Editor's note: The following story first appeared on The Daily Princetonian website.
If elected to Congress this fall, William Yandik ’00 may be one of the only farmers to serve in the House of Representatives.
Yandik is currently running as a Democratic candidate in New York’s 19th Congressional District. The district includes the lower Hudson Valley and the Catskills region, and includes the towns of Woodstock, Kinderhook and Livingston.
Yandik said that throughout his career, he has always returned to his home town instead of taking up a lucrative job elsewhere because of his love for his community. He added that he recognizes the challenges that upstate New York faces and wants to help address these issues in Congress.
“Upstate New York exports young people and the economy has been a challenge,” Yandik said. “But I’ve got skin in this game, since this is where my family has been for four generations.”
Brian White ’00, Yandik’s freshman year roommate, noted that Yandik is not an ideological person, but is instead focused on making communities better off, and understands the needs of people who are not that well-off. Mark Cornwall ’00, who was Yandik’s roommate junior and senior years, said that Yandik has always been a passionate advocate for the communities that he cares about and highlighted Yandik’s farmer’s pragmatism and strong expertise in environmental issues.
“He wants to get things done and wants to make people’s lives better in the district,” Cornwall said. “He doesn’t get frustrated or angry, and he gets along well with people of all different backgrounds.”
Yandik said that the University’s motto, which emphasizes serving the nation, also applies to serving the local community. Yandik explained that he has always used his education to serve his local community and that the next step was to serve in Congress in order to benefit his community.
William Howarth, professor emeritus of English, said that Yandik is generous and thoughtful and embraces difficult problems.
“He is exactly the kind of person who should be in government,” Howarth said. “He will represent all of his constituents fairly and he understands everyday problems.”
Yandik attended Hudson High School in Hudson, N.Y., and graduated as the valedictorian in 1996. In high school, he was interested in American history and politics and enjoyed birding. When he visited the University, he was impressed with the campus and the unique precept system.
“I liked how the campus was divorced from larger cities,” Yandik said. “It was a true collegiate experience, as it was possible to interact with students on a social and intellectual level.”
Yandik was accepted during Early Action, and joined the University in the fall of 1996. He explained that coming from a rural high school, he was impressed by the intellectual level of his peers.
“It was really quite refreshing to study with so many talented and motivated young people,” he said.
White said that Yandik had a great sense of humor and was well-grounded. White noted that his farming background was unique.
“He was very much in touch with his roots in upstate New York,” White said. “He really took advantage of all the opportunities at Princeton to reflect on where he came from and where that place was going.”
While on campus, Yandik became involved with the Whig-Cliosophic Society and the Princeton Model Congress. He also served as a campus tour guide with Orange Key.
Helen Marrow ’00 noted that Yandik has always embraced people of all socioeconomic and political backgrounds on campus and was able to connect with everyone with his humor. Marrow added that he adored political history and would incorporate this interest in the University’s famous individuals into his tours.
“Will loved to connect, even at that time, with people who were his elders,” Marrow said. “He would dress up like Woodrow Wilson and use a walking cane to give these really ornate tours. People always laughed when ‘Woodrow Wilson’ would buzz himself into a university building with a hidden prox card in his back pants pocket.”
Marrow noted that Yandik’s connection with his elders makes him well-suited to represent their issues in Congress.
Yandik enjoyed taking classes on the Civil War with History Professor James McPherson and “The Literature of Fact” with Ferris Professor of Journalism John McPhee ’53, where he learned about the “written and spoken word”. Yandik explained that learning “spoken word” has helped him in his political career, especially in his current Congressional race.
“That class changed my life, in the sense that I thought differently on how language is used,” Yandik said.
After taking Professor McPhee’s class, Yandik became interested in journalism. Since the University does not offer a journalism major, he decided to major in English. Yandik’s senior thesis was untraditional in its focus on an environmental issue. He explained that near his home, General Electric had polluted the Hudson River with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) in the 1960s, and he was interested in how GE and the environmental groups were using the English language to convince the public whether action should be taken to clean the river.
“At the time, General Electric and various environmental groups were using public relations and the spoken and written word to advocate for and against the cleanup of the Hudson River,” Yandik said.
Howarth, who advised Yandik’s senior thesis, explained that Yandik focused on the cultural, economic and scientific aspects of topic, and during meetings they would discuss ways to describe or explain themes and characters.
“In my fifty years at Princeton, I’ve taught thousands of bright young people, but Will was a rare student, born for a life of learning and public service,” Howarth said.
Yandik graduated from the University in 2000, and subsequently joined the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) as a freelance writer, while also working part-time on his family farm in Hudson, N.Y. After his work with the NTHP, Yandik wrote freelance pieces for the Wall Street Journal and other smaller environmental publications. He began writing a book on the Hudson River, which was ultimately not published. Currently, he serves as the regional state news reporter for AARP, covering issues related to senior citizens living in New York.
Yandik explained that while he was writing pieces related to the environment, he started to become more interested about the science behind ecology and the environment. To further pursue his interest in the science, he became a field ecologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As a field ecologist, Yandik measured the concentration of PCB in the Hudson River and documented its effect on the local wildlife.
