Are questions about Stefanik’s personal life sexist?
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.
Tags: election14, ny21, politics
Your insight & analysis is always appreciated. Too many stealth candidates are elected based on their TV ads only.
Funiciello’s rhetoric has not been “boilerplate”. He’s an independent thinker he who will challenge the out of touch Washington Establishment. Stefanik and Woolf, however, sound like they are merely reciting talking points forwarded to them by the RNC and DNC, respectively.
Fair enough. Walk us through it: What have you heard Matt Funiciello say that’s uniquely tuned to the North Country? What has he said on the campaign trail about policies and ideas that wouldn’t be echoed by most Green Party candidates across the country? Here’s a link to the issues page on his website. Are there things there that couldn’t be cut and pasted into a race in Oregon or Tennessee or Wisconsin?
The House was designed to be “the people’s house” direct representatives of the people. In that light Brian’s call for more about who these candidates are beyond talking points and position statements is fair. Aaron Woolf’s campaign site has a fair amount of background information including his family and ties to the district . Matt Funicello has a very brief bio which mentions a brother but is otherwise vague . Reading Elise Stefanik’s “About” page I feel like I’m reading a job resume which I suppose is what it is but isn’t particularly revealing. Of the bunch Aaron Woolf is the most forthcoming IMO. The others are minimal (Matt) or a formal job resume (Elise).
there was nothing sexist about mike flynn’s letter. it was just a disgusting political attack that made me, for one, ashamed to be associated with the same party as him.
I put links in my comment to the “about” sections of each candidate’s website but apparently the InBox stripped them out. I encourage InBoxers to go to the websites and check out the “About” pages. In my 30 years with the NYS DOL I read a lot of resumes and you can deduce a lot about the person from what they tell you about themselves. In a job interview it is appropriate to strictly limit personal information. In fact there are a lot of things employers are forbidden to ask in terms of personal information however an elected representative is a a different situation in my view. Elise’s would make a good professional resume to apply for a lobbying job or some high level business position but is pretty close to the chest in terms of what it reveals about her as a person. Matt tells us as little as possible. It reminds me of 1st rough draft resumes in a resume workshop. Aaron (not surprisingly for a film makers/story teller) gives us a pretty good picture of how he wants to be seen. Most people aren’t good at telling their own story and the given the backgrounds of the three candidates they are pretty much what I would expect.
Brian M: Funiciello’s position on the 2nd Amendment certainly is NOT “boilerplate” among Green candidates.
I personally don’t care about if Stefanik is in a romantic relationship with someone or Woolf or Funiciello either. I don’t care about their favorite color or gastronomic tastes.
Then again, I suppose questions about your personal life is a risk when you represent a party that wants to… micromanage people’s personal lives.
Brian (MOFYC), I don’t think people are concerned about what a candidate’s favorite color is or any similar trivial aspect of their life. I do think people want (and should) be able to learn enough about the candidate to determine if he or she is ‘real’, or if their position statement is merely a ‘boilerplate’ sales pitch to attract your vote.
‘Hiring’ a representative through your vote isn’t as simple as “are they saying what I want to hear?” I.E. Elise has a TV ad playing in which she says that she wants to protect Social security. She knows a lot of voters are concerned about the state of SS and if you are voting only on her position statements you’d be more likely vote for her based on that. But she adds the phrase “for those currently retired or near retirement”. What she doesn’t say is what constitutes “near retirement”. She also doesn’t respond to questions about that and SS doesn’t even appear on the “Issues” page of her website.
Given her D.C. insider past in the Bush White House it’s fair to wonder about what shapes her views of working folks and their struggles to get by while saving for retirement. She was in the White House staff when privatization of SS was proposed. She was there when there when the push to get people to believe that SS was “going broke” (a bit of propaganda that has been discredited) and that the only way to fix it was to cut it. She was there when the policy of tax cutting was the solution to everything.
It can be useful to know more about the candidates so you have some context for the things they say, and the things they don’t say.
I think there are a couple big differences between the media exposing Doheny’s personal life and people investigating Stefanik’s:
1. Doheny’s offenses with another woman were committed in plain sight. He was cheating on his wife (fiance at the time) and he got caught. The photos weren’t taken with a telephoto lens through a hotel room window, he was out in public at a restaurant. He should have known someone would have been watching.
2. Doheny really played up the “family man” image and used his wife (and later in 2014, his child) as a campaign tool. Mary Doheny was almost as visible on the campaign trail as Matt was and they often even campaigned separately. If a candidate injects his or her personal life into the campaign he or she should expect that people will scrutinize it.
