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Congressional Corner With Paul Tonko

America has not limited the spread of COVID-19.

In today’s Congressional Corner, New York Congressman Paul Tonko, a Democrat from the 20th district, continues his conversation with WAMC’s Alan Chartock.

Alan Chartock: Here we are in the Congressional Corner with Paul Tonko of New York's beautiful 20th district. Paul, we talked last time about Trump and the Russians. This time I want to talk about coronavirus impacts on the 20th district and on the county. We see this president not wearing a mask, leading this country in the wrong direction. I think being responsible for thousands of deaths because people didn't take the mask wearing seriously and the other precautions, what do you think?

Representative Paul Tonko: Well, I think it's absolutely regrettable that wearing a mask has turned into a political statement. I believe we honor the efforts to keep the people safe best when we rely on science. And so I think we should be heeding the advice of public health experts of epidemiologists, those individuals, the scientists that can guide us here. Dr. Fauci, for one has had a great reputation having worked on both sides of the political fence for decades. And to not acknowledge his guidance, to not acknowledge the advice that's shared is, I think, regrettable. And so while New York has paid a price, certainly with more than 30,000 lives lost in our home state, that's a heartbreaking number. But even with social distancing, and wearing masks, and doing our best to follow the guidelines, it's a number that I know will probably rise, but let's reduce that to the smallest possible number that we can imagine. And we need to remain vigilant. I think, right now, people had not been paying attention to the guidance of public health experts, and what scientific data instructed us to do. So, yeah, that I think leadership here is very important. I think that the fact that there were support groups just following the president because he didn't wear a mask or indicating that real men don't wear a mask, whatever the message is, is foolish. Let us let us follow scientists here. And for those who say, well, I don't have the disease. Look, you wear your mask to protect me, I wear my mask to protect you. And let's just make it a community experience.

And you wear your mask to protect yourself by the way that data is coming out. So, Paul Tonko I guess there is a question on this coronavirus thing as to whether or not we are in the kind of pandemic which is going to come back and hurt us in New York State. As you probably know, I talk to the governor every once in a while and he believes that's certainly possible and we really got to be ready for it don’t we?

I think so. I think that while some would like to portend it, I think the president, again, is in that category, that we're on the other side of this virus, that we've managed our way through, I for one, don't believe we're on the edge of the forest. I think we're deep in the woods. And when you look at several states like Texas and Florida and Arkansas and California having exponential rises in cases, that is a really major concern. And even New York has seen some rise in cases again. And I think people have not really paid attention to some of the efforts that we need to continue even after moving through these phases of reopening the economy. There has to be a disciplined approach, there has to be the maintenance of data, so that those data advise us and we do what is the best thing

Let me ask you this. Is there another COVID relief bill on the horizon? Because I know that the governor keeps waiting for states and municipalities to get some money so that we can balance our budgets.

Right. The house on May 15, I believe, well, over a month ago, passed the Heroes Act. And that was a $3 trillion plan. And I'll say, I'll be the first to say it's a frightening number. The price tag is huge, but every not every, many of the major economists and certainly our Federal Reserve through the messaging of the chair have all indicated that while these are pricey bills, the cost of doing nothing is much more pricey, and perhaps the damage is permanent. So there's really not a choice here. But Republicans and Democrats alike, Governor Hogan from Maryland, who leads the National Governors Association and our own host governor in that organization have implored the Senate to take up this bill. Over a trillion of the $3 trillion bill goes toward state governments and local governments, Republican and Democratic mayors alike. Republican county execs and Democrats alike across this great nation have all encouraged this be done. Certainly, if it's not done, essential services are either lost or paid for in a very regressive way to a property tax or to fees that are levied that would be devastating to the economy. And so what we're trying to avoid here is further layoffs that would only add to the ranks of the unemployed and continue services that are essential. These essential workers that were part of a bonus app opportunity that came via the heroes act included our sanitation workers, our police force, our firefighting forces, those who really keep us safe the front liners, who were fighting this COVID-19 pandemic, their selfless courageous behavior, where they risked everything so that we could continue life as close to normal as possible. They all need to be respected. And I believe the Heroes Act does that in a way. That enables us to keep our economy afloat and respond to what is perhaps the most difficult public health crisis this country has faced in a century.

So what's the bug in ships that the House has to get the Heroes Act passed?

Well, I think, you know, there's a bit of encouraging news here because the initial response for weeks was, go away file bankruptcy. Telling states and communities to file for bankruptcy is just not an acceptable answer. It's a foolish response. And the public knows that. That's why I think there's a two to one, if not growing sentiment amongst the public to support the Heroes Act. Or to say, wait, you know, which was the familiar message from the White House, wait for what? Another 126,000 deaths, another 2 million cases? That's unacceptable. And again, the cost, the impact, the permanent damage to the economy, if we do wait, is unacceptable. So now there's hope because I'm hearing from some here in Washington, from some of the groups that advocate for many good causes, they're saying that the Senate now is looking like they're going to take up some sort of measure and discuss that and develop it in the last two weeks of July. I don't know, we've waited what will be two months by then. But at least there are signs that they're panicking, that they're understanding that these numbers growing exponentially in Texas and Arkansas in Florida, where they're now going to host their national convention. Now there's some concern and you also see Alan that these communities via their mayors or the states through their governors are now calling upon, insisting upon mask wearing. So a different attitude a different approach because what they thought was over is starting to rear its ugly head again.

Okay, I have time for one fast question.


And that is the police brutality protests in New York 20 and around the country and the Democrats’ Justice Bill, is it a good idea to defund the police?

Well, you know, our bill doesn't defund the police. I think the work that was done with the Justice in Policing Act was a response to, I think, what is a long overdue bit of reforms. The video of George Floyd’s murder I think really spoke to millions of Americans. And you saw a lot of call for action. And so I think those reforms are a start in a process that really needs to address what are systemic situations across the board in several aspects of activity, from certainly housing to education, to health care, to law enforcement and beyond. And so I think it's a start, but there's not an effort here to defund. It’s an effort to reform and make more fair, and certainly there will be efforts to go forward and provide for resources so that some of the reforms for community policing are given the opportunity to really happen.

And very quickly Paul, isn't it the psychiatric or character of the people that are being recruited for these forces that somehow ought to be looked at?

Oh, absolutely, and it's why we have called for a register, that speaks to the performances, so that as an officer may leave one community and goes to another or another state, there should be a register by which you can look into the past performance. But recruitment and perhaps retraining there as to how to recruit so that character and integrity are certainly intact. Look, we look at so many who serve the community well, they protect the community well, but where there are those who can be capable of this order of dehumanizing and causing murder of individuals that has got to be addressed and now it's a discussion that this country has needed. Perhaps since its humble beginnings.

Thank you, Paul Tonko of New York's 20th district, so good of you to spend all of this time with us. We know how busy you are.

Our pleasure.

Dr. Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the University at Albany. He hosts the weekly Capitol Connection series, heard on public radio stations around New York. The program, for almost 12 years, highlighted interviews with Governor Mario Cuomo and now continues with conversations with state political leaders. Dr. Chartock also appears each week on The Media Project and The Roundtable and offers commentary on Morning Edition, weekdays at 7:40 a.m.