YFFP Interviews State Senators from the United States of America

State Senator Ellen Roberts and Representative Paul Thissen from the United States of America were recently interviewed by YFFP’s Delhi Convener Brij Pahwa and Research Head Mrittika Nandy. Given here is the transcript of the same.

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YFFP: So, the first question Ms. Roberts is that as the first woman to be elected to the Senate seat for District 6 and President Pro-Term for Colorado State Senate, do you think that the political spaces are as accessible for men as they are for women?

Ellen Roberts: Women do face some extra challenges, even in the U.S in terms of elected office. Much of that is balancing work and family life as well as access to donors in a campaign. That makes a big difference. The women don’t have the same network of supporters, so it takes a lot of work to develop that. I think there is a lot of interest though, in the U.S to strengthen the role of women in our elected offices both at the State and National level.

YFFP: So we have seen you work extensively at the grassroots, tell us how would you define the coinage “Public Service”? Do you think the term has been corrupted by vested political agendas in the contemporary world scenario and to what extent?

Ellen Roberts: “Public Service” to me means that you work for the good of the people, your country, and your state. So, are there examples of corruption in the U.S?  Yes, but I think it’s more about the individual and if you have the heart to serve and the willingness to work very hard and reach out to your constituents, I think you succeed.

YFFP: Mr. Thissen, tell us a little bit about your innovative program ‘access to persons with disability’. What inspired you to start something like that?

Paul Thissen: Well, it goes back quite a ways but I’m a lawyer as well as a legislator and we are a part time legislature. So, a lot of the work I was doing as a lawyer in the court system was representing people with disabilities. There were legal issues at the hand but also their access to the court system is different. So what we tried to do was to work to make sure that the courts were equipped for people with disabilittoies  advocate more effectively for themselves, to train judges and other lawyers about the unique ways that you need to work with people with different disabilities so that the court systems work as well. It’s an ‘equal rights equal access’ kind of  issue and a lot of people got very engaged around it, a lot of people got very excited about it and I think we made some progress.

YFFP: Something like this came up in India as well at the university level where universities are trying to equip people with disabilities with several new technologies and they have collaborated with several organisations. I guess in the United States as well.

Paul Thissen: Yes, that’s right.

YFFP: So the 2013 session was termed the most productive in the generation, and as Speaker of the House in 2013, what were the primary challenges you faced?

Paul Thissen: In Minnesota, that was a session unlike any that we’d had in a long time, that all the democrats, and I’m a Democrat, were incharge of all of the branches of government. So both houses of legislature and the Governor’s office, and that hadn’t been true probably for 25 years before that. And so I think the biggest challenge probably was trying to figure out. There’s a lot of pent up demand for things that Democrats tend to prefer. The two biggest challenges that I’d say were kind of tempering the demands of people because they wanted a lot done and we did get a lot done but there were a lot more people wanted to do to go a lot further. And the other challenge in a state like Minnesota which is agricultural. We have a big city Minneapolis which is a metropolitan area, but the rest of the state is agriculture, timber or mining; trying to balance out those regional differences where people, you know, reflect where they come from. And trying to balance out those things is probably the biggest challenge of the Speaker of the House or the leader of the party.

YFFP: Do you think the Federal Government should increase the funding for healthcare for low-income individuals, considering the fact that illegal migrants should have more access to government subsidised healthcare?

Paul Thissen: Well I do think that the efforts that have been made in the last 5-8 years towards expanding access to healthcare have been really important. You know in our state we have about less than 5 % people in Minnesota who don’t have access to see a doctor or nurse when they need to, so it’s great. We’ve always been a leader in that but we’ve improved even from that. But the biggest gap, that make up that 4-5 % are folks that aren’t in the United States legally, and trying to figure how to address that issue, from my perspective, speaking personally, my sense is that if someone is here, not in here, but in the United States, we need to deal with the kind of legalities of why they are here and whether we shouldn’t do what we should do, but as long as they are here,  we should also make sure that we take care of their basic human needs and access to healthcare, from my perspective, is one of those. So, I think finding out ways to help people who are not in the United States legally, to get access to a doctor or a nurse when they need them. It’s not just good for them and their families, but it’s also good for all of us because of the public health implications. You know, if someone gets sick, they are going to spread it to other people. So, we need to think about all those issues and we need to address that.

