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robertson13_120Martha Robertson (D) is challenging Tom Reed for Congress in next year's election.  This year she is running for Tompkins County Legislature, a body she has served on since 2002 and chaired since 2010.  Originally from Baltimore, MD, Robertson came to the Ithaca area to go to college.  A former teacher, she has raised two children in her Dryden home, and became the first woman and the first Democrat to be elected to the Legislature in her western Dryden district.  Among other responsibilities, she also chairs the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency.  She has two grandchildren.

When Nate Shinagawa lost to Reed by only 4% last year, Democrats targeted the 23rd District as a race to focus on.  Shinagawa chose not to run again, but has stepped up as Robertson's campaign manager.  Robertson hopes to build on his success to win the seat in Congress.  She met with the Lansing Star last week in her Ithaca Commons campaign headquarters to talk about national issues, her campaign, and what makes her the best choice for voters.

staronly_30Lansing Star: The reason I wanted to interview you so early in the campaign is that the negative campaigning is already heating up.  Republicans are saying your fundraiser was hosted by a sex offender and you falsely and illegally accused Reed's campaign of hacking your Web site.  Democrats are saying Congressman Reed didn't pay taxes and he shut down the government.  I seem to get daily releases from the Republican and Democratic parties with new accusations, telling us why not to vote for the opposing candidate.

But nothing about why we should vote for either candidate.  So I'd like to start by giving you an opportunity to respond to your opponent's party's accusations and then we're going to move on to issues of substance.

robertson30Martha Robertson: In responding to attacks back and forth, it has been pretty surprising how quickly this race has heated up.  I think it has to do with the fact that the race was so close last year.  People have really been paying attention.  And frankly, I think Tom Reed has been rather defensive.

He came out of the box, honestly, attacking positions that I hadn't even stated.  I hadn't even made public statements on some issues, and he started attacking me back in June, right out of the gate.  It surprised us.  Of course we made every effort to get our positions out there.  Thanks, I think, to Tom Reed's putting my name out there the media has been interested and has called us.  We've been able to get our message out, as well.

On the issue of the email that was sent out about the attacks on our Web site: we've been very clear.  We've given members of the media who have asked the ability to see the logs.  There were nine different SQL injection attacks over a very short period of time on the last day of the fundraising quarter.

It's very clear... anybody in a political campaign knows that that's a critical ten or twelve or six hours when you might raise a significant amount of money right before the deadline.  This attack had not happened in the six months before September 30th.  We'd had our Web site up for six months.  We hadn't had any sort of attack, any attack at all.  Suddenly during the last few hours of fundraising in the quarter we get this attack, which, had it been successful, would have completely shut down our fundraising operations and might have threatened our entire database, as I have been told the technical details.

This absolutely happened.  It wasn't successful, so we didn't file a police report.  There was nothing taken, but we've tightened security.  We're watching very closely.  If anything like this happens again we won't wait for nine attacks, honestly.  If anything at all like this happens again we will file a police report with the appropriate authorities.

As far as Congressman Reed's tax payments, this was also another one of those surprises when we read about it in the paper.  The pattern of 38 late payments of your property taxes, including at least one that it's know he has admitted to, where he paid for his vacation home's property taxes out of campaign funds, is very disturbing.  It's a pattern.  Of course he paid that one payment back, but I think it's an appropriate area for investigation, because we don't know if there were other such payments.

The pattern of late payments plus this mistake of mistaking the two checkbooks, apparently, indicates at least a kind of sloppy management of his own bills.  So it seems an appropriate area where voters are concerned.

You know, Tom Reed sits on the tax writing committee of Congress, the Ways and Means committee.  He writes the laws that the rest of hard working New Yorkers do their very best to follow.  It's only appropriate that he be held to the same standard.

