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January 2005
The Accidental Politician: A Senator for Everyone
The Satya Interview with Liz Krueger

 

Liz Krueger
State Senator Liz Krueger co-sponsored a press conference with Farm Sanctuary regarding a proposed Downed Animal Protection Law.

Feminist Nawal Saadawi: Future President of Egypt?

Seventy-three year-old Egyptian author and feminist, Dr. Nawal Saadawi announced that she will stand in Egypt’s presidential elections scheduled for October 2005 when President Hosni Mubarak’s fourth term expires. While Saadawi’s books on women and gender issues have been widely read and translated, her views have enraged the country’s conservatives, resulting in death threats, accusations of heresy, and imprisonment.

Under the current constitution, Saadawi’s nomination is unlikely because only Parliament can nominate the country’s sole presidential candidate. Activists are petitioning for constitutional reform with respect to direct elections and term limits. Saadawi would be the first woman to run for president, and although she does not expect to win, she hopes to move the country towards constitutional reform, combat corruption, and reject American colonialism because right now citizens are “just spectators without a voice and without power.”—S.I.

Before becoming a New York State Senator in 2002, Liz Krueger spent decades working to alleviate poverty by increasing access to food, jobs, affordable housing and health care. As an expert on hunger and homelessness, Krueger was coaxed into running for office by the very politicians she had worked with—and often criticized—as an advocate.

As Senator to New York City’s 26th District, in east midtown, Krueger currently chairs the Minority Program Development, is the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Standing Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development, and is a member of seven other committees. In her first term, Liz Krueger was a leader in the successful fight to pass the Women’s Health and Wellness Act. She also supports a more open government and campaign finance reform, and equitable funding for public education, including higher education.

As a relative newcomer to animal and environmental issues, Senator Krueger has proved herself a compassionate listener and a results-driven politician. She has backed bills banning canned hunts and the use of downed animals for food, and has fought to expand recycling and the closure of the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Just after November’s election, Senator Liz Krueger took some time to tell Catherine Clyne about her career as a politician, and share some of the things she’s learned along the way.

You are considered by many to be a champion of some of the most underdog issues. Can you talk about some of the things that concern you most and that you dedicate most of your time and energy to?

Before I decided to run for elected office, I spent 20 years as an advocate for, and running programs on behalf of, low-income people in New York City: emergency food and eviction prevention programs, access to health care and jobs programs—programs for people that many define as underdogs, people who have the least access to assistance from government and the greatest needs. I always felt that my work was based on my philosophy of social and economic justice: this country was founded on and will only survive if it continues to expand its efforts to assure equality of opportunity for everyone and protection and assistance to those who need our help. One of the teachings I’ve always followed is that the test of a society is how well it treats those in the greatest need.

I loved the work. I always felt like I got more out of it than I was actually giving. There is something amazingly rewarding about creating a model program to assist people, and getting it off the ground. To assist people to have greater income; purchase food; be able to stay in their homes and not end up in the shelter system or on the streets of New York; get the skills needed to get a job and pull themselves out of poverty; get access to health care and insurance to cover it when you are sick or if someone in your family is ill and you have no ability to get assistance for them. There is enormous reward on a very individual basis in that kind of work.

So while many people would often say to me, “I don’t know how you do that every day, this stuff is so depressing,” I actually never found it depressing. I found myself sometimes overwhelmed by the intensity of the problem, but I am not a pessimist by nature. I always believe the glass is half full, and that even as an individual, if you set your mind to something you can make a difference; but it works better in coalition. Any credit I get, I try to make sure I attribute to the fact that I worked in coalitions. That is how you accomplish your goals.

You express something that a lot of our readers feel, which is you don’t necessarily find working on these issues depressing, sometimes just overwhelming. I think most progressives and activists may feel a little dark in light of November’s election results. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s perfectly okay to take a week or two and say, “Oh my god, I am so depressed. I can’t believe it came out this way, what are we going to do?” But frankly, that’s all you get.

The real question is what are we going to do to turn this around? It’s going to be a long, hard battle, but have an appreciation of history. In my opinion, President Bush didn’t win on election day. He won because the conservative right spent 30 years building town by town, state by state, a sort of army of people who believe—even though I don’t agree with them—that they needed to change the direction of this country, and needed to be organized and strategic, and take a long-term look at how they were going to get where they got. We weren’t doing that and, frankly, we dropped the ball. And it is going to take us years to change the government, to build our own bases and educate Americans at the grassroots level to understand why the direction we’re going in is wrong and in fact incredibly damaging to the future of this country.

So you can sit at home and lick your wounds for awhile, but if you’re seriously committed to making change for the better—if not for yourself then your children and grandchildren—then you have to pick yourself up soon, evaluate where we went wrong and figure out how to be smarter and more strategic in accomplishing our goals. The challenge is in front of us and we have no choice but to go out and try to meet it.

Shifting to animals, you’ve been recognized by the animal advocacy community as an animal-friendly legislator. What are some of the things you’ve worked on concerning animals?
One issue that was brought to my attention early on was the limited access to neutering and spaying of animals, and the huge numbers of animals that were being put to death through the city’s [shelter] system because we didn’t have mechanisms for more people to adopt them. I certainly was aware of these things, but as a candidate I wasn’t necessarily focusing on them as far as what government could be doing differently. It was brought to my attention that there actually was quite a bit that could be done relatively easily to increase opportunities to spay and neuter animals at low cost.

