Interview: NY State Senate Candidate Lea Webb (2022-05-11)

Lea Webb is a former Binghamton City Councilmember and a candidate for New York State Senate. WRFI's Fred Balfour interviewed her on May 11, 2022. Transcript below.

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Transcript of Interview:

Fred Balfour, WRFI 0:17
Hello, and welcome to WRFI's series of candidate interviews. I'm Fred Balfour. In the studio with us today is Lea Webb, a candidate for the New York State Senate. Our series invited all candidates for both the 22nd Congressional District and New York's 53rd State Senate District in the June primaries. Last week, the State Court of Appeals threw out both the Congressional and the State Senate maps, meaning the maps will have to be redrawn, and the primary is likely delayed. WRFI has decided to continue our series with all the candidates that we've previously invited. Coming up tomorrow, we'll interview Josh Riley, currently an attorney on leave from private practice, and a candidate in the Democratic primary for the House of Representatives. You can see our full interview schedule and all the candidates and listen to the archived interviews at our website, Lea, welcome to WRFI, and thanks for joining us in the studio.

Lea Webb 1:15
Thank you for having me.

Fred Balfour 1:17
We'll start off today with a two minute opening statement from you. We'll move to the issues, we'll have a couple of station breaks in the middle--very short--and at the end, we'll leave time for a two minute closing statement from you. Right now the microphone is yours. Okay, no pressure, right?

Lea Webb 1:38
Again, thank you so much for the invitation. I'm excited to be here, especially on such a beautiful day that we're having in the Southern Tier. And we know that can change quite often, sometimes within the hour. So my name is Lea Webb and I am a candidate for State Senate and have a little extensive background in electoral politics and community organizing. I'm actually from Binghamton, New York, not too far from here--right up the road, born and raised. As someone who's lived in the Southern Tier all their life, and I've been able to see firsthand, not only as a resident, but also as a community organizer, former elected official, how many great resources we have in our community. And those resources aren't just simply through services, it's people as well. And I think that when you look at what's happening in our political climate, most certainly, nationally, and most certainly here in the state, we have some real opportunities to further quality of life for everyone, regardless of their zip code. And so, for me, my life history personally and professionally, is rooted in public service. I'm a proud union member, come from a very large family, with these ideas and values around being our our community's keeper. And so what does that look like? When you see that families individuals in our communities are literally struggling in making decisions they shouldn't have to between 'Do you put food on the table, or pay for life saving medications?' And as a former elected official, and as an organizer, and just as a concerned person, our communities deserve more. So we have some real opportunities here at the state level to ensure that everyone from birth has the best quality of life possible. So again, thank you for allowing me to be here.

Fred Balfour 3:51
Glad you could come, and you've driven up and will drive back to Binghamton. And that's exemplary of the travel you've been doing for some months now. So help us understand what you're hearing from the voters on the top two or three issues. What's the repeating kind of thing? Help us understand this.

Lea Webb 4:12
So I would say a really big issue I've been seeing is also an issue I've worked on for quite some time, and that is access to quality, affordable healthcare. This pandemic has most certainly created a massive mirror on the disparities that exist in our healthcare system. And we have most certainly have seen firsthand even more so. The dangers of not having access to quality, affordable healthcare and the ravishing impacts that it has on our communities. And so I definitely support establishing universal health care because we have way too many families strapped by medical debt. And I was excited to see that there's been some movement here in New York State to try to help remedy some of that medical debt for families through legislation. But again, we still need universal health care here in New York. Another issue, I would say that I've heard from and seen, and also experienced directly, similar to healthcare, is most certainly the environment. You know, just a few short weeks ago, we had a nor'easter in April, right. And so the effects of climate change are very real and very prevalent. And so we need to most certainly act most quickly to enact reforms that really help to protect our environment. That's not just simply for now, that's for the foreseeable future. And so supporting alternative resources, energy resources that are cleaner, and safer for our communities are very important. I had some experience as a former legislator on things like that, such as passing successfully a ban on fracking in my community in Binghamton. And the last issue, I would say that I'm finding as a priority, I'm going to try to combine this to him, even though he only asked for three, I would say.

