Congresswoman Tenney Reflects on Political Climate in First Term

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Representative Claudia Tenney shares her thoughts on politics of the day.

Amy Balmuth and Stacey Stein

First-term Congresswoman and Colgate alumna Claudia Tenney ’83 had just returned from a bipartisan congressional trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. Still settling into her New Hartford office, a framed photograph of her son, a Marine, meeting Obama – that Tenney claims half her friends love and half her friends hate – and another of her dogs hung nearby.

“I always wanted to be an artist, it’s all I ever wanted to be,” Tenney said. 

As a Colgate student, Tenney sought out opportunities to learn about other cultures. Colgate’s rurality did not hinder Tenney’s curiosity for meeting people different from her – quite the opposite. She credits a semester abroad in Yugoslavia as one of the most formative experiences of her college career and places a high value on Colgate’s ability to facilitate her meeting people of different backgrounds. 

“If you brought all my friends and put them at a party, one of my friends from Colgate said, ‘it would be the most eclectic group,’” Tenney said.

The desire to understand and connect with people of different perspectives has been a driving force of Congresswoman Tenney’s political career. She voiced her frustration at the protestors outside her New Hartford office who claimed, via Facebook, Tenney refused to meet with them. 

“I just spent 45 minutes of my life with you. I have 717,000 people, I’m trying to get to everyone, I’m trying to understand, I’m trying to help,” Tenney said. 

In some regard, discord is fueled by partisan fervor. Tenney says that on the right, she’s able to have conversations, whereas the left is harder to work with. 

“There are people I disagree with, but I find that, quite honestly, I hate to say this, but the Republicans are so much more reasonable in disagreeing then some of the Democrats,” Tenney said. “I’d say there’s this big body of us in the middle, and then the right-wing Republicans and some of the left-wing Democrats maybe are a little more difficult, but I find that I can go to a right-wing Republican and say you know what, I disagree with you on this, but they’re more willing to tolerate me as a person, where a left-wing Democrat, I go to them and they just don’t even think I’m human.” 

A fan of Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression on “Saturday Night Live,” Tenney remarked that her “democratic friends do not take criticism well if you were to do the same thing to them.” 

In her first term of Congress, however, Tenney has found a large body of politically centered politicians who have committed to work together and have established common ground through “a commitment to civility,” a pledge signed by her Congressional first-term class. Tenney spoke particularly highly of Representatives Val Demings (D-FL) and Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE), two fellow Congresswomen.

As the conversation shifted to campus life at Colgate, Tenney expressed shock at the need for a “safe space” placard in the Colgate Bookstore. 

“For my generation, I can’t relate to it, you know?” Tenney said. “Who hasn’t been oppressed though? Who hasn’t been bullied? … We need to be stronger and not get so sensitive.”

On the subject of Title IX and its place on college campuses, Tenney was surprised at the campus sexual assault statistics – from both her time in college and from present day – considering Colgate is a school of “higher academics.” 

A 1984 National Institute of Mental Health survey found that one in nine college women had been raped over the span of their life on campus. As of 1998, the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network suggests that “women ages 18-24 who are college students are three times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence.” 

“I had almost none in my four years at Colgate. None. I mean a couple of false claims. One of my friends was falsely accused, but it was so rare. And we had the aggressive, paternalistic fraternity lifestyle with people drinking all the time at age 18 and I’m wondering what the phenomenon is,” Tenney said.

While serving in the New York State Assembly, Tenney voted for the “Enough is Enough” law, an extensive law aimed at combating sexual assault on college campuses. She noted her reservations at allowing schools, rather than the criminal justice system to handle perpetrators. Despite these reservations, and criticism from other Republicans, she felt the law was necessary. 

Title IX has also come into play with the recent executive scale-back on protections for transgender children in public school bathrooms, an issue that Tenney is less concerned with. 

“To me, that’s not the issue,” Tenney said. “When it gets into dealing with sports and people – my aunt, she played golf her whole life, she can’t win the state seniors because there is a new person who is transgendered … who is going to win … those are the things where I’m like: are we destroying Title IX or are we preserving it?”

Tenney cited other Title IX gray areas, noting examples of Olympic athletes and the Texas wrestler who was forced to compete against women even though he identified as male. While she believes the matter of bathroom use is a non-issue, she also expressed the importance of understanding those who come from older generations and are not as comfortable. 

Tenney has other worries about the educational system, and expressed skepticism of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. She hopes that DeVos visits to see how well public schools in New York District 22 do with a lack of funding. Tenney is a proponent of the public school system, and is fearful that a charter school or voucher system would not work in this area. 

Tenney sees the district’s significant refugee population as a unique stressor on the school system. 

“We spend $500,000 a year in Utica for a charter school that is basically a Muslim school,” Tenney said. “Pay $500,000 a year to transport students. The city of Utica taxpayers have to pay for the charter school. So things like that, that’s why I’m skeptical of charter schools.”

