ROOT -- Fort Plain resident James Douglas, age 12, waited until nearly the end of an hour-long town hall event with his congressman before asking his question.
"You have been talking about stagnant minimum wages. What is your idea of a minimum wage, and should it apply to farmers?" Douglas asked.
Douglas was one of approximately 30 residents of the 19th Congressional District who met with U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, Tuesday at Root Town Hall. Douglas' question was prompted by the Raise the Wage Act, which would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 over a six-year period.
The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill, with Delgado's support, in July, but the Republican controlled U.S. Senate has not voted on it.
"No, that's why I keep flagging that exception," Delgado told Douglas. "One, the minimum wage bill does have carve outs for farmers, and two it has a build-up over six years."
Douglas said he opposes any minimum wage increases because he thinks it will hurt farmers trying to hire labor for their farms, although he acknowledged most farms tend to pay a little more than minimum wage. He said his family sold their dairy farm in 2014, and his father retired after developing a hip injury, but still works as a farm hand for a family friend. Douglas said he's fearful that an increase in the federal minimum wage could cause that farm to go under.
"I think it's ludicrous to raise the minimum wage on already struggling people," Douglas said.
The event was the 19th town hall Delgado has held during his freshman term in Congress, and he faced tough questions and concerns from start to finish from many farmers and rural residents of his district, particularly on the topics of the minimum wage, globalism, education, election law and even race and civil rights based on sexual orientation and gender status.
Delgado explained why he supports increasing the minimum wage.
"The minimum wage hasn't been raised in about a decade," Delgado said. "The purchasing power of the minimum wage over the past 30 years has declined by over 60 percent. Meanwhile the cost of health care has gone up. The cost of housing, where you live, has gone up. Education, clothing, everything, has gone up, so at a certain point there has to be a way to account for people who are making money, but in doing so really don't have the capacity of purchasing anything," he said.
Tanya Moyer, owner of a diversified livestock farm called Mulligan-Creek Acres in Sprakers, in operation since 1928, said she has trouble finding workers now to fill three part-time farmhand positions. She raises Berkshire pigs, chickens, lambs and turkeys with organic feed. She said increasing the minimum wage will just increase consumer prices. Even if state and federal minimum wage increases are not meant to affect farm labor, it still results in higher farm wages because "people hear it, and now that's their baseline."
Delgado acknowledged that minimum wage increases can affect the entire labor market, but said farmers like Moyer have been facing labor shortages even before the proposed minimum wage increases on the state and federal level. He disputed Moyer's argument that increasing the minimum wage would result in general cost of living inflation.
"The cost of living has been going up, even while we've had wages capped, for 30 years," he said.
In what was typical for the event, Delgado often faced a vigorous series of interjections from conservatives in the crowd.
"The minimum wage was never meant to be a living wage!" said one man. "It was meant to be a starting wage. It was meant to teach kids how to go and get a job and then advance to a higher and higher skilled and higher paying job."
"Sir, I certainly agree with the concept," Delgado said. "Here's what's changed, that world view. At a point in time you were correct, but right around that time you could actually graduate from high school and get a job, a good paying job. Right around that time if you went to college, you were on your way."
"Yep," the man said. "We destroyed our manufacturing base that allowed those kids to go out of high school and get a $40,000 or $50,000 a year job that paid very well. The government did that."
Delgado agreed, but said over the course of his lifetime U.S. corporations have manipulated government officials into allowing the country's manufacturing base to move off-shore in search of cheaper labor.
"I think we have to account for the fact that there have been some trends that have changed the dynamic that we live in and the country that we live in," Delgado said.
Delgado said he opposes the Citizens United V. FEC Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations and other associations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political speech, including campaign ads and other lobbying. He said the recent Supreme Court's ruling allowing extreme political gerrymandering of congressional districts, shaping them in a way that helps one party, will only exacerbate the problems facing rural people.
"I serve with individuals who represent safe seats, and I can tell you the mentality of someone who serves constituents in a safe seat. Well, they have the luxury to, in essence, just preach to the base, because they know as long as they maintain that base of support, there is no way they can be beat in a general election by the other party," he said. "So all you have to do is worry about who is more conservative, if you're a Republican, and who's more liberal if you're a Democrat. It's a race to the extreme to see who can hold power. We need to take that [congressional district mapping] power out of the hands of elected officials and put it in the hands of independent commissions."
"The first step is term limits!" William Benninger interjected.
Delgado said he favors term limits, but also thinks members of House should serve terms longer than two years. He said the 19th Congressional District is almost unique in that it is split almost evenly between one third Democrats, one third Republicans and one third independents.
Delgado did not directly criticize President Donald Trump during the tevent, and he has not said he'll support impeachment of the president, but he did reject the president's ban of transgender people from serving in the military, and he called out personal attacks and ugly rhetoric in politics.
"That's not the America I know, and I can tell you something, I wouldn't be here if that was the case. I think you all can tell — I'm not a white person. I'm an African-American. This district is 90 percent white," he said.
"Actually," Benninger said, interrupting again, "I treat you as a black American not an African American. I don't know why you put labels on it."
"OK, however you want to treat me, sir, I appreciate it, I hear you, but my point is perceived differences are just that, perceived," Delgado said. "There's a reality underneath the perception, and the only way to get to that reality is if you get out and listen and engage with people in a meaningful way and build relationships that are invested in the community."
Delgado toured Montgomery County Tuesday before the town hall event, and met with county leaders and visited Delnero Furniture, a custom furniture maker in Fort Plain where he discussed legislation he has proposed for a "one-stop shopping" system for small businesses looking for information on how to comply with federal regulations.