ALEXANDRIA BAY In January 2003, eager to own something of his own and earning enough money to make it happen, Matthew A. Doheny tasked his mom, Kay, with finding him a property on the St. Lawrence River.
That winter, she walked with a real estate agent across the frozen river to Shamrock Island, in Goose Bay.
I said, This is it, Mrs. Doheny recalled recently during an interview at her home on High Street in the village.
Not long after, it was. And in 2007, Mr. Doheny bought nearby Caprice Island, too. The total purchase price for the two islands was about $700,000, and Mr. Doheny, a financial portfolio manager who earned a considerable sum working on Wall Street, has put much more into building a home there.
The political price of those islands, though, could be more significant. The property has become a focal point in the congressional race between Mr. Doheny, a Republican, and his Nov. 6 opponent, Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh.
The Owens campaign went so far as to include aerial footage of the home, shot from a helicopter, in a recent television advertisement. The islands have become the very encapsulation of a pivotal debate as Mr. Doheny tries to connect with north country voters. Are his islands a sign that hes an out-of-touch Wall Street carpetbagger, a Thurston Howell whos trying to buy the seat, as the Owens campaign suggests?
Or are they the very reflection of north country values success, family and helping out his friends in the Bay?
To help prove their side of the story, the Doheny campaign arranged for a Times reporter to tour the property with Mary E. Doheny, Mr. Dohenys wife, and three men who worked to make the island property the picturesque getaway it is now.
Kay Doheny keeps the before pictures of the islands as a reminder of the changes made since her son spent a few years and a lot of money fixing them up. Three homes dot the property: a renovated two-bedroom A-frame and a four-bedroom home on Shamrock and a five-bedroom, and 5,500-square-foot home on Caprice that Mr. Doheny helped design himself. Mr. Doheny had a basketball court and a boathouse built, too.
Inside the houses, books line many of the walls. The ceilings are high and the rooms are bright and open. His Caprice Island home is immaculately decorated with Stickley furniture. On some of the walls are newspaper clippings related to the Thousand Islands, which Mr. Doheny kept in his apartments when he rented in New York City.
More than a dozen white Adirondack chairs sprinkle the well-manicured lawns of both islands. One can walk the two-acre property via a brick or stone path or take the three bridges that connect Shamrock, Caprice and a shoal that sits to the southeast.
On a recent October weekday, Mary Doheny stood on Caprice Islands southeast shore, facing Grover Shoal, and pointed to where the helicopter swooped in to capture the video that was in the Owens ad.
I just think that part of it has become incredibly invasive, Mrs. Doheny said, likening it to peeking in our windows.
The Dohenys had their wedding reception on the island over the summer, evidenced by the hundreds of leftover bottles of beer, water and wine in the basement, the floor of which is part of the islands natural rock formation in some parts. (Mr. Doheny tried to keep the island as close to nature as possible, and Mrs. Doheny said he was distraught when workers had to cut down a large tree that was menacing the house on Caprice.)
The house was ready in time for the wedding because of a months-long push by Mark D. Morgia, owner of Morgia Masonry, Clayton; Raymond J. Smitty Smith of Premier Building Associates, Alexandria Bay, and William D. Bach of W.D. Bach Excavating and Consulting LLC, Clayton. In various capacities and for varying amounts of time, all three worked with Mr. Doheny to fix up the island property.
He needs to continue to take every negative tone from Owens and the Democrats and turn it into a positive, Mr. Bach said. They want to turn it into a negative. If he wants to keep us busy, bring it on. Matt has been a big figure here. ... Its kept us out of the unemployment lines.
After graduating from Alexandria Central High School in 1988, Mr. Doheny went to college at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, then got his law degree at Cornell University, Ithaca. He spent about five years practicing law, then switched to finance. For a good part of the 2000s, Mr. Doheny worked for Deutsche Bank Securities, spending many summer weekends in the north country.
(Mary Doheny, a Massachusetts native who met Mr. Doheny in New York City because they were in the same industry, recalls Mr. Doheny taking casual Fridays seriously: wearing flannel shirts, which would let him blend in after his weekly flights from the city to Syracuse had landed).