Fred Balfour 6:40
The longer you talk, the less time we'll have to question.

Lea Webb 6:42
Okay, so let me keep going. [laughs] I would say most certainly, access to quality, affordable housing is another big issue. Again, this pandemic has had such a major economic impact on our communities across the state, not just simply in Senate District 53. And so it's important that we have access to quality affordable housing, and that we are creating pathways for community members for homeownership, which ties into the other issue I was going to bring up as kind of a combination, and that's our economy. We're seeing the great resignation. And one of the big issues that has come up most certainly is that the amount of money that people are paid for work is beyond substandard. And it's not sustainable in terms of people being able to provide for themselves or their families where you find people are working two or three jobs just to barely make it above the federal poverty level. So I would say, having opportunities for jobs that pay us more than just a living wage, wages that actually allow us to thrive. So that we're not having to make those decisions, as I referenced earlier around those quality resources that we need. So those would be the things I would share.

Fred Balfour, WRFI 8:09
Was that in the order you want to talk about them?

Lea Webb 8:12
No, you can talk about however you want.

Fred Balfour 8:14
It looks like to me on your website, that they're all prominent in your thinking. But let's touch on manufacturing and jobs. That's a key one. A little research shows that in the mid 20th century, 50-60 years ago, many towns and villages in the Southern Tier had major and small manufacturing companies, and middle class jobs. And those companies and the jobs have disappeared, or greatly reduced. IBM near you and Westinghouse over in Elmira are some examples that come to mind. What opportunities do you see at the State Senate level to bring manufacturing companies and jobs into the Southern Tier, or increase the ones that are already here?

Lea Webb 8:58
So in the Southern Tier, you know, we were definitely a nucleus for manufacturing. And I think that most certainly with the changes in industry with regards to advances we've made with technology, from a state legislative standpoint, we need to provide more resources to prepare our workforce for these new kinds of jobs. Whether they are technology-driven, or other innovative industries, we need to prepare our workforce for it. And that is very important. And working with community partners. So one of the things I've been able to do in my home county is working with nonprofit organizations to do workforce development. This particular program I've worked on for the last several years focuses on youth ages 14 to 27. And not only preparing them for jobs, but really careers and helping them to explore what those options look like. That also means--

Fred Balfour 10:04
Does that experience, then-- how does that experience locally, which is critical, translate into what you think you will find in the Senate?

Lea Webb 10:11
Because when you think about workforce development programs, and how and where they're having an impact, it's important that we have folks on the ground that are in those spaces. So like your workforce, New York programs, but also community partners, that are nonprofits, such as your Urban Leagues, your NAACPs, your Rural Health Networks, right, these agencies that see people all the time, and connecting them to those resources and connecting with labor. Labor has a lot of opportunities, not only for economic advancement, but also for changing the industry, right. And so it's looking at those community partners and others to really expand not only workforce development, but also we have to address wage inequality.

Fred Balfour 11:00
Sounds like you're really talking about funding organizations that are in place, statewide organizations or statewide programs, something like that. Let me pull hard at that, because it's different than being on the city council, when you have to sit up in Albany.

Lea Webb 11:14
Yeah, but Albany has the opportunity to give more resources to those local programs to help them to go up to scale. And I go back to wage inequality. That is another major issue where we've had statewide campaigns for $15 an hour. But we know that $15 an hour is still just barely making you above the federal poverty level. And in most cases, for folks, not even at all. So definitely having state resources that look at expanding minimum wage to not just simply being $15. But really, a wage that allows our families to thrive is really important.

Fred Balfour 12:01
If you're just joining us, we are talking to Lea Webb, a candidate in the Democratic primary for the New York State Senate. And let's pick up on a comment you were making just before mini station break. Labor union organizing was a significant part of creating middle class jobs in the mid 20th century, and I've benefited greatly from that 50 years ago. Should the New York legislature take any action to regulate and monitor union organizing?

