PULASKI — U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi fielded questions spanning a bevy of issues from constituents around New York’s 22nd district on Tuesday at a town hall held at Pulaski High School.
Brindisi, D-Utica, was elected in 2018 defeating Republican Congresswoman Claudia Tenney in a contested race that was decided by 1 percent of the vote. The 22nd Congressional District spans eight counties and includes the eastern half of Oswego County.
“When I was running for Congress, I said I would show up in every corner of this district to give people an opportunity to feel like they have been heard,” Brindisi told The Palladium-Times on Wednesday. “I was very happy to be in Pulaski and fulfill that commitment.”
The well-attended event got underway with Brindisi speaking on his first year as a member of the House of Representatives.
“The question I ask myself before I vote on every single issue is ‘what is in the best interest of the people reside in the 22nd Congressional District?’” Brindisi said, noting he wants to reflect the interests of constituents regardless of their partisan affiliation. “I try to take that thought to the House floor every single day.”
Brindisi sits on the House Committees on Agriculture and Veterans’ Affairs and discussed legislation he has introduced and co-sponsored during his first year, including a bill aiming to prevent high suicide rates among veterans.
“Within this district reside nearly 50,000 veterans,” he said. “That's a big number for a congressional district and our veterans have done so much and sacrificed so much for our nation that I feel is very important as a representative down in Washington that I am being responsive to their needs and that they are getting all the benefits that they earned.”
The Support for Suicide Prevention Coordinators Act requires the office of the federal comptroller general to conduct an assessment of the responsibilities, workload, and vacancy rates of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) suicide prevention coordinators, the bill states.
“We want to get more resources for our VA to be able to deal with this crisis because you have so many disability claims that are being filed by returning veterans,” Brindisi said, adding “more than 22 veterans lose their lives to suicide each day.”
The issue, he continued, is exacerbated in rural areas.
“The VA is overwhelmed, and as you get into more rural areas like the ones we live in it's harder and harder for the suicide prevention coordinators out there in the VA to get out into the community,” he said.
Brindisi was also one of the original co-sponsors on the Never Forget the Heroes Act, which was signed into law on Tuesday and permanently reauthorizes funding to the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund (VCF) otherwise set to expire by the end of the year.
“The president just signed it into law to help these men and women,” Brindisi said amid a roar of applause. “To help our police, firefighters, emergency medical services and all of our first responders who ran toward that danger on 9/11, stayed there at ground zero and aided in the recovery effort.”
The bill passed both the House and the Senate with only two senators voting against it and ensures the VCF will receive $10.2 billion in funding in the next 10 years. Brindisi praised the legislation as a bipartisan effort.
“Finally, common sense prevailed and Democrats and Republicans came together to pass this bill into law and that is a good thing,” Brindisi said.
The freshman Congressman also took questions from constituents, ranging from concerns over damage to public and private property caused by high Lake Ontario water levels to Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and a host of other international issues.
Responding to multiple questions regarding his stance on Plan 2014 the water level management plan enacted by the International Joint Commission (IJC) in an effort to protect against extreme water levels, Brindisi called the plan a “big problem.”
“I'm not an expert, but I talked to a lot of folks that I wish the IJC was talking to because there's a lot of knowledge within this community about this problem,” Brindisi said. “In March we saw this train coming and we started getting calls into our office asking ‘what's going to happen? What is going on here? Are they going to let the water out?’ So we sent a letter to the IJC back in March saying, what are you going to do? We got no response.”
Brindisi said the letters persisted to no avail.
“Now we're faced with catastrophic damages again for the second time in three years to property along the shoreline,” he said in reference to the at-the-time historic Lake Ontario water levels experienced in 2017.
The congressman also joined Oswego County officials in demanding the IJC look into the possibility of reinstating the previous water-regulating strategy that preceded Plan 2014
Earlier this month, The Palladium-Times reported county officials said in 53 years under Plan 1958-DD, which was enacted in 1964, significant flooding occurred on two occasions in 1973 and 1993.
“It seems to me that for the past 50 years under the old plan, it seemed to work pretty well,” Brindisi said.
A group of elected officials representing Oswego County met with IJC representatives in July to discuss what could be done in regards to Plan 2014, and according to Brindisi the representatives pushed IJC leaders to review the current tenets of the plan.
“We told them ‘you have to let water out of the lake’ and we asked them 'what are you doing going forward to ensure that this is not happening again?,’” he said. “They are telling us that they are going to review Plan 2014.”
Due to the binational nature of the issue, Brindisi said it is sometimes “difficult to come to an agreement” with the Canadian commissioners in the IJC.
“We have to remember this is a bilateral treaty so we cannot act on our own,” Brindisi said. “We have to get an agreement with the Canadians, which is sometimes difficult to do. First and foremost in my mind should be the life, health and property of the people on the shores of Lake Ontario. Shipping is important and I understand the environment is important, but to me first and foremost it's the health, safety and property of the people who live on the shoreline.”
Brindisi said Canadian interests are prioritizing commerce.
“It seems to me that the Canadians want to push shipping,” he said. “That's their number one priority. We have got to get the communities to agree with us on how to move forward, and I think because (Canadian communities) have also experienced some flooding on their side they are more willing to look at Plan 2014.”
Sandy Pond resident MaryLou Mills said the high lake levels have brought other issues to her community, noting municipalities are dumping septic systems into the lake.
“Everyone around here has septic systems and they're flooded,” she said. “The municipalities are so overwhelmed they just have to dump it into the lake. I've been told we shouldn't be swimming in Sandy Pond, we shouldn't be letting our animals swim near it and we should not be eating fish from there.”
Mills called on Brindisi to push for testing of local waterways in order to ensure community safety and compared the county’s dire situation to Flint, Mich., a community that has struggled with drinking water in the last decade.
“First and foremost in my mind is the people and the businesses that live around the shore,” Brindisi said in response. “That is number one in my mind. I'll push everything I can to try and get some changes done. We don't have to deal with this every single year and I'm sorry for what is going on right now.”
Constituents Harrison Landry and Daniel Barefoot from Utica quizzed Brindisi on taking a stance against what they deemed was “hateful rhetoric” tweeted out by President Donald Trump
“It seems more and more times where you had the opportunity to stand up for the more hateful rhetoric and you've taken this kind of middle of the road approach and it doesn't seem to cut it,” Barefoot said.
In response, Brindisi said he voted on a resolution condemning the president’s remarks that suggested a group of congresswomen should go back to their “corrupt” countries of origin if they did not agree with the current state of government in the United States.
“For many years now, we've got tweets regarding your comments regarding Palestine in general,” Barefoot continued. “You have never spoken of Palestine with the same devotion that you speak of Israelis. You say that you want a two state solution, however, your comments on the Israeli government are those of an unalienable devotion.”
Barefoot said Brindisi had claimed in a magazine article “he would not fund a terrorist organization.”
“The leader of the Palestinian authority has said he welcomes every drop of blood spilled on Israeli soil,” Brindisi fired back.
Brindisi told The Palladium-Times on Wednesday he tries to prepare for all types of questions.
“I try to prepare and be ready for town halls prior to going but you never know what questions people are gonna ask,” he said. “As long as you stay well read, tt’s the nature of the job. One day you deal with flooding in Oswego County and the next day you are voting on a resolution to condemn arm sales to the Saudis. You have to be prepared to talk.”
Now in his ninth town hall since being voted into office, Brindisi called the Pulaski event “another day in the office."
“I feel good because we are showing up in every corner of this district listening and working with Democrats and Republicans to get things done,” Brindisi said Wednesday. “That is what I am doing now and that is what I campaigned on.”