Meet U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik, the Youngest Woman to Ever Break into the Old Boys' Club of Congress
Something unusual happened when U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) went to freshman orientation in what would become her new office building: She got stopped by Capitol Hill police—they didn't think the ponytailed 30-year-old looked like a member of Congress.
But while Stefanik may be young, she's not green: She first ran for student council in sixth grade; her platform was getting a new snack machine installed, and she won. Four days after graduating from Harvard, she landed a coveted job as an assistant in President George W. Bush's administration. What she learned there led her to help write the 2012 Republican party platform—at just age 28—and prep Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for the vice presidential debates.
So who from the Bush White House or the GOP convinced her to run? No one. Elise Stefanik just raised her hand. "I was so disappointed by the 2012 election that I decided I had to do something," she says. "And I thought, I have something to offer—I should be able to have a seat at the table." (Yes, Sheryl Sandberg was an influence: "I read Lean In at a really important time as I was deciding to run for office," Stefanik says.) She started planning her own campaign, talking to her parents and boyfriend of three years, then to her mentors. "When I first told Congressman Ryan I was thinking of running, his advice was this: 'You have one mouth and two ears. Use them in that ratio.'" To do that she traveled more than 100,000 miles through her upstate New York district, much of it in her Ford F-150 truck—often alone, sometimes stranded by snowstorms—to meet voters and hear their concerns. Along the way there were plenty of naysayers. "People said, 'You're too young. You're not married. You don't have kids.' They even [criticized] my crazy-pattern tights!" she says. "But you do your homework. I know the issues, and I worked hard and built relationships."
It paid off. In the first six weeks of her candidacy, Stefanik raised $180,000. On Election Day she won by 22 points. Her GOP positions would please many party traditionalists—she wants to repeal Obamacare and reform the tax code, and has landed a coveted spot on the Armed Services Committee—but she considers young upstart tech companies like Uber the best model for how government could be faster, more transparent, and more accountable. (She's also promised to post every single vote she makes on Facebook.) And she's pledged to reach across the aisle, in part because she knows Washington gridlock is a turnoff both for voters and for other young women considering a run. "My hope is that my example will get other women to step up to the plate," Stefanik says. "Things won't change unless we have new types of candidates."
How will she handle this next phase of her career? Probably by logging the hours. One of Stefanik's role models is her father, who started the family's plywood company and usually arrives at his office before 6:00 A.M. "My dad always said, 'Don't tell me how smart you are; tell me how hard you work,'" she says. "What I've also learned is that the harder you work, the smarter you become."
HER WORDS TO LIVE BY: "Luck favors the brave.... Many people would say, 'She got lucky.' But I believe that it was [my] early courage to enter the race that was the key factor in winning."
Featured photo: Rep. Elise Stefanik, photographed at the Viceroy New York hotel in New York City. Ann Taylor shirt. Loft skirt. Vita Fede earrings.Timex watch. Lana Jewelry bracelet. Sarah Chloe ring.