Question Marks

Published Oct 24, 2012. By Ed Griffin-Nolan.


Central New Yorkers going to the polls on Nov. 6 will see two familiar names along with one newcomer on the ballot for Congress in the 24th District. Dan Maffei, the Democrat who held the old 25th District seat from 2008 through 2010, is challenging Ann Marie Buerkle, the Republican who replaced him last time out in a race so tight it took weeks to sort out. 

Buerkle’s winning margin in 2010 was just 648 votes out of a total of more than 208,000 cast. Now competing in a newly drawn district know as NY 24, the two are seen as dead even in the polls. The race gets shaken up this year by the presence of a new entrant, Green Party candidate Ursula Rozum.

The candidates have two debates coming up at which all three will participate. Rozum, 28, and Buerkle, 61, have already shared a stage at several town hall meetings set up by Buerkle, and the pair are set to face off again on Monday, Oct. 29, in a debate organized by Time Warner Cable’s YNN and Syracuse University, an event in which Maffei, 44, has thus far declined to participate. All three candidates have agreed to participate in a debates hosted by WCNY-Channel 24 on Wednesday, Oct. 24, and another WSYR-Channel 9 on Nov. 2.

The New Times drew up a series of questions for each of the candidates. Maffei answered seven questions during a phone interview on the evening of Oct. 15. Rozum spoke with us on the evening of Oct. 17. Buerkle responded to our questions on Oct. 20. And don’t read anything into the order in which the candidates’ answers appear here; they are arranged alphabetically.

Ann Marie Buerkle


Q. What is the single thing you have learned this term that most sticks out in your mind?

A: What a great district we have here and what great people we have.


Q. Is there something about Washington that sticks out?

A: When I came to Washington, the biggest surprise I found was the unwillingness on both sides to change the way we do things. I went there at age 60 with some life experience willing to look at change, but lots of people like the status quo. It’s less challenging, for one thing.


Q: How many times have you met with Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner? U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand? U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer? 

A. I met with the mayor after my election in my office, and then we have talked on the phone a number of times. Our relationship is cordial. We have spoken about Say Yes, about the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and a number of other issues. My staff works closely with City Hall. I met with Senator Gillibrand in her office, along with other representatives from New York, specifically on veterans’ issues. Senator Schumer has not returned our calls.


Q. Why should we spend another dollar or put another American life at risk in Afghanistan?

A. Americans are war-weary and rightly so, when you begin to lose sight of the mission, and do not have a clear mission outlined. My only disagreement with the president is that he has been public about the timetable. We have a young man locally, Cpl. Kyle Schneider, a Marine who was killed in Afghanistan, and we worked, with Sen. Gillibrand and others, to have the post office in Baldwinsville named for him. 

The question is: What is the national security interest of the United States? I do not have access to the intelligence to make that decision. That’s the president’s decision. Some would argue that if we fight them over there we won’t have to fight them here, but when you look at the planned attack on the Federal Reserve in New York City and other attempted terrorist attacks, you have to wonder. But it’s not up to me. I have not had a briefing from the military on this.


Q. What is your position on public financing of political campaigns?

A. You get into a First Amendment question here. I agree that it is too much, the amount of money you spend, but Dan Maffei set the precedent the last time we ran. The law gives the public the right to speak, and public input is good. They criticize these PACs {political action committees} that are giving to me, but union PACs give to Dan Maffei. I do support Citizens United {the 2010 Supreme Court case removing restrictions on corporate and union spending on elections}; I think it was the right decision.


Q: Can you tell us the names of the scientists you have consulted with on climate change?


A: Me, personally, I can read studies like you or anyone else. But I have met with Dr. (Cornelius) Murphy of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and several engineers who are on our Energy Advisory Committee.


Q. Cooper-LaTourette, a budget bill which you supported, contains a series of tax increases as well as spending cuts, and follows in some ways the Simpson-Bowles recommendations. You voted for it. The Concord Coalition gave you an award for that. How come you don’t state publicly that only a combination of taxes and cuts will get us to fiscal solvency? Wouldn’t that make for a more honest debate?

A. We must start the discussion somewhere. You’ve seen how the Republican budget has been demagogued. I’ve said right along that you have to do something bipartisan and my vote was to take a bipartisan approach.


Q. So do we need to increase tax rates, as Cooper-LaTourette would have done, because you have said all along that what we have is a spending problem? 


A. The amount of spending on all kinds of things is gross—people have no idea. We have a spending problem. We can’t cut our way out of this deficit. We can’t tax our way out of it. We do need to increase tax revenue, but not by increasing the tax rate. We need a pro-growth economic agenda. We need to revise the tax code with lower rates and get rid of these crazy loopholes and get government out of the way so that businesses can grow and then people will pay more tax, once we have the economy back on its feet.