It was also brought to my attention by the League of Humane Voters that there was a whole lobbying agenda in Albany and at the city level. We went over bills that were already proposed but hadn’t moved, and bills that had actually passed so that I got a better understanding of the history of animal welfare legislation in the state. One that was moving along—granted slowly—when I first got involved was a bill to ban canned hunting. To be honest, I don’t think I even knew about canned hunting. It would never have entered my mind that something as perverse as that was actually considered a legal quote-unquote ‘sport’ in the state of New York. I went to a breakfast sponsored by a couple of animal rights organizations and I saw some video footage from some sites in New York state. It was horrible, just horrible: the realization that this was legal and people were making money from this, and others were convinced that it’s actually sport—tame, elderly zoo animals, being fed through the fence and people would then stand there as they got shot.

That was in my first session in Albany and I immediately wanted to be as active as I could to push this bill through.

During the course of that, I also was introduced to the work of Farm Sanctuary and [its co-founder] Gene Bauston. We were going over some of the issues they were working on and successes they had had, and I was giving them advice about how to lobby different elected officials. And we started talking about the fact that in New York, downed animals could be entered into the food stream. I was horrified. I saw immediately that this could be successfully lobbied for change in Albany if one worked with it as a public health issue in addition to being an animal welfare issue. And that whether or not they took a position on the humane treatment of farm animals, it would not be that difficult to talk to the general public about the importance of not eating food products that could be infected with diseases such as mad cow.

We introduced a bill to do away with the use of downed animals in the food supply. It was a couple of months before the case in Washington state, the ‘first’ known case of mad cow disease in the U.S. beef system. I got greater support for the bill when that came up. The USDA of course put out some new regulation that would not allow downed animals into the food stream. I continue to take the position that New York ought to have its own law, despite the USDA regulations. For one thing, the USDA regulations only apply to slaughterhouses under USDA auspices—that’s not the only place where downed animals might enter the food stream. The fact is, these are simply temporary regulations, not yet federal law, which means they can come or go on any given day. While a New York law would be on the books and real for the state.

What are some of the things that have prevented a state law from coming to pass?
I’ve had farmers say to me, ‘We voluntarily follow this anyway. The last thing on earth we would want to do is risk the reputation of our industry with anybody getting sick.’ Some voluntarily follow the law but get nervous about actually establishing it as a law. Others don’t believe in any kind of regulation on the food industry, and so by definition don’t support it. And there are others who have simply misconstrued the law—they think that if this proposal became law, animal rights activists will come to their farms and take their animals away from them. There is also this sort of [game] of misinformation, where somebody decides to kill off this bill and scares people away with false information.

Let’s jump to the environment because you are also known as something of an environmentalist.
You know, sometimes I feel like saying, “Let’s just get to the truth: I have very smart staff who bring important issues to my attention and educate me. And if I do good or look good as a legislator, it’s because my real skill in life is finding very smart people to hire and then listening to them.”
That’s one of the best answers I’ve ever heard. [Laughs.]

I really do believe that. And I’ll take credit for hiring them, I mean I get to choose them.

[But with regard to the environment,] some of this I think is instinctual. We’ve done enormous damage. If we don’t turn it around, if we don’t completely reevaluate how we are interrelating with the natural environment of our earth, the things that we care about [won’t] matter [to] the generations after us—it will be a moot point. What is complicated is figuring out how at the state level to make changes that can be significant. When you are talking about the environment, and clean air and clean water, you’re often talking about issues that are national and even international. Global warming—the U.S. has more than its share of responsibility for the problem, given how much of the world’s energy we are using. But let’s face it, the solution is going to have to be international treaties that we all abide by and that the U.S. actually agrees to participate in, which of course is a problem right now since our government doesn’t seem to even respect the international treaties we’ve already signed. So I recognize that some environmental policy issues are pretty complex. But you also have to stop and say, ‘All right, what can we do locally?’

I give enormous credit to Eliot Spitzer, the New York Attorney General, for going far beyond what is normally considered the role of an attorney general, and suing other states and corporations in other states, on behalf of the environment of New York.

You had spent decades as an activist. How did you become interested in running for elected office?
I am what you would call an accidental politician. I never would have run for office, never even considered it if I had not been approached by two other statesmen, Tom Quinn and Eric Schneiderman, and asked to do it. And yet I am so glad that I did make the decision to do it.

I spend a lot of time now trying to encourage people, especially women, to run for office. I am on the board of the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee, and our mission is to support young progressive women to get involved with politics because women are 51 percent of the population and only 17 percent of elected officials. I also find that many activist women who would be terrific in government would never entertain [the idea] on their own. I have had my women staff go to trainings where they stand up and say ‘Some day I may run for elected office.’ You have to think about it, for the future. You are dedicated and passionate about issues and that’s exactly who I want representing me in government.

What I find most rewarding on my side of the fence is educating people to reevaluate their relationship to government. Tell your readers not to be cynical, not to give up. That is exactly what they want. They want us to feel powerless—like we cannot make any changes. This only allows them to change things the way they want. And we can’t fall for that.

I run a youth civics program for high school students [in which] we are not just trying to get them to register to vote. I tell them about how my generation is leaving them with a whole slew of problems and that we are depending on them to come up with better answers. So they need to get involved early. I can taste the change.

To learn more or to contact Senator Liz Krueger, visit www.lizkrueger.com.

 

 


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