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Claudia Tenney on the Campbell Conversations

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Claudia Tenney

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is Congresswoman Claudia Tenney. The Republican represents New York's 24th congressional district, which stretches along Lake Ontario from near Buffalo in the west to Watertown in the east, but does not include the city of Rochester. This is her third term in Congress. Previously she represented the 22nd District, which is more of the east of the current 24th, but ran and won reelection in its new district last November. Congresswoman Tenney has previously appeared on the program as a congressional candidate. Congresswoman Tenney, welcome back to the program, it’s good to have you back on.

Claudia Tenney: Well, thank you for having me Grant, it's a pleasure to be on.

GR: Well, we appreciate it. So I just have a basic question for you at the outset about how this district you're representing now, the 24th, compares with the previous district you represented. Are there any significant differences you've noticed in terms of the culture of the district or the politics of the district that have struck you?

CT: Well, I think probably the biggest difference is the size of the district and the fact that it pretty much circles Lake Ontario, other than a little bit of Monroe County and the Orleans County shoreline. It picks up all the Finger Lakes so there's a lot of water and it is the largest agricultural district in the northeast and the largest dairy district in the northeast. And we also have Wayne County, which is the third largest apple producing county in the nation, only second to two counties in Washington state. So agriculture is huge. We obviously have the Finger Lakes. We have a lot of crops grown, it's really pretty incredible from that viewpoint. It's very similar to NY 22 in that it's a very much agricultural, very much farming, was kind of, you know, old, industrialized, sort of rust belt like feel to it. We circle Rochester, we don't have the city of Rochester and Monroe County, but it's very similar in that it's just a very upstate feel. A lot of rural counties, there’s twelve counties versus eight, and it's a little bit more Republican. If you want to look at the , you know, the political breakdown. But in my first election, I think I did really well in it and you know, it was a lot more challenging to do, you know, a real grassroots style campaign that I always do. So I think I've put 50 to 70,000 miles on my car in just the first year just with a lot of driving. So I try to get to every corner of it. But what is really nice and kind of interesting about it is when I first got out of law school, my then husband, now my ex-husband at the time, we moved to Canandaigua, New York, and that's where we planned on starting our life until some things happened with my family and our family business. And so my marriage license is actually in Canandaigua City Hall. So I have a lot of experience back here. My husband works at a company there, and I got started in my beginning of my legal practice there and ended up back in my original hometown of Utica. So I do have a lot of familiarity. I grew up showing horses, and I was a competitive curler, believe it or not. And so I spent a lot of time in western New York. I judge for show, 4-H particularly across that western New York, and had a lot of friends across the region. My dad was a Supreme Court justice, so when we were kids, we traveled all over and we actually used to go to the St. Lawrence and right up in my current district on the St Lawrence Seaway area and Watertown area a lot. So I have a lot of familiarity, but It's a really interesting district from the economic standpoint. Agricultural but small businesses, you know, all along the Erie Canal, a lot of great historical aspects to it. Harriet Tubman’s Home is in Auburn, we have, you know, the Women's Rights Museum in Seneca Falls, which is part of this. All those really interesting parts of this district which make it very similar to the rest of New York, which is so historic and amazing and rich in history. So I love the district, it's really tremendous. And I live on Oneida Lake now, so I left Canandaigua and found a place, a permanent home in Oneida Lake. So I'm really excited about that. It's kind of neat to wake up and see the lake and to know that I represent so much beautiful lakeside and lake view properties along this entire district. So it's rich in so many things, great water. We have rich soils, so that's why it's so strong in agriculture. But it's a tremendous honor to represent the district and I've been very well received in this district. So I think that it's been a tremendous opportunity and I really, I just hope that I can, you know, continue to work on finding resources as this region in upstate New York seems to be losing a lot of population. So we're trying to bring resources back. We're hoping this soon, this Micron plant, which is not in my district, but I kind of circle it will bring new opportunities to upstate New York and actually bring our supply chains back, which is a big part of what I stood for and what I stand for as a small business owner. So bringing back supply chains, you know, invigorating our local economies is really important to keeping our kids and our grandchildren here in upstate New York.

GR: I wanted to come back actually, and ask you about the Micron a little bit later, so I'm glad you brought it up. I did want to give you an opportunity right at the outset of our conversation to respond to something that previous a guest on the program a few weeks ago brought up and invoked your name in particular on. And this person was Nick Tomboulides, he is the head of the advocacy group US Term Limits, had him on the program. He was arguing in favor of term limits and in favor of a particular proposal that Congress has been considering. And he called you out, as I mentioned, for not backing this particular term limits measure that the group is pushing in Congress. You're a very vocal supporter of term limits. My understanding is you've been that way for a very long time, but you didn't like this particular proposal. So just explain your reasoning here.

CT: Well, that’s actually not the case, let me give you the whole breadcrumb.

GR: Oh, okay, all right, fantastic.