Stefanik has left her personal life on the sidelines. If she were applying for a job in the private sector it would be illegal for the interviewer to ask about her marital status, whether she was dating anyone, what her significant other does for a living, etc. Those laws were put in place to prevent discrimination and the same rules should apply to elected officials as well.
It is none of our business until the candidate makes it our business.
I would like to know why someone who is running for US congress?
Why shouldn’t a republican candidate have family values? not my family values because I believe you do not run on your family status, but your moral values and nothing I have seen Stefanik do violates that… however I am not a republican, who is concerned about what everyone does in their personal life…. and that concern is why I don’t believe in many republican platforms
Sorry, didn’t finish my first thought.
I would like to know why someone who is running for US congress should pigeon toe his platform to one small constituents in his state? I like Funiciello has a broader outlook on our nation and the environment of that nation.
Mr. Brian Mann has helped separate the wheat from the chaff, in terms of how we must round out each candidates Bio, and for this reader at least it was like stumbling upon an intellectual oasis in the desert. After nearly dying of thirst in a media haven, closed off to asking the tough questions in terms of the vetting process for Congressional candidates, where it’s clear we the voters need to know more about each Congressional candidate running in NY-21.
Mike Flynn ‘Middle Class Mike’
What a disingenuous load of crap! The only reason for asking such offensive questions, particularly of a female candidate, is to create doubt or controversy where none exists. It’s a cheap trick and all the more so for being obvious.
This article reeks of sexism. For Years and years we heard from the Democrats the War On Women crap, how all the societal issues today are related to the mistreatment of women, the missing Lean in crowd that did not have their time to shine. We have C. Legrade President of the World Bank saying just this week that we need more female World Leaders as in Presidents, Ministers, she also happens to be a personal friend of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Do you not find that offensive Brian? There is a guy that resides in Black River and yes he is an admitted political party activist although he is registered as a “Republican” he is far from aligning with that party. The Woolf campaign bought into his long tales of how he could get Aaron Woolf elected and unwisely they bought into it. This political claims he is the one that got Owens elected and his mode of opertation has a 100% success, as in the destruction of Matt Doheny’s reputation. Admittedly he put forth the narrative and the whisper campaign even though Doheny was a ver successful individual. He was more than a ‘solider’ and they decided to attack Ms. Stefanik, yes Brian attack for being single and a female. Go back 100 years, where in this district or the entire country for that matter within the past 8 years has anyone asked a single woman to ‘reveal her personal relationship’ because we need to know the relationships she has had. For a moment let’s have NPR ask Brian Mann, boyfriend or any husband I need to know EVERY relationship you have had, sexual because who you may be sleeping with would tell alot of how you will be voting on issues that may be important to the district. Better yet who Brian Mann may be involved in past and present may be important as to the type of articles he writes. Your type Brian would fire off a lawsuit it would make any head spin. What is disguisting that the party of ‘tolerance’ no one believes any more. You who control the media control the narrative and what the public hears, the daily spin that is hidden from the country of a man so incapable of running our country. Mentioning Owens getting ‘zinged’ for accepting a paid trip for he and his wife cannot at all be used as ‘public scrunity’ by the media and compared to investigating Ms. Stefanik sexual relationships.nBrian, closer to home take the example of Juan Williams, as soon as he issued that article that was out of line with the thinking with NPR his position was immediately terminated. Brian, continue to write your misleading articles and we expect a better vetting process from you in the future. You who controls the narrative need to be a better at fact check. The Stefanik’s don’t ‘own a seasonal home’ many in the community can attest to that and many have known the Stefaniks including young 30 year old Elise Stefanik since she was a young child. I only happen to be a neighbor and know exactly how much time Elise Stefanik has spent in growing up in our small town. You have just lowered the bar for your news company with the line ‘hankering to do customer service on plywood deliveries in Essex County’ More importantly Brian, do you believe that you provide a powerful service to the citizens in the district, then yes your sexual relationships and habits deserve to be known to the public as well. Can’t have it both ways Mr. Mann.
FWIW, Mayor Graham weighs in on this over at his blog. Worth a read.
Brian, Mayor Graham was poking fun at your article. You just don’t get it do you.
One more thing Brian, Funicello is a 9/11 truther. Better do more of your fact checking.
It doesn’t matter to me whether Mayor Graham is poking fun or not; his article is still worth a read.
