Interview With NYS Senator Jen Metzger

As Republicans seek this November to retake seats the party lost in the New York state Senate in 2018, and Democrats try to shore up their one-party rule of the Empire State, one race both parties have their eye on is that of the moderate 42nd District, which includes all of Sullivan County and parts of Delaware, Orange and Ulster Counties.

Jen Metzger, the incumbent, first-term Democrat, won the seat in 2018 following the retirement of Republican John Bonacic, who had held it for two decades. Republican Donald Trump won the district by more than five points in 2016 – after Democrat Barack Obama had won by over 9 points in 2012.

Orthodox Jews may play a decisive role in this election. While they have been spending summers for a century in the district, which includes much of the Catskills and western portions of the Hudson Valley, in recent years more and more Orthodox Jews looking for greener and cheaper pastures than are available in New York City have been making this area their permanent home.

Of the approximately 193,000 registered voters in the district, around 3,000 are Orthodox Jews – a number that may well be within the margin of victory in what is expected to be a close election.

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Incumbent Democrat Jen Metzger is just finishing her first term as state senator, but previously worked for years in local government in the town of Rosendale, chairing the town’s environmental commission, serving as deputy town supervisor, and two terms on the town council. She was in middle of her second term when she won her state Senate race in 2018.

In 2012, Metzger founded Citizens for Local Power, an organization seeking to help communities in Ulster County transition to clean energy. She served as director of that organization until her Senate election.

Previously, Metzger served as Public Affairs Coordinator for the United Nations Association, an organization dedicated to promoting support for the United Nations; and was an instructor at the Walt Whitman Center for Culture and Politics of Democracy, and at Rutgers University.

 

Metzger, 55, and her husband John are both New York City natives. They moved to Rosendale 20 years ago, and have raised their sons Gideon, Jasper and Silas in that town in the center of Ulster County.

Let’s start with some issues related to the coronavirus response. First of all, nursing homes: The Cuomo Administration ordered nursing homes not to discriminate against COVID patients; thousands of deaths later, this is a big controversy.

I’m on the Health Committee in the State Senate, and I’ve been extremely concerned about the tragedy that occurred on a huge scale in our nursing homes across the state. It wasn’t just in New York State; it was in other states as well, but we lost thousands of lives. I called early on for investigating what happened.

We held [for] two days, well over 25 hours of hearings just on nursing homes and what happened there and what lessons were learned. The commissioner was really under fire by all of us. The report that they issued seemed primarily to be a defense of existing policy; it wasn’t the rigorous, in-depth assessment that I wanted to see. And I raised in the hearing the need to look at what went wrong and also look in those facilities that actually somehow succeeded to not have a very high rate of infection and mortality, and really look at the factors, do a deep dive into what policies and practices contributed to this. I think that that is really important.

And we passed legislation that was signed into law to require all long-term residential health facilities to have annually updated pandemic plans, to post them publicly, and list a variety of requirements that they had to include in those plans.

We have to learn from the experience that we went through this past spring, and we’re not out of the woods by any means. This is the time that we should be spending really preparing in the event of another surge.

New York State is still allowing very limited visitation in hospitals and nursing homes. There were horror stories during the height of the pandemic when there were no visitors allowed at all, and reports of patients not being fed or given water. The governor talks every day about how the COVID infection numbers are going lower and lower and lower, but we haven’t heard anything lately about any movement on expanding hospital visitation. So far as you know, is there any discussion about this, and any movement to seriously expand the hospital- and nursing-home-visitation hours?

I have been extremely concerned from very early in this public health crisis about the isolation and the fear that patients were experiencing in hospitals, and I was one of the first senators to sign on to a letter by Sen. Carlucci calling on hospitals to create a compassionate volunteer program to enable people who have had the antibodies, to be trained and go in and really provide that connection that they were not able to get. And I also, just within the district, advocated with a hospital [Garnet Health Medical Center, formerly known as Orange Regional Medical Center] which wasn’t allowing anyone to bring people into the emergency room ­– that policy was actually changed.

In the nursing-home hearings, I had raised this issue, as did my other colleagues. In fact, we’ve talked extensively about the incredible toll that this isolation is taking on nursing-home residents and their families. We had staff in nursing homes testifying to actually seeing cognitive decline among their residents, that they feel is because of this isolation.

So I’ve been pushing, I brought it up in the hearing, they should at least allow outdoor visits. And I’ve continued to be calling the governor’s office and trying to get some movement on this, because I think it’s really important.

It’s about striking a balance, and I think there’s probably an extra sensitivity to nursing homes – no one wants to see an increase in infection rates in nursing homes again. It is our most vulnerable population, but I believe that there is a balance; we can find a middle ground that allows visitation in a way that’s safe.

I’d like to ask you about an issue that’s particularly relevant to your district and other rural areas: cellphone towers. There are a lot of dead zones, which can be dangerous when people are in accidents on remote roads and they can’t call 911. Do you believe that government should play any role in doing something to get private companies to expand cellphone towers to these areas where it may not be profitable to do so?

