Waite: Dear Elise …

U.S Representative Elise Stefanik in February.

U.S Representative Elise Stefanik in February.

Dear Elise,

I’m calling you Elise because this column is more an appeal to Elise the person than to U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville). 

Plus, your campaign signs say Elise.  

It was nice seeing you this past week, even if it was for a business meeting with The Daily Gazette’s editorial board. We both would have better enjoyed spending the time swapping stories about the trials of young parenthood. I know how important your 1-year-old son is to you, not only because you brought him up during our meeting, but because the pinned tweet at the top of your Twitter feed announces his birth last August. As a dad, I appreciate the love you show for him.
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As I’ve shared with you, I also happen to be friends with a former staffer of yours (our daughters are friends from school), and she’s told me about the hours the two of you used to pass in the car traversing the massive 21st Congressional District, discussing wedding planning and fashion in between more serious matters. She also said before you were a mother you upped the maternity leave for the staff from four weeks to 12, so two new moms on your staff could have more time at home.  

In our current political climate, you rarely get to express that more human side of yourself. Depending on the media outlet, you’re cast as the hero or villain and not allowed to be a fully fleshed out person. I’ve got to believe that part of you, perhaps the core of you, wishes this wasn’t so. 

I went back through footage from your 2014 campaign. Yes, even as a 30-year-old, first-time congressional candidate, you were tenacious and sharp — no doubt a brilliant and extremely skilled politician. But you were also more at ease than you seem now, which is understandable given your elevated profile as the third-ranking Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives and the aggression you face from journalists whether you’re in Washington County or Washington, D.C. 

During a Republican primary debate in 2014, you had the opportunity to ask your opponent, Matt Doheny, a question, and rather than amplify the negativity or dig in on policy, you chose something much more human. After sharing that you grew up skiing at Gore and Whiteface, and enjoy reading and cooking, you asked Doheny a very friendly question: 

“I wanted to get to know you a little bit better personally,” you said. “What do you like to do in your free time?” 

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Nowadays, you don’t even like to talk about the fact that you grew up in Albany County, since Albany is such a dirty word in New York state GOP politics. And you don’t seem to think touting your elite educational background at Albany Academy and Harvard can earn you appeal in the 21st. But being shy about parts of your background has the effect of putting up walls. You shouldn’t have to feel guarded — no one should. You should be proud and open about who you are. You’re the 14-year-old freshman in braces who told the Times Union in 1998 that you “support the Republican view.” You are the person who was the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, until you lost that title, oh so ironically, to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-Bronx, who also happens to often be cast as either the hero or the villain.

You should revisit your roots. Ideologically, you’re not nearly as extreme as people make you out to be. You are more liberal than 97% of your fellow House Republicans, according to Voteview. (By contrast, Rep. Liz Cheney — present pariah of the GOP — is more liberal than 65% of House Republicans, according to the index.) Meanwhile, the Lugar Center and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy ranked you the 13th most bipartisan member during the 116th Congress. (You’re 100th in the 117th Congress ranking.) In 2016, you earned an endorsement from NYSUT, for crying out loud. 

In truth, you may not be that much further to the right than your current Democratic opponent, Matt Castelli. He grew up in a split-party family and voted for Republican John McCain in 2008 and Democrat Barack Obama in 2012. He has said publicly that “Blue Lives Matter.” He worked in the Trump and Obama White Houses. He’s reportedly called Nancy Pelosi an “authoritarian,” and he doesn’t support a ban on assault weapons.

But the reason he says he entered this race gets to the very place where you’ve gone astray. As Castelli tells it, he decided to run for Congress on Jan. 6, when a violent mob attacked the U.S. Capitol. 

Hours after the invasion, after surely fearing for your own safety, you voted not to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. You stood by your baseless and categorically false statements regarding the election results in our meeting this week, and when asked if you believed Joe Biden was legitimately elected president, you only went so far as to say, “Joe Biden is the president of the United States.” What’s more, you also recently told the New York Post that impeaching Joe Biden is “on the table” if Republicans take over the House. 

