Congressperson Ann Marie Buerkle stood in the main room of the Wilson Park Community Center, surrounded by almost 50 youth, mostly 12 and under. It was a hot July afternoon and she had a plane to catch for an unexpected reconvening of the House.
But she had stopped by the Center-which provides summer programming for youth from Pioneer Homes and Central Village, with some bussed in from other neighborhoods-to watch a performance of the Media Unit’s Angles with Broken Wings: Taking the First Step, an original music theater production promoting alternatives to the street violence, based on stories written by members of turf crews and women who had lost a family member to the ongoing conflicts.
A Republican, Buerkle is aware of the overwhelming hold the Democratic Party has maintained on the local communities of color as it does nationwide. But she believes those communities have sold themselves short by an unquestioned allegiance, which has not seemed to deliver any long-range tangible benefits. She is hoping to initiate dialogues in those communities, much as she has in a series of town hall meetings throughout the 25th District. She spoke to the youth that day about keeping a positive direction in their lives. An adult in the crowd called out that he could feel the presence of a future Congressperson in the room, but just couldn’t tell who. The young folks looked at each other and wondered.
Does a New Deal style Public Works Program to reconstruct the crumbling infrastructure make sense to create jobs for our communities of color?
I don’t think it does. Since the time President Johnson declared the War on Poverty and the Great Society, where have we come? What have we accomplished? Are our minority populations any better off? It’s time to figure out a way we can be successful making sure that every American has an opportunity for the American Dream. We’re not doing a good job of that.
The American Dream seems to have shifted from what it was to “I’m going to win the lottery.” What was it, and how can it be restructured so that people can reach it?
I always bring up my grandparents, who came to this country from Italy and couldn’t speak a word of English. My parents were first generation Americans. To take a nickel from the government was a sign of failure. It wasn’t what this country was about. What has happened in two generations is now we have this mentality where, “I’m going to rely on the government. I need the government.” It’s due in part to the programs that have been set up. They make people rely on the government. There’s no personal responsibility. There’s an erosion of personal responsibility and it’s the government creating this dependent population.
That generation you’re talking about who couldn’t speak English went to night school and learned. The system worked for them. Now the education system doesn’t seem to be working for at least half the school population. Can the federal government play a role in finding a solution?
Part of the problem with education is that it is not a federal issue. It is a state and local issue, and I have talked about the Department of Education, and its role, and how it sucks money out of the localities, and it goes down to Washington and feeds this big bureaucratic beast down there. Well Washington doesn’t know what’s best for Syracuse. Washington doesn’t have a clue. So in true government fashion, with cookie cutter approaches, we set these standards for everybody.
But local governments know what’s best for their communities. This country is failing our youth. We have a moral obligation to make our kids competitive in the global market. A 50 percent drop out rate goes back to personal responsibility, goes back to challenging these kids, goes back to setting high standards and saying to them, “Regardless of the situation that you were born into, you can get out of that situation and you can do better, we’re going to give you the tools to do it.”
I don’t think our education system is doing that.
Do you have a vision of what could do it?
Public education right now is hurting. I don’t want to use a broad brush and I want to be real careful. We’re not holding our kids to a high enough standard. We’re underestimating. Just because a child comes from a broken family or a parent who has a substance abuse problem or has a criminal record, that doesn’t mean that child is any less capable. He needs to be challenged. He needs to be encouraged. He needs to be understood as an individual.
The system, as it’s set up right now, can only do the big picture. They can’t deal with the kids. They don’t challenge them enough. It has to do with the problems with the unions, with the teachers, not being able to look at performance, not holding the teachers to a high enough standard, looking at seniority rather than who does the best job with the kids.
The system is broken. We need more school choice, encouraging charter schools and private schools. If there’s a family in the middle of Syracuse that wants to send their child to a private school, they should have that choice. If we encourage the use of charter schools and private schools, that makes public schools better, because now they’ve got competition.
Who pays for that?
We should talk about tax credits. If you’ve got a business that’s willing to underwrite scholarships, they should get tax credits. And there’s the voucher program.
Do you consider Social Security and Medicare as fostering the dependency on government you say is eroding personal responsibility, or are they elements that government should legitimately be responsible for?
It’s a little bit of both. When Social Security was first instituted, I don’t think it was ever meant to be the check that seniors were going to live on. It was meant to be a supplement to their retirement. Back then it was just incumbent on the person to save their money and to understand that at some point they were going to stop working and they needed something to live on. That goes to personal responsibility. But we got the Social Security and Medicare systems into place, and seniors have become reliant on them.
I think Medicare was really a very good program. But the population has changed. The situation has changed. When Social Security first began there were 16 workers for every recipient. Now we have three workers for every recipient, and soon it will be two. You don’t have to be a math genius to understand what the problems are. It’s really important to tell our seniors, “Look, we’re not going to yank the rug out from underneath you. You paid into Medicare and Social Security. You have an expectation. The rules are going to remain the same for you.” But if we’re going to be honest with people, we’ve got to begin the discussion of what changes are we going to make, what tweaks are necessary to make these programs work.
Can the local Republican Party make real inroads into the communities of color?
I know we can make inroads in the communities of color. The reason is not because I’m a certain party, but because I think we’ve constantly underestimated communities of color. We have treated them with disrespect. We’ve talked down to them, and the message has been, “My God, you can’t survive without the government. You need the government.”
The message to those communities is that this is the United States or America, and what made this country great is that it’s the land of opportunity. These programs, in a very perverse way, limit the sense of opportunity. The definition of insanity is to keep throwing money at the same things that aren’t working.
It’s time to give the minority communities the respect that they deserve and say, “Let’s figure out way out of this mess. Let’s do it together, and let’s not make it about political party, let’s make it about what works.