Lea Webb 12:26
I think the state legislature needs to support union organizing. How would they do that? Well, for starters, they can most certainly close these corporate tax loopholes that create these scenarios where they actually penalize people for wanting to form labor unions. And so I've been so inspired by what's been happening here, right here actually in Ithaca, where the Starbucks was one of the first Starbucks in the country to actually unionize, right. And so creating those opportunities and supporting and amplifying those resources with regards to having the right to unionize is very important. And that is a role that the state should absolutely play. And we are a labor state. But again, that doesn't always necessarily translate across industries. There's opportunities for the state to really amplify those efforts, like what happened here with Starbucks. Also, we're seeing Amazon, other corporate private entities, and also even in public entities supporting their efforts as well.

Fred Balfour 13:32
If we poked a little bit at that, it's one thing to start looking at labor organizing in a small Starbucks outfit--15-20 employees and a giant corporation--versus several 1000 employees and Amazon. Do you think that the Senate can deal with that kind of thing?

Lea Webb 13:50
Well, as a proud union member myself, I would absolutely cosign having-- we know that labor has been, to the point that you made, right, we all benefit from having labor in our workplaces, because that is our guarantee that we will have the rights that we deserve. We're not being exploited. We're being paid minimum wages for significant amount of labor, while the folks that are in control are benefiting from that labor. But now we're still having to work five different opportunities in order to put food on the table. And that is the power of unions is that they help to really equalize the proverbial labor playing field, workforce playing field, and they are necessary and important partner in that.

Fred Balfour 14:41
Good enough, let's turn to healthcare. You mentioned that as one of your key issues, and we've all experienced that in the last two and a half years. In 2019, the New York State legislature held four hearings on the proposed New York Health Act still proposed. They were in Albany. Rochester, Bronx, the Bronx and Kingston. Over 230 individuals, healthcare providers, nonprofits and corporations testified in those four long days of hearings. The majority of testifiers were in favor of a single payer plan, like the New York Health Act with no deductibles no co pays no networks in New York, but the curious thing is the New York Health Act has been proposed for over 20 years and has never come to the floor of the Senate. Can you pine on what you might try to do to see if you could move that along?

Lea Webb 15:37
Well, it is moving along. Most certainly. And so what I view my role as being is to help to advance that even more when you have such devastating impacts the way we've experienced. And so what we're experiencing now in light of COVID, compared to 20 years ago, is just further creating more disparities. And so it is critically important that we have this legislation because we are losing family members unnecessarily at much higher rates, we are most certainly pushing people out of opportunities for employment, because they simply just can't afford, no matter how many jobs they have, to pay for their health care. And especially if you are a person that has chronic illness, people are literally losing their homes, going into significant medical debt unnecessarily.

Fred Balfour 16:29
Those indeed, are the problems.

Lea Webb 16:31
And so as a legislator, looking at what's happening now, it is pertinent that we push for this legislation. And so I'm working with community partners, health professionals, looking at what we just experienced with Senator Rachel May, and the bill that she was able to pass with regards to more pay for home healthcare workers. It's amplifying those efforts within a universal health care system. And we also have to look at the nuances, right, of like, what that looks like in real time. How do we apply it? How do we deal with not only the out-of-pocket costs, but also the accessibility components when it comes to healthcare? The Senate District, it's also very rural. And so for some folks is not easy for them, or accessible for them, to go to a doctor that's like 5, 10, 20 miles away. So we have to incorporate those resources as well. And so those are the conversations that we'll be pushing for as part of the legislation along with other resources that I already mentioned.

Fred Balfour 17:33
To be specific, Senator Rivera as head of the Healthcare Committee in the Senate had things ready to go in the last session and Senator Stewart-Cousins did not allow it to come forward. Do you see yourself changing that dynamic?

