Elise Stefanik chatted up her Post-Star passengers, nimbly navigating the winding, back-country roads of Essex County in a very un-nimble extended cab pickup.
It was shortly after 11 o’clock on a recent morning, but the 29-year-old, who has the Conservative Party nomination and is running in a June primary for the Republican endorsement for the 21st Congressional District, had already put in half a day’s work.
She had already driven round trip to a warehouse of her family’s business, Premium Plywood Products, in Albany County and continued back up north to make deliveries in Chazy and Saranac in Clinton County.
Now she was headed to Bessboro Builders in Westport to drop off cabinet-grade panels. Although she can’t spend as much time working for Premium Plywood as she did before she was on the campaign trail, she said there are still sales, marketing, website management and delivery tasks to be done.
“We kind of wear lots of different hats running a family business,” she said.
Stefanik said she is close with her family and credits her parents with instilling her strong work ethic.
She is a native of Albany, but her family had a summer home in Willsboro, where they have come to spend more time in recent years.
Bringing the snacks
Stefanik is often described by friends and colleagues as “extremely smart,” “energetic,” someone with “integrity,” “a visionary,” a woman who has worked hard and earned the opportunities she has received.
She doesn’t talk much about her personal life, other than to say she has a strong group of friends and a “serious” boyfriend.
“I think it’s important that voters get to know me and my ideas as an individual so I kind of remain independent on the campaign trail,” she said.
In middle and high school, she involved herself in clubs and played lacrosse. She loved the performing arts and starred as Gretel in “Sound of Music” and Peter Pan in school productions.
Stefanik attended Harvard, but she is the first in her immediate family to go to college. Melanie Stefanik, her mother, said it is incorrectly assumed Elise and her brother, Matt, who is 24, were “born with a silver spoon in (their) mouth(s).”
Ken Stefanik, Elise’s father, worked his way up from forklift operator in another company and left to start Premium Plywood Products, a plywood and hardwood paneling wholesale distribution business that employs 20. Stefanik was 7 when her father launched the company.
“They really put everything we had in terms of finances and they took the ultimate risk,” she said. “We’re very proud that over 20 years later, we’re still successful.”
Elise attended Albany Academy for Girls and Harvard on partial academic scholarships.
Her introduction to politics came at Girls Academy, where she started in the middle of fourth grade. Before then, she attended a parochial school in Albany but was the victim of bullying, which got so bad her parents sought out another school halfway through the year.
At Girls Academy, she shadowed a student for a day and took an admissions test. Before the staff had even corrected her exam, her parents informed them Elise would be enrolling the following Monday.
“They said, ‘We haven’t even looked at the test.’ My parents were like, ‘The test is going to be fine. We’re getting the uniforms,’ ” Stefanik recalled.
Caroline Mason, former head of school at Girls Academy, said from the moment the fourth-grader arrived, she “set the place ablaze with energy and enthusiasm.”
“She was nice to everyone. Girls can be really clique-y, and she wasn’t that person. She was making sure everybody was involved and acknowledged. She was exemplary in making people heard and valued,” she said.
In sixth grade, Stefanik ran for secretary of student council and won. Her campaign platform was to bring in a snack machine. She had to negotiate with janitors and cafeteria workers, since both wanted to limit the hours the snack machine could be used. The cafeteria staff didn’t want competition during lunch.
The snack machine was approved and became a revenue stream for the middle school, which took 10 percent of the sales.
“The thing that was so great is she was not at all afraid to take something on and kind of fight for it. She was willing to put herself out there. She wasn’t the kind of person to sort of fly it up the flagpole and see how it plays and see which side she was going to be on, she had a definite vision,” Mason said.
Quick steps up
Melanie recalls driving her eighth-grade daughter to school one morning. Albany talk show host Fred Dicker was discussing Rick Lazio, the Republican running against Hillary Clinton for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Stefanik decided to contact the New York State Republican Party headquarters to learn how she could help Lazio’s campaign. Thereafter, she took a bus after school to the State Street office, where she made posters by hand.
“It was pretty fascinating,” Melanie said. “Clinton had professional signs made up, but Elise handmade them for Lazio.”
In the upper school at Girls Academy, Stefanik started an astronomy program for fourth-graders that became part of the school curriculum. Mason, the former head of school, couldn’t recall the program but said that was the type of involvement Stefanik had.
“She thought about the lower school a lot. She was very good at having kids reach beyond where they thought they could reach,” Mason said.
At Harvard, Stefanik received a national merit-based award from Coca-Cola. Her freshman year, she helped to ready the dorms for her incoming class and used the money she earned to buy her textbooks.
She said she learned quickly she wasn’t the smartest person in her class at the Ivy League school.
“It gives you something to strive for, but people have different strengths. You learn a lot more from listening to others and learning from them,” she said.
