The Family Fortune Behind Elise Stefanik’s Humble Origins Myth

Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

From the start of her electoral career a decade ago, House GOP Conference Chair—and potential 2024 vice presidential nomineeElise Stefanik has stressed her supposedly rough-cut origins, telling a story in which she saw firsthand the struggles of a scrappy family plywood business.

In a friendly Wall Street Journal profile in 2021, an opinion columnist for the paper contrasted her “working class family” with the supposedly snobbish ostracism Stefanik has faced from her alma mater, Harvard University, which removed her from a senior advisory committee for her efforts to overturn President Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat. Stefanik noted that neither of her parents attended college.

“I’ll never forget what my dad told me the summer before my freshman year,” Stefanik told writer William McGurn. “He said, ‘Elise, I can’t tell you what to expect or what’s going to happen because I never had this experience. I know you will do well and we will be proud of you. All I ask is that you remember where you came from.’”

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But if Stefanik was supposed to remember where she came from, she seems to have forgotten—to the point of making blatantly misleading statements, beginning in her first congressional campaign—how her family’s wealth has given her a leg up, from providing her with an expensive private-school education to her parents buying her a $1.2 million D.C. townhouse when she was just 26.

Instead of acknowledging those advantages, Stefanik has repeatedly downplayed her wealth, including in a statement to The Daily Beast. Her team also incorrectly referred to this piece as a “pitched story.” The Daily Beast never received a pitch from any party on this topic.

“Rep. Stefanik grew up in a hardworking small business family that her parents built from scratch, was the first in her family to have the opportunity to graduate from college, and is working hard everyday to serve her constituents to ensure they have economic opportunity that is currently being crushed under Joe Biden,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement. “Many Members own property in Washington D.C., yet the mainstream media continues their deranged obsession with attacking Elise.”

Similarly, when first running in 2014, Stefanik contrasted her status with her Democratic rival’s, calling him out in a televised debate as “the only multimillionaire” in the race.

“I’m proud of my experience working in my family’s small business,” she said. “We sell plywood.”

During that first race, Stefanik actually got asked about her million-dollar townhouse—which is now valued at $1,851,860, according to assessor records, though it might command far more on the open market. But she maintained that the home, where public records show she and her now-husband resided and conducted their political work, was an “investment property”—one in which she claimed to share only a small stake, along with unnamed “private investors.”

Yet the D.C. Recorder of Deeds office shows no investors in the three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath, three-fireplace house other than Stefanik’s parents and her younger brother. And the ownership entity on file for the property, a 15-minute walk from the Capitol steps, bears Stefanik’s initials and nobody else’s.

Nonetheless, she was back to describing the family business as a modest, often struggling enterprise in an interview a few months after capturing her congressional seat, which encompasses a vast swath of rural northern New York, hundreds of miles from the state’s titular metropolis. She recalled how her father started working in the lumber industry straight out of high school, first as a salesman and then as a manager for a larger operation before cutting out on his own.

“They risked, really, everything we had as a family to start a business from scratch, and it was very, very difficult,” she told C-SPAN host Steve Scully of her parents. “There are still—as any small business owner would tell you—there are still tough times and there are times when it is a bit easier.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik speaks about the Republican Party’s upcoming legislative agenda and accomplishments in the first 100 days of holding the majority in the House of Representatives

Rep. Elise Stefanik speaks about the Republican Party’s accomplishments in the first 100 days of holding the majority in the House of Representatives.

Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Reuters

Stefanik has struck those two notes—the upstart plywood distributor and her parents’ lack of college degrees—again and again across the course of her career, from that 2015 interview through her speech at the GOP convention five years later, and even on her official website today. But this humble origin story falls away under a little pressure, like cheap laminate off a plywood panel.

From the start, she has maintained that she saw her parents “risk everything” to establish Premium Plywood Products when she was a child. But even the story she has told of the company’s founding is incomplete.

While every business venture involves risk, the Stefaniks didn’t shoulder it alone: less than two months after incorporating Premium Plywood Products in late 1991, public records show they secured a Small Business Administration-guaranteed loan worth $335,000—roughly $755,000 in today’s money. This loan amount was more than 10 times the value of the median annual income for a household in New York State that year.

A federal tax lien lodged against her father in 1997, when Stefanik was 14, provides a little insight into the family’s finances while their daughter was in high school. The lien amount came to $21,621—more than $42,000 in modern dollars. Records show the patriarch resolved it in under a month.

Stefanik’s private education at Albany Academy for Girls offered a crash course in the ways of the New York capital’s moneyed elite. The children of political tycoons from former President Theodore Roosevelt to former Gov. Mario Cuomo have sent their children to its all-male counterpart across the street, The Albany Academy, where students pay the same tuition—$25,600 for the most recent academic year.

After graduating from Harvard in 2006, Stefanik decamped to D.C. to serve in then-President George W. Bush’s administration, a role one of her Ivy League mentors helped her land. She would work her way up into the White House chief of staff’s office.