If you had been in Congress this term, what would it taken for you to keep the government open a few weeks ago, and in another three or so months when it could shut down again?

robertson30 If I had been in Congress this term I would have voted to follow the regular course of congressional business, which is to have conference committees deal with budget negotiations, and to make sure that we pay our bills on time.  A little pattern here with Tom Reed, not being able to pay his property tax bills on time, the federal government running into this crisis about paying the bills that had been already voted on, already negotiated, already approved.  Simply paying your bills.  These are fundamental responsibilities of the Congress: to pass a budget and pay the bills.

A lot of folks who understandably don't follow these issues at a micro level, a really detailed level, don't know that the Senate Budget Committee Chair, Patty Murray, has asked the House multiple times -- I don't remember the number, but multiple times -- to set up a conference committee.

The Senate passed a budget.  The House passed a budget.  She requested that a conference committee be established.  She had her own committee.  She was waiting for the House to appoint a committee, and they refused over and over again.  They ignored her response, ignored her request.

Both sides are not the same.  People who say that really ought to look a little more carefully.

So finally they've apparently sat down together, Chairman Ryan from the House and Chairman Murray from the Senate.  Finally they've sat down together.  It shouldn't take this kind of earthquake to get Republicans to be willing to sit down with Democrats.

So I would have voted to follow the regular course of business and we wouldn't have been in this position.

Given the size and makeup of our district and the level of Nate Shinigawa's experience in national politics I was surprised at how close the last election was.  It was 51.9% for Reed and Shinagawa had 48.1%, only a 4% spread.  If the election had been held a few weeks later it looked like it might have been closer.  With that small a spread I was a little surprised he didn't run again.  Did you learn anything from his campaign that is being applied this time around?

robertson30 We were all very excited with Nate's race last year.  I helped him out.  I was very supportive.  He had to make a personal decision not to run again based on family obligations.  I would not have primaried him had he been ready to run again.  But he decided to be my campaign chair.

So he is as supportive as anybody can be.  We're building on his infrastructure, on his relationships, on his knowledge of the district.  That's one of the reasons, frankly, that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee came to me early on.  They were interested.  They saw that Nate had come very close and that we were basically building on his campaign.

I certainly value his input.  I often call him and ask about feedback that he got on different issues, on how he worked with different committees in different counties.  So we're working very closely together.

I certainly learned that the seat is winnable.  That the district is not in love with Tom Reed, and that was even before this vote to shut down the government.  Actually four votes to shut down the government, 17 votes not to reopen the government, and then the final vote to allow the country to go into default and to keep the government from reopening.  That's quite a record.

So even before these true colors were shown the district was probably movable.

We've been working very hard with all different kinds of groups since I came into the race in April, and I'm just trying to build on the record that Nate started and the relationships that he started.

Are you going all over the district at this point?  We picture you in Tompkins County because of your long history of being a County Legislator here.  Are you going everywhere now?

robertson30 Absolutely.  We started the race by going everywhere.  April 11th we woke up in Dryden, where I live.  We drove as far west as you can go, which is Dunkirk, for our first event to kick off our campaign.  In those two days we did 13 stops in each of the 11 counties (in the district).  We hit all the counties, and obviously some counties twice.  We met people across the district.  We got great press across the entire distrct and had an exciting introduction to a lot of people and a lot of communities.  We've been following up since then.

I guess it's harder for a challenger becaue an incumbent can say, 'Here is what I did yesterday' and you're just sitting there going,'Well he didn't do it right.'  How do you make real news?

robertson30 We've been able to make real news with my own record here in Tompkins County.  In taking positions on federal issues that matter.  The student loan issue -- I mentioned that Congressman Reed attacked me right out of the box back in June.  it was about the student loan issue.

He had taken a position.  We issued a statement saying that we had a different idea.  We didn't think that students and their families should be helping to close the budget gap for the federal government.  We thought that interest rates were way too high and should be capped at a much lower percentage, not tied to treasury bills.

In fact, I loved Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's idea that if your interest rate went above four percent you should be able to refinance that loan.  You can do that with a business loan.  You can do that with a home loan.  Why can't you do that with your student loan?

