Jim Walsh: the exit interview

Walt Shepperd 12/30/08More articles
Jim Walsh, at home in his downtown Syracuse office, reflects on 20 years in Congress a few days before his retirement. Photo: Rochelle Bilow
The Congressman sorted through two decades of memorabilia, preparing to close his local office after 20 years in the House of Representatives. He was preparing to end an era.
For Jim Walsh, the era began upon graduating from St. Bonaventure and volunteering for the Peace Corps in 1970. He returned home two years later to become a caseworker in the Onondaga County Department of Social Services, where his father, William Walsh, had been commissioner before serving as mayor, and later in Congress.
Jim Walsh won a seat on the Syracuse Common Council, where he founded and chaired the Housing and Homeless Vulnerable Task Force, and served as Republican Majority Leader before being elected Council President. During his tenure in Congress, Walsh brought home about $1 billion dollars in bacon through the federal funding pipeline, and negotiated with the Bush administration for $20 billion for New York Cityís recovery after 9/11.

Will there be a massive bailout for the rest of us, other than the major financial institutions, perhaps a massive public works program?
Hereís what I think. I think that we have a recession. And we do have recessions. Every 10 years or so we have one. So weíre having one. Itís deeper than average, but itís not a depression. And weíll come out of it. We also have this credit crisis, which is a function of wealthy people trying to get richer, people buying way too much house than they can afford, way too much car than they can afford, spending more than they earn. Weíre all guilty of it. Pretty much everybodyís guilty of it. It was a house of cards and it came down.
Short term, itís going to be hard for people. But itís a good thing for the country, I think. Thus far in this process, whoís gotten hurt? The big people have gotten hurt. Not the little people. The big people, like Madoff, who was ripping people off - he got nailed. People at Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs and Shearson Lehman, those at the top, theyíre going to make less money now. Is that a bad thing? It is for them, but maybe not for everybody else. And let me just say this: since this started, the price of gasoline has gone $4.80 a gallon to $1.80 a gallon. Thatís good for the little guy.
Have you looked at prices in the stores lately? Way down. Thatís good for the little guy, too. So far, the big guyís getting hurt, the little guyís not. Thatís not a bad deal.

Are little people suffering job loss?
Well, when the economy was good in Central New York, there was about 4.5 percent unemployment. Today itís 6 percent. Thereís got to be some reason, some logic, some modicum of proportion in the news reporting of this. I had a young reporter just come in and say, ďWell what do you think now that the economy is in a shambles?Ē Itís not in a shambles.
But directly to your question: Do we need to rebuild our infrastructure? We sure do. Will that put people to work? It sure will. Is it a good thing? I think so. Weíre a young country in the great scheme of things, but our infrastructure, much of it 150 years old, really needs to be repaired. We need to rebuild our roads, our bridges, our airports, our seaports, our water conveyances, our electrical grid. We need to invest in our country.

When you announced your retirement, you mentioned that the pipeline may not be flowing from Washington any more.
Thereís still something in the pipeline. The í09 appropriations process is not completed yet. So I have tens of millions of dollars in requests in, and Congress will go back to work in January and act on that legislation. Iíve done everything I could, dealing with the powers that be down there, a lot of my friends, Democrats, who will watch those things for me. But Iíve also given a list to Congressman-elect Maffei. Weíve talked about them, the different issues, the different spending items, and heís very much aware of those too, and he wants to make sure that those funds come through. After that, itís a little different story.

Given Gov. Pattersonís proposed cuts in spending, will there be even more demand on the federal pipeline?
I think New York state is especially hard hit by this credit crunch, because so much of the money that they live on in Albany comes from Wall Street bonuses. Twenty percent of the stateís revenues come from Wall Street, at least. So itís going to be tough times for the state for awhile. I liked the way the governor started out, talking about scaling back, because New York State is way too expensive. How can you do economic development, when youíve got the highest taxes in America? And every businessperson in America knows that.
Thatís our biggest challenge. Itís not what the federal officials can do for New York State, itís what can the state officials do for New York State. I think the governorís right to cut back. Weíre way too expensive anyway. Heís also raising all kinds of fees and more taxes, which I think is the wrong way to go about it, but heís got some hard choices. Spending more money is not going to solve our problems.

What will solve our problems?
Well, I really believe that New York State is the most expensive state in the union because of its high taxes. Itís also very regulatory oriented. Energy costs are way too high. And thereís not a darn thing the federal government can do about that. I worked as hard as anybody could to try to improve economic conditions in our community, and I think I have. I think Iíve made an impact.
Iíve seen our businesses go from old line industrial to knowledge-based high tech information companies, and we have some great ones. And theyíll only grow. And our manufacturing has gone from foundries and factories to technology and engineering based manufacturing, where every person runs a machine, and the machine does the work, and theyíre highly productive. Weíve made that transition.
The biggest challenge is New York State government. They tell businesses how to do things way too often. They tax them way too much, and they tax peopleís property way too high. And we just canít compete with other states, or other countries. Thatís our biggest challenge.

You were nationally targeted on the issue of the war in Iraq. Do you think your positions were misrepresented?
Everybody hears what they want to hear. But I certainly didnít want to go to war. People ask what are the toughest votes. Going to war. Sending young men and women off to war is the hardest vote. Impeachment, while historically significant, pales in significance to sending people off to war. I voted to go to war, reluctantly. I also opposed going to war in Bosnia. But in Iraq, based on the information I had, I voted to go to war. Ultimately, I look back on that decision, and I wouldnít change that decision, but weíre there too long. Itís time to get out. Itís time for them to do their part. Thatís happening now.

Youíve noted that thereís always a little bit of ambition necessary for getting into politics. Was part of your ambition to have an impact on the Troubles in Northern Ireland?
I never thought of it when I went to Washington. Never thought of it. I was totally disengaged with Ireland. The only thing about Ireland was my grandfather would tell me stories if I asked him, but he didnít volunteer it. My father never talked about Ireland. I really didnít know about Ireland at all. Back in the early Seventies, when it flared up, I was in Nepal. I wasnít reading the newspaper. When I got to Washington, I started listening, and I realized that Iíve got about 100 years of family history in the US. Iíve got thousands of years of family history in Ireland. I was educated by Franciscans, who pray, ďLord, make me an instrument of your peace.Ē And I think he did.

Can that ambition necessary for getting into politics ever be satisfied?
Yes. There is clearly life after Congress, and Iím looking forward to it.

CATEGORY: Government
TAGS: Jim Walsh, Congress, 25th District, retirement, federal pipeline, politics, 2009
EDITION: The Eagle

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