The People Get To Speak, And Listen

June 28, 2017
Author: 
Frank Rizzo
Publication: 
Long Island Weekly

Appropriately, John Lennon’s “Power to the People” was on the sound system. A member of Congress was about to face his constituents, and the evening would live out Jefferson’s phrase about governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The questions covered topics as close as the neighborhood and as far away as Russia—as well as the vast gap that separates the two major political parties.

Democratic Congressman Tom Suozzi was impressed by the turnout on a stormy night as he held his fifth monthly town hall since being elected last November. The site was the American Legion Post 144 in Williston Park and about 100 people were on hand. This was far less than had attended his previous meetings (the one in Plainview in February drew more than 500, with another 6,000 watching it live on Facebook), but the monsoon-like conditions were a factor. Suozzi has pledged to hold a town hall every month, except August and December, through November 2018.

The district runs along the north shore from Whitestone, Queens, to Kings Park, Suffolk County, and is home, as with all congressional districts, to about 750,000 people.

The congressman said he was buoyed by some of what he’s seen in his six months in office and journeys in his district.

“More people are paying attention to public life than ever before,” he said. “Democracy only works when there’s competition and debate, and this is a very positive thing.”

Starting on a light note, Suozzi introduced “Billy,” the Republican “tracker” assigned by the Republican National Committee to videotape every one of his public appearances to record moments or statements that could be used in a campaign advertisement. Suozzi, who defeated Republican Jack Martins 52 percent to 48 percent, said his district is one of the relatively few competitive ones, thanks to fairly even voter registration.

“Billy comes to all of my meetings. It’s a pleasure to see you,” joshed Suozzi, addressing the operative.

Someone quipped, “It’s another job you created.”

Cindy Pabst of Glen Head noted that people on the far left and far right were more motivated to vote in primaries and thus had undue influence.
The Ballpark Shooting

Turning serious, Suozzi detailed the previous Tuesday’s shooting at the baseball practice held by Republicans before the annual Congressional Baseball Game. The gunman was killed by law enforcement, but not before injuring several people, including Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was in critical condition for several days.

“I was at practice at 7 o’clock that morning and people were getting text messages,” Suozzi related. “A plainclothes officer came and told us to go to the dugout and not to move because they didn’t know if it was a coordinated attack.”

When they learned of the shooting, the Democrats stood and prayed for their colleagues.

“It was a very spontaneous, very nice,” Suozzi said.

At the following night’s game, Suozzi was in the starting lineup as a designated hitter. It was attended by 25,000 people and raised $1.5 million for various charities.

“There was tremendous unity between Democrats and Republicans,” he attested. “Too bad it took a tragedy like this but people are really talking about working together and building consensus.”

Asked how he did, Suozzi said, “I hit the ball very hard, but it was caught by the shortstop.”

Max Schulman of Plainview pointed out that reducing mass incarceration was a surprising area where both poliical parties could find common ground.
The Issues

Turning to hot button topics, Suozzi said he was opposed to efforts to gut the EPA and repeal/replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Obamacare.

“ACA is not working perfectly. It’s got problems and we need to fix them,” he said. “Don’t be manipulated by this idea that [the Republican plan] is about choice or freedom.”

With the GOP proposal to expand the insurance marketplace across state lines, he affirmed, you can buy much cheaper health insurance in another state, but that plan would not necessarily offer as much coverage. Republicans also seek to drop the individual mandate that forces people to buy insurance or face penalties.

“If people are free to choose, a lot of young people will not buy health insurance,” he said, noting that in his youth he felt the same way about Social Security, thinking he could withhold payments and invest the money. “Certain things you shouldn’t have a choice. It’s good for society as a whole that we’re all covered by insurance. It makes the cost cheaper in the long run.”

Our health care system, he concluded, “is still awful, way too expensive and not working the right way.”

Suozzi said he was in favor of a single payer system that would remove the profit motive and, by cutting out the paperwork associated with insurance reimbursement, even reduce bureaucracy. He was opposed, however to a bill introduced earlier this year by Democrat John Conyers of Michigan—H.R.676, Expanded & Improved Medicare For All Act—because it would increase taxes and New York is already a net donor to the federal government, sending much more money to Washington than it gets back.

“Until I know what the ramifications are, including the [Congressional Budget Office] score, I will not sign on, and I’ve been getting grief for it from the left,” Suozzi said.

Charles Maass of Manhasset asked about infrastructure—one of Trump’s promised “big ticket” items—and whether Suozzi agreed with the president’s emphasis on private-public partnership.