Absolutely, 100%.

I represent Sullivan County and a portion of Ulster in the Catskills region, and the service is just terrible there on all of the major roads. There was a case a couple years back, a man froze to death on the side of the road: his car broke down, there was no cell service and no way to contact anyone. As you say, it is a public safety issue. And it’s also just so vital to conducting business in this day and age, to our tourist economy – people are coming up and looking for places to go and they can’t use the phones when their families are on the road.

The governor created a rural cellular taskforce, and I sat on that committee. We worked for some months over the fall and winter of 2019. We were focused specifically on the gaps in the Catskills as well as in the Adirondacks. I had expected to see something in the budget to get New York on the path of closing these gaps, and there wasn’t anything. Of course we are now in the midst of a severe economic contraction, and budget gap. But it is my belief that we absolutely have to address this, and I’m going to continue to press for doing so.

Also, I was the sponsor of legislation that was passed with strong bipartisan support by both houses last month, that’s really aimed at closing the broadband gap in New York, and we’re hoping that the governor signs that into law very soon.

On the cellphone towers, I think many people can agree that it’s a public-safety issue, but the question really is who should pay for it. Is this something where the government’s looking at forcing private companies to do it, or that the government would actually pay for it, because it’s not profitable?

I think it’s got to be a public-private partnership.

Unfortunately, telecommunications companies are not regulated at the state level like utilities are. It’s the FCC that has jurisdiction, and that makes it more challenging for us; we can’t direct them to do what we want them to do, like we can utilities. But I do think that there is going to have to be a public private-partnership, but I also think we need to use our leverage. New York is a giant market for these companies. We are one of their biggest markets in the country, and we should definitely be using that leverage to encourage them to work with us to close these gaps.

But I will mention just on a very local level that I am working with Sullivan County in getting a grant to the county to build a new tower. So it’s going to be a combination of things, but I’m personally committed to that as a state senator from my district, because it’s such a huge problem in my district.

The state is experiencing tough economic times. It does not appear that a Washington bailout is going to come anytime soon. How do you feel the New York state government should close the budget gap?

Unlike the federal government, New York State is constitutionally required to balance its budget, so we cannot spend more than we take in in revenues.

I have been advocating for bills, and I’m actually the sponsor of one revenue-raising bill, that would place a tax on corporate stock buybacks. I’m also the co-sponsor of bills that would increase the tax rate on the ultra-wealthy. I just don’t think that the middle class and working families can absorb these cuts. Our communities cannot absorb these cuts.

Everyone has to step up. I think the wealthiest in New York have to shoulder their fair portion of this burden to help New York in this time of need.

If we do not raise revenue, we’re going to have to cut essential programs and services, public education.

This is not the time, in the middle of a pandemic, to be cutting funding to hospitals and nursing homes and first responders. So the revenue has to come from somewhere, and it can’t come from the middle class and working families.

You are a member of the Senate Health Committee. What are your views on health care?

I believe everyone should have affordable access to health care.

New York passed bail reform last year; then it was amended in April. Do you like the bail-reform law now as is, or would you vote for changes to it?

First of all, I want to point out that everyone, including law enforcement, agreed that the old system was broken and needed to be fixed. And the criminal-justice reforms – not just bail, but speedy-trial and discovery reforms – were meant to make our system fairer, and it needed to be made fairer.

Those reforms were passed as part of the budget. I am very much against passing legislation as part of the budget, and I’ve actually introduced a bill that would amend the constitution to prohibit legislating on non-budgetary matters in the budget, because we should be taking our time and going through the regular committee process.

I did think that we needed to make reasonable changes to the laws that were passed in 2019, and I was one of the main voices in the Senate majority calling for reasonable amendments to it, and was part of a working group that was created by the majority leader to do just that. And we made changes both to discovery and bail, and I believe that those amendments to the reforms that we passed make our system fairer and safe. Those went into effect at the beginning of July.

There’s been a lot of sensationalism about the bail reform. Crimes that are committed that have absolutely nothing to do with bail reform have been blamed on bail reform. It’s a lot of fearmongering, I believe, but I feel that we have good laws in place, I’m proud of the work I did to make reasonable changes to those laws, and they address, I think, the major concerns.

So right now, considering the changes that were made in April, which went into effect in July, your view is that we should keep those and not make further changes?

Correct.

Another law that was passed last year that some people are saying should be reconsidered, is the plastic-bag ban. It hasn’t yet been implemented, due to lawsuits. There have also been concerns, during COVID especially, about germs on the reusable bags. Do you believe the plastic-bag ban should be amended or canceled, or do you want to see it implemented as passed?

