Paul Tonko’s (D-NY 21) Idea of “Risk”

Cross posted on Upstate Political Report

Career politician Paul Tonko, who spent decades in the New York State Assembly and is now running for reelection as Congressman for NY’s 21st District, explained his idea of “risk” during Thursday evening’s debate with challenger Ted Danz.

Paul Tonko served in the New York State Assembly from the 105th District, which has been heavily Democrat. As an incumbent, he had a good chance to win every two years. In fact, he never lost. Paul Tonko, in a video clip from August regarding his very generous New York State pension on top of a fantastic salary as a US House member, said “people commit to an industry.” Very few people are in such a sweet position as Mr. Tonko was for over twenty years: having the ability to run race after race in a district heavily favoring his party so he was basically a guaranteed winner each time. Sure, people in the private sector may stay at a job for twenty years.  but as they are in the private sector, there is never a guarantee that the company won’t go out of business or have a layoff. Even working as a NYS Civil Service employee entails some risk of a layoff. But Mr. Tonko’s former “company,” the NYS Assembly, will never go out of business or lay off anyone in his former position. The same is true of his “new company,” the US House of Representatives.  He had an opportunity to “commit to an industry” like very few others in this country. On the other hand, one could basically conclude from his statement that being a career politician is indeed like an “industry.”

After more than twenty years in the New York State Assembly, Tonko was appointed to head NYSERDA in 2007. When former Congressman Mike McNulty decided not to run again in 2008, Tonko and various other Democrats vied for the position in a primary. As NY’s 21st Congressional District is heavily Democrat, combined with 2008 being the year when so-called “hope and change” was on the ballot, obviously whomever won the Democrat primary for the seat would be the next Congressman.

Tonko resigned from NYSERDA to run in the Democrat primary in early 2008. He applied for his very generous state retirement for all his many years as a career politician in the New York State Assembly.

When Tonko won the primary in mid-September 2008, he effectively won the general election. He faced only token Republican opposition. As noted above, this was a Democrat year. Upon taking office as a Congressman in January 2009, Tonko continued to receive his $64,000 per year retirement from New York State while receiving a BASE salary of $174,000 in the US House. In August, the NY Daily News awarded him as New York’s top double dipper among its Congressional delegation.

When the question was brought up in Thursday’s debate, Tonko said he took a “risk” and had no idea whether he would win the primary. Thus he “had” to take his New York State retirement. First, nobody asked him to leave his VERY nice job at NYSERDA. There were other Democrats and Republicans vying for the seat. It would NOT have been vacant even if Mr. Tonko had neglected to so valiantly offer his services. But the idea of taking a “risk” to pursue personal ambitions of federal office while receiving such a generous retirement is ludicrous. Some families with both parents working scrape by with far less than Mr. Tonko’s large state retirement. Some people who want to start their own business give up their jobs to devote full time to the startup without any kind of steady income. They save, live frugally, and pursue their dreams without dependence upon government. But Mr. Tonko couldn’t take a “risk” without a guarantee for himself at government expense.

Mr. Tonko assured listeners of the debate that he did indeed check with the US House of Representatives to see if it was okay to keep receiving his $64,000 state retirement while getting a six figure salary in the US House. They told him it was legal. So yes, as long as it’s legal, that’s all that matters for Mr. Tonko since he personally benefits. Who cares about what is right? New York State is in deficit because of decades of overspending, including years when Mr. Tonko served in the majority of the New York State Assembly. And Tonko is not exactly known for keeping a lid on spending…

Requesting a suspension of his cushy retirement or donating the money back to New York State would have been a great symbol to the people. The Albany, NY Times Union ran a story (print edition only) about people in Voorheesville with a moderate house paying $9,200/yr in taxes and leaving to get a better home in Oregon for taxes of $2,800/yr. The story pointed out that in ten years, 1.5 million have left New York State. Others were profiled who moved to various other states due to the property tax nightmare. Income taxes may not be the absolute highest in the country, but they’re certainly in the higher end. When considering property tax and a high end income tax, taxes are out of control in New York State, as is spending. But Tonko doesn’t mind double dipping. Some people don’t have any idea where they will be able to come up with their next mortgage payment or when they will find a new job. Some have faced foreclosures. But Tonko enjoys his fabulous US House salary and a fabulous New York State retirement while continuing to work. It’s rather difficult for someone in that scenario to identify with the concerns of common people facing serious problems in this recession. The fact that Mr. Tonko claims not to see a problem with this scenario says a lot about his judgment….which he must use when voting in the US House.

Tonko was asked to grade Obama during the debate. He gave Obama an A-. Perhaps Tonko might examine this video of Obama, class warrior in chief, and consider how Obama’s words might apply to his situation…