Now that seven donkeys and two elephants have entered the 21st Congressional District race, the field is both crowded and confusing. There is so little known and so much to learn about most of the candidates. Then there is the shadow of “the 800-pound gorilla,” Paul Tonko, darkening the entire race course.
Will he or won’t he run? Like Mario Cuomo, who vacillated about running for president and was dubbed Hamlet on the Hudson, Tonko is beginning to look like Hamlet on the Mohawk.
It’s been seven weeks since The Daily Gazette’s Michael Lamendola wrote a piece on Tonko’s potential run for Michael McNulty’s 21st Congressional District seat, in which Tonko is quoted as saying he was going to announce his intentions soon. Speculation about a possible Tonko run had been going on for several months before Lamendola’s article. And since the story appeared, I also listened to an interview with Tonko on a local radio station, in which he sounded very much like a candidate.
The characterization of Tonko as an 800-pound gorilla was made by an anonymous Democratic official. Out here in the provinces, Tonko is more like a sacred cow, and so I know I will take some heat for what I am about to say.
As always, let’s get the disclaimers out of the way first. I don’t know Tonko personally and have nothing against him personally. He seems like a man of integrity, and he has sponsored some good legislation. But I think Tonko would be a poor candidate for Congress. Why? Because I don’t think he was a very good assemblyman.
Are we better off?
In the 1980 presidential race, Ronald Reagan asked the question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” If Tonko runs for Congress, his opponents need to ask, “Are you better off than you were 24 years ago?” Twenty-four years is the period of time that Tonko spent as assemblyman from New York state’s 105th Assembly District. That’s a quarter of a century, half of Tonko’s life. In short, it’s a long time.
I am better off economically than I was 24 years ago, but it is in spite of Tonko not because of him. I am better off because my wife and I work hard and are very frugal. But when I look around Montgomery County, where I have lived for 30 years, it is hard to see much improvement.
This is particularly true of Amsterdam. When I moved to Amsterdam, Tonko’s hometown, in 1978, I don’t recall seeing one boarded-up building in the entire city. Now you can drive down almost any street and see one or more. Coleco Industries was the leading employer in the county at the time.
At its peak, the company employed almost 5,000 people in Fulton and Montgomery counties and bused people in from Schoharie County. According to Montgomery County’s Web site, the leading employer now is St. Mary’s Hospital with less than 1,000 employees.
Sharing in the blame
Obviously, Tonko cannot be held solely responsible for Montgomery County’s economic situation. Coleco Industries contributed to its own downfall by unwise business decisions. Nevertheless, Tonko is part of the problem, not the solution.
Tonko, and the same could be said for many of New York state’s senators, assemblymen and assemblywomen, is part of a system that spends more than it should, often on things that aren’t needed, then raises our taxes and user fees to pay for them.
Two of Tonko’s biggest achievements were helping create Amsterdam’s Riverlink Park and “bridge to nowhere,” and helping Beech-Nut move from Canajoharie to Amsterdam. Both of these projects are typical of a political point of view that looks to government for solutions rather than to the private sector.
If Tonko had ever helped hold the line on spending, I wouldn’t be writing this. If he had ever spoken up about how broken New York state’s political system is, I wouldn’t be writing this, but he never did. He couldn’t, because he believes in the system, a system which says that government should take care of everyone from the day they are born to the day they die. Of course, a government that does that is also a government that is going to regulate you and your freedoms from the day you are born to the day you die — and ask you to foot the bill.
‘Change’ can be scary
According to Lamendola’s article, Tonko is “considering a candidacy because I believe we need a new direction.” When a politician talks about a new direction or uses the word “change,” I start jingling the coins in my pocket, to remind myself that change is what you get back at the grocery store and it’s also what you have left in your purse when politicians get done taking your money and giving it to someone else.
A politician who has been part of New York state’s political system for a quarter-century, a system that has not changed for the better during that time, is not likely to make any real change in Washington, D.C. either.
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.