Keene lifer believes she’s the one to take on Stefanik

Katie Wilson smiles Friday with her neighbor’s dog Lucy, left, and her dog Derby after hiking a private trail to a lookout in her hometown of Keene.
(Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

Katie Wilson smiles Friday with her neighbor’s dog Lucy, left, and her dog Derby after hiking a private trail to a lookout in her hometown of Keene. (Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

KEENE — As Katie Wilson followed her dog Derby and her neighbor’s dog Lucy up a mossy cascade of a path in this tiny mountain town she’s always called home, the 33-year-old small business owner talked about why she wants to represent the North Country in U.S. Congress.

The single mother of two — Cooper, 9, and Zinnia, 7 — bounded up a brook high above Hulls Falls, and in between tired breaths, she expressed her concerns with Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro. Wilson also shared her own stances on issues as this private trail gave way to a clearing that looks down onto the field where an iconic crumbling red barn once sat along state Route 73.

“I think there is a tenacity,” she continued. “The people who have lived here through a few North Country winters, they understand the somewhat extreme nature and sense of community it takes to thrive here, and Elise doesn’t. This isn’t an attack on her personality; this is just straight fact: She hasn’t been through that.

“And I think,” Wilson added, “it is this way in which our communities are so supportive and tight-knit that allows — that attracts a certain type of person to really root down here despite the very real challenges they face in a very rural, often cold and tough place. It’s a hard row to hoe, you know?”

As Wilson enters an already loaded Democratic race to see who will be Stefanik’s primary foil come November 2018, she says these third-generation roots and lessons learned make her the best choice to represent New York’s 21st Congressional District.

She formally announced her candidacy late last month, the second member of an early Democratic wave after Patrick Nelson of Stillwater, a 2016 Bernie Sanders delegate, announced first in January. (Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Nelson announced in February.) A week after Wilson entered, local business strategist and former St. Lawrence County legislator Tedra Cobb announced her candidacy as a Democrat. And this week, Emily Martz of Saranac Lake, former deputy director and director of operations and finance for the Adirondack North Country Association, entered the fray as well. So far, the four Democrats have been amicable rather than confrontational to each other.

Other candidates may join the race as well. Matt Funiciello of Glens Falls, a Green Party candidate in the last two elections, has said his party will field a candidate in this one, too, whether it’s him or someone else.

At 33, Wilson is the same age as Stefanik, but the Keene lifer emphasizes that her journey has been much different than that of the congresswoman who grew up in the Albany area and visited a lake house in Willsboro in summers. Wilson’s family roots in the High Peaks go back nearly a century. Her father, Joe Pete Wilson, was an Olympic biathlete who laid out the trails for the nearby Mount Van Hoevenberg nordic skiing facility. Her aunt Marge Lamy was editor of the Lake Placid News and did public relations work for the Adirondack Park Agency and Adirondack Museum. Her brother Joe Pete Wilson Jr. is the current Keene town supervisor.

Running for office is new to Katie Wilson, however. After graduating from National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, she studied political science and business at the University of Vermont and Sierra Nevada College on Lake Tahoe, but left school to save herself student debt and to manage her family’s Bark Eater Inn in Keene at the age of 22. At 25, she launched the Adirondack Attic consignment shop in Keene, which she said has been a challenge over the past couple of fickle Adirondack winters. She formerly owned an herbal remedy business as well.

Within the past year, her civic involvement has evolved. She visited the Standing Rock Sioulx’s protest in North Dakota against the Dakota Access Pipeline and took part in a sit-in protest at TD Bank branches in Plattsburgh and Keeseville, because TD helped finance the pipeline. She also became an appointed member of the Essex County Democratic Committee.

Wilson says her realistic approach to visionary solutions, ideas hatched in the North Country and targeted for the North Country, will set her apart and help her be elected in 2018 as the youngest Democratic woman ever to serve in Congress.

On health care, she said that while she believes the country should work toward a public option and maybe a single-payer system, at this time those things aren’t possible due to the power of the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies.

She added that the issue is amplified here in the rural North Country, where services for the elderly, the disabled and veterans are stretched. At the same time, she said, rural hospitals are a huge economic engine in the eastern part of the district, comparable to Fort Drum’s impact in the western part.

“I am very idealistic, but I am also incredibly pragmatic,” Wilson said. “So what steps can we take to work toward our ideals? And I think there’s a basis for bipartisan health care reform in a model that creates a single-payer-type system for primary care. Everyone can have access across the board, regardless of income. And the insurance companies aren’t completely out because you can still purchase insurance through them for services above and beyond primary care.”

Wilson said the issues dearest to her heart are protecting the dignity of elders, creating more education opportunities to fit the local workforce, addressing the heroin and opioid crisis, and addressing what she sees as a military-civilian “divide.”

To protect the aging, she said Medicaid shouldn’t be cut. She said apprenticeship opportunities such as CV-TEC-type programs are crucial to the region’s growth to help young people fill vocations older people are leaving behind.

“Farming, emergency medical services,” she says, “there are roles in the community that we need filled. There are jobs that we can fill with our own. It’s a win-win.

“But I also believe we need to be putting it out there front and center how attractive it is for young families to live up here,” she said. “We need to make sure we have the infrastructure to support that — the broadband and the family services.”

Regarding heroin, she is a fan of earlier educational intervention in schools.

Wilson said veterans are “kind of forgotten,” not only on health care, mental health services and addiction counseling, but also in finding meaningful work.

“How can we work with businesses in the area to kind of communicate better about what skill sets they are returning from service with?” she asked. “Because they are receiving some of the best training that the country has to offer. And they are coming home and they are unable to find work, that they are overqualified for, quite frankly.

“Not to mention that many of them have to drive two hours to get to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Albany, and someone dealing with PTSD, he can’t even leave the house because he is dealing with so much. It’s inaccessible.”

Walking back down the trail, Wilson said she understands winning her party’s nomination will be a monumental challenge, but she asserted that this isn’t a pie-in-the-sky candidacy. She said she’s done the homework and built the connections locally, in Albany and in Washington to win this thing. And now that this is her life, she recalls the advice her father and other family members gave her — “to keep it real and not get lost.”

“And I think everyone is weary of people once they get to Washington, and I think Elise may be suffering from that. I don’t know,” Wilson added. “I think that what we need is someone who isn’t going to lose touch with their roots and their integrity and motivation to serve, and really represent the people that have elected them.”

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