Written by Jerry Zremski and Robert J. McCarthy for The Buffalo News on August 27, 2020
When Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York’s North Country took the stage at the Republican National Convention Wednesday, Anthony H. Gioia envisioned her walking onto a similar stage in a far bigger role someday.
“I’ve worked for presidential candidates before, from Jack Kemp to George H.W. Bush to George W. Bush to John McCain to Mitt Romney, and I know she’s got what it takes,” said Gioia, a longtime Republican fundraiser from Buffalo and former U.S. ambassador to Malta. “I think she could be the first female president of the United States.”
Stefanik, who’s running for her fourth term at the age of 36, is by no means encouraging such speculation, but one thing is certain: Through her highly publicized defense of President Trump at last year’s impeachment hearings, her high-wire act as a moderate embracing an immoderate president, and the contacts she has made from her home base in Willsboro to Washington, Stefanik has made herself a Republican star far beyond the Adirondacks.
While some see Stefanik on a GOP presidential ticket someday, others see her as a Republican leader in the House.
And while critics gripe about her supposedly unbridled ambition, GOP sources said Stefanik combines a sterling resume with the kind of political skills that can turn enemies into friends – like, for example, Buffalo’s own Carl P. Paladino.
Only four years ago, the firebrand onetime candidate for governor tried to recruit a candidate to challenge Stefanik in a primary. In an email to his supporters, Paladino called her “a RINO (Republican in Name Only) Washington elitist establishment sellout.”
But this week, Paladino said: “From what I read, I’m really proud of her. She’s definitely a Trumper.”
Trump’s surprise defender
Stefanik came to Congress in 2015 as the youngest woman ever elected to the House, but one with the resume of a phenom. An Albany native and an honors graduate of Harvard, she had already worked in the George W. Bush White House and served as policy director of the Republican National Committee.
But her first moment in the national spotlight came last fall, during the impeachment hearings where Democrats pressed their case against President Trump.
Stefanik pushed back hard, defending the president and accusing House Intelligence Committee Democrats of trying to silence her and her colleagues “simply because we are Republicans.”
That exchange made news – and President Trump noticed. “A new Republican Star is born. Great going @EliseStefanik!” he tweeted.
Stefanik referred to the impeachment saga in her convention speech, saying: “I was proud to lead the effort standing up for the Constitution. President Trump, and most importantly, the American people. This attack was not just on the president. It was an attack on you, your voice and your vote.”
Of course, many were aghast that President Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into digging up dirt on Joe Biden, the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, and they were again aghast to hear Stefanik still defending him.
“I guess Elise Stefanik didn’t have time to read the unanimous Senate Intelligence committee report that completely devastated her phony actions and posturing on impeachment,” Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, tweeted after her speech Wednesday.
In an interview this week, though, Stefanik defended her strong stance against impeachment.
“I was really making the case that there there’s no evidence of impeachable offenses,” Stefanik said. “So only approached it based upon the facts, through a constitutional lens, and I was not starting it anticipating the media spotlight.”
Stefanik’s role in the impeachment hearings came as a surprise to many because in earlier years she was by no means a loud and proud Trump supporter.
Unlike Rep. Tom Reed of Corning and then-Rep. Chris Collins of Clarence, she never endorsed Trump in the 2016 GOP primaries, which is what infuriated Paladino at the time.
But on Thursday, Paladino said: “Over the last year, I’ve seen real change in her.”
Yet that change doesn’t extend far beyond her more outspoken defense of Trump. On the floor of the House, Stefanik remains a rare Republican moderate who’s very willing to break with the party line.
Just last Saturday, for example, she voted with Democrats to provide $25 billion to the U.S. Postal Service in a bill Trump opposed. She’s also voted for some big federal spending bills that the conservative Club for Growth opposed, as well as for legislation backing the Paris Climate Agreement that Trump rejected. Overall, she ranked 14th among 437 people who served in the House last year on the Lugar Center bipartisan index.
In every case, Stefanik said, her votes are guided by what’s best for her district, a sprawling expanse of mountains and small communities and farmland that borders Canada and where Fort Drum stands as the major employer. So, with Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, she co-chairs the House Northern Border Caucus. And she’s voted for Democratic-backed spending bills that kept money flowing to Fort Drum – and against the massive 2017 tax reform bill, which trimmed New York’s cherished state and local tax deduction.
“My guidepost in my job as a member of Congress is always putting my constituents first. And when there are examples of policies where I’ve disagreed, like the tax bill, for example, I voted that way,” she said.
People like Gioia see Stefanik as a star because she’s deftly balanced the interests of her district with the interests of her party – and because she does work that builds longtime contacts. After her interview with The Buffalo News, for example, she texted Gioia to tell him about it.
“She’s got a very nice way about her,” said Gioia, who led a fundraiser for Stefanik earlier this month.
Harvey Schantz, a political science professor at the University at Plattsburgh, agreed.
“I’ve heard her talk in many situations, and she’s very well-spoken,” he said.
But to hear Tedra Cobb, her Democratic opponent, tell it, Stefanik merely has a very nice way of self-promotion.
“My opponent is more concerned with climbing the partisan ladder, soaking up the limelight on national television, and pleasing Donald Trump. It’s not about #NY21…It’s about her,” Cobb tweeted last week.
Plenty of people speculate about Stefanik climbing the partisan ladder. Chris Churchill, an Albany Times-Union columnist, wrote earlier this week that Stefanik might make a good running mate if Vice President Mike Pence is the 2024 GOP presidential nominee. And GOP strategist Andrea Bozek can envision Stefanik in the House leadership or in a prominent committee slot for years to come.
Given that the GOP is currently short of strong women voices, “her voice needs to be heard,” said Bozek, who helped start “Winning for Women,” a group aimed at expanding the ranks of conservative women in politics.
Stefanik has done much the same thing, establishing the Elevate PAC, which has contributed $446,000 so far this year to help elect Republican women to Congress.
Of course, starting a PAC to help other candidates is both a sign of ambition and a way to engender loyalty. But for her part, Stefanik eschews any grand plans.
“I am not focused on what I’m going to be doing five years 10 years from now,” she said. “That’s just not how I live my life, and it’s a tremendous honor to serve my district every day in Congress, and it’s a big responsibility.”
Then again, Stefanik also said: “I’m a big believer that if you do a good job at the responsibilities that you’re given, there’s other opportunities.”
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