Q. What, if any, role should the federal government play in regards to drilling for gas in the Marcellus shale?

A. With regards to hydrofracking, a lot of that is a state issue. I believe the governor has issued a moratorium while some of these issues are addressed. I think it should be a state issue; I don’t think we need federal control or federal regulations.


Q. One proposal is to put hydrofracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Do you oppose that?

A: I’ve seen up close and personal the havoc brought by the Environmental Protection Agency in our district. Farmers are fit to be tied. The EPA wants to control every body of water, not just navigable bodies of water. I would be opposed to having hydrofracking controlled under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The federal government has a role in national security, in infrastructure, roads and bridges and, to an extent, in education. But local government has a better handle on these issues. States make decisions, not the big federal government. Some states embrace it, others like New York take their time, and that’s how it should be.

Democratic Candidate Dan Maffei

Q. Do you think there are ways that hydrofracking can be practiced safely in New York state? And, if it goes forward, what should be the federal role in regulating it?


A. Truthfully, I don’t know. It’s not a question for politicians. The question is: If we don’t know the risks, then we shouldn’t take chances with public health. We shouldn’t jeopardize our clean water economy unless we can be sure it won’t be endangered. I would keep the moratorium in place {New York state has put fracking temporarily on hold} until we have federal regulations. Specifically, I would put it under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is an amendment to the Clean Water Act, from which the gasindustry is currently exempt, under what are sometimes referred to as the Cheney amendments. After we have some basic environmental regulation, we can see if it can be done safely. 

The reason, by the way, that you can’t leave it to the states is that watersheds don’t stop at state borders. There is a jobs argument on this issue, but that cuts both ways. People are seeing that the jobs that are created are often temporary and taken by people who come from other places. But more than that, we have clean water industries—wineries in the Finger Lakes, our agriculture, organic farming, tourism—things where even the perception that we might be putting the water at risk can cause harm. It is an economic issue, and I want to be on the “be cautious” side.


Q. Your campaign refers constantly to the middle class. Why don’t you talk more about the poor? 

A. This is a middle-class district. It’s clear that a lot of the policies that Ann Marie Buerkle and Paul Ryan advocate would devastate the poor. It’s not that we don’t care about the poor. I can give you a whole list of programs for the poor that I support, but the squeeze on middle-class families and the risk of them becoming poor is the dominant issue here. If the middle class is doing well, then Central New York is doing well. Most of us are middle class. There are poor people, and they aspire to be middle class. I’m proposing that we return to the Clinton era tax rates for people with incomes over $1 million. We have fewer than 300 households in this district with incomes over $1 million.

Q. Do you support federal investment in solar energy at the same level as has been spent in these past four years?


A. I think we need to continue research into all renewable energy sources: wind, water, geothermal, biofuels. There are ways to do that through public-private partnerships, tax credits, things that might not cost as much as you might think. There are some really good commercial opportunities in the renewable energy sector. We don’t want to do what Ann Marie Buerkle has said. She says that we shouldn’t spend on research for alternative energy sources. She says we have enough oil and gas, which by the way is not a position that is good for the local economy. We have many more green jobs than oil and gas.


Q: Just to clarify, do you mean we should just spend money on research or on development as well?

A: I’m not familiar with the specifics of the programs right now. I think we need to support alternative energy sources. You also have to look at the way the Department of Energy has allocated their resources, see if they could be spent better. You need incentives, probably not huge incentives, and you also need to get rid of the incentives for oil exploration. That would help pay for the relatively small incentives for alternative energy.


Q: Your support for high speed rail—can you show us the numbers on how traffic will increase in this corridor if we invest in high speed rail? Are there studies specific to this corridor?

A: I can send you studies, but the problem with that, like with any large project, is that it’s going to be guesswork. This was the challenge that faced the proponents of the Erie Canal project 200 years ago. How could they explain that this very expensive canal through an area that is mostly farmland and forest could bring economic benefits? People said, “Show me the numbers,” and there weren’t any. So no, I can’t point to local studies that are ironclad, but neither could the people who built the canal. 

This is an area where you have to show some leadership. It would take many years, and my concern is that if we just look at the cost and we decide not to start it at all, that’s not leadership. If you don’t invest in your infrastructure it’s like paying your mortgage but not fixing the roof on your house. You’re letting your economy deteriorate. High speed rail would save individuals and companies money on airfare. It would put Central New York back on the map.


Q: Do you think {New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist} Paul Krugman is right and that we focus too much on the deficit and not enough on the recovery?