You don’t have to do any of this. You don’t have to foment lies about the election or sprinkle tweets about the “RADICAL Democrats” in with tweets about visits to dairy farms and incoming endorsements. 

It’s obvious why you’re doing it, though. Politically, it’s the smart play, and your intelligence has never been in question. You say you believe in term limits and you’ve hinted that your next term may be your last in Congress. So where do you go from here? It’s unlikely you’d be able to win a statewide office considering registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in New York by more than 2 to 1. (Though if you’d stuck to the 2014 political version of yourself, you may have more of a chance.) So if your future is in politics, running on Trump’s inevitable 2024 ticket can offer you your best ticket upward.

But what does that future look like? New York Times/Siena College polling released recently found 71% of all voters think democracy is at risk. Yet just 7% identified the perils facing our democracy as being the most important issue, as most voters are more focused on the economy. That’s exactly why your message about high inflation and high gas prices is likely to fuel you to victory in a district like the 21st, especially with the redrawn lines adding Republican terrain. Ultimately, that’s why I’m addressing you and not Castelli, who has himself used divisive lines of attack, including calling you a traitor.

When you do go on to serve your fifth term in Congress, and should you eventually find yourself in a higher office, you’ll have to contend with what the present ominous threat to democracy means for you and for the country. You may come to regret the doubt you’ve helped to sow.  

In defending your election results denial during our meeting, you brought up the fact that Democrats have contested past elections. That’s true, but no leader prior to Trump has failed to recognize his successor as being legitimately elected. Plus, you could be the principled person who chooses to de-escalate, to dial down, the divisive rhetoric. 

Wouldn’t that be the lesson you’d want to teach your son? That’s what I hope to teach my kids.

When we asked about your language choices, you bristled and doubled down, calling the Democratic Party “radical,” before admitting social media is a likely culprit for our nation’s polarization. Then, you launched into the most heartfelt appeal of the meeting. You told us you’re often scared for your staffers, some of whom are in their early 20s, and face constant threats of violence.

“It’s absolutely abhorrent, and there’s no place for it,” you said. “And anyone in my operation knows that it is unacceptable to make any type of violent threats.” 

You were animated and earnest in that moment, and I saw the person who cares about others. I saw the mother in you. I saw the friend who still checks in for life updates with that former staffer I know, the friend who wrote that former staffer a handwritten note congratulating her on a new job. 

But just hours after our meeting, you tweeted a photo of yourself, wearing the same yellow raincoat you’d worn into our office, in front of a sign that said “Foxtrot, Juliet, Bravo,” which is the phonetic alphabet for “[Expletive] Joe Biden.”

Unfortunately, the picture of you grinning as you pointed to a mean-spirited roadside sign seems to signal exactly where we’re headed.

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.


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Very well written piece Mr.Waite. The bottom line for myself , and hopefully many constituents is her support of the “Big Lie”. She jumped onto the trump train ,along with Lee Zeldin and it looks as if there is no getting off. “there will come a day when trump is gone but your dishonor will remain” . She can explain that to her child one day.


It’s an increasingly rare treat in this era to read a public essay that identifies its audiences and has a noble, well-researched, positive purpose. The open letter format is inspired. Elise ought to read & reflect on this respectful, balanced, observant portrait gleaned from paying attention to incidents over her career arc. In making his essay personal and hopeful, he essentially asks her to contemplate whether it’s worth forfeiting her soul for career ascension. I’m reminded that our real friends are unafraid to tell us tough truths. That arc she’s on has an exit. Matt Waite explains why she ought to take it.

There will come a day, I’m sure, that the leaders of this scam of a movement, those who would perpetuate the violence, those who feel now is their time to take control of this great country despite the weakness of their support and their cause, intelligent, learned people like “Elise” will have their “OMG what have I done” moment.

Thousands already have. In many cases it took a close brush with a COVID-related
death, or coming face-to-face with the darkness of their cause when it turned on them. But it will happen.

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