During this pandemic, there were temporary changes to it, but overall, I think we should maintain that law. In the county that I live in, Ulster County, we’ve had a plastic-bag ban in place, and with great success. Our businesses have all adapted to it, and there haven’t been problems implementing it. Plastics waste is a huge problem in our country and in our state. And this is a reasonable bill that just makes sense for environmental reasons, and ultimately it’s a cost, too. Customers are getting these bags for “free,” but it’s a cost of doing business. People are bringing their own bags; that’s a good thing for businesses as well. I personally have been bringing my own bags, grocery shopping, for many, many years, and don’t find it to be an inconvenience at all. I wash them like I wash anything else. And it just makes sense, I think, environmentally and economically.

What is your stance on government funding of private schools, including the secular-education portion of religious schools?

One of the issues I ran on in 2018 was how we fund our public schools, which I think is a broken system, but it is creating an unnecessarily huge burden on localities and local taxpayers. And we’ve seen, over time, an increasing share of education costs pass on to localities. And that’s created an enormous financial burden for homeowners, and it’s also created inequalities in educational resources that are available across school districts, and my priority is to fix that first. That’s really been my focus, to fix public-school funding.

Do you support any sort of tax credits or tuition vouchers, or anything to that effect, for private-school education?

It’s not something that I support at this time. We have to fix the way we fund our education system more generally – that’s my first priority.

Some have pushed for strict government oversight over the secular-education curriculum at private and religious schools. What is your stance on that?

The Board of Regents didn’t take any action on the proposed substantial-equivalency regulations. I think it was a huge problem that they did not include the Orthodox community at the table. All parties have to be participating in any process that’s looking at regulations like that. So that is something that I will be advocating for going forward, making sure that everyone has a voice, including the affected communities, in this regulatory review process.

Ultimately, do you think that government should take this sort of role in dictating the curriculum? For years, this substantial-equivalency law was on the books, but that only would have been an issue if someone reported a particular school. This is the first time that the government is actually seeking to say, “We will state the exact curriculum for how you fulfill substantial equivalency.”

My response to that is a process question. The state Department of Education has set standards, it’s done that, that’s what it does. But the issue is, you’ve got to absolutely give everyone a seat at the table, in what those standards are going to be. And I think then you can get an outcome that works for people. But I’m not going to dictate what that policy is ­– I think this is about process. It’s about making sure that everyone, including those most impacted by those standards, are included as partners in the process.

At times, there are tensions between communities of people moving from cities to rural areas, and the locals. Sometimes, the locals say they want to prevent overdevelopment and maintain the rural character of the areas, while those trying to move in say that there’s an underlying bias. Should government be using zoning laws to maintain the rural character of certain places, or should government be allowing development?

First of all, zoning is the purview of local governments.

But I think that, like everything, you have to have a balance. We want to attract more people to our community, we want to attract more development; it’s good for the local economies. But we want to protect, as well, everything that makes the Catskills region and [other areas in the district] desirable. They’re beautiful places to live – that’s why people want to move there. You can balance those objectives in reasonable ways.

But that shouldn’t be used as a veil for other motives. If a community wants to protect its open spaces, it can do that, [but] it has to have objective laws and an objective process for balancing its desire for growth and development, with protecting the environment. If there’s any bias or anything like that going on, that’s got to be reported to appropriate authorities, state authorities or what have you.

But I do believe that you have to have a balance. I represent the Catskills and parts of the Hudson Valley regions. We’re famous for our natural beauty and for the resources we have and the recreational resources, and it’s what draws people to our region. It’s the source of the tourist revenue that is generated in our communities. So it is important to strike a balance.

Finally, 2019 saw a massive increase in anti-Semitic incidents; those have gone down somewhat in 2020. You were involved in the passage of hate-crimes legislation in New York state.

I’ve grown up caring about anti-Semitism. This is something my own dad worried about. From my earliest ages, he would talk to me about this, growing up in Queens, and we just absolutely can have zero tolerance for it – both outright acts of anti-Semitism, and also veiled anti-Semitism, any of that coded rhetoric. At all levels, there can be just zero tolerance for it. The Democratic majority has been very strong on these issues in addressing hate crimes and anti-Semitism, and also providing the resources the communities need to protect themselves. You mentioned we passed the New York Hate Crime Anti-Terrorism Act, which was a first-in-the-nation, domestic terrorism law to include crimes motivated by hate. In this year’s budget, we included $2 million to support the State Police Hate Crimes Task Force. We passed legislation this year – I also think this is very important legislation – to make sure that local law enforcement are properly trained to recognize and respond to hate crimes, and requiring new policies and procedures for all the local police departments as well.

We included $45 million in the 2019 budget for competitive grants for the Securing Communities Against Hate Crimes program. And I successfully advocated for an additional $20 million in funding for security for schools and camps, that was passed in the “budget cleanup bill” in June of last year. I have been, along with my colleagues in the Democratic majority, taking this issue extremely seriously. We just have no tolerance for it, and cannot tolerate hate and anti-Semitism in any form.

[Read interview with Metzger’s opponent, Republican Mike Martucci, here.]

rborchardt@hamodia.com