For the people: a Q&A with Joan Christensen

Walt Shepperd 02/12/10More articles
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of interviews with people prominent in areas on the agenda for the city of Syracuse under a new administration. This week the discussion of the relationship between city and state governments is with Assembly Member Joan Christensen, who is retiring after this term.

Once you got to the State Assembly, you reflected that you could do it for eight years and it would be enough. You’ve gone well beyond that. What enabled you to sustain your efforts?
The people. Actually, it’s the people I represented. When I got into, I came to the Common Council, the constituent service, the hands-on with people that I love so much. But going further up the ladder to the Assembly it was still the people. One of my first comments when I came into office was, “I want to make believers of people that the government can listen and can work for them.” It was the feedback that convinced me I could keep doing it.

You took a very principled stand, supporting Mr. Bragman against an onslaught from Assembly Speaker Silver, and it cost you.
It cost me dearly.

Would we—Upstate, Syracuse--have been better off with Mr. Bragman as Speaker?
Obviously I thought so. That was the person I voted for. I would like to think that Mr. Bragman would have been a great Speaker. I only hope that it wouldn’t have been the business as usual in Albany. There would have been some of that, but my main attention was on how could you not support a hometown boy, successful in what he had done, who had gotten everybody together, and looked like he was going to do it. This was Upstate’s one chance to get a speaker, so I took it and I stood with it.

Is the Assembly overweighted with Downstate interests?
I think the Bragman incident made some changes, the Speaker realized that the members were unhappy. The members that got up and spoke that day talked about what was wrong. I think as a result of that there were some very positive changes made, and the Speaker tried to be a kinder, gentler person with the members. But more importantly, he began funneling more activity, more decisions, more input into the members. The Speaker began to listen more and better to the Upstate members, and take us seriously.

Did it result in more resources for Upstate?
The more resources go to the more people, and there are more people Downstate. The good news for Upstate is that we use our money efficiently. I’m so proud of every official that represents our area, because they realize the importance, and make that dollar stretch as far as they do. That’s a blessing and a curse. When we’re cut, we’re cut from bone. So our job is to protect that money.

Over the past year the tabloids have depicted the state legislature as a clown show. Is it a clown show in Albany?
I don’t see it in our delegation. I am just as disgusted with any member who violates the code of ethics or the code of conduct or the laws of the State of New York and the oath that they took. I would stand up in objection to all that. But if you look carefully, it’s not the legislators from Upstate, as a rule. It’s the Downstate members who have a different way of doing business. I remember when I first went to Albany, I could not the delegation conference for Upstate, so I was stuck into a Downstate one. Well, I thought they were going to kill each other and me in the process. But that’s how they communicate. But you can talk to them and reason with them, and better still, bring them into the Upstate area so they understand the lay of the land. That’s what I’ve tried to do.

On a great many local issues—municipal takeover of the school system, or requiring city employees to live in the city—we’re told that state legislation wouldn’t allow it. Are we proscribed to what degree we can do in making positive changes?
No. You have to fight a little harder in the legislature to get your bill passed. But the right of self-determination belongs to each and every municipality, and they can present that to their member, and their member has the obligation and the duty and the responsibility to produce that in their house. One of the very controversial issues in our area was centered around the right of self-determination. Tom Young wanted to put one of those telecommunications betting parlors in the Hotel Syracuse. It didn’t pass in the Senate, but I carried that legislation, and it passed in the Assembly, because the city wanted it, and I was determined to get it and fulfill my obligation to the city.

Are there items regarding Syracuse that are hanging, that you want to resolve before you leave?
The Syracuse Regional Airport. Matt Driscoll worked for how many years to try to get that cohesive enough so it could be presented and be passed. I thought we had an agreement. I introduced it the first of January. Now that’s sitting out there. The city does want to make some changes. I hope they come soon enough to get passed in this session.
The neighborhood preservation groups and the rural preservation groups do so much good work in the community and are constantly looking for ways to help more. This year in the budget they were cut 40 percent. They would like legislation that would allow them to use a small portion of that money for administrative work.

What initiatives need to be taken between the city and the state?
We’ve got to do something with property taxes. We have to do something about our school funding. Affordable, accessible health care is something that we have to work on. Above all, we need an economy, with stable jobs so people can have a reliable, dependable, steady income. People need the pride that comes from being able to earn a living.
If you could write one sentence of advice for your successor on relations between the state and city governments, what would it say?
Listen to the people you represent before you act, because you have to go back home to them, and never forget the Veterans, and don’t lose yourself in the process, and be as independent as you want to be, and keep your family first.

And one sentence for Mayor Miner?
Good luck!

Reach Walt at city@cnylink.com.

CATEGORY: Government
TAGS: Joan Christensen,Walt shepperd,city agenda syracuse,Bragman,Albany government,Upstate Syracuse
EDITION: The Eagle

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