Addressing the concerns of the opponents of the proposed federal constitution, who worried that members of Congress would not be sufficiently representative of the interests and opinions of their districts, the authors of ‘The Federalist Papers’ pointed out that a candidate without local connections would be unlikely to get elected.
They could not win the esteem of their neighbors without having already demonstrated merit and sound judgement. They will be acquainted with local issues, because in all probability they will have served in the state legislature, “where all local information and interests of the state are assembled,” or in some other local office.
To the authors of ‘The Federalist Papers,’ it was perhaps more important that once elected to Congress, the representative have the ability to rise above their district’s own parochial interests and deliberate with a view to the good of the country as a whole. Thus the constitutional qualifications for a seat in Congress are relatively few. You need only be a resident of the state from which you’re sent to Congress at the time of the election. This ensures that the best and the brightest will have the opportunity to put themselves forward, even though they may be new to the state.
Nevertheless, the presumption is that they will “be acquainted with the interests and circumstances of [their] constituents.” Political ambition is admirable, but it should be tempered by an authentic attachment to the people who serve it. Otherwise, it’s untrustworthy. When the candidate is a stranger, we are entitled to ask for evidence that they not only understand our political interests, but also care about our communities.
This brings us to Elise Stefanik, the young woman who has received the endorsement of all but one of the county committees to be the Republican candidate for Congress. For despite the fact that she claims to be from Willsboro, she’s actually from the Capital District and has never held elected office anywhere. When asked about her claim to be a resident of Willsboro, Stefanik said she is living in her family’s summer home on Willsboro Point. Willsboro is a town of 2,000 people, but no one I spoke to in that community knows her. Teresa Sayward, the former state assemblywoman who has lived in Willsboro her entire life, told me, “I’ve never heard of a family by that name. I’ve never met her. She’s never even called me.”
I don’t doubt that Elise Stefanik’s family members are longtime summer residents, but Stefanik’s failure to even introduce herself to Sayward seems less like an oversight or a lapse in manners than a lack of curiosity about how rural areas such as ours function.
To understand our communities, you have to know who is connected to whom, and by what manner. You have to know where the levers of power are hidden, and how the big decisions are made.
This is the kind of knowledge that comes only slowly and is acquired only by living years here, or, if that’s not possible, by seeking out those who are in a position to educate us.
Elise Stefanik may yet acquire that knowledge and come to deserve our trust as well our votes. In the mean time, I hope that a Republican who is not only among the best and the brightest, but who is also a native of the North Country, will enter the race and offer us a choice.
Photo: Elise Stefanik watches herself on TV after a day on the campaign trail. From Stefanik’s Facebook page.