was herding cattle and hauling hay on his own 50-acre farm.

His involvement in town government began in the late 1980s as a member of the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals, a position in which he helped draft a new zoning law before serving as a councilman in 1994 and 1995. The decision to serve was partly inspired by his uncle, Terry L. Aubertine, a town board member from 1978 to 1993. Terry’s father, Walton E., served as a board member for Cape Vincent Central School; Walton’s father, Walter, served as town assessor.

As a young man, “I was the biggest cynic on God’s green earth,” Mr. Aubertine recalled. “But that changed when I was asked to do my first job in the public sector” and learned I could help people.

Wind power is only the latest politically charged issue that has stirred debate in Cape Vincent over the past 50 years, he said. In the 1960s, for example, there was controversy over a failed plan to build a bridge from Cape Vincent to Wolfe Island, Ontario. In 1968, the community was divided over the plan to merge Cape Vincent and Clayton school districts to form today’s 190-square-mile Thousand Islands Central School District. The construction of the regional water line from Cape Vincent to Glen Park in 1996, led by the Development Authority of the North Country, also sparked debate.

But today’s wind power controversy in Cape Vincent — where BP Wind Energy has planned a wind farm project — has polarized the community in a detrimental way that past issues haven’t, said the younger Mr. Aubertine. BP is now trying to sell its 124-turbine project to another wind developer.

Residents from pro- and anti-wind power factions of the community often criticize each other on Internet blogs, he said. Those attacks are sometimes personal, creating animosity between residents and board members. He likened partisan blogs about wind power to “echo chambers,” because they don’t offer an opportunity for two-sided debate.

“Really what inspired me to run for Town Council is the divisiveness in Cape Vincent right now,” he said. “People boycott businesses based on their differences of opinion, and it all revolves around just one issue. A lot of this has to do with technology and the ability to say things and get away with it. The passion on both sides is fine. It’s fine to be staunchly for or against issues, but it’s a problem when it gets personal and you don’t agree to disagree.”

“Unlike the newspaper, you can’t silence any opposition or differences in opinion” in blogs, added Darrel. “It’s counterproductive and takes away from the legitimacy of a counterargument to try and find common ground.”

Though Paul is keenly aware his father has set a precedent for starting his storied political career as a town councilman, he isn’t focused on any future career aspirations at the moment; he’s focused on finding ways to serve people in the community. This month, for example, the board members discussed the town’s strategy for funding the cleanup of roadside debris from the ice storm in late December.

“When I made the decision to run, it wasn’t because I had a popular name that could take me somewhere,” Paul said. “Is there a chance I could move on? Sure. I certainly would never say I’ve gone as far as I can go. But for now, all I can do is the best I can in the Cape.”

Should Paul eventually choose to run as an elected official in Jefferson County, like his father, he’ll have unconditional support from the Aubertine family, Darrel said. The family’s strong support network, which has roots in Cape Vincent that hearken back to the 1800s, has always played a key role in supporting his career decisions over the past two decades.

“For me, there was no grand plan,” Darrel said. “And if you look at where I’ve gone in politics in the last 20 years, you’ll see that. Some people don’t realize that I was out of office for a year when I left the (county) Board of Legislators and thought I was done. But I was talked into going for another state Assembly run. If there was a need, and I felt I could fill a hole to serve, I took advantage of it and threw myself into the ring.”

And there’s a chance he could soon decide to throw himself in the political ring again by announcing his candidacy in the 21st Congressional District race.

“At this point — going back to my support network of family and friends — I haven’t made a decision one way or the other,” he said. “Obviously it’s flattering that I may have the opportunity to serve as a congressman for this district, like Mike McNulty, Paul Tonko and Bill Owens. These are people I have a lot of respect for, and I certainly have an appreciation for all of the work involved.”

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