postheadericon Elections - U.S. Congress - An Interview With Nate Shinagawa

shinagawasign120Nate Shinagawa (D) has lived in the Finger Lakes region for over a decade, and has spent six of those years on the Tompkins County Legislature, where he currently serves as Vice-Chair.  He is a hospital administrator at Guthrie Health.  he says his run for Congress is a 'progressive, assertive grassroots campaign to shatter the gridlock in Washington and make government work again for everyday Americans'.

The Lansing Star caught up with him at his Ithaca campaign headquarters last week to ask him why he is running, and what he will do in Washington if elected.

Lansing Star: After redistricting, the new 23rd district is not as conservative as it was.  After being a legislator in Tompkins County it's a whole different picture now.  How is this going to change the way you represent the whole district?

shinawaga400Nate Shinagawa

Nate Shinagawa: First I would like to say that although this is a district that leans conservative... there is a big Republican population... there is also a big Democrat population.  But the real votes that are going to swing this one way or the other in this election are going to be independent and unaffiliated voters.

I think that's why this district has been represented by people like Stan Lundine and Amo Houghton, who were very evenhanded representatives.  They really struck a chord with the independents throughout this entire district.

For me being an independent politician is not just the positions one takes, but it's the attitude that you have.  Even though you are a Democrat you work with a Republican and you don't see the Republican as an enemy.  You see the Republican as a colleague you can work with to get things done.  It's that attitude that is so important, because you know we need to have an attitude adjustment in Washington.

So for me it doesn't change the way I lead, because I have led as a county legislator here in Tompkins County.  But also as a hospital administrator in the Southern Tier, so I work outside of Tompkins County.  In both those jobs I have had to be somebody that found ways to bring people together to get things done.  That is how I have always approached things, and the way that you do that, by the way, is to develop relationships with people and that's the foundation.  You have transparency, and you develop clear processes so that people feel they are part of the process and not being excluded.

If you do that you build a fundamental respect where even though they may disagree with you people respect you.  I think that respect is the key to governing well.

LS: We've heard Mr. Obama talk about providing federal funding for infrastructure.  I've been following Lansing's sewer struggle since the Lansing Star began, and as you know it's been about a 20 year process with no sewer yet.  There is no federal funding for the current project even though it's a solid project, just about shovel-ready.  Should federal money today be going to local infrastructure?  If so, what will you do to help localities get it?

NS: I believe it is one of the main jobs of your representatives to fight to get the tax dollars that you paid to the federal government to come back to your district and to your communities.  Right now I believe the tea party agenda, where they say 'no' to spending means that those that are in power, that have the most, keep on getting more, and it means that a representative like Reed isn't fighting to bring your tax dollars back into the community.

I would take a very different approach.  I would fight absolutely for every little grant program, for every bill that would help to bring investment into our communities throughout the Finger Lakes and the Southern Tier that are in dire need of that investment.

When it comes to sewers and other infrastructure, Lansing needs a sewer system.  I've followed that over the years, too, as a county legislator.  If you look across the Southern Tier, Corning, for example, and other communities, they too, have sewer systems that are in disrepair. 

If those sewer systems aren't paid for with the help of the federal government, it means they will be paid for through property taxes.  Property taxes, as you know, are regressive.  They hurt those on fixed incomes like senior citizens.  So I do not believe it is a sustainable thing to do, especially in this era of high property taxes in New york State.

To do these projects we really need to get state and federal support, and that's why I will be absolutely fighting for those dollars to come back to the community.

LS: Along the same lines, local school taxes are out of control.  In Lansing it's partly because of the failing power plant, the largest taxpayer in Lansing and I think in the County as well.

NS: Yes it is.

LS: But cuts in state and federal aid also significantly contributed.  Should the federal government be investing more in public education?

NS: First let me talk about AES Cayuga.  The people of Lansing should know that along with Martha Robertson and other members of the Industrial Development Agency I have taken a lead role in doing everything we can to renegotiate the PILOT agreement for reinvesting in the plant, to reduce their sales taxes and all these programs and incentives to keep them alive and open.

We've gone the extra mile.  I know you've reported on that.

That shows you my attitude.  I will be a hands-on Congressperson when I get elected.

