Interview: NY 22nd Congressional District Candidate Vanessa Fajans-Turner (2022-04-27)

Venessa Fajans-Turner is the Executive Director of national non-profit BankFWD and a candidate for the newly redistricted (and disputed) 22nd NY congressional district. WRFI's Fred Balfour interviewed her on April 27, 2022.

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WRFI News Theme music: Alex Reed.
Photo: provided.


Transcript of Interview:

Fred Balfour, WRFI 0:13
Hello and welcome to WRFIs series of candidate interviews. I'm Fred Balfour. Our series has invited all candidates in what we thought were the June 28 primaries for the 22nd Congressional District in New York's 53rd State Senate District. In today's interview, I'll continue to say the 22nd. Even if the district lines change, the issues of climate, farming, manufacturing, childcare, eldercare, healthcare stay the same. So excuse us if one of us trips over and says the 22nd. Understand that we're all holding our breaths. In the studio today, with us is Vanessa Fajans-Turner, the executive director of the national nonprofit BankFWD. She's a candidate in the 22nd congressional district Democratic primary. You can see our full interview list of all the candidates and listen to the archived interviews on our website, Vanessa, welcome to WRFI and thanks for joining us in the studio.

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 1:15
Thank you so much for having me, Fred on an exciting day.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 1:19
It is exciting indeed. We'll start out with a two minute opening statement and then we'll move to the issues. And at the end, we'll leave time for a two minute closing statement. Vanessa, the microphone is yours for an opening statement.

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 1:33
Thank you. And it's a pleasure to be here today. And to all of our listeners, many of whom are hungry for democratic representation. It's a pleasure to be here. My name is Vanessa, as Fred has said, and I grew up here in Ithaca, New York attending Beverly J. Martin Elementary School, DeWitt Middle School and Ithaca High School, where I helped start the first high school girls ice hockey team, right here in New York State. I have been in climate and fighting climate change for my entire career, working on issues that transcend boundaries, as you have said, Fred, and am hungry to bring that back along with my vision for a new and growing vibrant, 22nd district or whatever number it may be. I believe that we in this area should be the hub of a new green sustainable economy, that we should be the center for bringing back manufacturing that really is now feasible and adds to our economy. The next chapter of fighting climate change involves producing all sorts of renewable technologies that shorten and lessen the shortage on electric vehicles and solar panels. That should be taking place here. I also believe that we need to be supporting our agricultural producers to make a transition to more sustainable, productive methods, and working alongside them to work into this next phase. And I know that we need to be investing in our local economy, supporting the educational and medical institutions that produce top talent, and keeping them here with good jobs. And also the care economy. We definitely need to be thinking through how to leverage our strong resources in medical training, and ensuring that we are putting that towards Senior Care, childcare and supporting that with federal funds.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 3:44
Vanessa, thank you for the opening. Let me ask a really general question, but it's got a point to it. When you arrive in Washington as the newly elected member of Congress, if that happens, from New York's 22nd, what will be your top two or three priorities?

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 4:02
I like to think about this all the time. I will wake up hungry to bring as much of the bipartisan infrastructure bill funding to this district as possible, to be supporting our agricultural producers, to be supporting programs like Ithaca Green New Deal, and the electrification processes. I also will be working very hard to support regulations on Wall Street, that are undermining all of the productive growth and climate programs that this government is doing at the national level and our New York state level, as well as our local level. And I will absolutely be your most reliable vote on expanding civil rights, voting rights and fighting for women's reproductive health care. That is something that no matter what the vote is on the floor, I will be a voice for using a congressional platform as an individual and as a leader. I support Medicare for All and know that women's reproductive health has to be a part of that.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 5:07
We could spend a lot of time on a lot of these subjects. But could you give a couple sentences on what you meant by undermining just now-- don't get too far into it, but just sharpen it for us.

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 5:17
We have to do the math. The the national federal bipartisan infrastructure bill proposes to allocate $1 trillion to infrastructure. Over 10 years, Wall Street banks, along with the other 60 largest banks around the world, have funneled $4.6 trillion into fossil fuels alone. Since the passage of the Paris Climate Agreement, which was in the end of 2015-2016, that's $4.6 trillion, over six to seven years. As long as that kind of money is going into unsustainable energy, any effort we do to move towards a renewable future is undermined.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 6:02
Great. And that's exactly the right level of answer I wanted to get to. I wanted to review quickly your current job, and one of your positions, because that often influences how you act and how you represent. Your website states that you are an executive director for a nonprofit with the name of bank, FWD, which is not really illustrative of what that is, help us understand the organization and your role in that.