Because of the deal that was cut with the President, and I differ with the President on this.  I think he gave away too much to the Republican position -- we're seeing students having to pay so much out of their early income right out of college that they can't invest in their future.  They can't buy a car.  They can't buy a house. Sometimes they can't get married.  This is a critical time for young people to be establishing themselves and we shouldn't be saddling them with the debt for the time that they've invested in getting an education.

Well, Tom Reed came out right away saying that I didn't understand the issue.  He is, of course, entitled to believe that, and I would expect no less.  But what I was surprised at was that he attacked me by name.  That made the press go. 'What?  Who's Martha Robertson?' (laughs)  And they started calling me up!  They'd call me for clarification and my position, and they've been doing that ever since.

So Tom Reed helped me make news.

Briefly, why do you support or oppose the Affordable Health Care Act?  Will it genuinely help people or will it impose more burdens on already strained citizens?  What is good in it and what is bad in it?

robertson30 Among the goals of the Affordable Care Act was to help people get insurance to get health care, who aren't able to get it in the current market.  To bend the cost curve to create a more affordable health care system for all of us, both people in the exchanges and people in private insurance.  Of course the exchanges are private insurance, footnote there.

I think those goals are absolutely essential for this country to move forward.  To lessen the per-person burden for health care costs, but to make it more accessible and more affordable for all people.

It's interesting that Congressman Reed built his law practice on collecting on medical debt.  Dan, if your wife got cancer and you had health insurance, but maybe it was an 80-20 plan, you might be faced with thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt even though you were paying for health insurance all your lives.

Tom Reed built a law practice going after that debt that you couldn't pay.  So it's very interesting that he voted to shut down the government to try to keep people from getting health care, when that's how he made a living before he was elected to office.

I think it's vital for people to have the security of knowing tht they can get health care.  Whatever their age, whatever their income is, whether they have a pre-existing condition or not.  The Affordable Care Act is our attempt to make that happen.  Clearly there are problems with the implementation of it.

We've been seeing the Web site glitches.

robertson30 Right.  I just heard on the radio this morning, for example, that when Medicare Part D was first passed the prescription drug program that was passed under the Bush administration had all sorts of problems during the first year, especially.  We in county government had the role of having to provide counseling, to make that available through Lifelong and through our Office For The Aging so the people would have the tools they needed to sign up.

So it takes a while to roll out anything like this.  Well, this is way bigger than a prescription drug program for people over 65.  This is many many millions more people.  So we're all hoping that they get it figured out.

One of the things that's been shown is that people are very, very interested in finding out what's available and then signing up.  So the need is great.

Martha RobertsonMartha Robertson

Coming from the city that is the home of the Mars rover I have to ask how supportive you are of NASA?  Does the US need an inspiring big space goal like Kennedy's ten years to the moon?  In the current political atmosphere would it have a chance of lasting ten years to successful completion like Kennedy's did?

robertson30 The short answer to that is probably no, in this financial climate.  Kennedy was in a period of a long term boom that followed the conclusion of the world war.  It was really a forward thinking and optimistic time in our lives.  I remember it.

It feels like a political climate that is much more about constraints and limits.  I don't think it has to be that way.

I absolutely support basic research at NASA and medicine and energy and health care.  The whole point of basic research is that you never know where it's going to lead.  That's essential to competing globally in the future and just creating a better life for all Americans and for the world.

My understanding is that NASA is a very small part of the federal budget.  So I do support scientific inquiry.  As far as a big goal -- I can't say yes we should go for putting a person on Mars right now.  I think it's important to always be moving forward whatever the research goals are, and whatever makes sense.  Sometimes that big shiny object -- put a man on the moon -- is a political goal.  It's not necessarily a scientific goal.  So I'd really want to look at that and have NASA's budget go to what makes sense from the scientific point of view.