In terms of school funding, yes there is a role for federal and state dollars to help with our schools.  If you look, especially in the past two to three years, you've seen state aid go down dramatically.  Federal aid has also been reduced.  And you have school districts like, for example, Elmira, a city of 30,000 people... it has lost 200 of its teachers and teacher's aids in just two years due to over $10 million in cuts to state aid.  It's a big issue and that's why I believe we absolutely need to fund education through making sure that aid is there.

The question is, how do we pay for it?  The way I believe we need to pay for it is two-fold.  First, of course we need to find ways to reduce wasteful spending.  I've done that as a local county legislator and as a hospital administrator, so I know that that's part of it.

The other half of the equation is also getting revenues on the table.  That's why I believe that we need to make the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share in taxes so that we have the money that we need to invest in education, infrastructure, and even reduce our debt and deficit.

LS: Every Saturday morning gas prices are the first topic of conversation at the local diner.  I've been struggling with the drilling issue.  I know it's apples and oranges because locally we're talking about natural gas drilling, but you are running for national office.

On the one hand I think some kinds of drilling like hydrofracking could irreparably harm local infrastructure, environment, business and so on.  On the other hand I can't help looking at gas prices and thinking all that money is going to people who don't like us who are providing oil because we don't want to mess up our own back yard.  Is that hurting the country?  How will you vote relative to energy exploration?

NS: I read recently that we are now actually a net energy exporter, rather than an importer.  That's a good thing.  It's good for the economy.  It shows we've been producing a lot of energy here, including a lot of oil production, in the United States.

But we are selling it in the world market, so as demand in the world goes up the gas prices go up.  As long as countries China and other countries are hungry for oil and we keep exporting it to them, your gas prices are going to continue to go up.  So the question to me is not necessarily how much we're producing here in the United States.  It's finding policies that reduce our consumption through conservation of gas.  Also we need to look at some of our trade policies and say, is it always a good thing to export this energy?  Is there a way to have reserves to help lower prices in the domestic market?

Right now we do have oil reserves that, in the past, we have used to lower gas prices.

LS: President Bush used them at one point, didn't he?

NS: Yes he did.  So my question would be, instead of exporting so much why don't we build up those reserves in case for an emergency or these gas prices continue to get even higher?

I also believe that we need to put renewable energy on the table as another way we can reduce our need for oil.  I think that's something that's begun to be invested in.  There are a lot of programs that need to be modified and improved upon.  Overall we need to find ways to increase investment in renewable technology.

LS: Before redistricting, and before Mr. Hanna was elected one of the things that impressed me about Mr. Arcuri  was Lansing's congressman was how many times he visited Lansing even though it was a small rural community on the fringe of his district.  It literally was -- it was the southern-most tip of his district, and Ithaca wasn't in it as you know.  He seemed genuinely interested in how he could help such diverse local industries as high-tech in the Cornell Business and Technology Park and traditional businesses including local farms.

How much of that have you been doing in the campaign, and how much will you do as a congressman?  Obviously I am interested in Lansing, but also all of the communities in the district?

NS: We have done at least three or four house parties in Lansing where people invite their friends and neighbors to come into your home, grab a sandwich, and maybe forty or fifty people will hear me talk and I answer questions for as long as they have them.  I've done that pretty actively.  For the folks in Lansing you can rest assured that I've been representing Tompkins County for a while and I will represent Lansing as well as the rest of this district.

In terms of the rest of the district, I've gone to every place from Silver Creek in Chautauqua County to Cohocton in Steuben County to Alfred in Allegheny... if you can think of every little corner of this district I have probably been to it.  I was in Phelps in Ontario County yesterday for an event.  I was in Owego... I was in Watkins Glen...  This is, for lack of a better term, the beauty of this district.

There are no big cities in this district.  The biggest cities are Ithaca and Jamestown.  What it means is, if a representative truly wants to be effective and get reelected, they have to treat every one of these communities the same.  It's not one of these districts where there's Buffalo and then there's a few towns.  You have to be active across all the eleven counties because there are newspapers in every county.  There's five different media markets.  If you want to really get to know people you have to go into every little town and village that you can.

So far I've done 19 parades in different communities, everyplace from  to Spencer to Silver Creek and Rushford.  I've done 19 parades to show that I care about these communities, and I will continue to do that as a Congressman.