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 6:27
Gladly. Bank Forward as we actually say it is a community of individuals, organizations--like foundations, and increasingly companies--that are focused on demonstrating the client's demand to their banks for better climate action. It is an initiative and a campaign that tries to play the inside game with banks, by organizing individuals who can get into the boardrooms and get into the executive offices, and have the conversation about just what I was saying the degree to which Wall Street is acting against not only climate interests, but their clients' interests as well.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 7:13
And you're saying companies are joining that. And I assume you mean private sector for-profit companies. So you're actually converting or finding or locating that set of people that can begin to talk to bankers.

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 7:25
I'm very proud to say that that is in fact what we are doing. We are releasing a report in the coming weeks that will be very influential with many private sector companies about their relationship with banks. We are also active as it is general meeting season for banks and have multiple large shareholders like companies acting to help pass shareholder resolutions that would ban the expansion of fossil fuels.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 7:53
The other thing that caught my eye in your website and in your notes, is that you're a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Now, that's really interesting. The council celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. And I know from press that it holds frequent and significant presence in both the administration and in Congress. So I was curious about what your role is in that organization, and what experience and contacts you might bring to Congress out of that work.

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 8:24
I have been a member of the Council on Foreign Relations for about five years now. It is an organization-- it is a network of individuals who are operating within the foreign relations space. So I am not an employed staff. I am a member of this network. And one of my idols and most prominent members of the council was celebrated today, Madeleine Albright, and it's appropriate to acknowledge her leadership as a foreign leader and as a female leader. And it is something that certainly I've had advisors from the Council on this campaign, including an incredible woman named Evelyn Farkas, who was the Deputy Secretary of State for Russia and Ukraine, and has been great at this particular moment of strife and war in Ukraine.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 9:22
Madeleine Albright is something somebody we should all know and really think about. When we see military people on news reports and stuff. They have their left breast full of ribbons. She always had her left breast full of pins, usually pointed at the person she was talking to in a message system. Wonderful lady. Let's move right to climate and manufacturing revival in whatever district we're in, and it's indeed across the southern tier and the Finger Lakes. And I was surprised to learn as I moved in here a decade ago, in the mid 20th century, many towns and cities in this area contained major, major national, international companies with tens of 1000s of jobs. I live about two miles from the edge of Groton and corona typewriters was there and was known as the typewriter capital of the world. And of course, GE and all its related industries were in Onondaga County. So can you talk a little bit about what-- be specific about how you would bring federal dollars to the 22nd for investing in building rebuilding and the sustainable climate industries? Be specific? I know we want it, but tell us how you will do it.

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 10:32
The bipartisan infrastructure bill as well as several provisions in the now stalled build back better bill have particular allocations for subsidizing and supporting the production of renewable energy batteries, which are critical for building our renewable energy capacity to store and maintain our supply of energy, renewable energy batteries are going into mass production, which requires mass manufacturing. And there is money to do that. I have been in particular talks with one very large company for months well, before entering this race,

Fred Balfour, WRFI 11:14
--a company in this area?

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 11:16
No, it is a national company from Silicon Valley, that is looking to produce renewable energy batteries and looks for proximity to cheap land, to a port, to large numbers of undergraduates and a large engineering school. I heard that and thought, I know a region very like that. They would bring 20,000 jobs alone and build a 100 plus million dollar facility. The prospects are there. And they are excited about the money from the federal government, not states. That's what I would wake up hungry to do every day.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 11:50
If you're just joining us, we are talking to Vanessa Fajans-Turner, a candidate in the Democratic primary for a congressional district in this area, soon to be known to all of us. We could swing back around to that that was an interesting way to talk about as we mentioned, to talk about how money would come here and the connections, I'm interested in its connections. Let's talk a little bit about climate change and farming. This region-- the counties in this region contain let me say-- here we are tripping over-- I'm tripping over the 22nd District-- it is over 3000 square miles. First of all, farms and agriculture are a major activity around here. Tompkins County, no matter what district it is, has over 500 farms and Cayuga county over 800. Farms, farming practices, farm crops, farm herds are a major part of climate change. Fertilizer runoff is a problem for Watershed Management. Can you again talk specifically what you would do to bring federal dollars or other kinds of things into this region, and agriculture and sustainability?

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 13:08
Very happily. This coming year, and the next congressional cycle will be a having major focus on the farm bill, which is-- if you are not familiar with it--a monolith of a piece of legislation. And also the primary way that agricultural subsidies, policies and funding are allocated. Agricultural subsidies are an incredibly important element of federal funding for food and other agricultural product production. They also predominantly support large agricultural operations in this region, just as you said these numbers, we have a huge agricultural industry here, but many of them are small and medium scale farms, which are not given the benefits that larger mega producers receive. It's critical that we start to channel much more of that funding to those who need it most, who are working with the smallest margins. That is one area where I will be very focused. I also believe that there are great new series of technologies and production methodologies that are going to lower costs for producers as well as improve impacts for the environment. I was speaking with somebody recently who is producing much reduced or carbon neutral animal feed out of food waste that they collect at grocery stores from around the area--

Fred Balfour, WRFI 14:53
--And this is a local operation you're talking about?

