Showdown in the 20th
Two local politicians go head-to-head to claim the 20th Congressional District seat. Plus: local races
Republican Sandy Treadwell (above, right) challenges incumbent Democrat Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (top left)
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In a victory two years ago that surprised many political observers, Democratic newcomer Kirsten Gillibrand took New York’s 20th Congressional District from eight-year Republican incumbent John Sweeney. Gillibrand’s electoral feat was remarkable for a number of reasons: Not only would she be the first woman to represent the district but, as the 15th Democratic candidate to defeat a Republican congressperson that night, her upset win meant Democrats would control the House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years (they would take back the Senate a few hours later).
Now — despite running in what looks to be another banner year for Congressional Democrats — Gillibrand faces a tough reelection fight against Republican challenger Sandy Treadwell. Any Democrat-favorable headwinds on the national level are mostly negated by the G.O.P.’s district-wide advantage in registered voters (Republicans outnumber Democrats by a three-to-two margin). In addition, Treadwell — who served as New York’s Secretary of State under Gov. George Pataki from 1995-2001 and as chairman of the Republican state committee from 2001-2004 — has drawn from his family fortune (his grandfather was one of General Electric’s founding executives) to challenge Gillibrand’s own impressive fundraising campaign. The race has shaped up to be one of the most competitive in the state, and has garnered some national attention as well.
Since the race has become so heated, and because a sizable portion of Valley dwellers reside in the 20th district (which encompasses all of Columbia and Greene counties, as well as parts of Rensselaer and Dutchess counties), Hudson Valley asked Gillibrand and Treadwell to discuss their personal lives and how, if elected, they would address the issues that most concern Valley residents. We hope the following interviews give you a sense of who the candidates are, what matters most to them, and which of the two would best represent you in Washington.
You were in Denver for the Democratic convention in August, and were able to speak to the Women’s Caucus and be on the floor for Barack Obama’s speech. What was it like to be there for that historic moment?
Gillibrand: It was very exciting. There was an enormous amount of energy at that stadium, and there were so many people who were looking at Sen. Obama as someone who could fulfill so many of their hopes and dreams for this country. It was quite an electric moment.
On the topic of the presidential election, what do you think about how nasty the campaign has become between McCain and Obama? Do you think it’s different than most presidential elections?
No, I think it’s similar to other campaigns. It’s not surprising. It’s typical for a political discourse.
How do you feel about Sarah Palin being the first woman on the Republican ticket?
I think she’s a very strong candidate and she makes their ticket much stronger.
Are you glad to see a female on one of the tickets?
You know, I always am happy to see more women in public service, which is one of the reasons why I supported Sen. Clinton for President. However, just being a woman isn’t enough. I don’t agree with the governor on many issues, so the questions I ask are, “Are these candidates going to support middle-class tax cuts? Are they going to work to provide health insurance for all American kids? Are they going to work on energy independence in the next decade?” I don’t think that Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin will do those things for our district or for America.
Palin has received a fair amount of criticism about whether she can handle the VP slot while having an infant at home. As an elected representative who has your own infant at home, what do you make of that?
I think all working parents figure it out. In our district, most parents are working parents, and most moms are working moms. No matter what their job is, parents do their best to do their job well and to be the best parents they can be. It’s certainly something that I work on every day.
Speaking of home, how do you and your husband juggle parenting and work duties in two places — Greenport in Columbia County, and in D.C.?
We make it work. The one blessing we have is my mother and father and my husband’s parents are very helpful, so we have a lot of family support. We have to have a very supportive family to make it work.
Do you come home to Columbia County most weekends? How do you handle the split?
We’re all in D.C. together Monday through Friday, then either I come on my own or we come as a family most weekends. We prefer to be in Hudson because my family and all of the kids’ cousins are in upstate New York.
As someone who grew up in Albany and still lives in the Valley, what do you love most about autumn in this region?
I love the crisp air, the color of the trees. I love apples, and apple cider, and apple pies that seem to proliferate during the fall season. We like to go hiking in a lot of the areas around our district.
What about the pace of life in D.C. compared to home in Greenport?
There’s definitely an easier pace at home, and we spend a lot of time outdoors when we’re home. D.C.’s a city, so we enjoy rural life when we’re upstate. We enjoy going to the farmers’ markets; Theo, my four-year-old, very much prefers to be outside than inside, so we do a lot of outdoor activities, and we get to see more of our family.
I read an interview with your husband Jonathan in which he said that you and he don’t like to discuss politics too much. Is that true?
That’s definitely not true (laughs). We talk about the presidential election all the time. He may have meant more [about] my job and what I do every day. Jonathan is a conservative. He’s a Thatcherite — the only person he’s ever voted for is Margaret Thatcher. So I think when he made that comment, he was intimating he’s more conservative than I am on some issues.
Thatcher is the only person he’s voted for? Is he an American citizen?
No! He’s a green card holder. So he has not voted for me yet.
With what little free time you have, what do you like to do? Watch TV, read books, anything like that?
I like to take Henry and Theodore to the park. Most of my free time is spent with my children. Before I had children, I would have played sports or gone for a run or read a book, but there’s not a lot of time for that.
Let’s talk about the issues. What do you think are the three biggest issues facing your district right now?
I think the economy is the number one issue. The cost of gas is stifling. People are very worried about heating their homes this winter, they’re concerned about all their bills — paying for health care costs, paying for food and transportation. Which is one of the reasons why I focused a lot on middle-class tax cuts to pay for early childhood education, to pay for college education, to make property taxes tax-deductible. I focused my efforts on trying to lessen the burden on our families financially.
