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There are many ways to get to Congress—most fly, others drive. I met a young woman who can, in a strange way, thank a bully. When she was a little girl, growing up in Albany, she learned early on that the world had claws and didn’t shrink from using them, even on a small defenseless child. Her name is Elise Stefanik, and a year ago most of us had no idea she even existed. Then she made history coming out of nowhere to win a seat in Congress. How did that happen? Well, to tell you the “how” we have to go back to the “then.”
When bullies tormented Elise in the fourth grade her parents made a hard choice to pull her out of that school in the middle of the year and transfer her to the Albany Academy for Girls. It changed her life. “I just took off like a rocket at Girls Academy,” Stefanik told me in her Washington, D.C. office. “It was such an intellectually challenging and welcoming environment and I loved my experience there.” And the school loved her back. Alisa Scapatici taught Stefanik in English class roughly 20 years ago and they are still friends to this day. “I’ve been doing this long enough that at this point you can tell when there’s just that extra spark in someone and Elise had that from the get go,” says Scapatici. “She was great fun to have in the class.”
Straight A’s were the norm and then in sixth grade the allure of politics called. Stefanik ran for student council president, revealing, at an early age, her gift for knowing what people wanted and how to get it. “My campaign was a promise to bring in a snack machine, which we didn’t have at the school,” she recalls with a smile. After forming an unstoppable coalition between the sixth- and eighth-graders, she won her election and kept her promise, securing the vending machine. First rule in politics—when in doubt, give them corn chips.
For years, she thrived at Academy and the near perfect grades earned her a partial scholarship to Harvard where Elise did well, made friends and, in one of her favorite memories, accidentally threw away a million dollars. Heck, maybe fifty million. Fellow Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (yes, THAT one) was looking for people to get in on the ground floor of his new web site called Facebook. Elise was asked but she was late for class and kept walking. “I’m going to be telling my future kids how mom missed out on the opportunity to be one of the first employees at Facebook and, instead, made sure I didn’t skip class.”
While she didn’t help launch the page, Stefanik did see the power of social media to connect with people. After graduation (and a stint working in the Bush administration and others), she used it well when she ran for Congress last year. I won’t bore you with the minutia of her campaign, only to say that she impressed those who gave her a chance, shocked those who did not, and when the votes were counted nobody was saying “Elise who?” anymore.
At 30 years old, Stefanik is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Considering it has been around since Paul Revere was screaming about the British, that’s pretty impressive. Of course, being the youngest comes with a few hiccups. Example: getting past security. “For the first month and it even happens once every two weeks now, the Capitol police don’t realize I’m a member of Congress and stop me. The only way I get on the floor is if I show them my special pin.”
These days, five months into the job, she’s greeted with a smile and navigates the hallways and tunnels under the Capitol with the ease of a veteran, speed of a teenager, and guile of a woman with some place to be.
Because of her age and looks, the national media yearns to make her a star; yet Stefanik shies away from the exposure, seeking to focus less on the cameras and more on the constituents who put her here. “The young girls in upstate New York—I hope they look to me as an example of what they can achieve. The best advice I could give? Always stay humble, maintain a moral compass, and remember nothing replaces hard work.”
In the red state-blue state reality we live in, where people can’t agree on the beauty of a sunny day, Stefanik is trying to change the very landscape and culture in Washington. Impossible? Someone who knows her well told me they may not agree with Elise politically on everything but they believe in her and that’s why she won. That’s how she made history. If you look at what she’s accomplished so far, so fast, starting with that snack machine, she may just be the first politician in history who is, as they say, all that and a bag of chips.
John Gray is weekly columnist for the Troy Record and the Saratogian newspapers and news anchor at ABC 10 and FOX 23. He can be reached at


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