Thursday, June 7, 2018

Christopher Shaw: Katie Wilson’s Folk Hero Candidacy

katie wilsonThe candidate most likely to win the Democratic primary race in the NY21st Congressional district has finally stepped forward. With her recently published essays, widespread press coverage and appearance on MSNBC, and with her tireless retail politicking around the vast district, Katie Wilson, of Keene, has become the native daughter most likely to purloin votes away from carpetbagger, willing Paul Ryan stooge and Trumpian apologist Elise Stefanik in the most important midterm election of my lifetime.

I have watched the race closely from exile in Vermont ever since November 8, 2016, knowing Vermont was secure and that if I wanted to move the needle and swing Congress next November I had to focus on my own personal heartland — where I still have a cabin and am writing at this moment — the Adirondacks and northern New York. I zeroed in on Katie immediately, having watched the Democrats throw out some doozies in recent years, and for the further reasons I will enumerate below.

Since then, nothing in this roller-coaster, Class V, black diamond double-expert, 6.5 pitch primary battle has happened to change my mind. In fact, I am more certain than ever that for this historic midterm Katie Wilson, from the core of the High Peaks, is the only one of the five remaining candidates who can beat Stefanik and restore the district’s deep purple heart.

I’m not the only one: my friend and colleague Bill McKibben wrote in Huffington Post that “Katie’s not just going to be a great Congresswoman, she’s going to make waves beyond that.” Another prominent Democratic funder active in Adirondack issues and non-profits said that when he met her no new candidate approaching him had made such an impression since Kirsten Gillibrand. When Salon heard the buzz, it had this to say.

Writers like McKibben like Katie because she doesn’t equivocate, she doesn’t prevaricate. She looks straight into the camera and speaks from personal experience of the suffering of working families, single parents, family farms, aging veterans, all brought on by conservative policies. Her passion is informed. She reads, she listens, she guides and educates, she questions assumed wisdom whenever it arises.

As much as I applaud most of those in the primary race (not you, Dylan Ratigan), who seem honest, hard-working, their hearts and minds in the right places, only Wilson has the fire in the belly, the sass, the energy and the ability to take on the Koch-Ryan bloc and truly represent, in every sense of the word, the sprawling district she hails from, lives in, knows and loves.

Because now it’s only about winning. As the journalist David Roberts tweeted of Republican tactics last week, “the power game is the only real game right now,” making the strenuous arguments of “earnest policy analysts, think tankers and pundits… utterly epiphenomenal. The people who matter now are the fighters, the doers.”

That’s not a cop-out or a concession to brutishness, it’s a pragmatic real world strategy for defeating Trumpism while an electoral structure still remains to do it. It means, among other things, not going so high when they go low that nobody can hear you, not saying that both parties are equally bad and that when progressives are out of power it’s easier to raise money, not voting for the nicer person or the one who necessarily most closely aligns with your own age bracket, skin color, laundry list of policy goals and nuances of gender identification. It means voting for the candidate most likely to defeat the Harvard educated, poker-faced, low-visibility Republican incumbent with the insider connections and limitless Koch-backed funding.

A Keene native who grew up skiing, riding horses and learning her way around sporting arms, Katie Wilson attended UVM, moved out west, then came home to help her aging father save the family’s inn. She couldn’t. The inn sold and now she owns a small business, dealing on a daily basis with the demands of being a single mother keeping up a middle-class existence amid the pressures of a rigged economy in a rural district, one with its own crises of health care, the environment, infrastructure and elder care.

Wilson was one of the first to announce on the wave of female candidates. She has made up for her lack of money by writing and by crisscrossing the sprawling21 st (one of the nation’s largest geographic districts), talking to voters. She has held Stefanik’s feet to the fire on issues including taxes, the environment, the open carry bill and others. She has eclipsed the other Democratic candidates in her visibility, her grasp, her depth and her passion. (Stefanik, usually a willing Ryan flunky, got released to vote no on the tax bill. She also claims to believe global warming is a threat and that the president is not above the law.)

Wilson writes like a dream and has published her essays here, and here, and been on MSNBC here. If the integrity of the Adirondack Park and its purpose is your issue, she did more to focus political and government attention on oil tankers being stored on the old Tahawus railroad line in Newcomb than any other candidate or local representative. If your issue is forging a new Democratic Party and progressive future, she has the support of the Working Families Party, an active and personal social media presence, and has spoken out against the dispiriting whiteboard-and-Power Point electoral advice of the hidebound DCCC, on which she will have to depend if she wins the nomination. If it’s jobs and help for small businesses she’s got you covered; if it’s climate she bought her house in Keene after the town got washed away in Hurricane Irene then rebuilt with state and federal aid. (She also grew up in the cross-country ski industry, so, you know, snow.)