Suozzi noted that governments don’t want to pay large consulting fees such arrangements generate, and besides, they can borrow money at cheaper rates that private firms.

“Trump is wrong to rely so much on private-public partnership,” he said. “It won’t happen. I know from being in the business world. We’re going to have to invest a huge amount of money for infrastructure.”

Deborah Brooks, cofounder of Port Washington Advocates For Public Education stated, “the public school system is the bedrock of the Democratic society,” and went on to ask about plans by the Trump administration to increase vouchers allowing parents to send children to schools of their choice.

Suozzi responded, “I think the federal government should not try to privatize public education and should not create a charter school program. It’s a state and local issue, not one-size-fits-all approach.”

He thought the introduction of charter schools in New York City (in the 2000s) was the right idea, given the state of public schools at the time. And there’s been dramatic reforms as a result of these schools, but he was mainly opposed to them.

Applause broke out when Suozzi stated that he would vote against any education bill that would benefit private schools.

Suozzi called himself a strong advocate of gun control. He’s in favor of universal background checks, opposed by the NRA and the gun lobby, including many members of Congress.

“Why? Because somebody benefits from the status quo. Somebody benefits from keeping things the way they are. And they spend a lot of time and money to keep things that way,” Suozzi said, referring not just to gun control, but other controversial issues as well.

Russiagate

Though he has no doubt that Russia interfered in the last presidential election, Suozzi felt the partisanship over this controversy has blinded people to the larger problem of Russian subversion of democracies.

For this reason he has sponsored H.R. 2820, the Fight Russian Corruption Act, co-sponsored by Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and French Hill (R-Ark.). He was impressed by the bipartisanship in support of his bill and agreement by some administration foreign policy heavyweights that Russia represents a threat. The bill would charge the State Department with monitoring Russian anti-democratic activities.

Congressman Tom Suozzi hosts monthly town hall (Photos by Frank Rizzo)
Michael Paradise of Woodbury decried the hatred, apathy and ignorance that has resulted from our corrosive political culture.
Emoluments Is The Word

Suozzi talked about the president possibly violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prohibits federal employees from receiving money from foreign sources. He noted that a foreign government earlier this year canceled a party at the Ritz Carlton in D.C. and moved it to Trump International hotel. On a trip to Afghanistan, Suozzi stopped off in Abu Dhabi and saw a large banner advertisement for “Trump Estates.”

He has not, however, signed on to a lawsuit brought against the president by more than 150 Democrats, claiming that the chief executive has illegally profited from overseas investments.

“Why not?” he was asked.

“Because I want to have more facts and more details,” said Suozzi, an attorney by trade. “You’re supposed to build your case before you file a lawsuit.”

Working For More, Or Less

Unlike many Democrats, Suozzi is in favor of lowering the corporate tax rate (currently at 35 percent), feeling that it discourages firms from setting up facilities in the United States.

“We need to make ourselves more competitive by lowering the rate, not so that corporations can increase their dividends, or do more stock buybacks, but so that they can invest here and create more $80,000 per year jobs,” he said.

He went on to note that of the 105 million Americans working full time, 59 million make less than $50,000 per year. And though he firmly believes that everyone should be encouraged to go to college—citing the motto, “the more you learn the more you earn”—he acknowledged, “the one thing we’ve learned from this past election is that there is a big world out there left behind by technology and globalization.”

He cited a recent Wall Street Journal article he wrote about his encounter with three welders at his office. Ranging in age from 22 to 32, they earned from $99,000 to $140,000 last year.

Suozzi recently met with aerospace manufacturing executives, who told him there was a dearth of employees with high school-level skills such as welding.

“We have to stop looking down on jobs where you get your hands dirty,” he said. “We have to elevate people in these positions, so that they get the education to work in these professions and make a decent living and realize the American Dream.”

Voting, Or Not

Cindy Pabst of Glen Head wondered why the extremists from both parties seemed to have more influence than the great middle, usually voting in higher numbers and deciding the all-important primary races.

“Everybody’s busy with their lives, busy with their families, paying their bills,” said Suozzi, noting that there has been a successful effort by a section of the political and economic class to destroy people’s faith in the ability of government to solve problems.

Suozzi encouraged people to vote at all levels and pay attention to local races, noting that school boards, county executives, town supervisors and state representatives have much more influence on day-to-day life than what happens in Washington.

Mike Ederer of Roslyn asked about voter suppression efforts, and President Trump’s claim that 3-5 million illegal voters resulted in his losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.

