SARANAC LAKE - Republican Elise Stefanik pulled into the Saranac Lake Adult Center for lunch at noon May 20, part of her aggressive campaign for the June 24 Republican primary against investor Matt Doheny.
On the menu was soup, broccoli salad and a cookie for desert. She sat down at the table next to Paul Herrmann, 64, a lawyer from Saranac Lake, and Neal Stoner, 67, from Saranac Lake.
"It's nice and hot," the 29-year-old Stefanik said of the soup. "I like broccoli; I just didn't get it today. I grabbed a cookie."
Elise Stefanik at the Adirondack Daily Enterprise office in Saranac Lake (Photo — Peter Crowley)
Stefanik has been running since August to represent New York's 21st Congressional District. Unlike Doheny, she started before Rep. Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh) announced his retirement, and she has since then won endorsements from 11 out of 12 county Republican chairs and the Conservative Party line. Doheny, a three-time Congress candidate, picked up the Independence Party line. Democrat Aaron Woolf a filmmaker from Elizabethtown and Manhattan, and Green Party baker Matt Funiciello of Glens Falls are also running.
Stefanik shook hands and introduced herself to the crowded table and then asked the seniors how frequently they come here to eat and about the activities they do here. The topic quickly turned to politics.
Herrmann asked Stefanik about her residence in Willsboro. The question continues to follow Stefanik, as well as Woolf. Neither lived in the 21st District full-time a year ago. A news report from North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann added fuel to that debate Tuesday. Mann reported that he walked around Willsboro's main street and talked to about 15 local residents, including a longtime grocer, and none had ever met Stefanik.
Stefanik's family owns a seasonal home in Willsboro where she has spent summers since she was 3 years old, she says. She is also a partial owner of a home in Washington, D.C. She lived in that city for years when she was working for President George W. Bush as a staffer and also for other politicians like Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
After she told Herrmann she is a full-time resident of Willsboro, he told her, "You're ambitious and energetic, and you might have that advantage. ... I think you might do very well."
"That's who we need in campaigns," Stoner said of Stefanik, "Democrat and Republican young people."
Herrmann, a second-generation Democrat, said afterward that speaking with Stefanik didn't change his mind.
"I will probably vote for Woolf because he's liberal," Herrmann said.
Presenting herself as a fresh face is key to Stefanik's strategy. She's focusing on the kinship she feels with other female politicians - she brought up Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, in a positive light several times Tuesday - and also on her youth. She said if Congress members of her generation were together in a room, Democrat and Republican, they could solve the deficit.
Stefanik's next stop was the Adirondack Daily Enterprise office, where she discussed a range of issues with the newspaper's editorial board. She is a strong supporter of defense spending and would only reduce it through "modernization." She is in favor of repealing the Affordable Care Act, and she hopes to modernize entitlement programs.
"We are the wealthiest nation in the world," Stefanik said. "We have to provide a safety net but also self-sufficiency."
On some major national issues Stefanik might not compromise with Democrats, but she said there is room for compromise for the district.
"I see an opportunity for collaboration with Democrats on issues specific to this region, like Fort Drum," she said.
Stefanik believes there is more money in politics than ever before, saying campaigns have gotten more expensive - although she didn't say what's driving up the costs. Asked whether campaign finance laws are needed, she said she sees political donations as part of someone's First Amendment right. She suggested 100-percent transparency is needed to see who donates to political candidates.
In her meeting with the Enterprise the candidate brought up her electability as a candidate.
"There is a clear choice in this primary for someone who can win," Stefanik told the Enterprise. "This is a real opportunity for Republicans and Conservatives to come together. I don't have the negative baggage that came out in past elections."
Later she visited Homeward Bound Adirondacks, a group that supports returning veterans. Then she went to Harrietstown Town Hall to talk with voters and local Republicans, including Harrietstown Supervisor Bob Bevilacqua and Franklin County GOP Chairman Ray Scollin. Scollin said Stefanik has the support of not only the county chairs but also the committee people in each county who voted for her during that process.
"They're the ones that are voting," Scollin said.
Scollin, who previously endorsed Stefanik, believes Doheny still has more name recognition with Republicans, but said Stefanik is becoming known. He said the Conservative Party endorsement hurt Doheny.
"I think he is trying to identify with that group," Scollin said.
Stefanik rounded out her event-packed day at Paul Smith's College, where she met with the Federation of Sportsmen and Women's Club of Franklin County.
Doheny has also been campaigning across the district but has not yet made any campaign stops in the Tri-Lakes region.