The College Democrats of SUNY Fredonia aim to keep the campus engaged in the community and attuned to contemporary political issues. Their efforts shined as they organized and sponsored an hour-long presentation by Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27).
Higgins, who was elected to office in 2004 and prior to that was an economics and history professor at Buffalo State, was right at home at the podium in Fenton Hall. The questions asked by 'the class' comprised of students and community members, however, were not to explain economic terms but rather a wide-range of national and global issues.
HYDROFRACKING AND THE RIGHT TO KNOW
OBSERVER Photo by Michael Rukavina
Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) spoke recently before SUNY Fredonia students, faculty and community members. His presentation was organized and sponsored by the College Democrats of Fredonia.
Being the environmentally-conscious campus that it is, one member of the audience asked Higgins a two-part question dealing with the public's right to know what food products use genetically altered substances and what types of chemicals are used in the hydrofracking process.
"When it comes to what's in the water put our focus towards it, that is our only resource of water; when it comes to our food, we need to know what's in it, the chemicals are not OK," she said.
Fracking and food labeling are similar, Higgins said, from the standpoint that the state of New York has made a determination through its environmental review process that the chemicals that companies use to 'frack' have to be disclosed.
"These companies were fighting that requirement. I'm not saying it makes it right, but I am saying there is an effort in the state to get this thing right, to get the people the information they need to make a responsible decision," Higgins said. "It's water, it's sand but there are chemicals and those chemicals are toxic ... if they find their way into the water system you do great damage to the natural environment."
The audience member went on and urged Higgins to be a voice for his constituency, especially in the areas of food labeling laws, hydrofracking and waterway protection.
"I know it must be really difficult going up to people in Washington. I bet the temptations and the power and the corruption and the fear is at really high levels. But from here, you have the support of all the people and that is much more powerful. When you go and take your messages to these people I want to you to be empowered, get it done. Really get this done," she said. "All of us who area aware of the issues at hand trust people like you in your position to take this message and actually do something about it. And what we're seeing is that is not being done. I'm not as educated in politics as you are but I don't want to be taken advantage because of that."
She also urged the importance of keeping the Great Lakes clean and protected, especially in the case where hydrofracking may be involved.
"The state completed its review process and there are a number of disclosure requirements that other states like Pennsylvania just don't have," Higgins said. "The concern on the part of the industry is once the public finds out what kinds of chemicals are being used here they're not going to support fracking well that's the point."
"There is a rush in terms of fracking. People see the economic benefit ... and I think that is why New York is trying to get it right where Pennsylvania previously has not."
WATERFRONT IN BUFFALO
An issue near and dear to Higgins has been the sometimes battle to develop the Buffalo waterfront.
"The waterfront is more symbolic of a problem in government and also a challenge in government," he said. "I say this as a student of government and also as a practitioner. I watch my colleagues, retroactively and currently, and I think the problem with our political system is everybody is seeking immediate gratification."
The issue of the day, unfortunately, is what many political leaders will focus on Higgins said. Once the issue loses its novelty they are on to the next issue.
"So typically when you do a retrospective of what's been accomplished the conclusion is pretty much nothing," Higgins said. "What I've tried to do is identify what's important find a focus, sustain a focus, and produce a desired outcome. Have a vision, but be prepared to make that vision something real."
For 75 years people talked about developing the Buffalo waterfront but there were always two problems, money and control or the lack thereof.
"We have made more progress in the past 36 months than has been made in the past 75 years," Higgins said, noting the $279 settlement with the New York State Power Authority and the creation of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation. "We have hundreds of millions of projects including seven this year that are set to be under construction. What it's doing, in addition to creating jobs, is it's changing the image of Buffalo. Buffalo's image was old, declining, industrial. It's changing to new, vibrant, and exciting and we're just getting warmed up. The next 36 months are going to be a period of incredible progress."
The decision to focus attention on the waterfront is what Higgins feels will help create opportunity inland and make the area more valuable in more ways than one.
"Chautauqua Lake drives this counties economy for the very same reasons. People want to recreate on the water, they want to have homes there, they want to be near the water. These are unique resources that no one else has. This county is replete with beautiful natural resources that need to be, not exploited, but taken advantage of. Protecting the environmental integrity of these great resources," he said.
A lot of the statements made from audience members, Higgins said, deal with a larger more political issue in Washington.
"I think it is a consequence of the 24-hour news cycle and the perennial presidential election. I marvel, I think a good debate based on factual information benefits the country, benefits the process. That's the way it's supposed to be. I'm not naive; I understand there are political influences but that's what you're not getting," Higgins said. "Members of the United States Congress, the only people who are making names for themselves are the ones that are making spectacles of themselves. They'll get on the House floor and just say something outrageous, but you know what, it gets covered. It's negative reinforcement."
Higgins recapped an event when Rep. Joe Wilson (S.C.) shouted "you lie" while President Barack Obama was addressing his healthcare plan to Congress.
"The next day, that segment was played more than the content of the President's speech on every media outlet throughout this nation," Higgins said in disbelief. "You know what happened to the member who yelled 'you lie'? His fundraising went through the roof because he went from a congressman in South Carolina to a national hero because he took on the President. They rewarded bad behavior."
"At the same time," an audience member rebutted, "what if righteous behavior was the only behavior that was actually going to net change in a system that wasn't working?"
"I'm just saying the system has gotten so out of control," Higgins said. "I don't represent the institution, I represent the constituency within the institution. When I see that it is wrong or not responding well to the needs of the nation the only voice I have is my own and I use it and I try to be very clear."
Coming Sunday: Higgins discusses alternative energy, Afghanistan and the state of politics today.
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