Your comments about sexism are silly, but (more to the point) incoherent. What is there about Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions that I would find offensive? It happens that we know just about everything there is to know about Hillary Clinton’s personal life and character.
We’re all educated enough about her as a candidate to make smart choices in the ballot booth. Which is what I’m suggesting would be a good thing for the three candidates in the NY 21 race.
Anyone who is curious about my non-professional life can easily find out about it. I’ve lived in the North Country for nearly sixteen years, raised my child here, gone to church here, sat on school support committees, written articles about my family life, and on and on.
But the truth is that I’m in a different situation from these three candidates. I’m not auditioning for one of the most important jobs in America — the role of a representative in the US Congress. Anyone putting themselves forward for that kind of position should be ready and willing to tell us more about themselves as people.
It’s true that in the past, these kinds of questions were often used as a way to disqualify candidates who weren’t white, married, middle-aged or older men. And so, yes, I think those of us asking these questions face a higher burden of being respectful and fair and non-sexist.
But Elise Stefanik is now the break-away front-runner in this race. So long as journalists and the public exercise civility and a solid amount of balance, it’s important that we learn more about her.
I think anyone that enters the arena of politics would be naive to believe they and/or their immediate family will not be faced with accusations, finger pointing and much of the nonsense in trying to discredit an opponent running for whatever position, office etc…. She, like most of the politicians that get started, likely have a desire to change for the betterment of mankind, but eventually turn into the same driftwood that do nothing more than cater to their personal beliefs and left the public’s views fall on deaf ears. I say no to more politics and start some kind of system where we can vote by address on important issues and stop wasting my or anyone else’ time on this kind of garbage. Give me a PIN associated to my address and I’ll vote and I’ll deal with the garbage on Saturday.
Dating history aside, your underlying point about needing to know more about the three candidates is fair. However, if the media is going to insist on writing about Matt Funiciello as a “major factor” – and he may very well be – don’t you think it’s only right that the media reveal to voters that Matt Funiciello is an outspoken 9/11 Truther?
I can scarcely believe that anyone takes seriously this disgraceful, clumsy attempt at character assassination. That’s exactly what it is, protestations of civility and respect notwithstanding. If it were not so, why did Woolf himself denounce (sincerely or not) these sleazy tactics? Are the other candidates being “vetted” in this manner? The “sexist” straw man won’t stand up either. We all know dirty tricks when we see them.
The only reason why Elise Stefanik is the odds-on favorite to win is because she is a Republican in a Republican district.
Very excellent article and good “food” for thought. I agree with your assessment about what “we” need to know and ought to know about our potential Representative… not real deep stuff, and common sense prevails in asking questions … but, yes, we do have a right to know a lot … before and not later. Well done, very good article.
For the record… Mr. Flynn has stated on numerous occasions he is a Registered Republican.
Honestly, I dont care about Stefanik’s personal life, nor Woolf’s or Funiciello’s.
Personally I hope they all have smoked pot or done some ‘shrooms or dropped a tab of acid or something, because I don’t really trust people who feel like they should be making decisions drug laws who have no idea whatsoever what it is like to do drugs. Yeah, yeah, yeah it’s illegal … just like speeding which everyone does. Lots of people have done lots of stuff that would make them criminals if they were caught. Probably a large majority of people have driven a car with a BAC level 0.08 or higher. Don’t lie to me and say you haven’t. I see people everyday texting while they drive – probably more dangerous than drinking a beer and driving.
What is important to me is to know that a person has lived a full life and can empathize with and understand the problems other people face.
As Brian M points out, it does seem a little odd that a Harvard grad would be selling plywood. Wouldn’t look too good on a job resume, ordinarily. But it is true that there is a lot to know about plywood; hardwood vs softwood, luann (who can even spell luann?), A B C D grades, interior vs exterior, marine grade, solid B cross band, treated plywood, filled and sanded, various thicknesses. And that isn’t even starting on oriented strand boards, chip boards, hardboard/Masonite, HDF, MDF…really a lot to know!
Are questions about Stefanik’s personal life sexist?
If you have to even ask this question, you are an idiot.
In making an argument, even a good old fashioned syllogism needs at least two unexamined assumptions.
Your argument (and I’m being generous in calling it that) runs out of steam with one poorly examined and undefended idea, then pivots (predictably) to an ad hominem attack.
Your comment is actually a kind of a beautifully distilled example of why intelligent conversation is so difficult on-line. You substitute knee-jerk loyalty and a kind of lazy bullying tone for actual thinking or engagement.