CT: So, I'm 62 years old now. So I was a, I got out of law school, I became an associate and a partner in my law firm within about four and a half years in Utica, New York. I had a wide ranging practice as a bank attorney, a tax lawyer. I even did personal injury. I did a lot of different commercial law, corporate law, and I had some specialties, I actually am an expert on federal Indian law, I represented the real Oneida Indians in there in a case in upstate New York which I represented for many years, well before I was in Congress. And still am friendly with the family and still trying to provide advocacy but I can't do it in any official way on the federal side. And then I actually ran our family business, which was a newspaper. So I was in the news business, I did that for seven years. We sold that to Gannett in 2004. I worked back in my firm and also as a private practice and also in our family business, which we kept one division of it, which has been around since 1946. So I didn't even get into politics until I was 50 years old. And I had, you know, the reason I ran was because I could see career, and career politician syndrome and people staying in office forever. You know, I believe in the Jeffersonian ideal of serving and going back to your farmer business. And so I've been a first, a big supporter of term limits. I put in a term limits bill in New York, I even put in a bill that said elected officials who were appointed or elected in the state had to be on a 401K and not on a pension because they were voting on benefits to themselves and that they would have a real stake in the success of New York if, you know, they didn't have a guaranteed pension that the taxpayers had to take all the risk on. So that was another angle on term limits. And then the peculiar thing about this strange term limits group in Washington and what you'll find in Washington, there are a lot of dark money groups, groups that can hide behind different vehicles in the IRS where you don't have to see where they're raising money and reporting. And unfortunately, this term limits group is one of them. I signed on to the term limits legislation, I'm a co-sponsor. I also signed their pledge back in 20 - I think it was 2018, 2020. And then, you know, they were running simultaneous ads against me and running ads at the same time saying, congratulate Claudia Tenney for supporting our pledge and supporting our term limits bill. So you can see that this is a duplicitous organization right from the start that doesn't know, the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing and running these simultaneous articles. But what it comes down to is, I am a compromiser in the end, you know, I'm a conservative by my beliefs and I believe in a self-governing, constitutional republic. And we need to, you know, make sure that we do that. You know, freedom and rights are what is enshrined in our Constitution. And sometimes we don't get everything we want on either side, the left or the right. And so I looked into this issue and I found that a lot of people really like to see parity. They like to see that if we can compromise and get twelve term or twelve years of Senate service and twelve years of House service, because the House is so important, you know, all appropriations and spending originate in the House of Representatives so we want people that know what they're doing there. And so then I thought, well, okay, I can accept that, you know, we can do a variation or an amendment to the term limits bill and maybe give members of the House up to six terms and up to, you know, two terms in the Senate, which would give us a parity with the Senate and not make us a less equal branch of the legislative. And so the term limits people determine this to be a violation of my pledge that we shall not serve over six years in Congress. And yet if a bill comes to the floor, they have threatened members of Congress. If a bill comes to the floor where maybe the House agrees to a constitutional amendment for four terms or even five terms or even six terms, which is a lot less than some politicians serving thirty and forty years, that they will come after and spend money against people for violating the pledge. So my view of this is you really don't care about term limits. You want this particular bill the way you want it and not a compromise, which is what Washington is really about. We're supposed to be compromising, you know, interesting, I'm a member, last night I had we had one of our organizational meetings for the Reagan O'Neill Club. It's a group of like-minded Republicans and like-minded Democrats, true conservatives, true progressive, I would say more liberals and how we can come together as a social group. There's no fundraising, there's nothing but making us get together in the tradition of the great relationship that Ronald Reagan, our president had with Tip O'Neill, the then speaker, and how can we work together as a group. And sometimes we can do a lot more that way. So the term limits group, I will say, has made millions of dollars over the years promoting this term limits concept. And if you look back at their ads over the years, they're very cookie cutter. It's basically the same ad they just plug in, you know, the name of the politician. They run the same ad over and over and it looks a lot like what they call grifting. They make money on it, they use it to, you know, basically bully members of Congress to do what they want and they're not interested in compromise. And, you know, if my Democratic colleagues say we'll vote for a bill that allows for six terms in the House of Representatives, and that's a reasonable amount, when you're a member of Congress it takes a little time to get under your feet and figure out what's going on. That's actually a good bill. And so the term limits group is out attacking members who are actually on their pledge like I am and members who actually sign their legislation of which there are about 100 of us, but there's 435 members of Congress. They're not going after the other 335 members or the under other seventy or eighty senators who aren't on the bill. They're going after people who sincerely and actually care about term limits and want to come up with a compromise. So it's really hard, this is what's hard for the public is to find out what's real and what's not. But unfortunately, in this age of the internet and the age of where you can just, you know, say something outlandish and you can reach people in their homes via internet or on texting, you can raise a lot of money and this group raises a lot of money and they really don't use it towards what I consider to be good things to do. I think there's a lot they could do with their money, like promoting good government, maybe helping the Reagan O'Neill Club grow and get more work between Republicans and Democrats and actually get compromise. But I'll tell you what the funny thing about their bill is this, that this bill doesn't apply to Nancy Pelosi or any other, Mitch McConnell or any of these long term serving politicians, because it's the bill has an element of, you know, rules for thee, but not for me. So if you if I vote for this bill, it doesn't apply to me, it only applies to people in the future. So I think that's a little disingenuous. I mean, I don't want to sign on to something, and I did it not knowing that that was part of the bill. And I looked into it and I said, how about we change that and make it reasonable? Let's have six terms in the House, two terms in the Senate. Let's have it apply. Let's have that be a constitutional amendment and we can really get back to the Jeffersonian ideal. So sometimes, the reason, Grant, I explain every vote that I take on the House floor and I'm the only member to do it apparently, in detail, is so I can decode Washington and help everyone understand what's going on regardless of party and help people understand that, yeah, you know, we need to understand if we're going to be self-governing as Lincoln envisioned, we need to understand what's going on in Congress and how to vote and how to decode the bills. And that's what I do. And so, you know, I get criticism from the left, I get criticism the right. But I've had almost $50 million spent against me by both sides, trying to take me out because I'm just trying to tell the truth. I'm trying to be, you know, get back to self-governance. And I'm trying to find common ground where we can find common ground that preserves our Constitution. And believe it or not, there are a lot of Democrats who do believe in preserving our Constitution, and we may disagree on how to get there, but we can find ways to do that without having this outside kind of I call it grifting, which is unfortunately a real big part of what goes on in Washington. And the average person is too busy working and doing their job or, you know, if they're retired, they're enjoying their retirement and their grandchildren. So I try to do that in a simpler way as possible and give people an opportunity to really understand what's happening in Washington.

