In case you’ve missed it, one of the more complex kerfuffles in this year’s NY21 congressional race has been the give-and-take over a letter sent to the Watertown Daily Times by occasional Democratic activist Mike Flynn. In that letter, Flynn challenged Republican Elise Stefanik, a single woman who turned thirty this summer, to tell voters more about her personal life. “Does Elise Stefanik have a private relationship with anyone?” Flynn asked.
The letter set off a round of zingers. Democratic candidate Aaron Woolf quickly distanced himself from Flynn, calling the letter “reprehensible and antithetic to what this campaign does or should represent.” The Republican spin machine fired off an e-mail blast describing Flynn as a “Woolf volunteer” and blasting what they described as a “sexist rant.”
In modern American politics, this kind of thing is viewed as prime gotcha-bait. “Can a single woman enter politics without her dating life being invaded?” asked the Washington Examiner’s Ashe Schow in an opinion piece. “Would Flynn be asking this question of a successful, single man running for office?”
The New York Post characterized the letter as part of a war on Republican women. That view has been shared in a series of blog posts by Stefanik supporter Jeff Graham, the Watertown mayor, who has sought throughout the campaign to portray anyone asking questions about Stefanik’s background as cynical.
No, questions about a candidate’s personal life are not sexist
But the reality is that family, personal life and even that tough-to-define issue of character have always been issues in American elections. All politics ain’t just local — it’s domestic. When Matt Doheny ran as single man, then engaged to be married, his personal life was a significant focus of coverage, before and after photos surfaced suggesting that he might have been overly intimate with “another” woman in Washington DC.
When current Rep. Bill Owens got zinged for traveling to Taiwan on a trip paid for by the Taiwanese government, one of the major issues of that mini-scandal was that he made the trip with his wife, whose trip was also paid for. To many in the district, it appeared to be an all-expense paid trip for a couple, rather than the kind of junket that might actually serve the interests of the 21st district. (Owens later apologized and paid for his and his wife’s trip out of his own pocket.)
Which is not to say that asking questions about a candidate’s life outside politics needs to be about scandal. Here’s the heart of Flynn’s letter:
“In a congressional race, I think it not only fair but necessary to go on the record about your relationships. I don’t think this falls under the heading of prying eyes; it’s an indicator of what you are about as a person and candidate for congressional office. How at this stage of the campaign has not one question appeared in print that would inquire if Ms. Stefanik has a significant other in a relationship that she could talk to us about? Well, let’s just say it’s unusual.”
The truth is, for all the goofy rhetoric that has surrounded his letter — including some of Flynn’s own over-the-top rhetoric — he has an argument. It’s not that Ms. Stefanik would be a single person representing the district. John McHugh represented the North Country ably as a single man for years. But McHugh was rooted deeply in the district, had family ties here, a record of associations and known roles. We knew him.
Getting to know Elise Stefanik
Right now, Elise Stefanik is the odds-on favorite to win this House seat. She’s well ahead of her competition and her main opponent, Democrat Aaron Woolf faces a deeply divided voter base with a campaign that has been less than inspirational so far. But with that front-runner status comes closer scrutiny. And the fact is that Stefanik doesn’t have the kind of hometown, we-all-know-you track record that voters enjoyed with Owens and McHugh.
She moved to the district last year to prepare for the race. NCPR’s reporting has found that her campaign story about deep ties to Willsboro, where her parents own a seasonal home, were not entirely matched by the facts or by local sentiment. During our visits to the Essex County hamlet it proved difficult to find people who knew of Stefanik or recognized her name.
It matters that so many GOP leaders have embraced Stefanik. One assumes that they vetted her closely and their backing is a strong sign of confidence.
But her claims that she moved to the district because she suddenly discovered a passion for her parents’ lumber business also triggers a big sniff test. Is it really plausible that a high-flying Washington DC policy analyst, Harvard trained, with close ties to some of the most powerful Republicans in the country, suddenly had a hankering to do customer service on plywood deliveries in Essex County? And just happened to discover an interesting political opportunity?
Even her official bio, describing her as having been “born and raised in Upstate New York,” is remarkably thin. The gaps in that narrative mean that voters deserve to get to know Ms. Stefanik much, much better before casting their ballots. Obviously, those efforts come with a burden of civility and respect. There is absolutely a risk of questions about her age and her relationships sounding (or being) sexist.
But it’s worth noting that, when making her own foray into journalism, Stefanik found these issues interesting and worthy of investigation. Writing for the Harvard Crimson, she wrote eloquently about the intersection of love and relationships and ambition and career. “But even if it’s just our nature, are we missing out on the best parts of life?” she asked.
“We, at Harvard, can still meticulously prepare to make gazillions of dollars, change the world, found a nonprofit and be elected senator. But every once in a while, the best decision we will make is allowing ourselves to fall—the way Elvis and Romeo do.”
We need to know more about all these candidates
It helps, too, to ease the danger of these questions reflecting unfair treatment of a woman that these same questions need to be asked of the men in the race, Matt Funiciello and Aaron Woolf. They too are almost completely unknown to voters. Who are they as people? Do they have kids in our public schools? Are their spouses or partners rooted here in our community? Do they go to church? Do they have hobbies? Put bluntly, who the heck are these folks?
In the case of Woolf, it’s particularly important to know whether his family plans to relocate to the North Country if he wins our House seat. But as a journalist and voter, I want to know a lot more about Matt Funiciello as a person too. Married, single? Other powerful interests and beliefs? Other than running a business, who is he as a person?
The bottom line is that this race is different. Voters are being asked to choose among three candidates who are almost complete strangers, candidates who have so far only been willing to share policy ideas and opinions that are relatively safe, anodyne, and boiler-plate. Most of the rhetoric so far could be coming from any Republican, any Democrat, any Green, running in almost any district in the country.
Given how unwilling the politicians have been to reveal themselves, and how little candor we’ve seen on the campaign trail, the job of the public (and journalists) is to dig beneath the surface, to learn everything we can about these individuals who are auditioning to be our representatives in Washington DC. If that means occasionally risking the boundaries of political correctness, that’s fine. Politics, as they say, ain’t bean bag.