While working for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Yandik met a group from Wisconsin, and through them, decided to work at the Upper Midwest Environmental Science Center in La Crosse, Wis. While he was in Wisconsin, Yandik took classes at the University of Wisconsin, and earned a second undergraduate degree in biology. He was fascinated with not only the science itself, but also the means of communicating the science to the general public.
“I became hooked with the interplay between the hard science and communicating the hard science using some of the skills I had used as a journalist,” Yandik said.
He decided to pursue a graduate degree and attended Brown University’s Center for Environmental Science, where he received a master’s degree in environmental studies. Yandik then won a two-year Switzer Fellowship, funded by the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation’s Science Links Program, where he received funding to study and co-author a public policy guide called Carbon and Communities. The report detailed how small and medium-sized towns in the Northeast could reduce their impact on the environment by analyzing current models of carbon levels.
“The report enabled local governments to have a quick and easy understanding of their local carbon budget and what they could do to reduce their carbon budget,” Yandik said.
Ever since graduating from the University, Yandik has worked on his family farm, helping tend to and harvest the crops. He explained that the farm is very important to him and that thanks to local technological development, he was able to pursue his freelance journalism interests while working on the farm at the same time.
“The story of my career really started when we got high speed internet in my rural community,” he said. “I no longer had to choose between a professional career in the city and the farm in a community that I loved.”
In 2009, after finishing his fellowship, Yandik returned to the farm full-time. He explained that the farm produces fruits and vegetables from July to November, and that the farm has been in his family since 1915. He continues to author freelance pieces and does some consulting on environmental issues. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Columbia-Greene Community College, where he teaches the introductory biology courses and human biology. Yandik explained that he enjoys teaching in the community college, because there are students of all ages, education levels and backgrounds.
“As an instructor, it’s so gratifying to go through four or five months and see the improvement that’s possible in a community college setting,” he said.
William Cook, a Professor of Biology at Columbia-Greene Community College, noted that he enjoys having conversations with Yandik, because he always learns something new.
Yandik’s first foray into elected office was in 2011, when he decided to run as a Democrat for the Livingston, N.Y., Town Council. He explained that he was motivated to run after observing the lack of competitive races, since the town was predominantly Republican.
“There were no Democrats willing to run,” Yandik said. “It just irked my sense of civics that there was no choice at the ballot.”
Yandik noted that unlike in other states, New York’s municipalities have more say over the course the community takes. Because of the importance of the council’s function, he decided to run for the Town Council, and became the third Democrat ever elected since the town was incorporated. He explained that throughout the election, and his time on the council, he learned how to work with non-Democrats to pass bipartisan solutions to problems.
Yandik noted that this skill is extremely important in the current Congressional race, since New York’s 19th District is a swing district and candidates must appeal to people from both sides of the aisle in order to win.
“I learned how to appeal to a very broad electorate even in a small town of 3,600 people,” he said. “I learned how to build personal relationships with my fellow council members and still managed to get what I call progressive wins.”
Yandik explained that while on the council, he helped pass a ban on fracking within Livingston and made it easier to install solar panels. He also authored legislation to support the local historic resources and researched and wrote grants to obtain more funding. One of his most notable accomplishments was in blocking the construction of a transmission line that would have run through the district.
He was able to pass this legislation by earning his colleagues’ trust and understanding their individual motivations for serving on the council. For example, he was able to earn support for his environmental proposals by connecting the agricultural backgrounds of the other council members with his own environmental background.
“Through this groundwork, we could start to talk about policy and talk about the common ground we shared in these policies,” Yandik said.
Professor Cook said that Yandik’s strong environmental background is an asset, since he has real-life experience.
“He has an extremely good environmental ethic, and he understands how the world works,” Professor Cook said. “He’s the kind of person we need in government.”
Yandik said that his core policy platform includes expanding broadband access in his district and explained that, without it, he and others in the district would have been unable to sustain a career and remain in the community. He also highlighted his proposal to redirect federal funds for home and community-based services for the elderly, a large segment of the district’s population. He wants to help promote tourism to the Catskill region, and wants the farmers of the district to have better access to the nation’s largest domestic food market, New York City.
“We have good land and good water here,” Yandik said. “What we don’t have is more federal investment in developing the packaging and distribution facilities to get that produce to New York City markets, where it can fetch a good price.”
Yandik also added that many of his policies appeal to people on both sides of the aisle, such as improving local infrastructure and transmission facilities. He plans to build more personal relationships with members of Congress and his constituents in order to implement his policies.
Yandik noted that he is better suited to represent the 19th District than his current primary opponent, Associate Professor of Law at Fordham University, Zephyr Teachout, who recently moved into the district. He explained that according to current data, he has a better likelihood of winning in November and has the ability to win the voters in the district who have no party affiliation.
Yandik said he loves his district because it’s a beautiful place to get outside. In his spare time, Yandik spends time hunting and fishing and maintaining the family farm.