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GOP candidate Elise Stefanik makes connections in Willsboro


WILLSBORO — Republican congressional candidate Elise M. Stefanik seems to have many fans among the political establishment in her adopted hometown of Willsboro, but there is one member of the local business community who has not yet had the pleasure of meeting her.

“I don’t know her, I’ve never met her,” said Yvonne S. Pierce, owner of Village Meat Market, 3609 Essex Rd., one of the town’s two grocery stores. “I’ve asked my employees, no one’s ever seen her in here.”

Mrs. Pierce said she considers Ms. Stefanik’s claims to be from Willsboro misleading.

“She wants people to think this is really truly her home,” Mrs. Pierce said. “To me that’s not being totally honest. No, she’s a vacationer here.”

Mrs. Pierce, who has owned the store for 18 years and employs 15 people, said she was eager to hear how Ms. Stefanik’s platform might impact small businesses.

“I’m not saying she’s not a good candidate, but you watch her campaign videos and you’re under the impression that she’s a regular resident,” she said.

Ms. Stefanik, who entered the race for the 21st Congressional District last summer, claims to be a small businesswoman from Willsboro. She graduated from Harvard in 2006 with a degree in government and worked for a time as a policy advisor in the George W. Bush White House. Following that, she worked as policy director on Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s presidential campaign, policy director of the 2012 Republican National Platform and director of debate prep for Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

In 2012, she began working as a sales representative for Premium Plywood Products, a distribution business owned and operated by her family in Altamont.

But for many years her family has owned a summer home in Willsboro, a seasonal town on the western shore of Lake Champlain, according to Willsboro Town Supervisor Shaun Gillilland.

It is upon that foundation that she began building her campaign to replace Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, who announced in January that he would not be seeking re-election. First, she must win an Republican primary against Matthew A. Doheny, an investment fund manager from Watertown.

Mr. Gillilland, who served in the Navy for 25 years as a surface warfare officer before returning to Willsboro, was quick to defend Ms. Stefanik’s connections to the town. “A lot of people started with a summer connection,” Mr. Gillilland said. “That’s how it worked for me.”

There are 1,800 year-round residents in Willsboro, a figure that climbs to two and a half times that size during summer, according to Mr. Gillilland.

“Does she know everybody in town?” Mr. Gillilland said. “No. She didn’t go to Willsboro Central School. But I’ve heard people around town, as soon as they meet her they like her. She’s got a magnetic personality and is extremely intelligent.”

As town supervisor, Mr. Gillilland endorsed Ms. Stefanik and is a member of her military and veterans advisory team. Mr. Gillilland said Ms. Stefanik helped pass his ballot petitions when he ran for supervisor.

Ms. Stefanik also has support from Bridget A. Brown, the Willsboro town clerk.

“When I was running for my campaign we had a meet-and-greet and Elise was there,” Mrs. Brown said. “She amazed me with her intelligence and background. She’s a go-getter. We hung out and talked about how she became interested. I think she’s a good candidate. You can tell she has the drive.”

Mrs. Brown said she doesn’t look upon Ms. Stefanik’s tenuous connection to the area as a detriment. “I was born and raised here,” Mrs. Brown said. “I’ve been here my whole life. Some people look at it as an issue but I’m looking at it as who’s the best person for the position.”

A resounding endorsement came from Win Belanger, a retired Air Force Chief Master Sergeant, political consultant, chairman of the Willsboro town Republican Committee and first vice-chairman of the Essex County Republican Committee.

Mr. Belanger, who worked for one-time Conservative Party congressional candidate Douglas L. Hoffman, supported Mr. Doheny in his 2012 run against Rep. Owens, but said that he would support Ms. Stefanik this time.

“Ms. Stefanik impressed me, the others did not,” Mr. Belanger said. “If I want anything from the Republican candidates over the next 45 days, it’s to talk about the issues we’re all concerned about and not about each other, and may the best woman win.”

Handicapping the race at Zeke’s Pub on Route 22 with H. Nicholas Muller III and a Democratic diner who declined to be named, Mr. Belanger said Mr. Doheny entered the race with an advantage because of his previous campaigns and his name recognition. But he said Ms. Stefanik could make up that ground with an aggressive voter-outreach effort. He also said that many Republicans expected Mr. Doheny to run again and were disappointed when he turned down their initial invitation to enter the race.

“I can say as a committee person and first vice chairman that we fully expected Matt Doheny to be our candidate, especially in the beginning when he was called and asked to run,” Mr. Belanger said. “So nobody’s mad, only disappointed in the way he entered the race and caused this division.”

If Ms. Stefanik makes it past the primary, her prospects for winning the seat currently held by a Democrat are perhaps best illustrated by the impression she made on William G. McClay, a self-described “Republican in Name Only” who is vice president of operations for Commonwealth Home fashions, a Canadian business with offices in Willsboro.

Mr. McClay said he was a fan of Rep. Owens but that he would vote for Ms. Stefanik.

“My wife will too,” Mr. McClay said. “I like what (Ms. Stefanik) said so far.”

But Mr. McClay, who is chairman of the Willsboro Development Corporation, said he did not think Premium Plywood Products had an office in the town. He added that Ms. Stefanik would have to raise her profile if she expects to overcome Mr. Doheny’s name recognition.

“I’m Googling her to find out more myself,” Mr. McClay said.

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