LS: You have already answered this, I think to some extent, so maybe you could go into more detail.  At election time we hear a lot about candidates who say they are going to cross the political lines to break the stalemate between the two major parties in Washington.  Most people think it's just talk because after the election it's back to business as usual.  I mean, I read reports that this was the least productive Congress in history...

NS: Yes, that's true, I believe.

LS: Two part question: do you think it is desirable or possible to break this political deadlock? And what will you do specifically if you are elected, especially because, realistically, creating relationships is harder when you are the new guy in town.

NS: I believe it is a good thing to find ways... and in fact it's a top priority for me to find ways to break the gridlock in Washington and actually get people working together again.  That is a top priority for me.

LS: I think Mr. Arcuri tried doing that as a member of the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition and that hurt him -- it lost him the election.

NS: That's a good point.  This goes back to what I was alluding to earlier: to me it's not even about positions.  You don't have to do triangulation where you have to find a position in the middle in order to break the gridlock.  At the end of the day what matters is building relationships with folks.

I'm a manager.  I have 200 employees.  I've got five managers that report to me at my hospital.  I'm a county legislator with 14 other colleagues.  And we don't have an executive, so we're the ones that make the decisions together.  What I've learned along the way is that it's all about building relationships to govern and to make progress.

As a member of Congress I propose simple things.  You're right, as a freshman if I did the same thing that Amo Houghton did, where he had the Wednesday Club... If I said 'Hey everybody let's get together on Wednesday and talk about how we could be bipartisan...' Everybody's going to say, 'Who is the new guy telling everybody we need to be bipartisan?'  It takes a little bit of seniority, but I would love to do something like that when I do get to that level of seniority.

I think what you can do as a freshman member of Congress, since this is all about developing relationships, as a freshman Democrat I will find a freshman Republican to grab lunch with once a week, or do something where you are outside of the concept of pure politics.  If we can get 20 freshman Democrats to do that with 20 freshman Republicans I think you have the foundation for more bipartisanship.

If you look at recent modern history there has been bipartisanship on issues like infrastructure across the board.  Even on programs like the food stamp program, which is ver controversial for some reason these days... the modern food stamp program was done with Republican Senator Bob Dole leading the effort with liberal Democrats.  It's incredible, and it just shows that the labels aren't what matter.  It's the relationships that matter.

LS: My insurance bill!  It feels as if Obamacare is forcing people to be extorted by the medical community.  Realistically is there any relief in site from double-digit rises in insurance premiums and the whole picture of high medical costs, and what specifically would you do to provide relief?

NS: The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare -- even Obama calls it Obamacare now, so I have to get used to that -- for businesses under 50 people it doesn't mandate that you do provide health insurance.  That's something that needs to be made clear for a lot of folks.  So when you're thinking about your mom and pop store, or your small newspaper... most of those places are going to be under 50 employees.  The Affordable Care Act says we understand you;re small and it's going to be tough to get health insurance for all of your workers, so we're not going to mandate it.

Now if you do want to provide health insurance for your workers, right now you can get a 35% credit, which goes up to 50% in 2014, I think.  So there is a lot of good help for small businesses.

The problem, though, is that from year to year the premiums go up in double digits.  Obamacare doesn't deal with the rise of health care costs.  It did lower the rate slightly, but it still didn't deal with health care costs overall.  Nor did any Republican proposal.  Because what you have to do to fix health care is fundamentally change the culture of how we provide care in the United States. 

This is hard.  I think the best way we can make that change is following the example of cooperative extensions.  When cooperative extensions were first created for agriculture it showed farmers that there was a better way to farm than ways that led to lower crop yields and unsustainable farming practices that led to things like the dust bowl.

Farmers weren't embracing the new way of farming until cooperative extension came along and said 'We're going to have a couple of farmers try out these new methods.'  The farmers did, and suddenly they were making lots of money.  The other farmers said, 'I want to do what that guy's doing.'  So it was by example and by going from an idea and research to actual implementation and execution.  People saw the example, and then they made change.

We need to do the same thing in health care.

There are proposals in the Affordable Care Act that switch health care.  These are all pilot projects -- I think about 50 hospitals are doing it right now -- where we shift the incentives from this current fee-for-service model where a doctor or hospital gets paid based on how many surgeries they do -- especially how many expensive surgeries -- how many MRIs and CT scans they do, and how many patients they see throughout the day.  What happens when you have a quantity-based system, it's all about quantity rather than quality.