If you want to begin the long process of restoring constitutional standards to congress and government, if you want NY21 to figure nationally in that process — and make no mistake, there is a story with national implications here — only one candidate has any chance of beating the incumbent. Katie Wilson can out-ski, out-shoot, out-ride, out-stare and grin down anything and anybody the Koch-Ryan cabal can throw at her. She swats away cheap shots and Republican double-speak with fierce intelligence, withering understatement and quotable wit.

“Some people tell me I don’t smile enough, that I’m too intense,” she complained at a recent candidate forum. True, she is no glad-handing elbow squeezer, she hasn’t been an HR director for a major non-profit, a banker, a child psychologist or yet another lawyer. She’s a punk chick from the intellectual capital of the High Peaks, where Pragmatism was invented, who if you crowd her will fuck you up. That’s the intensity that will vanquish the personality-challenged incumbent on camera, that will win over the purple district with her combination of knowing voters and their problems, talking their talk and suffering the same economic woes, while also being a general overall badass on their behalf. (The Bernie Principle.) You can’t imagine Cobb or Martz standing up to the team-coached and coiffed Stefanik, whose bland demeanor projects the flickering platitudes of mainstream rural Republicanism, but who hits her mark and knows her sound bites.

Simply, none of the other candidates has such a wide appeal and such persistent, hard-edged capacity to face down the Trumpist onslaught. The Democratic party structure and pollsters think we’re all in the tank for Trump and Stefanik. We’ll match Idaho and Nevada in percentage of survivalist right-wingers faking it out in the woods. But we voted twice for Obama, once for Hillary (and for Bernie in the primary), we have organic dairy, beef and vegetable farms, moderating demographics across the board, villages like Saranac Lake, North Creek and Potsdam making a stab at economic and cultural resurgence, a sound and increasingly visible Native community at Akwesasne and out in the region, and the largest, most interesting, varied and important protected wildland in the lower 48. Who else do you want, really, speaking up for that district — which is showing more cohesion and regional identity in this race than I have ever seen — in the tangle of the next Congress?

That other reason I was talking about for why I think you should vote for Katie Wilson is a personal one — Katie’s father Joe Pete Wilson gave me work and a place to stay when I was starting to shift from being a seasonally employed guide and ski lift bum to writing, editing and teaching. I cooked and guided out of the Bark Eater Inn the winter Katie Wilson was born.

Background like that goes a long way. So when I realized she was running I called my son, Noah, a real Democrat and first rate political animal, to check her out. (We hadn’t seen her in twenty years.) He, too, grew up close to the bone in Stony Creek and went on from there to campaign for Obama and work for DOE in Washington. He’s no pushover. He came back from the meeting with the good news: “She’s the real thing.” This is a guy who guided rafts on the Hudson then a few years later gave a fundraising speech in Boston’s Copley Square the same day Barack Obama announced his candidacy. You can take his word to the bank.

For fifty years I have harbored a fantasy of a northern New York and Adirondacks that identified as something more than a neglected hinterland of the big Macintosh at the mouth of the Hudson, where the people who lived there were the ones who defended and understood and valued rather than exploited the place’s special qualities the most, a population that could sustain itself and give young people a reason to come, to stay and to care, and that could produce its own distinctive writers, filmmakers, artists — clean energy entrepreneurs, too. In the candidacy of Katie Wilson I see that beginning to happen. Please give her your money and your vote.

This essay does not represent the opinions of the Adirondack Almanack. 

Photo by Heather Gallagher.

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In the 1970s and 80s Chris Shaw worked as a ski lift operator, the caretaker of a fishing club, a whitewater guide, an innkeeper and as editor of Adirondack Life. His stories and articles have appeared in Outside, the New England Review, the New York Times and many other publications, and he has received Bread Loaf and New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships. Northern Voices, his program on NCPR in the 1990s, profiled writers of the Adirondacks and northern New York, and his book, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, about paddling in the Usumacinta River watershed of Chiapas and Guatemala, appeared in 2000. The Washington Post called it "a magnificent achievement." Shaw recently retired from Middlebury College, where he taught writing and co-administered the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism. He and his wife Sue Kavanagh salve the wounds of exile by spending as many weeks a year as they can at their one-room cabin on a remote northern lake.

23 Responses

  1. Keith Gorgas says:

    I’m sold.

  2. Sue Kavanagh says:

    Classic Chris Shaw writing — clear and punchy! Great piece.