By 2009, Mr. Doheny was in the north country full time, working out of Watertown for the investment firm Fintech Advisory. He bought a house on Paddock Street.
Mr. Doheny said that the islands are mostly for use by his family and held in a family trust. He said he hasnt stayed overnight there in months.
He had the financial wherewithal to transform the islands. He earned $8.4 million in wages in 2010, and more than $400,000 in 2011 after he started his own financial services business, North Country Capital LLC, on Washington Street in Watertown.
But island ownership alone doesnt have to be all that expensive. Supply and demand comes into play here, and theres plenty of supply: There are more than 1,800 islands in the Thousand Islands.
Lance Evans, of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Realtors, said that islands on the market right now range in price from $59,000 to $2.2 million. Properties in the lower range dont usually have enough land to fit a house.
In fact, comparable mainland waterfront properties, including the homes and the land, are more expensive than their island counterparts, said Melanie Curley, broker at Thousand Islands Realty, Clayton.
And while Mr. Dohenys home is indisputably luxurious, there are trade-offs to island living. Ms. Curley noted that island owners tend to be hardy types, especially those that live year-round. Landlubbers will quickly find that modern conveniences a nearby store, if the toothpaste runs out are a 10-minute boat ride away.
I think island people have to be pretty good planners, Ms. Curley said.
Mr. Owens also owns waterfront property. He lives in Plattsburgh, in a home on Lake Champlain.
He declined a similar request to tour his house.
Its personal and private, Mr. Owens said.
According to the Washington Post, Mr. Owens is also a wealthy man, worth an estimated $3.3 million. He was a practicing attorney, and federal disclosures show that he, too, manages a personal investment portfolio.
But he added that if the discussion about his advertisement remains moored on the shores of Mr. Dohenys island, it misses the point.
That is to contrast my having worked for 35 years in the district, helping to bring jobs to the district, knowing and understanding the issues in the district, versus his experience on Wall Street, Mr. Owens said. I dont denigrate in any way his success. Thats not the point.
The ad also includes footage of the island of Manhattan and the Cayman Islands. Legal entities that helped make up Fintech Advisory were based on those two islands.
But despite Mr. Owens 35 years in the north country, he would be the one on an island if he and Mr. Doheny were to attend their high school or college reunions this year. Mr. Doheny graduated from Alexandria Central High School. Mr. Owens graduated from Chaminade High School, a Catholic school on Long Island. He graduated from Manhattan College in New York City and then got his law degree at Fordham, in the Bronx. After law school, he joined the Air Force. He moved to Plattsburgh in 1977 when he was stationed at Plattsburgh Air Force Base.
Mr. Doheny used variations of the word lie or liar almost a dozen times in an interview regarding the Owens ad.
Its a lie that somehow I bought property on the St. Lawrence to run for Congress, and the worst part is, the overall tone is that if you grow up in a small town, work hard, catch some breaks, work even harder and become successful, youre not supposed to run for office.
Like Mr. Doheny, Martin Yenawine is also the owner of an island in the St. Lawrence River. He is also an Owens supporter, and threw a fundraiser for him at his home. He seemed ambivalent about the use of islands in Democratic ads, but said the underlying point was sound.
The intent of the ad is to clearly say whether Matt cares or not and whether his party cares or not about the poor and the less advantaged, Mr. Yenawine said. Theres a symbol here. That symbol may or may not have been poorly chosen.
Kay Doheny listens to the debate from her High Street home, which looks much the same way it did when Mr. Doheny, 42, was growing up there. The same couch where Mrs. Doheny is showing off old hockey gear is the one where her son fell asleep after practice, watching the wood-panel television that still sits on the floor.
Im thinking, is it bad to be successful? asked Mrs. Doheny. A paperback by conservative darling Ayn Rand, its cover bent back slightly from use, sits on the coffee table in front of her.
But the High Street home has changed in one major way from when Mr. Doheny was growing up there. In 2001, Mr. Doheny received his first big bonus from Deutsche Bank $50,000. More bonuses, and bigger ones, would eventually come, but Mr. Doheny remembers how proud he was of that first check. He promptly called his mom to ask what she wanted. She asked for a back deck, which she points to with pride.
Mr. Doheny recalls these days: It was the best $5,000 I ever spent.