So try harder. Make your case.
Why is it suddenly sexist to want to know about the lives, the history, the character, the experiences of people who want our vote for higher office?
Haven’t we asked these questions of other politicians (Obama, Doheny, Bill Clinton) and with other women candidates (Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Kirsten Gillibrand)?
This is exactly the sort of focus on irrelevance that makes people so disillusioned with politics.
I’m not in a relationship at the moment. I don’t think this has any bearing on my “realness” or my “authenticity.” Heck, who with a family and/or partner would want to subject themselves to the character assassination and paparazzi stalking that comes with being well-known in our society?
If you think being in a relationship is the only marker of authenticity, have a chat with Mark Sanford’s various ex’s.
If we’ve devolved to the point where whether the candidate has been on a date lately is relevant, then either this place is paradise or political discourse has become pointless. No wonder half the population doesn’t feel voting is important.
Well I would like to know a little about a person’s family, who they are where they live and what they do professionally. The reason being is that today two career couples often plan their careers together and you can often get an insight into what they are really going to do. In addition your family is part of your life and hopefully a part of the community you serve.
For example, if these candidates have children, will they attend north country schools, within the district? It really is a huge question for me about Wolf’s family, where will they live and if he has kids where will they will go to school? It goes to his commitment to our life here and to the district.
I think if a person is single and is not romantically living with someone; well then there dating life is a little less interesting and MUCH less important. So in that regard I do wonder if Stefanik was a single guy with no kids and no live in lover, would we be in his business about who he dates? In that regard I think it might be a little sexist.
But we know so little about all of these candidates any insight would help.
So basically what you are saying is that the Progressives could dig up no dirt on her, so they want her to provide her own?
What ever happen to ask each candidate how they stand on each issue and let the voters decide instead of the Press telling us how to vote. You want dirt, go out in your backyard and dig up some.
Tom: what a utopia you describe. It’s much easier to commission a poll and fabricate stories and “analyses” from them than to do actual journalism that informs the public on anything meaningful. NCPR offers more of the latter than most but that’s not a high bar.
Look at the excellent Pro Publica. Virtually all of its stories are about important issues that affect the lives of real people. Not sure I’ve ever seen a story there about an electoral poll or horse race “analysis.”
Yeah, that’s the question, what is dirt?
Let’s say Stefanik has a live in boyfriend who lives with her in an apartment in DC? Well what would that say about her true commitment to the North Country? Or lets say Wolf has no intention of moving his family to the North Country, what would that say about his knowledge or commitment to the region as our representative?
On the other hand who single people date is pretty spurious, I even found the focus on Doheany’s hug/kiss as very spurious last time around.
there is a whole industry focusing on celebrity sex lives.
Yes. I think the private part of their dating life and really any intimate part of their life to me is not relevant at all. However where you plant your assets, where you choose to live as a family says a lot about what your intentions are and what you really believe. So from that perspective I would like to know about their families just a little. The sad part about this current race is really, we don’t even know where these people actually live. Sure they have these temporary addresses, but where do they really intend to live their lives?
I have no interest in the personal lives of candidates… unless they happen to be a candidate that pontificates about how others should live, or they want to legislate how others live. In that case, inquiring about their personal life is not only appropriate, but important.
Agree with Dave.
As someone with four daughters, I think it’s laudable. Ms. Stefanik is obviously an intelligent and ambitious young woman, and in that regard I think serves as a positive role model for other young women. I applaud her efforts.
I cannot personally vote for her, based solely on her political choices, past and current, and beliefs, but I could not care less about her personal life, unless she uses the personal lives of others as a campaign platform.
To ignore the fact that she (and Mr. Woolf, for that matter) are Carpetbaggers, I think does the voting public a disservice. Seems like Mr. McHugh and to a lesser extent Mr. Owens have been the only two examples and candidates we’ve been given lately who are not.
Who gives a damn about her personal life. I would be concerned only about her politics and so far I’m not favorably impressed. She’s not from or of the North Country and is using this opportunity as a stepping stone to bigger things. Find me someone who can muck out a barn, grow their own food, hunt, fish, teach, or do something useful in the community who understands what our problems are and believes they have some solutions, not someone using us to move up the food chain. Right now, she’s a bottom feeder. Let’s leave her there.
I wouldn’t call her a bottom feeder, but I agree with your sentiments. However they apply to ALL of the candidates running with the exception of the Green candidate who is actually from here and plans on living here.