  3. Dick Carlson says:

    Great piece Chris! Katie can pull the weight, wade the swamp, and most importantly REPRESENT a profoundly diverse and beautiful population of Adirondackers and beyond. Lead on!

  4. Paul says:

    What is MSNB?

  5. Richard says:

    While I admire all the Democratic candidates, as Chris Shaw points out, it’s all about winning now. To my knowledge, Wilson has yet to win, or even place or show, in any of the straw polls held at the various Congressional forums held during this Primary season. If she can’t win, or even come close to winning among interested Democrats, how can she possibly win in the general election? I think the strongest candidate by far, is Tedra Cobb, from Canton. She is a bona fide off-the-grid environmentalist, successful business person, compassionate, experienced former St. Lawrence County legislator (who quit after two terms), who has inspired over 700 people in the District, to volunteer for her campaign. Tedra inspires enthusiasm, and turnout is what will decide this race. Tedra has appeal across Party lines, I have witnessed it myself, and she has the charisma and stamina to beat the professional pol Stefanik, and send her home to Washington, DC.

    • Aaron says:

      Tedra is a wonk, which while not a bad thing is, in this climate, never going to appeal to enough voters, so she would lose against Stefanik. She’s tough but not edgy and there’s little to distinguish her from the boilerplate progressives the DCCC has unsuccessfully pushed in the past. Katie is tough, edgy, sharp, passionate, principled, and DIRECTLY experienced in the real struggles of NY21 residents. For example, few will care that Tedra is off grid when they can barely afford to pay their own utility bills, a fact of life Katie is intimately familiar with. And here’s what really distinguishes Katie, she had SOLID ideas on how to realistically address such challenges that will appeal to many in our moderately conservative district.

  6. Paul says:

    John, This article is a clear pitch for one particular candidate (a good one in my book) is the Explorer, that I understand owns the Almanack a 501c3? I know it is a not-for-profit.

    Advocating for a policy is fine, for a specific candidate not so sure?

  7. Todd Eastman says:

    Thanks Chris!

    Ya nailed it!!!

  8. Brian Joseph says:

    Check back here for a chuckle on November 7.

  9. Patrick Munn says:

    Geeze Chris… Nicely written …. I’m a conservative, who finds himself sitting on the fence now, looking over the other side….

    • Chris Shaw says:

      Pat Munn: Come on over, man! Still sitting in one of those chairs you made me thirty years ago.

  10. Robin Auger says:

    I was interested, but stopped reading the article, but stopped reading it when I got to the second sentence when the name-calling started. Typical political garbage. Is that what Katie endorses and stands for?? Or is she willing to stand on her own accomplishments and belief alone??

    • Aaron says:

      I’m sorry, did she write this opinion article? Nope. Perhaps try reading any or all of the articles she did write, which Chris has conveniently linked to in his piece, to get a better sense of HER voice and views.

    • Walter Wouk says:

      It’s not name-calling if it’s the truth.

  11. Sandra Weber says:

    “The district’s deep purple heart.” Nice reference to a good band, but really? How deep do you go before you hid red? Even the Salon article you reference called it “Trump country.”

    Keene is the “intellectual capital of the High Peaks.” Great sound bite, but what the hell? The High Peaks is all wilderness and wild forest. I guess the choices were Keene and Newcomb?

    Why should I care about Katie’s skiing, shooting, horse-riding, staring, and grinning abilities? Will she be utilizing these talents on Capitol Hill?

    Is Katie’s “badass”, “punk” demeanor intended to attract or scare voters?

    In conclusion, Chris asks us to vote for Katie because her father gave him a job. Oh yeah, and because his son says so, and because his son guided rafts on the Hudson and gave a fundraising speech for Obama, “you can take his word to the bank” and get a lollipop.

    • Aaron says:

      Perhaps you should speak with Katie directly since you very clearly don’t like Chris on a deeply personal level. If nothing else she might possibly assuage some of the cynicism you’re feeling.

    • Todd Eastman says:

      … and who is Sandra Weber?

  12. Chris Simmons says:

    I still haven’t seen my comment asking about the use of the term “zog” in the last paragraph, although I see that has been edited to read “Macintosh.” So much for journalistic integrity.

  13. Tom Mangano says:

    I share Paul’s concern about the appropriateness of this opinion piece.

    I am appalled that you would run it two weeks before the Democratic primary when there are other candidates who show at least as much promise of defeating Stefanik. Do you have articles forthcoming on the other candidates? I certainly hope so.

  14. Charlie S says:

    Very well written Chris! Very appropriate too contrary to a few ranters here.

  15. adirondackjoe says:

    When did it become ok to drop F bombs on this site?

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