Ellen Roberts : Would like a slightly different take, so I’m a Republican, but I agree that people need access to health care. The big challenge that we have is for paying for it and so the recent change in federal law, under Obama care, or the affordable care act, presents real problems at the state level, because we have a balance budget requirement. So, we only spend what we take in from our constituents. What’s happening in the state of Colorado, is more and more a part of our state budget is directed by federal law, rather than by the State, and we have less money for K12, education, kindergarten through high school years and higher education, Rhodes and others keys areas to pay for, so it’s always a matter of making a choice, and it’s not that health care doesn’t matter, it matters very much, for many other reasons just mentioned, but it means, those Dollars cannot be put to education or other good uses. So, it’s a challenge.

YFFP: Just adding on to that with the policy of Obama care, if you could shed some light on it, and put some light on the contentions Miss Roberts is raising right now?

Paul Thissen: Yes, I mean, there is no question that healthcare is expensive and is growing part of our budget, you know. Frankly, most of all, we spend our health care Dollars on it and this is true in just about every state, and particularly on old people. Our population is getting older and older, and so what we pay for Medicare, like nursing homes where people go and spend their retirement years, that makes up the vast majority and I don’t know anybody, at least in Minnesota that thinks we should be cutting access for health care for older Minnesotans. So this clearly is an issue. The biggest challenge though is not whether we should cover people or not but it is cost. From my perspective, failure of Obama care so far hasn’t gotten to the underlying issue of healthcare cost and how expensive it is in America to provide healthcare compared to any other country in the world, and we need to get that under control. There’s a lots of things going on, but that’s kinda the next unfinished business it seems.

YFFP: So just deviating from this particular topic of health and coming to elections next year, its estimated that more than $200,000,000 will be pumped by Hedge funds and private equity funds into state and the elections. What do you think will happen, if this trend continues, will political funding become a serious issue in the elections?

Ellen Roberts : Yes. And I think at the state level it is very different than at the national federal level, but it is concerning to me that people of average means will be unable to get elected because  it is such a struggle, to compete with buying media, with just the impact of large donors. So regardless of Party, I think that we probably share concerns.

YFFP: That issue has always been there.

YFFP: So taking the same thread of thought, don’t you think its important for Presidential candidates or any representatives to disclose the amount of money they spend in campaigning? This kind of a trend has been started in India by think tanks where they have furnished reports, stating the amount of black money that has been used or the use illegal money to sell out tickets. So don’t you think, that presidential candidates during the run up to state elections should they disclose their expenditure to the public?

Paul Thissen: Absolutely, I think there should a lot more of it. You know in United states now our constitution has been interpreted essentially to say that money equals speech, so there is no way to limit the amount of money that someone is going to spend, but transparency and sunlight is one weapon that we have and we have pretty good laws in Minnesota, I imagine in Colorado too, about disclosure of what the candidates spend and what the party spends. But the big change that we have seen in Minnesota is what we call advocacy spending. So the groups don’t say “vote for candidate X,” but say, “Did you know candidate X supports Marijuana “ or whatever it is, and I don’t know why I thought of that, because Colorado, and though that is not disclosed that’s the piece that I really think we need to figure out. We, as individual candidates, can spend about 60,000 US dollars on their campaigns, but in many of our closely contested state legislative races representing 40,000 people, you’ll see almost a million Dollars being spent by outside groups trying to influence the elections and that really has distorted the politics.

YFFP: Going on to something a bit more informal and which was in news a few weeks back and that was Mr Trump in his campaign kick-off speech referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals but the July Washington Post, ABC news poll showed that 33% of the general public actually liked him, 17 percentage points higher than how he’d polled in May. So what according to you might be the reason behind such a rise in his polls when on the contrary one expects his polls to sink? Do you agree that he benefits from his celebrity status?

Ellen Roberts : Mr Trump definitely benefits from his celebrity status and being on television. He definitely benefits from being a billionaire. He does not speak for me as a Republican and I don’t agree with a lot of his views including the ones you just mentioned, related to immigration. However, people are looking to shake up the field so as a Republican when you have so many who are running, I think Mr Trump represents somebody who because he is bold and daring in what he says…people like that being all shaken up. I, for one don’t think that will last and I hope not for my party but we’ll see how it plays out.

YFFP: Mr. Thissen, your views on this?

Paul Thissen: I agree with everything that Ellen just said and I just don’t think it reflects the best spirit of America.

YFFP: Since now we have covered all the topics related to elections, we just put this interview to an end. I hope you guys enjoyed it.

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