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 14:55
No, this is one we are trying to bring to this district. So these are innovations that we want to bring to help spur growth, they are looking to invest in areas that will bring money as well as resources for piloting here, which makes great sense given the wealth of resources we have as well as the research and development agricultural resources. I could keep going if you would like--

Fred Balfour, WRFI 15:25
Let me ask a specific question. New York state and the counties are structured in such a way that the counties derive a lot of their operating revenue from property tax. Property is the main asset of farmers, much different than, say, manufacturing capital equipment. Is there some way that you as a member of Congress can begin to influence that dependence of counties on property tax, which is a real stranglehold, a real hurdle, for farmers?

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 15:55
I have a very strong conviction and passion for tax reform on a large scale, some of it is going to be quite difficult to pass, but I would be charmingly stubborn in pursuing it. Others will be, I believe, more attainable in the near term. Trying to close loopholes on large corporations, as well as making our tax system more progressive for income tax, which means wealth taxes, and not taxation for anybody under $400 million or so in assets, means that we will have much more federal funding and revenue to allocate to our states and ergo to our counties and cities, which would reduce reliance on property tax. Reducing reliance on property tax is a climate and revenue stability issue. Downtown Ithaca is floodplain and flood map was just redrawn, and almost all of it because flats are now considered in a flood zone by the National FEMA entity that will affect property values and property taxes. If we don't pay attention to that and find other revenue sources from other sorts of taxes, we are going to bankrupt and undermine the institutions, like our educational systems, as well, that are suffering, that rely on them. So tax reform is critical. And it's why having a climate lens on everything is essential.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 17:38
Let me ask some specific operational questions. Freshmen members don't get a chance to say 'I'll be on the Agriculture Committee' or 'I'll be on whatever committee.' They may ask you what you want, but some of these things require you to be very active in some committees you might not be on. Are you-- Does your hockey background give you an opportunity to bust through that crowd in front of the net and score? Tell us how you're going to get that kind of exposure, that kind of impact?

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 18:09
Fred, are you asking me if I'm scrappy in the corners? You know I am.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 18:14
There's a table between us so we can't test that out.

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 18:17
No checking in radio, right?

Fred Balfour, WRFI 18:19
That's right.

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 18:20
Well, I absolutely understand that freshmen Congresspeople do not have their pick of the litter. I would aspire to being on the Agriculture Committee as well as the Financial Services Committee. But understand that that is not my choice. There is a great deal to be said for diplomacy, but also networking and work behind the scenes. Congress is a place where people do influence each other, whether or not they are on a committee. You can use your platform to advocate for critical reforms. And you can help other candidates in their races to ensure that you are in partnership in lockstep. That is one way to do these things. Other times are simply to really raise issues if you're not in the committee when the bill is on the floor. And that is something you have to use selectively. But I have a few select issues that I know I would go to bat for.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 19:21
Let me ask you a question which gets a lot of airplay these days. But I want to have you say specifically how you address it the bipartisanship that I knew when I was a young whippersnapper seems to have drained away from Washington and to some extent drained away from Albany. How would you work that bipartisan or lack of it problem in that hubbub that is the House of Representatives?

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 19:46
You know, Fred, this is the question I get most often and it just shows how disillusioned we all are in in the process of our government, which I share and also find heartbreaking. What I can say, beyond recognizing that, we have to recognize common experience, be human with each other, etc. Here's how I've put that into motion. And it stems from the relationships we build here in our communities. And here in Ithaca. Somebody I went to high school with, who was a few years ahead of me, ended up becoming an appointee by then-President Trump, as a high ranking counsel to the Environmental Protection Agency, working to dismantle the Clean Power Plan that I had worked very hard with many, many others to have passed under President Obama. This was in many ways, my antagonist. But we have a shared experience. And I made several trips, as did he, to interact with each other and engage to try and find common ground. Did we upend President Trump's agenda? No, no, we did not. But we started talking about moral philosophy. We shared a drink or two. And we proved that you can have a conversation.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 21:16
If you're just joining us, we're talking to Vanessa Fajans-Turner, a candidate in the Democratic Party for whatever district we all end up in. Wanted to wrap up the thing we talked about just before that break, which is bipartisanship. One of the legends and I suspect it's true around Washington is that when Newt Gingrich came in, he advised new Congress-- new members of Congress not to move their families to Washington, because then they would begin hobnobbing and seeing children school with other members of the other party. Do you plan to move to Washington do you find to the part of that group of people that are there to accomplish your bipartisan goals?