In Lansing we are suffering first hand the fallout from the energy debate.  A strong lobby is opposing the repowering of the Cayuga plant with natural gas, which is the town's only hope of averting an immediate and dramatic tax rise.  It is the Town's largest taxpayer.  It is one of the County's.  Are renewable alternatives practical today or is gas a credible interim solution for Cayuga and other coal-fired plants across the nation?

robertson30 As you know, and you covered my position statement in July when I testified at the PSC hearing in Lansing, I believe that biofuels are a credible and feasible alternative to fossil fuels.  We should absolutely be moving as fast as we can towards transitioning to biofuels and other renewable energy.  I don't think we should be investing in new fossil fuel technology.  I really don't.

It's essential to keep the plant open, and we can keep the plant open with the proposal that I developed in concert with scientists and energy experts.  I didn't make this up out of my own head.  I always do the research to try to understand what's feasible and what makes sense.

I think you said, or somebody said, this technology is being used in Europe?

robertson30 Biomass, to create electricity, is being done right here in New York.  In June a plant that had been a coal-fired power plant in Fort Drum and had been closed, was reopened entirely on biomass.  it's being done right here.

And it's competitive?  Because that's part of the equation, too.

robertson30 I know NYSERDA and the DEC invested in it.  I think they wouldn't have invested in something that was going to lose.  This is an example of the gas glut, of cheap gas because there's so much fracked gas.  This is having an immediate effect on the existing economy.  And this is one of the things that I've said for a long time: when you're looking at fracking, for example, you have to look at the effects on the existing economies.

Do you mean this might be a bubble now, for gas prices?  And then that goes away?

robertson30 Yes.  This is one of the things I said in my testimony in July.  I'm worried that if we push so much of our power generation into gas at a moment when the price is low... the industry right now is saying that the price is going to be double in a few years, and if we start exporting to other countries, which they're trying to do, we should certainly expect the price to go even higher.

I will say that we have two situations in this one congressional district.  We have a very similar situation in Dunkirk with the NRG plant, and the plant in Lansing.  I don't think they have to be decided the same way.  I will say I think the issues in the two communities are not the same.

I would like the PSC to consider all alternatives.  There are many other examples in New York State of biomass being used.  I wish they would take time to do that.

You have been an active lobbyist in Albany against unfunded mandates, correct?

I would say advocate, not lobbyist.  Advocating for the State to pay its own bills.

If you are elected to Congress will that continue to be an issue for you?  Will you try to reduce federal unfunded mandates?

Yes, absolutely.

The level of government that makes the decision about the program should be the level of government that pays for it.  That seems to be common sense to me.

It is not easy to get a bill passed, especially for 'young' legislators.  What significant legislation would you introduce this week if you could?  At this level of your tenure, which would be your first term, would you be able to make a real difference beyond adding one to the number of your party's votes?

robertson30 I would certainly put forth a jobs bill. That is probably the first, second and third pieces of legislation I would be looking for.  Funding for workforce training.  The federal government used to do a good job with the Workforce Investment Act and that money has dried up.  That's essential to retraining folks who, especially in our district, have been laid off.

It's also essential to supporting community colleges, so kids coming out of high school --- we'd like to see them have a trade or have the right kind of education so they can be career-ready.  Or, for many of them that's the way they start on a four year (program).  So we'd like to see community colleges get more support as well.

We talked before about student loans.  Student loan relief is critical to that as well.

I'd like to see trade policies that are supportive of growing jobs in this country, not sending them somewhere else.  I'd like to see trade and tax policies that support entrepreneur and businesses and corporations that are using the talented workforce and natural resources that we have in this country.  Those would be my top priorities.

How would you try to make a mark in your first term?

robertson30 I've got a record in Tompkins County of reaching across party lines.  I've been elected Legislature Chair four times with bipartisan support.  The Chair's job is to appoint committee chairs.  I've always had at least one and this past year I appointed two Republicans to chair county committees.  I've got support from business leaders as well as labor leaders.

It should be noted there are only three Republicans currently on the Legislature.

robertson30 That's right.  And the third Republican is vice-chair of the Broadband Committee. 

