- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2015

As negotiators wrap up talks to complete the defense policy bill, Rep. Elise Stefanik, New York Republican, will be at the table — the only freshman on this year’s conference committee.

Ms. Stefanik, who became the youngest person ever elected to Congress in November, said the leadership role is because of her extensive experience in foreign policy — working in the George W. Bush administration, prepping Rep. Paul Ryan for his vice presidential debates and listening to commanders at Fort Drum in her home district.

“I just do my homework,” said Ms. Stefanik, who just turned 31. “I think to be an effective members of Congress, you have to dig into issues and this was a priority for me.”

The place on the conference committee is also a sign from Republican leadership on Capitol Hill that they want her to continue to be a force within the party — and will be willing to invest in her to keep her in her seat should she face a close race in 2016, analysts say.

“I think it is more of a symbolic gesture than anything else by leadership to say this is someone we want to be the next generation of Republican leaders,” said Jack Collens, an assistant professor of political science at Siena College in Albany, N.Y. “She has the party’s backing, has leadership support, which is important in what could be a difficult reelection.”

Ms. Stefanik is already facing a possible challenge from Democrat Mike Derrick, a former Army colonel, in what could be a tight race in a moderate Republican district, said Grant Reeher, director of Campbell Public Affairs Institute at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

While the first-term congresswoman could be a target for Democrats, Mr. Reeher said her first six months in office have been successful. She could also benefit from Matt Funiciello, a Green Party candidate who split the Democratic vote last cycle, already announcing that he’s going to run again, Mr. Reeher said.

In addition to her spot on the defense policy bill conference committee, Ms. Stefanik also serves as the vice chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness. The leadership roles are both an opportunity to gain experience in Congress as well as get priorities into legislation that could help her home district, giving her ammunition to defend herself next election, said Steve Billet, director of the Legislative Affairs Master’s Degree program at George Washington University.

“The fact that she has found her way to the conference committee and been named as the vice chair is an acknowledgment on the part of the leadership that they want her to succeed and put her in a place where she an look out for her next election and look out for her district at the same time,” Mr. Billet said.

As a millennial woman, Ms. Stefanik is an “oddity” in the Republican Party, analysts said. That image, coupled with her previous experience in Washington, make her an asset to the party, which has struggled to gain support among women and young people.

“I think the 21st district has really gotten someone who is well positioned at this point in time to be a force within the Republican Party,” Mr. Collens said. “With her connections and her demographics, she is able to do a lot more than your average freshman should be able to do. She’s leveraged those connections quite well.”

Ms. Stefanik’s most recent victory was uniting the New York members of Congress to spare Fort Drum from drastic cuts when the Army announced it would be reducing its end strength by 40,000 people. While some bases saw thousands of troops cut, Fort Drum will only lose 28 soldiers.

“Over the course of my campaign, one of my priorities was bringing together the entire New York delegation to make Fort Drum not just a 21st district issue, but a New York state-wide issue,” she said. “This was a real team effort, but I was proud to lead the letter [to the Defense Department] and lead the delegation.”

Mr. Reeher said this significant win will be something she can use in an election year to show she’s up-to-speed and able to help the district in military matters, something that will be especially important if she’s facing a challenge from a former service member like Mr. Derrick.

“She’s going to be able to say look, when we were all worried about this, Fort Drum came through better than almost everybody else, so that’s going to be something she’s going to at least participate in the credit for,” he said.

• Jacqueline Klimas can be reached at jklimas@washingtontimes.com.

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