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Newcomer Elise Stefanik is running strong against established Republican candidate Matt Doheny.  Photo: Stefanik campaign
Newcomer Elise Stefanik is running strong against established Republican candidate Matt Doheny. Photo: Stefanik campaign

NY21: Is Elise Stefanik a fresh new voice or a carpetbagger?

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We're just a month away from the Republican primary in the North Country's fiercely-contested House race.

The Democratic and Green Party candidates are running unopposed in their primaries June 24. But Republicans Matt Doheny and Elise Stefanik have been locked in an expensive and sometimes bitter matchup that's involved accusations of carpetbagging and dishonesty.

The first debate between Doheny and Stefanik takes place May 27. This week, we begin profiling the two GOP candidates. Here's Brian Mann and Martha Foley's conversation about Elise Stefanik's life story, her background, and her political ideas (read more about Stefanik's political writing here.)

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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A Harvard graduate and a fresh voice in the North Country

Martha Foley: Brian, Elise Stefanik is a political newcomer to the North Country. Her name was pretty much unknown until last year when she moved to Willsboro in Essex County. Tell us a little about her.

Brian Mann: Stefanik is 29 years old, single with no kids. She's a Harvard graduate and until last year, she spent much of her time in Washington, D.C., where she still owns a part-share in a home. She worked as an aide in George Bush's White House and also spent time with Paul Ryan's political campaign during the 2012 presidential race.

Her main argument in the campaign so far has been that she's a really new voice, a younger candidate with fresh ideas, that's a notion she's played up in her campaign advertisements.

Accusations of exaggerating her Willsboro roots

MF: So Stefanik has an impressive resume, especially for someone so young. What about North Country roots? Is there a reason she's running here, in the 21st district?

BM: This is where her story gets a little more complicated. In her bio and in one of TV advertisements, Stefanik describes sort of vaguely as being from "upstate New York."

Now I should say that in that TV ad when she says she was born and raised in Upstate New York, the visual on the screen says Willsboro New York. But Stefanik was raised and went to private school in the Capital District. Her only tie to Willsboro is that her parents own a seasonal home there.


Stefanik says she's visited there for part of each summer since she was three years old. That's opened her to attacks from the Doheny campaign that she's sort of a carpetbagger and has fudged this part of her personal narrative.

What her neighbors say

MF: So I know you visited Willsboro to find out what locals think about her candidacy, whether they think she's has real local roots. What did her neighbors say?

BM: Well, I walked up and down Willsboro's main street. It's a very small town, as you know, but I managed to find about 15 people who lived locally, some had been in the village for decades. Not one of them knew her or had ever met her. Most didn't even recognize her name.

MF: They'd never even heard of her?

BM: It was pretty remarkable. For a candidate at this level of government — the U.S. Congress — to be running from a small town and to have people not actually know her - that's remarkable. I talked about this with Glen Sayward. He owns a little grocery and gas station in Willsboro and he's a life-long Republican. Here's what he said:

"Every person that has come into my store has asked me if I knew who she was, because nobody knows who she is. Nobody knows her as a local. That's the big question, who is she? So would I vote for her? No, because I don't know who she is and she's not local."

Vetted by Conservative and GOP leaders

BM: Okay, so some people in her adopted home town say that they don't know her very well yet. But a lot of Republican government leaders have backed her, including the Willsboro town supervisor. Why has the GOP supported her so strongly in this race, over Matt Doheny? I mean, she's a newcomer, he's been around for years.

I talked about this with Ray Scollin. He's the GOP party chair in Franklin County. In 2012, he supported Doheny, this time he's backing Stefanik. Here's what he had to say about the carpetbagger issue: "Nobody should be running from the issue that Elise grew up in Albany, NY, that's where she's from. But here's the deal. She summered in Willsboro and took vacations in Willsboro." Scollin also argues that all the candidates in this race spent a lot of their lives and careers outside the North Country.

Congressional hopeful Elise Stefanik (at right) tours the Urban Mission in Watertown. NCPR file photo: David Sommerstein.
Congressional hopeful Elise Stefanik (at right) tours the Urban Mission in Watertown. NCPR file photo: David Sommerstein.
As to her politics, Scollin echoed the view that I've heard from a lot of Republican leaders. They say Stefanik is appealing and has a fresh voice. They also think she could win back a lot of Republican women in the North Country who've switched sides and voted Democrat in recent races. "She has an incredible college education, she's energetic, she has a family business that deals in the North Country. She served in a White House administration. So I think the fact that she had all these opportunities made her an ideal candidate."

A conservative campaign for a bipartisan candidate?

MF: Tell us just a bit more about Stefanik's politics. She has the nod from the Conservative Party as well as many GOP leaders. What are her ideas?

BM: One thing that's interesting about Stefanik is that over the years she's shown a much stronger bipartisan streak than you often see in modern Republican politics. When she was at Harvard, she was active with a group called the Institute of Politics that was actually led by Jeanne Shaheen, the long-time Democratic politician from New Hampshire. Stefanik even co-wrote an article with Shaheen.

Watertown businessman Matt Doheny in 2012. He entered the race late and is now challenging Stefanik for the Republican line.  NCPR file photo: David Sommerstein
Watertown businessman Matt Doheny in 2012. He entered the race late and is now challenging Stefanik for the Republican line. NCPR file photo: David Sommerstein
Stefanik has long been active in trying to get more women involved in politics, especially in the GOP. She says that's one of her major causes. In terms of her actual ideas for the North Country, I have to say it's still fairly out of the box standard rhetoric. Washington is broken. We need more jobs.

Here she is speaking in Watertown. "My major focus throughout the duration of this campaign is providing new ideas to help promote small business growth and create jobs and incentivize opportunities so that our young people stay here, come back here, raise their families here, and they build their businesses here."

Can she win?

MF: Okay, so I'm going to ask David Sommerstein this same question when we talk about Matt Doheny, who David is profiling. What's the big hurdle for Stefanik between now and primary day? What does she have to do to win?

BM: For Elise Stefanik, it's all about this carpetbagging question and name recognition. New York state actually has a long tradition of people moving in and adopting our political culture. We saw Hillary Clinton do it successfully some years ago in the Senate campaign for example. But Stefanik is so new, and her name is still so unknown to a lot of local residents, and I think she's also been a little bit muddled in her narrative claiming some roots up here.

If she can clear that up in voters' minds and get her name recognition up, I think this strong support she has from Republican and Conservative leaders and their get-out-the-vote networks could give her a real shot.

The Republican primary is June 24. We'll have two Republican debates before voters go to the polls, the first on Tuesday, May 27.

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