Lea Webb 17:56
I think that with the hopeful election of several Senate folks across the State Senate, that collectively, we'd be able to to push for the passage of the New York Health Act. But again, it wouldn't just simply be on me, I'm one vote of 63. So it requires not only the legislature, but to be candid, the community continuing to, as I like to say, apply pressure for its successful passage finally, after 20 plus years of deliberation.

Fred Balfour 18:34
thinking about it, to modify and so on. From out here, it looked like Stewart-Cousins blocked it, and nobody understood why. So I think that's the dynamic as you move into a Senate position, if you win your election, I'd come back and ask you that if we had an interview in the future. Quick question, rolling back to what we talked about a few minutes ago on affordable living. Are you in favor of raising the state minimum wage, because that would help support union organizing and help support the pressure to increase salaries?

Lea Webb 19:09
Yes, absolutely. We know that our current minimum wage is definitely not enough. And most certainly $15 an hour is not enough. We definitely need to most certainly increase wages for our families in this state. Absolutely.

Fred Balfour 19:35
If you're just joining us, we are talking to Lea Webb here in the studio, a candidate in the Democratic primary for the New York State Senate. You're a city girl, as you said, born and raised and yes, we've been talking so far about things which are sort of city and urban manufacturing, that kind of thing. Let's swing around to farming.

Lea Webb 19:58
All right. Love it.

Fred Balfour 20:00
A 2017 state report by one of the organizations that does accurate reporting says the Southern Tier, where we're sitting right now has over 5600 farms, and over 1 million acres in farming. 96% of those farms are owner occupied and are 500 acres or less. We're not talking about corporate farms here. There's some there but the majority, well over 90%, are family farms. Farm income across the state had increased at the time of that report by 25% in the previous 10 years. This is not a small thing. So how would you think about supporting farming and farmers and tell us a little bit about what you would do in the Senate or how you would approach it in the Senate to move on that.

Lea Webb 20:47
So I have some experience with this, even as a city girl. And the reason why I say that is because a lot of the issues around fresh and healthy food access isn't just simply a urban challenge. It's a rural challenge as well. And so during my time on city council, because this was a major issue, not just simply in my councilmatic district, but in the community where our child poverty rate is double the state average and triple the national average, through legislation established the creation of green spaces for urban farms, community gardens, and supporting efforts with organizations like the Food and Health Network, which is a rural based organization, in efforts such as farm to table where the local producers would work with local restaurants and being their supplier for food. So amplifying things like that. And also talking directly to these family owned farms, because we know that a lot of the subsidies that come from the USDA go to corporate farms, at the expense of these family owned farms. And so they're often getting little to no support. And there are ways in which we have to address that challenge by providing more opportunities, whether it's farm to table, whether it's looking at other ways in which we can connect our local producers to resources in the community, but from the state like working with the New York ag and market department, as an example. And one of the things I've heard from farmers is that if you are a small farm, meaning you may only have one type of product, let's say you have just goats, right. Some of the challenges and barriers you face in terms of getting access to capital is really challenging because of some of the stringencies within the New York State Ag and Market department. And so again, that is where the state can have some influence in breaking through what are some of those barriers that are precluding our agricultural communities from accessing those resources that not only the Ag and Market department has, but also the USDA and thinking outside of the box with regards to supporting that industry? Because there are so many, as you mentioned, so many great farms that provide products. But oftentimes there's a disconnect between connecting with the local producers to local community in terms of even their supplying to grocery stores. In Broome County, there's a year round regional farmers market, right? So how do we again amplify those touch points as well to support that very necessary and important industry? Because we all have to eat.

Fred Balfour 23:40
Well, as much as I'd like to continue on with food, because I grew up on a farm as well. We've got time for another question. And let me let me do a heavy one and test your facility about democracy. This comes up all the time. Let's talk about democracy here. Democracy is a bedrock of the American form of government. And to work correctly, we got to have two things. Well drawn political district maps, which we're all dealing with right now, you more than me, and ballot access for all citizens. Last November, three New York state ballot items did not pass. One was same day voter registration, for access, no excuse absentee voting, again for access, and three was improved drawing of district maps to reduce gerrymandering, those three things were on the ballot and did not pass. I'm going to ask you the regular question, what's your position on these critical issues, which I could guess, but tell us what you'll do in the State Senate to move these things along?