Stefanik found her niche at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, founded as a memorial to President John F. Kennedy’s public service, and gained practical experience working with former elected officials, pollsters and public policy experts who visited the campus.
She met Ted Sorenson, JFK’s speechwriter, during the fall semester of her freshman year. She was the only female freshman who applied to be a student liaison and was accepted.
“It was just an incredible experience for a young person to be able to hear someone who served under President Kennedy and had written some of the most famous words that he had ever uttered,” she said.
Although Harvard churned out a lot of finance majors, Stefanik was fascinated by the governmental public policy-making process and knew she wanted to work in Washington. She interviewed at think tanks and for administrative jobs outside of the White House.
A Harvard alum told Stefanik about a staff assistant position at the White House. She interviewed but didn’t get it. A second job opened, a week before she graduated with honors, as a staff assistant for the domestic policy council and she got it. Meanwhile, President George W. Bush announced his new director of domestic policy, Karl Zinsmeister, a native of Cazenovia.
Zinsmeister was interviewing for a West Wing special assistant to help with his transition to the White House. Stefanik went in to introduce herself. He told her he wasn’t happy with some of the more experienced applicants for the special assistant position but he had been advised not to hire anyone right out of college. Stefanik told him about her upstate New York background and her family’s small business. He mentioned he was an amateur woodworker. At the end of the meeting, Zinsmeister hired her to be his special assistant. Stefanik was a few weeks short of her 22nd birthday.
“It was kind of a shock to my colleagues,” she said. “The fact that I was promoted to the White House on my first day was a real privilege.”
A year later, Stefanik went on to work for Bush’s second deputy chief of staff, Joshua Bolten.
Alyssa McClenning of Schuylerville met Stefanik when McClenning was working as the director of communications and spokeswoman for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and USA Freedom Corps.
McClenning didn’t cross paths with Stefanik too often but said they have reconnected in the past few years. She said Stefanik is “relatable.”
“I think that really comes through for anyone who’s following along on her social media things. She’s everywhere in the district. She’s meeting people at diners, on farms, at small businesses. She’s really digging in and getting to meet the folks. She’s passionate about everything she does,” McClenning said.
While Stefanik worked in the West Wing, she interacted frequently with President Bush. She said Bush had a sense of humor but was serious about knowing as much as possible about the issues. Stefanik and her colleagues were responsible for putting together policy briefings and were always trying to anticipate the rigorous questions he would ask.
Stefanik said it was an honor to work under President Bush and he was a “man of integrity and had conviction to lead our country.”
“I’ve been really proud that, while he was criticized by former presidents, he really took it seriously after the administration, saying, ‘I’m not in the Oval Office, I won’t be able to understand what all the information the current president’s getting.’ He’s stayed out of politics.
“And I love that his new hobby is painting!” Stefanik said.
Her proudest moment was the time she got to introduce her parents to President Bush in the Oval Office. Neither Ken nor Melanie Stefanik had ever been to Washington before they moved their daughter there, and it was a heady experience.
“It was quick, but it was pretty cool,” Stefanik said.
Before returning to Willsboro to run for Congress, Stefanik worked for Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, overseeing his debate preparations when he ran as the Republican vice presidential nominee. She also was policy director for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty when he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2011.
The drive to win
Despite Stefanik’s passion for public service, her parents were surprised she chose it as her career. Melanie said her daughter could have gone in many directions.
“She had opportunities and job offers and she’s never gone for the high salary,” Melanie said.
Bridget Brown, Willsboro town clerk, met Stefanik a year ago when she gave a speech at a meet and greet. Brown introduced the candidate to some of the young voters in the area.
She describes Stefanik as a “go-getter.”
“She’s very knowledgeable, she’s young, she’s got the drive,” Brown said.
Willsboro’s town supervisor, Shaun Gilliland, met Stefanik last spring when he was campaigning for supervisor.
He called himself a fan of hers, because in Essex County the 18 to 35-year-old population is fleeing in search of economic opportunity, but Stefanik wants to settle there.
“She didn’t come up here just to run for office, she came up here because she’s working for the family business in this area of distribution. As a supervisor of Willsboro, I’m glad to have a citizen like that,” Gilliland said.
Stefanik believes she represents the “fresh energy” of a new generation and thinks more people should run for office.
Mason, who has watched Stefanik from the time she walked through the halls of Girls Academy as a fourth-grader to her march toward the Republican primary for the 21st Congressional District, believes she’ll make a great congresswoman.
“I think she’s diplomatic and I think it was her exposure in Washington, learning how to maneuver in that incredible labyrinth of bureaucracy. I think she knows how to compromise and negotiate, but I think she’s unswerving in her core beliefs,” Mason said.
Stefanik will be on the ballot in November on the Conservative Party line and will vie for the Republican nomination in a June 24 primary against Matt Doheny, an investment fund manager from Watertown.