We need all hands on deck.  We need to be able to solve the problems of our constituents, whether it's the County or a town or village, or a congressional district.  Nobody can afford to ignore a section of the population because they don't have the right letter after their name.

In fact, in our governing in Tompkins County, even though, as you said, we have three Republicans, that's out of a fifteen member board.  So we have enough Democrats to push through everything and ignore the Republicans altogether.  That's how they do it in a lot of places, I'm afraid.  Both parties, when they have a super-majority.

We try very hard -- and that's one reason our meetings are kind of long -- to make sure we have consensus as much as possible.  To listen to everybody's concerns, no matter what party they're from, and try to incorporate what they need in a resolution.

So I don't just talk about it.  I do it.  I've got that kind of a record.  I would bring that same attitude to Congress.

If you could name three, what are the top issues you want to begin addressing if you are elected next year next year?

Job creation.  Economic security for the residents of this congressional district.

Tompkins County has the lowest unemployment rate in New York State.  When you look over a ten year period we have a job creation rate three times higher than the state's average.  We're doing things right in Tompkins County.

Some people say, 'It's just because of Cornell.'  No it's not.  Obviously that's relevant, but through Tompkins County Area Development, through the Industrial Development Agency...

Are you still chairing that?

robertson30 Yes, I'm Chair of the IDA, the Industrial Development Agency.  Since I've been on the IDA we've brought in $453 million of new investments with a million and a half square feet of new construction, created more than 700 permanent, quality jobs with non-management wage of more than $17 an hour.  So we've got experience doing this, not just talking about it.

As far as what the district really needs in terms of helping entrepreneurs to start new businesses and grow the businesses they have, helping workers to get a fair shake in their jobs, and to keep jobs here instead of going over seas, I believe Ive got a record and experience in doing those things.

The second major issue is the programs that seniors depend on: Medicare and Social Security.  These are programs that people have paid into all their lives, so they are earned benefits.  These aren't some kind of a give-away.  I don't think anyone wants to see the days again of seniors having to choose between medicine and food.  I don't think people want to see the days when seniors can't scrape by with their social security check.  Already too many people depend just on that check alone.

I certainly am concerned about our debt and deficit, but I would never start with programs for seniors as the place to try to close that budget gap.

So jobs, seniors' Medicare and Social Security, and education.  Support for public education is absolutely vital.  We need to reinvest in our schools.  This is our kids.  People who think that schools aren't important -- I don't know where they think the next generation of entrepreneurs or workers are going to come from.

Teachers lately are feeling pummeled by high-stakes testing.  I think we really have to take a very hard look at that.  We're not putting our efforts in the right places.  I would be an advocate for quality public schools that serve all of our kids, not just a few that can find their way to a charter school.

To finish, is there anything we haven't covered that you want to talk about now?

robertson30 It's important for people to pay attention, not just to what Congressman Reed says, but to what he actually does.  When he's here in the district he talks about being moderate.  He talks about trying to find common ground.

But when he goes to Washington his actions just don't fit that rhetoric.  During this whole period the government shut down he voted entirely with the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.  He voted four times to shut the government down, because they were trying to stop Obamacare.  Now he says he doesn't agree with that strategy.  Well, it seems like it was the strategy he agreed with.  He voted for it four times.

He voted another seventeen times when measures came up to try to reopen the government.  He voted seventeen times against those.  Then the final vote on the 16th, on Wednesday night, when we honestly didn't know what was going to happen... were we going to wake up in the morning with a government that the rest of the world didn't believe in any more, or were we going to have a congress that would pay its bills, just stand up and do the right thing?

They voted for these expenses.  They'd been approved.  They'd been signed into law.  It should be a surprise when the bill comes due.  Yet Tom Reed voted to keep the government closed and not to pay our own bills.  Well I don't know how anybody's definition of 'moderate' can include that kind of record.

Like everybody else, I've been shaking my head over this.  His explanations are all over the place.  They don't add up.  I don't think that's a coherent way to govern.

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