Lea Webb 24:49
So when those ballot measures failed, one of the conversations I had with many folks is that they didn't even know that that was actually a ballot measure, neither of those. So it's important not only as a legislator do you have an opportunity to pass legislation, you can also build awareness around key issues that result in practice changes as well. And so as a state legislator, I would definitely push for those ballot measures to come back. For all the reasons, right, we have a participatory democracy. And oftentimes, there are barriers created through legislation that suppress that ability for us to be proactive participants fully in our democracy. And we know that's intentional. And so knowing that right off the top, it's important that we have legislation that reflects that and removes that barrier. And also close any loopholes that can create opportunity for those resources to be taken away--those rights. And so that is something I would definitely want to see brought back up as a ballot measure. At the same time, actively working with the community to expand awareness about these issues, but also here directly, and not just simply from voters. But even for folks who are working for a board of elections in running elections. We know firsthand, voter suppression doesn't just simply fall at your ability to go cast a vote, you got to get there and know where to vote. Right. And that's another conversation. But yes, I fully would support those measures coming back again. Absolutely.

Fred Balfour 26:26
As much as I'd like to poke at some of these and get your opinions on how you do it. We're down to your two minute closing statements. So it's all yours for I know, Time goes fast. It's all yours for two minutes.

Lea Webb 26:37
Okay. Well, again, thank you so much for the opportunity to be here. I want to pick back up where we left off around democracy. For me, like many folks, and I would dare say, including you, even though we just met formally, that we have experienced for far too long leadership that has, at some moment, become complacent with the way things are. Or we kind of get resolved in 'well, that's just the way it is,' and people are not going to vote, they're apathetic, and we never fully unpack why. And it's because there is such a major disconnect between some of our leadership to the issues that everyday people are dealing with. And people are so tired of the rhetoric. And they hear it loudly during election season. And then that goes away. And we're still grappling with these issues. And so for me, not only as a candidate, but as a very active citizen, and community member, we need representation in office that not only recognizes that, but has a track record in actively addressing these issues, and not by themselves. I think for any issue, you have to build collaborations, you have to create community buy in for it to be sustained. And that also goes with your colleagues, because the votes that you pass, or you take-- the legislation you pass doesn't just simply affect your respective district. It affects the entirety of the state and not just during one legislative session. And we need leadership that not only has experience in being legislators, but also having a track record in building those collaborations and moving on key issues, whether it's around our democracy, our environment, health care, housing, the economy, all of those issues are interconnected. So for me, and my why, is that those are my why's. It is because we have a real opportunity, and more importantly, an obligation to really intentionally create those spaces for our community members to be a part of decision making, not just simply in a room, but actively at the table. If that table does not work, move it out the way and make another one. So that is what's been missing in some instances in our public discourse. And now we need to not only move it from discourse, put it in real time in action. So that is what our campaign is about, is a people powered movement, driven by and focused on advancing the best quality of life for all people.

Fred Balfour 29:23
Thanks for the closing statement. And thanks for tying it back to the things you talked about earlier. That's important. You've been listening to an interview with Lea Webb, a candidate for the Democratic primary in the New York State Senate. Both the district where Lea is running and the date of the Democratic primary will be determined later this month. In fact, I think it came out today. Lea, thanks for joining us in the studio to discuss your campaign and your positions on these key issues.

Lea Webb 29:50
Thank you.

Fred Balfour 29:51
Our interview series of candidates for Congress and New York State Senate wraps up tomorrow. Tune in at 6pm, we'll be talking to Josh Riley, a candidate for the Democratic primary for Congress. You can see the full interview schedule and listen to the archived interviews at our website, Our producer today is Corinne Shanahan. For WRFI Community Radio, this is Fred Belfour.