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 22:00
I would plan to maintain my residence here in Ithaca and spend as much time as needed and many times as possible in Washington DC. We talk about insider outsiders in DC. I believe that to do a job well, you need to know your friends and your foes, and you need to build the relationships necessary, for any number of issues that arise. We're not just talking about a single bill per day, there are going to be a number of issues when you want to influence somebody else's bill that is not your issue, but contain something of relevance to your district, or your values. You need to know people and work across the aisle when possible. Those are relationships that you have to build the old fashioned way by showing up. That same can be said for your district. You have to show up to know the people and the issues that you represent. I don't have children, which it means that I can move a bit more freely between places and would hope to have something of a bi-resident situation for a bipartisan success.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 23:15
Well said there. Let's-- we've talked about money coming in and industry coming in and technology coming in. Let's talk about local kinds of things. Many local climate change activist groups got started, emerged under the banner of the Green New Deal. It was certainly a primary example. Common Council here has proposed major investments in time and dollars towards sustainability and carbon reductions. Help us understand how you as a member of Congress can support Ithaca-like plans whether it's Ithaca or other towns and villages in the district, with climate change and long-term sustainability.

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 23:54
I was very proud and want to give a shout out to Ithaca's sustainability director Luis Aguirre-Torres, who spoke wonderfully today at the Bloomberg Green Summit and Bloomberg New Energy Summit, about the Green New Deal. And in it the discussion expanded to how to take the case study of Ithaca's work, national funds can be allocated for a number of different things. We can be-- one thing that I would love to explore is the use of the Emergency Production Act to produce certain kinds of renewable energy infrastructure. That would be immensely helpful in the implementation of Ithaca's green New Deal. We should be looking at manufacturing opportunities for things like heat pumps, components of solar panels, the batteries we spoke about earlier. These are aspects that would be best to be produced as much as possible in and around our area and exported to other states. And that should be done with federal funding from the-- from any number of bills, not to mention the bipartisan infrastructure bill. And this is why we do need to pass the build back better bill or whatever iteration it takes for whatever district we end up in.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 25:18
Let's wrap up the questions. One more question, before your closing, with a kitchen table issue, as my grandmother used to say. Old age care, old age things-- I'm retired, I'm looking at those kinds of things, my grandchildren are looking at those kinds of things to wonder what they're gonna do with me. What is your position on that kind of thing for your constituency?

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 25:43
I would fight very hard, first and foremost, to protect Social Security from any cuts to younger workers, and to maintain benefits for those relying on it. Now, a huge part of my platform is growing the care economy, which means investing in the training, and subsidizing in supporting families who are taking care of children, and have seniors in their lives. We have a booming senior population in this district, this region has a particularly older demographic, we need to be providing resources and ensuring that as that population grows, we can ensure that they can age with dignity, and that they can age in place because we do not have the institutional capacity for everyone to move into a group situation. That requires caretakers which can benefit from training, workplace protections, living wages, as well as ensuring that these are jobs that cannot be exported. They are ones that can be produced and grow our economy right here at home. I'm the primary caretaker, and have been, of a 103 year old grandmother. I know.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 27:07
That's a pointed finished there. We're at the wrap up time for a time today. It's gone really quickly, and you have two minutes for closing statement.

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 27:17
I know that it is one thing to discuss issues like climate change, which can feel far away even as they impact us day to day. One of the ways I hope to approach legislation is by looking at the key challenges we face as a nation, like climate change, in the context of the kitchen table. I know that gas prices now are prohibitively high for so many people, so many people listening here and across the country. We need to tackle these things piecemeal in the short term with a longer term plan. I support positions like Senator Merkley from Oregon who would provide immediate relief bills who would tax fossil fuels producers who are profiteering off of high gas prices and send that tax funding as a relief check to every household, as well as ensuring that the federal government is investing in renewable energy infrastructure over the long term. These are the types of ways we need to discuss our future as a country and ensure that we are addressing the key challenges we all face.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 28:33
Thank you. You've been listening to an interview with Vanessa Fajans-Turner, a candidate for the Democratic primary in New York's something something district, maybe the 22nd. But we'll know that in the future. Primary elections were on June 28. They may move to August, but go out and vote. Vanessa, thanks for joining us in the studio, to discuss your campaign and to talk about key issues and key things you would do.

Vanessa Fajans-Turner 28:58
Thank you so much for having me, Fred and thank you to everyone for listening.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 29:02
Tune in for WRFI's entire series of candidate interviews. We'll be airing interviews with candidates from both the 22nd--current one--and 53rd State Senate District. You can see the full interview schedule and listen to archive interviews on our website

Our producer today was Corinne Shanahan. For WRFI community radio news, this is Fred Balfour.