Utica Academy of Science is a charter school that, according to its website, enrolls students through a lottery process and “actively [recruits] a diverse student population … in order to create a small-world community within the school to promote its global educational mission.” 

Recently, refugees and their relationship with the local community have been thrown into the national spotlight in the wake of Trump’s executive order on immigration. 

Congresswoman Tenney found the executive order “rushed through” and “not properly communicated.” Her personal experience working at the Yugoslavian consulate and with refugees in Utica aided Tenney’s understanding of the refugee entry process.

Tenney thinks that, while the American vetting system is strong, the seven identified countries listed in the executive order are problematic because it is hard to obtain accurate information and trust their records. While she supports having refugees in America, she wants to ensure that the safety of Americans comes first and people who could potentially be dangerous are not able to enter through channels meant for refugees. 

“When I was helping the Bosnian refugees, some of them were starving, their families had been killed, they have nothing,” Tenney said. “They’re innocent, but that’s how evil our enemies are. They just kind of infiltrate … they’re not American citizens. We aren’t required to give everybody a home. A lot of them, by the way, do not want to come to the United States. They want to go home.”

Tenney spoke highly of systems being implemented in Europe, where certain cities allow a specific number of refugees into their community, but refugees are spread out once the population becomes overwhelmingly dense. 

“A city like Utica keeps taking them, but 18 percent of our population is refugees,” Tenney said. “So guess what? You have 42 languages spoken. You have all this burden on the school district that is not only trying to educate their own population, many of whom are poor already. So Utica is what now? The poorest school district in the entire state of New York. It’s not the fault of the refugees. Some other school districts should be helping.”

Tenney has high praise for what the refugee population brings to the area, and feels that tensions between the refugee population and surrounding community stem largely from misunderstanding. 

“We have a lot of really good refugees who are coming in, they’re assimilating really well and some of them are doing better than others,” Tenney said. “That’s just the way it’s going to be. That’s okay, they don’t all have to be superstars. It is a burden on a city that doesn’t have enough resources. When I got elected, [I wanted] to see us give more resources to the city of Utica. And the federal side – you can’t expect a city to take that kind of burden because we don’t have a tax base for it.” 

“A lot of people are unhappy with the refugees here unfortunately. I think that it would be better if the refugees would have more of a voice so people would want to understand that we’re lucky to have the refugees, but it’s hard to convince people who are being moved out of their houses and are poor and they perceive – even though it’s probably not reality – that the refugees are getting all the benefits and they’re not.”

Tenney’s creation of a Bosnian newspaper has, in part, shaped her view of certain issues within the media today. 

“I think the press should be responsible, and I think that they need to be given access,” Tenney said. “The more access you give them, the more likely you’re going to get the real story. Unless they’re straight lying, which they do that too. When Trump talks about fake news, there is fake news. But who is it?”

When speaking of Trump, Tenney did not hold back certain criticisms. However, she dismissed his false claim of winning the electoral college by the biggest margin since Ronald Reagan as “silly nonsense” and part of his “braggadocious” personality. While she might not support everything Trump says, Tenney believes his actions are more important – a stance she found important during campaign season. 

“There’s times when he would say stuff and I’m just like, I’m not going to focus on that,” Tenney said. “I’m going to vote for someone because of what they’re going to do, not what they’re saying. Even though I can’t stand some of the stuff he says, I try to look at it for what are we trying to accomplish?”

Additionally, Tenney expressed enthusiasm about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Tenney labeled the ACA “the single biggest, most destructive thing to our community” and said that she would repeat her vote on a bill to allow Congress to repeal and replace the ACA “a thousand times again.” 

Tenney expressed compassion for the taxpayers and her many constituents hurt by the ACA but also frustration at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s “very obstructive and obstinate” Senate. The problem, according to Tenney, is “the Democrats aren’t going to help in any way. It doesn’t appear they care if people are left destitute.”

“Probably 90 percent of the people I hear from are just desperate to repeal Obamacare,” Tenney said. 

Tenney is critical of block grants, and she hopes to see a consumer-driven model implemented.

“It’s a very complicated issue,” Tenney said. “You don’t want to hurt anybody. We’re already hurting people right now. We’re hurting people every single day.”

In many ways, Tenney’s ascendance to Congressional office was unconventional. Initially attacked by Republicans and now weathering attacks from Democrats, Tenney describes politics as “the biggest bullying arena in the world.” If politics has hardened Congresswoman Tenney, her commitment to her beliefs, constituents and the Colgate community remain clear. 

“It’s hard because these issues are not simple,” Tenney said. “You get cast in a certain way, and they’re not that simple. I look at it this way. I don’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican. Let’s just try to find solutions. I don’t want to put a bill in that has only Republicans on it. I want a bill that we’re all coming together on.”