CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT N.Y.-19—The Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan environmental organization, hosted Congressional candidates for New York’s 19th District on Friday, Aug. 12, for a discussion surrounding climate change policies.

Carol Fisler from Citizens’ Climate Lobby presented the forum, noting that Republican candidate Marc Molinaro had been invited to participate but was not able to attend. Molinaro does not have a challenger for the Republican nomination. The Democratic primary’s early voting has already begun, and the actual election primary day is Aug. 23.

Rather than the typical debate style of questions coming from the host, candidates had been supplied with a list of questions prior to the event and were able to choose which they wished to address.

Jamie Cheney and Josh Riley introduced themselves, giving a little bit of background about how they came into politics.

The debate then commenced, with the first question dealing with the candidates’ most important climate or energy issue for the 19th District.

Cheney responded saying that if she had to pick one issue, she would address the largest producer of greenhouse gasses in New York State, which is transportation. Citing progress in terms of tax credits and grants for clean fuels, Cheney said she still believes “we need to go further, [and] we need electric car incentives that are not only financed by tax credits, which may not allow access to some of our lower income residents who do want to invest in electric cars.”

Cheney also said that public transportation alternatives are needed throughout the rural areas of the district, and that broadband is another priority item that indirectly can address the greenhouse gasses from transportation because it will allow more people to work from home.

Riley answered the same question, saying that climate disruption is the largest threat the country is facing, and that the conversation around it should also prominently feature jobs.

“We have an opportunity to do what we have done throughout our history, which is take challenges the world is facing and make them things upstate New York addresses,” he said.

The next question was about what actions the candidates would list as their top priorities should they be elected.

Riley, picking up where he left off on the last question, named a top priority as creating green jobs within district, and referenced the Battery Material Processing program that provides federally accessible funds to that can be used to disperse technologies from labs within the SUNY system and actually “put them on the factory floor here in upstate New York.”

Riley also said that shifting energy subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable sources is a top priority, and one that he’s glad to see some movement on as of Aug. 11, 2022, with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act.

The next question was addressed toward Cheney, on the topic of the 2023 farm bill and what would help farmers adapt to and mitigate climate change while sustaining income.

Cheney said that she’s really excited about the potential for the farm bill within the district, and that she’s already been conversing with congressional leadership about the need for voices from small northeastern farms on the committee that renegotiates the bill.

“No one more than farmers in this district hates the price of diesel and therefore the burning of fossil fuels, and farmers in the district would truly like to invest in more fuel-efficient equipment,” she said, acknowledging that provisions in the bill can be used to bring financial services and access to capital to farmers, who would then be able to make more fuel-efficient purchases.

Riley responded to the same question, saying that his two main priorities with the bill would be cover crops, which most farmers wish to use (but not necessarily harvest) for their various benefits, but sometimes can’t due to the cost and labor intensity associated with the practice. Because of this, he said, he would like to see an increase in reimbursement rates and rewards for farmers who wish to work with cover crops.

The next question was on agriculture policy and what federal changes should be made to align with the nation’s goals.

Cheney addressed Riley’s prior statement about cover crops, saying that, as a farmer in the state, using cover crops has to do with “lack of access to literally applications time to do them, access to Cornell Cooperative educators to help those who are not comfortable the forms, fill them out and ask up front for financial capital.”

She also said that she’d be surprised to find many farmers who aren’t using cover crops in some capacity, and that decisions are made every day based on reimbursement rates or labor needs.

Rather than letting agriculture policy revolve around corporate producers, “We need a voice on the committee who’s going to advocate for small Northeastern farms, and not let ag policy in this country be dominated by people who understand it from a policy textbook, or as a member of a large corporate farm leadership work as a lobbyist for those farms,” Cheney said.

The next question was on the topic of jobs and the issue of not enough people being trained for clean energy jobs.

Riley responded by arguing that there will be the opportunity to reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which is a federal bill that invests in job training programs for specialized industries.

“The answer is to partner with our trades unions, on their apprenticeship programs is to partner with our community colleges,” he said.

Cheney agreed that specialized workforce training is more than worth the investment, but that making sure the programs are accessible is a huge component. “We do have a unique opportunity to roll those programs out right into communities, but we need to look at what the barriers are to getting workers to those training programs and to those jobs,” she said, explaining that transportation and childcare are two barriers that would need to be addressed.

The next question was on the topic of collaborating with colleagues across the aisle on policy.

Riley said that he’s been encouraged on this topic while traveling across the district, and that his conversations with different parties across the district have agreed on a fundamental position that climate disruption is real. 

“I think when we’re talking about jobs and job creation and economic opportunities, and talking not just about solving the climate disruption challenge as that alone, but pairing it with the economic opportunities we’re seeing across this region, that’s a great way to bring people from both sides of the aisle,” Riley said.

Cheney said that she has a positive view on this issue within the district, and that she believes many things hold the people of the district together with a shared sense of connection.

“What is different across party lines is our language will always be amazed at the fact that the word climate has become so politicized, that we actually take time to stop and to listen to voters’ concerns. We’re talking about the same things and we’re using different language,” she said.

Another question focused on how the federal government might help handle limited resources and budget challenges, as well as infrastructure issues related to COVID-19.

Cheney said that she’s seen real opportunity across the district in terms of sharing best practices, and that mentorship programs have successfully helped communities mentor other parts of the district that might not have the same resources.

“No one needs to be reinventing the wheel here — we’re going to help every community who wants to commit to this in our district,” she said. Additionally, while traveling across the district on the campaign trail, she’s been able to connect communities that have similar challenges or insights, which has created more unity for places geographically separated.

The following question, addressed to Riley, was on how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will improve energy infrastructure in NY-19.

Riley responded saying that in the near future, ensuring that agencies are implementing and enforcing laws that are already on the books will be an important task, particularly in terms of Congressional oversight. He said that one of the things he’ll be focusing on is making sure agencies with jurisdiction over those laws are “actually getting that money out into the hands of folks who need it, making sure those laws are operating on the ground as they need to.”

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...