When the curtain closed on an era of Republican rule in 2009, Stefanik launched her own company, American Maggie LLC. Little information about this entity, formed in notoriously opaque Delaware, is available, but it ran a conservative blog and in 2010 started cashing checks from federal committees—the first from a PAC tied to then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whom Stefanik worked for during his infamously short-lived presidential campaign in 2011.

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Federal Election Commission records show that first check went into a P.O. Box. But the second—and all future payments—landed at a 2,136 square foot, wood-floored townhouse on Independence Avenue, a bare six blocks from the east end of the National Mall.

An entity called EMS DC Properties, bearing Stefanik’s first, middle, and last initials, acquired the century-old white brick structure in August 2010 for $1,206,000.

Public records show that EMS DC Properties is based out of a mailbox in in Feura Bush, New York—a mailbox that Stefanik’s parents have long used for Premium Plywood Products. Stefanik’s father signed the original mortgage documents as a member of the entity. The mortgage provider for the purchase was First Niagara Bank, a Buffalo-based institution which New York State Uniform Commercial Code filings show was Premium Plywood Products’ primary lender at the time.

Subsequent filings with the D.C. Recorder of Deeds’ office identify Stefanik’s mother as a “trustor” of EMS DC Properties and her younger brother—a vice president at the family company—as another member.

It was at this address that in 2011 Stefanik hosted a fundraiser to help Pawlenty settle debt from his stillborn presidential bid—an event that Politico reported attracted such Republican heavyweights of the time as then-Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and then-Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), as well as the likes of Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who reign in D.C. to this day. It was here, too, that American Maggie continued to collect checks from U.S. Senate candidates through 2011 and 2012, and from the Republican National Committee in 2013. And it was also the address Stefanik gave when making two contributions to Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 presidential campaign, during which she served as a debate prep coach for vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

This address was also used, starting in 2012, to register Premium Plywood Products’ website. Republican sources told The Daily Beast that this wasn’t the only interest she maintained in New York.

The insiders recalled that many in the party had hotly watched the seat of then-Rep. Bill Owens, a centrist Democrat who captured a red-tinted district in the northern reaches of New York State in a special election in 2009. Stefanik, they said, was among them.

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The aspiring lawmaker hailed from Albany County, a Democratic bastion south of the district lines, where Premium Plywood Products was also based. But, by her own admission, her family had owned a vacation home within Owens’ turf since she was 3 years old—that is, fully half a decade before the launch of Premium Plywood Products. Online property records in Essex County, where the family’s lakefront lodge sits, do not reach back that far.

But it is possible to infer something about the value of this waterfront getaway, seated on a peninsula jutting into scenic Lake Champlain, from a mortgage Stefanik’s mother secured against it in November 2012. The principal amount of the loan was $500,000.

Five months after her mom got the mortgage, Stefanik registered to vote at the lake house and began working remotely as Premium Plywood Products’ “director of North Country sales”—referring to the Adirondack region the seat comprises. She announced her candidacy that August. By January, Owens had announced he would not seek another term.

But Stefanik didn’t have a clean shot at the seat yet: she faced an initial threat from another Republican, local businessman Matt Doheny, who had launched two back-to-back unsuccessful bids against Owens. And the house in D.C. her family had bought her began to appear a liability.

In April 2014, The Hill reported that the property had accrued substantial unpaid tax bills. In response, Stefanik insisted she was nothing more than a small shareholder in a real estate opportunity.

“​​I own a minority portion of an investment property,” she told the publication.

The Hill did not report asking who else held an interest in the home, or who lived there, or why the ownership entity bore her initials—nor did it report Stefanik volunteering answers on those points. The story also failed to note that a month and a half before, Stefanik’s campaign had disbursed $519.19 to her then-boyfriend and now-husband at the Independence Avenue address.

Nonetheless, Doheny seized upon the news, using it to blast his carpetbagging foe as a “Washington insider” in an interview with the local Adirondack Daily Enterprise. The paper quoted Stefanik claiming she co-owned the home with “private investors,” though it noted she did not reveal who those investors were.

“She did say the company is in no way affiliated with her family’s business,” the article read.

Yet every single document on file with the D.C. Recorder of Deeds office identifies only members of the Stefanik family as stakeholders in the house, and shows EMS DC Properties consistently using Premium Plywood Products’ mailbox as its address.

Doheny eventually dropped out of the contest, and Stefanik bested filmmaker Aaron Woolf—the Democrat she called out as a multimillionaire on the debate stage—by more than 20 points. A month and a half before Election Day then-Speaker Boehner, whom Stefanik had hosted at the Pawlenty event at her parentally purchased townhouse three years before, traveled to the district to give the marquee address at a fundraiser for the congresswoman-to-be.

But the family kept its hand in the Independence Avenue property even after their daughter attained office and a six-figure public salary. In June 2016, the family refinanced the home, splitting off a six-figure chunk of the mortgage to an entity called SKMM Properties, which bears her parents’ and brother’s initials, but in which the congresswoman holds no apparent stake.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correctly list Mario Cuomo as one of the New York governors who sent a child to The Albany Academies.

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