Health care is an enormous issue, affordable health care that’s far-reaching and having a health care system that actually works for rural communities. A lot of communities are underserved by both doctors and nurses, so there’s often not a lot of availability.
The third issue is property taxes. We pay some of the highest property taxes in the whole country. I supported having some kind of cap on property taxes, and I lobbied the governor on that. Fundamentally I support divorcing property taxes from school budgets and actually finding a different revenue stream for our school budgets. Federally I’ve been trying to work on making property tax tax-deductible. Normally property taxes are tax-deductible, but only for people who itemize their returns. Very few families who make less than $100,000 itemize their tax returns. What our bill did — what got passed in the mortgage package — was to make $1,000 tax deductible for everybody, whether you itemize or not.
You mention taxes. In your Web sites and your public statements, both you and your opponent, Sandy Treadwell, have said you want to extend the 2001 and 2003 middle-class tax cuts. How does your tax proposal differ from his, specifically?
I think he wants to extend all of Bush’s tax cuts. I don’t support extending them for families that earn more than a million dollars because I want to use those funds to give more tax cuts to the middle class. I’d rather enrich the tax-cut package and have more tax cuts for the middle class, and use the funds from the million-plus to pay for it. Mine is middle class-focused, and his isn’t.
According to a recent survey, unemployment in the Hudson Valley is up more than 20 percent from a year ago. If elected to another term, is there anything you can do as a congressperson to create more jobs in the region and attract new businesses?
Yes. When I came to Congress, I founded the bipartisan high-tech caucus to focus on how we can invest in the high-tech industry. What I hope to do for our district is create jobs in the high-tech sector in a couple of different disciplines. One is energy markets, because we have some of the best companies already developing new energy-efficient and conservation technologies. We just had an economic development summit in Saratoga Springs where we had energy-efficient and conservation technology businesses talk about their businesses. The main recommendation we made was to increase tax inducement credits and also production credits. We have this energy bill we just passed in the House, and I’m going to try to make those tax credits better and longer in term. Right now, the wind energy credit is only a year, solar is eight years, but geothermal and all the others — hydroelectric, biomass, waste energy, and marine — are three years. We want to make them all 10-year tax credits. Then a business could have a five-year plan and a 10-year plan and count all those credits. That would drive that market. And with a new administration, instead of just investing $15 billion, we’d invest $100-$150 billion on that project, and that would drive the new energy sector. I want upstate New York, and this district in particular, to be at the forefront of that. We’ve been getting into that energy market already. We have some of the best fuel cell producers in the world, two or three of them right in Albany. We’ve got wind energy throughout New York State. We’ve got solar technologies being developed at RPI, and GE is one of the biggest producers of solar and wind. We have IBM to the south, and we’re hoping to get AMD to the north, in Saratoga County. So we really have the beginnings of this high-tech corridor focused on the energy market. We’ve got the employees for it, great graduates coming out of all these schools, a history of both agriculture and manufacturing, a great quality of life, and really good transportation networks that can be extremely attractive to new businesses and can help grow existing businesses.
You’ve made supporting family farms one of the big themes of both your campaign and your time in office, including helping to pass the Farm Bill. What state do you think the region’s farms are in right now, and what is the outlook for them?
This Farm Bill was better than any Farm Bill in history for the Northeast. We shifted something like $60 billion away from commodities toward conservation and nutrition, so we have much more investment that will help upstate New York and the Northeast. In particular, we have more money for fruits and vegetables — we produce a lot of apples and other produce in our district. We also brought a very good safety net for dairy farmers, so when the price of milk goes down, the safety net kicks in.
We also got money in the Farm Bill for organics, which is important to upstate New York because we have such potential to have organic farms if we want to. The Farm Bill provides $20,000 grants per year for three years for farms that want to transition to organics, which basically gives them access to capital to make that transition.
The third thing in the Farm Bill that is really valuable is a “buy local” provision, which really helped our local economy. It gives incentives and preferences for federal money for those entities that have “buy local” programs. So if you’re a municipal building or a school and you buy locally, you’re eligible for more USDA funding. It helps our economy because it invests in companies and entities that do buy local, it’s good for our farmers, and it’s good for the cost of food — when you don’t transport food over long distances, it’s cheaper.
Where do you think the farms are now compared to when you took office two years ago?
Well, the problem for dairy farms is that the price of milk fluctuates quite a bit. It’s now coming below the cost of production, which is very dangerous. If it’s at $19 per 100-weight and it’s costing the farmers $19-$20 to produce it per 100-weight, they’re in the red. When I was running for office in ’06, the federal government was paying $12 for a 100-weight, and it was costing farmers $14-$16 to produce it. Today, it’s costing them $18-$20 to produce because of the [increased] feed and petroleum costs. I’m concerned that our farmers are in a very difficult spot, which is why I’ve spent so much time working on dairy. But the good news is the safety net we have in the Farm Bill will protect our farmers much more than they were protected before I took office. In terms of other crops, our apple crops suffered from some pretty bad hailstorms this spring, so some of our produce farms are in trouble because of the weather. But hopefully, because the Farm Bill had money in it for fruits and vegetables, they’ll have access to more funds to rebuild.
To view more information about Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand, please visit www.gillibrand.house.gov