Suozzi said, “There is a concern about that. I was asked to sign onto a bill sponsored by John Lewis, the Voter Empowerment Act. The last thing we need to do in this country is to have less people voting. We need more people voting.”

Learning About The Other

Suozzi said he’s made an effort to understand other cultures, other religions. He attended two iftars (the evening meal in which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast), and suggested to the ambassador from the United Arab Emirates to invite Christian and Jews to such events.

As with the political divide, Suozzi believes that “people need to understand where the other is coming from,” and as far as the three major religions, they all sprang from Abraham, and “we share much more in common than what divides us.”

Mike Paradise of Woodbury bemoaned the state of cynicism and the level of hatred, apathy and ignorance when it came to politics. Referring to the recent incident he said, “And now citizens are taking action on their own by going to a park and shooting someone because of his political opinions.”

Paradise wanted to know how we could love each other and work together and asked Suozzi how he was dealing with the great political divide.

Suozzi said he’s spending a lot of time at bipartisan events. He gets up at 6 a.m. to attend a fitness class run by a Republican congressman from Oklahoma who’s a former mixed martial arts fighter. Members of both parties attend and “it’s much easier for us to have a shared experience.”

The Catholic “Yankee” Democrat detailed how he went to a nondenominational prayer breakfast mainly attended by Southern Evangelical Republicans. He got to know his colleagues, one of whom was the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Phil Roe of Tennessee.

“So I wanted to talk to him about [the VA hospital] in Northport. And he knew about Northport, and was doing something about it,” Suozzi said. “One of the guys playing third base for the Republicans the day of the shooting was from Mississippi. He almost got shot. I had gone on a delegation with him to Guantánamo prison. Now we have a relationship because of the baseball game.”

Working Life

Suozzi said he spends a lot of time on his two committee assignments, Foreign Affairs and Armed Services, and noted that, “it was very serious business.”

He recently questioned Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in appearances before his committees.

Suozzi is the co-chair of the Problem Solver Caucus, consisting of 22 Republicans and 22 Democrats and focusing on tax reform, infrastructure and other topics to try to forge consensus on common areas.

“Everything gets thrown off track every time the president tweets,” lamented Suozzi, noting he was on CNN recently and wanted to talk about the issues, but every question seemed to be about the president’s latest tweet.

Asked about his relations with Republican congressmembers, he said, “We don’t agree, but we treat each other civilly.”

He blamed media, and especially social media, for setting the negative tone and playing a big part in pulling people apart.

Suozzi bemoaned the institutional challenges that Congress faces. There’s very little time to think, to sit down and talk to colleagues.

Also, out of the 435 congressional seats, 380 are considered safe because of gerrymandering (the practice of carving out districts so that parties can take advantage of demographics that favor them). There’s about 50 toss up seats and his has been identified by the Democrats as one of the 19 targeted by Republicans to regain in the 2018 election.

Inspired By MLK

Nancy Solomon of Roslyn Heights asked Suozzi about the philosophy that inspired him. He said that in his office he has a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. in a small church basement. He noted that people think King emerged as giving his “I Have A Dream” speech in front of multitudes at the Lincoln Memorial. They don’t know that he had to spend years organizing in humble places, and “have to worry about nobody showing up, or getting beat up when they went outside. He kept on pushing and pushing, and over time, the truth won.”

He added, “I believe more and more, as I get older, that we share more in common than what divides us. The things that divide us make up 5 percent or less of who we are. Everybody is worried about the same stuff: Who loves me? Who doesn’t love me? What’s right? What’s wrong? How am I going to pay my bills or going to take care of my kids and my family?”

He summed up, “If you keep on fighting and pushing for what you believe—it’s not going to change the world right away, it’s not like in the movies. You get knocked down. I’ve been knocked down lots of times. But over time you will succeed and accomplish the things you set out to do. It’s hard work. I’m exhausted right now. I’m dying to go home.”

Turning philosophical, Suozzi noted that the two main features of the American political economy, capitalism and democracy, have to be kept in balance. Capitalism is about competition and some can’t compete and will be left behind. Democracy is the idea that all people are created equal.

“We can’t let people be left behind because of the capitalist system. But we can’t go too far in putting rules in place in our zeal to protect people, which is noble and good, but if we go too far, we ruin the capitalist system. If we don’t do enough, and leave [a free hand] for the capitalists, we screw the people.”

He summed up, “The challenge for our society is to find the balance…that’s why this is hard and confusing and difficult stuff that requires a tremendous amount work over long period of time.”