Congressman Paul Tonko, who has represented the Capital Region in Congress in Washington, DC for 14 years, said the biggest issue facing him and the world is the need to protect the earth.
“If we don’t get this done, it’s going to be left to your generation,” Tonko told the students and others gathered in the Middle School Library Media Center on Thursday. “We need to respond to the earth’s needs. We were warned about this back in the 1960s and 70s and we did nothing. If we don’t respond, it will be the end of the earth.”
He noted that the oceans are being destroyed by the pollution of plastic and other chemicals, coastal erosion is erasing the coastlines and the air has become a dumping ground for all types of chemicals, such as methane and carbon.
Tonko was at Scotia-Glenville Middle School to deliver 34 books valued at $500 from the Library of Congress in Washington. He said the library disposes of about 10,000 books a day and they are offered to legislators for local libraries. He has handed out 2,000 books over the past two years with a value of about $50,000.
Students asked Tonko questions. These students were part of the Welcome Committee that greeted Tonko and asked questions:
- GRADE 6: Scarlett Friot, Samuel Fiori, Sheila Marino, Maxwell Mohr and Colden Shapiro
- GRADE 7: Jason Battaglia, Nora Edgar, Sadie Leon, Kiera MacIntosh and Madelyn Trier
- GRADE 8: Lukas Baumgarten, Claudia Peterson, Alannah Zingelewicz and Bailey Helmstadt.
Tonko discussed several other items:
- He noted that his current district, which stretches from Rensselaer to Amsterdam and north to Saratoga Springs, includes 800,000 people – “a lot of voices to meld into a district.” His new district, based on the 2020 census, will be slightly more. However, a state judge is currently rewriting the congressional and state senate maps after they were struck down by the Court of Appeals. The revised maps are expected in 10-15 days.
- He discussed the books being donated to the library and noted that the authors deliberately chose their words to convey a message. He said words matter. “We have seen people use words to divide us and to destroy people. You have to chose your words carefully and always be honest but kind,” he said.
- His favorite book as a teenager was Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The books examines the effects of DDT damage to wildlife, birds, bees, agricultural animals, domestic pets, and even humans.
- Tonko said he was inspired by John Kennedy and Martin Luther King to become involved in his community and eventually seek elective office. He served in the Montgomery County legislature before running for the state Assembly in 1983, a position he held until 2007. After a brief stint as head of NYSERDA, he ran for Congress in 2008. “I got involved because of the ability to make change that would affect others, people I would neve meet,” he said. In the Assembly, he said he led the fought to force insurance companies to include mental health coverage in all policies written in New York.
- He said one of the most difficult things about being an elected representative is deciding on an issue that is not popular. “You are asked to be the voice of 800,000 people, so when I face an issue, I do all the research and decide on the issue, no matter what the polls say,” he said. He noted that when he first ran for the Assembly, 83% of this district was in favor of the death penalty. However, he did research that convinced him that the death penalty was wrong. He campaigned as being against the death penalty. “At the end of the day, you can’t fake where you’re coming from, at least not for vey long,” he said. “You can’t always do what’s popular. Don’t you think I’d like to be popular? You have to do what’s right.”
- He enjoys ice cream and used to operate an ice cream parlor in Schenectady. He doesn’t drink coffee but prefers coffee ice cream.