There are different ways of paying for taking care of a population of Medicare patients that incentivizes focussing on primary care, preventive care, and chronic disease management.  That is not only good for the patient because you catch disease early on, but it also saves us a lot of money.

So moving into that quality-focussed health care is something that we need to do.  I think that's why it's important to elect someone like me, who has worked at one of the top ten highest quality health care systems in the country, according to Medicare data that's out there.

LS: As we withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, should some of the military budget be diverted to domestic pending?

NS: As we wind down from Iraq and Afghanistan especially, it means that we will be saving money by getting out of those countries.  I think we do have to direct some of that money to domestic spending.  What happens is that as we leave Afghanistan there is less demand for things like helicopters and tanks and Humvees, which employ a lot of Americans here in the United States.  If we just scaled back and didn't give those manufacturers an option to create manufacturing in another way, it means that potentially a lot of people are going to lose their jobs.

So I think there is a role for domestic spending.  But it's not even domestic spending... it's just the government being willing to say that there are some new industries out there that we're willing to at least provide support for, to open up opportunity for, to make it easier to get loans for.  And by the way you don't even need to have loans that are backed by taxpayers.  You can do it just like we did with the aerospace industries back in the '30s and '40s.  You can do it by having insurance pools instead, where every for banker that gives out a loan there's a surcharge that goes into pool to cover anybody that defaults.

We don't even need to have taxpayers on the hook for it.  But we can open up investment in new industries to make that transition happen.

That's the one thing I'm concerned about as we scale back our military spending, that it's going to hurt our defense manufacturers, which are a lot of good union jobs especially in this district.  So we've got to find other manufacturing jobs that are out there for them.

LS: If you are elected what are the top issues that you want to focus on in your first term?

NS: The first, I would say, is continuing to work on improving the health care system.  The Affordable Care Act was a step in terms of protecting us from some of the worst of insurance companies.  Now the fact that we have coverage of pre-existing conditions, the elimination of lifetime limits, covering insurance up to the age of 26... these are all good things.

But the Affordable Care Act still doesn't do enough to deal with health care costs in the long run.  So it will be one of my main priorities, especially as someone with a health care background, to find ways to improve quality without hurting services that we provide.

It's possible to do it, because I've done it at my hospital, at Guthrie.  And we're known for that.  We have high quality, too.  If we work on ways of improving the health care system it will make it easier for us to make sure Medicare and Medicaid will be there for the long run.

I believe in the Medicare/Medicaid programs.  I don't believe we need to change them, and I don't support these privatization schemes that are out there.  I think the Medicare program works well and we need to preserve it.  But if we want to keep it really strong for the long run we've got to find ways to reforme the culture of health care and focus on quality.

LS: What else should Lansing and Tompkins County voters know about you that will impact their voting decision?

NS: I think the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  We have seen from Congressman Reed how as  mayor of Corning he was divisive.  That is why he lost the city of Corning when he ran for Congress.  As a congressman he says that he is bipartisan.  But if you look at his voting record -- anybody can look at it at http://thomas.loc.gov/ -- you'll see that his voting record is over 90% with the Republican leadership.  There is nothing bipartisan about that and his public statements except when he is in election mode.

I don't think we can trust Congressman Reed to be somebody wh is going to find ways to break the gridlock and make this government work again for everyday Americans.  He hasn't done it ever in the past and I don't think he's going to do it in the future.

However with me, people should know me at the local level and know that I have a great track record of being able to work with the other side to get things done.  I was made Vice-Chair of the County Board with Brian Robeson's vote, the Republican County Legislator from Groton.  In 2008 I was the Budget Chairman.  We had our first bipartisan budget in years, and it was a tough year, too.  But we were able to get it done.  As a hospital administrator I lead the teams of doctors and nurses and administrators and even housekeepers to find ways to improve quality and lower our costs.

Everything about my past has been about finding ways for people to work together to get things done.  If elected I'm going to bring that same attitude to Washington.

The reason I think we need to bring that attitude to Washington is that for middle class families, we need to make it so that if you work hard and you play by the rules you should be able to obtain the American Dream.  It's a very simple premise.  However I think this government and this congress is losing sight of that.  I'd fight to bring that back.

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