Waite: On Nov. 8, consider Jan. 6

Photo used with permission. Congressional candidate Liz Joy poses for a selfie in Washington, D.C., on on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021

Photo used with permission. Congressional candidate Liz Joy poses for a selfie in Washington, D.C., on on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021

WEIGHING IN – On the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko noticed that Washington, D.C., seemed busier than usual, perhaps akin to crowds that arrive in town for a State of the Union Address. Tonko, a Democrat from Amsterdam, didn’t expect that hours later a mob would be marching toward the House chamber, where Tonko sat in the balcony with about two dozen fellow legislators. Members of the Capitol Police force barricaded doors with bookcases, but outside the chamber the noise was getting louder and louder to the point of pulsating. 

Around the chamber, Capitol Police officers rushed to lock doors, even pausing to consider whether a handicap-accessible entrance should be closed off, Tonko recalled this past week during a meeting with The Daily Gazette’s editorial board. 

Tonko said he heard doors rocking and shaking. Then, he heard gunfire. 

One colleague was so overcome with fear, she lay flat on the floor screaming for police officers to help her put on a gas mask.

Andrew Waite - Weighing In

“I thought it was curtains,” Tonko said in an emotional retelling of his Jan. 6 experience. “I thought we were done.” 

Meanwhile, Liz Joy, a Republican from Glenville who is running against Tonko in New York’s 20th Congressional District, was also in D.C. on Jan. 6. She helped organize a charter bus trip down to the nation’s capital to participate in the “Stop the Steal” rally. 

Yes, peaceful protest is anyone’s right in this country – and that right must remain protected. In addition, it’s important to note that Joy did not storm the Capitol, and she said this week she was two miles from the building – although she told the Gazette in January 2021 that she was three football fields from the Capitol. Joy has also condemned the violence that occurred, and in a meeting with the editorial board this week she said she now believes President Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election. 

Still, the Jan. 6 experiences of the 20th Congressional District candidates stand in stark contrast. Two months after Tonko defeated Joy in their first Congressional matchup, she was posing for selfies during a rally that questioned the results of a legitimate Presidential election and spreading misinformation about left-wing groups being responsible for the violence at the Capitol; Tonko was fearing for his life while doing his job. 

Recent New York Times/Siena College polling found 71% of Americans believe our democracy is at risk. That’s a sobering statistic. Yet only 7% believe that threat to democracy is a top issue in the upcoming midterms.

Tonko’s vivid retelling of what he and other leaders went through on Jan. 6 underscores just how real the threat actually is. If we continue to ignore threats to our democracy or place those threats on the backburner, we risk heading down a very dark path. Jan. 6 was an indicator of how bad things can get — and, in case anyone had forgotten, Friday morning’s news about U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband being brutally beaten with a hammer inside the family’s San Francisco home should jolt us all back into focus. The alleged attacker was reportedly shouting “Where is Nancy?”  The echoes of Jan. 6 are impossible to ignore. 

This Election Day, it’s imperative that voters consider the weight they give to the clear and present danger facing our democracy, as well as to the accompanying divisive and elevated rhetoric that circles around all of it.  

In the days following Jan. 6, almost every Republican lawmaker said just how angry they were about the violence at the Capitol. Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy called it “the saddest day I have ever had serving as a member of this institution.” 

Less than two years later, though, that ire has instead often been redirected toward the House committee investigating what exactly it is that happened on Jan. 6. U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking House Republican who represents New York’s 21st Congressional District, has called the investigation a “political witch hunt.” McCarthy has called it a “sham process.” 

Many on the right simply wish Jan. 6 never happened, that it would fade from memory. 

But for Paul Tonko, an Amsterdam kid with an engineering degree from Clarkson, the events remain raw. After fleeing the House chamber, he traveled down with fellow colleagues to the tunnel connecting both Congressional chambers. He said he was reminded of scenes from 9/11, people rushing shoulder-to-shoulder to escape. Yet there was part of him that thought they may all very well be heading toward more armed insurrectionists. 

When we talk about some of history’s most horrific events – 9/11, the Holocaust – we often use phrases like “Never Forget” as a reminder of all who suffered and as motivation to do all we can not to find ourselves back under the weight of such immense heartache and sorrow. 

A few hours after being in the tunnel, once Capitol grounds had been thoroughly swept and law enforcement determined it was safe to come out of confinement, leaders were asked with a show of hands who wanted to get back to work. 

“Democracy has to win,” Tonko recalled thinking as he raised his hand to return to the chamber and vote to certify the results of the election. 

Democracy has to win. That’s what we all have to remember. 

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite

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