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Accidental Politician: A Senator for Everyone The Satya Interview with
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
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
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
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
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
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