A: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I’m not an economist. Most people are not finding jobs. The stock market is doing well, the banks are OK. I’m more concerned about jobs for the middle class. We need to balance the budget but do it the right way. We should move back to the Clinton era tax rates for people making over a million dollars a year. 


Q. Should we have public financing of political campaigns? And if so, how do we get from here to there?

A. Yes, we should. I don’t see any way to get from here to there without it. Given Citizens United, I think you need some form of citizen funding. Citizens United upset the applecart in terms of defining corporations as citizens. We need to look at everything we can to change this. I’d start with the Disclose Act, which would at least make large SuperPACs disclose where they get the money. Maybe free broadcast time. Certainly we need to try, because this is not what the framers had in mind.

Green Party Candidate Ursula Rozum

Q: What do you say to people when they ask you about the price of gas?


A: I haven’t heard a lot of people complain about gas prices. In some other countries gas prices are much higher. We used to have a much higher gas tax, tied to the cost of living. We need a higher gas tax to fund investment in highways, high speed rail, infrastructure, so people will not have to drive. The price of gas is disconnected from wages. We can’t expect people living on minimum wage and supporting a family to pay high gas prices. We need a gas tax like we used to have that would provide the funds that we need to help us move away from dependence on cars.


Q: Why do you think the presidential candidates are afraid to talk about the need for higher gas prices?

A: The presidential candidates both embrace an energy policy that relies on fossil fuels. Romney is more enthusiastic, wants to drill everywhere. Obama is proud of his commitment to domestic fuel sources. Their connection to the energy companies means that their ability to get people to break their addiction to fossil fuels is limited.


Q: What is your view on campaign financing, and which major party is more likely to be an ally with you on this issue?

A: There should be full public funding, equal funding for all ballot-qualified candidates. There should be publicly sponsored debates, with mandatory participation. I think we need a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and to abolish corporate personhood. I’m not sure any major party is going to be an ally on this issue. 

There is a lot of focus on Citizens United and the SuperPACs, but corporate money in politics was a problem before that. There are enough people who care to generate a lot of grass-roots pressure. It’s a matter of organizing. There are a lot of national groups and statewide groups promoting public financing, but there is a lot of pessimism about the political system. Campaign finance is not a sexy issue, but it is connected to lots of other issues we care about.

Q: You work at the Syracuse Peace Council, which has long had debates about how to deal with electoral politics, whether to get involved or not. How is your candidacy seen within the Peace Council?


A: As an organization the Peace Council does not endorse candidates, but there has been a tradition of members working on campaigns. As an organization we haven’t engaged in electoral politics, though we have “dis-endorsed” candidates, such as the “Bush Must Go” campaign in 2004. One of the things we need to talk about is a strategy; generally, we are not very strategic about how we relate to elections. We don’t have an overarching strategy.


Q: What is the long-term electoral strategy of the Green Party?

A: I’m not sure I want to tell you what our strategy is. We want to get elected to office. We want people to see the Green Party as a place where you don’t have to silence yourself. A number of candidates, including Dan Maffei, don’t take a strong position, for example, on hydrofracking. We want to be a place where people can speak their mind. We want people who want to organize. I’ve been a Green since I turned 18, though I haven’t always been active. I knew that the Greens supported single-payer health care.


Q: Who are your political role models?

A: That changes, depending on where I’m at. Recently as I sink my teeth into policy, Franklin Roosevelt has emerged as a policy person who did things that worked. My real heroes are people in the peace movement, people like {international peace activist} Kathy Kelly, people who have courage to go where no other U.S. citizen will go, into war zones. 


Q: Tell us your position on hydrofracking.

A: We should ban it in New York state and nationwide. It’s the wrong way to go. When I first read about it in The Post-Standard in 2009 I was shocked. I didn’t know a lot about it but I knew it was wrong. Here’s the thing: The gas in the Marcellus shale isn’t planned to be used just in the United States. It’s not about energy independence. The large energy companies do not have our best interests at heart.

Hydrofracking shows how far we have come in our relentless pursuit of fuels in ways that are very environmentally risky. Fracking is on a par with mountaintop removal in search of coal, or deep-water oil drilling. There’s so much potential harm: It’s insane. It’s painful for me to hear President Obama talk of fracking in a positive way. It’s painful to hear him talk of renewing BP’s oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico just months after the oil spill. It feels like a betrayal.


Q: Betrayal: Did you support Obama in 2008?

A: I was an Obama supporter in 2008, I’ll admit it. For someone who came of age during the Bush era, I bought into the hope-and-change thing. I should have known better.