GR: Well, I'm glad I asked you that. And the distinctions you're making, I think, are reasonable and important. And it's interesting to hear about this Reagan O'Neill Club as well. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Claudia Tenney. The congresswoman represents New York's 24th district. I wanted to ask you how you think the speaker of the House has been doing and leading the institution. How do you think Speaker McCarthy's been doing so far?

CT: I think he's doing a pretty good job. And I think, what it was, a lot of people were critical of the initial speaker race where we were voting on the speaker. But I think in a lot of ways I try to see if I can see the glass is half full on that. I thought it was great that people were tuning in, paying attention. It was kind of interesting that the cameras are everywhere and you got to see everyone around the chamber. My Buffalo Bills bag got to be prominently placed and part of Twitter, Bills fans for a long time. And so it was it was a good process and I think that, you know, I was concerned and Republicans tend not to stick together, and I was concerned that we weren't going to get very far and we've had some fits and starts. But I think a lot of the agenda that we tried to get through has happened. I think there's been so much transparency and openness with the rules. The Democrats actually can put any bill on the floor that they want, they can open bills in committee. And I think those are things that were taken away under Nancy Pelosi's leadership and Kevin McCarthy brought those back. So I think that on balance, I think he's doing a very good job in terms of, you know, getting the Republican agenda forward, which is what he's supposed to do. But in terms of the openness with the Democrats, I think that that is something that I think a lot of them appreciate. You know, on committees on their ability to be able to put bills on the floor. You know, when I was in the minority, I couldn't put bills on the floor. But when I was in the majority my first term, anybody could put a bill on the floor. And Nancy Pelosi reversed that and Kevin McCarthy brought back the openness and the transparency on the floor and the ability of individual members to represent their districts, which I think is really important if you're talking about a representative government. So, I think Kevin has got some struggles, you know, obviously, we have a lot of factions in the Republican side, but I think he's doing a good job. And I think it's you know, it's actually brought people together, which is part of the reason we were able to have a successful Reagan O'Neill Club.

GR: And what do you think are the most important votes that you have taken so far in this term that you're serving in?

CT: Well, I think some of our main objectives, obviously, H.R. 1, which deals with energy is a really important issue. And let's go back to the Micron plant, that is going to require baseload energy and a lot of important features that water, energy and things that they need to make that a successful transfer of our supply chains from China to us and critical chip manufacturing and chip fabs and all of the nuclear power plants left in the state of New York, which provide baseload power actually in my district in New York 24, either in Oswego County or Wayne County. And so we don't have really too many other options other than to continue to look at a lot of people in New York, almost everyone is dependent on either having propane gas, natural gas, oil or woodchips to heat their homes. And New York State is on a fast track to try to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, even clean burning fossil fuels and fuels like natural gas that have brought down emissions versus the use of coal. So I think that that H.R. 1 and allowing, and even though we got it passed and we didn't get it through the house, we actually were able to get some permitting reform in the in the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was highly criticized by some. But in the end, I think it turned out to be a good vote for me, I voted yes for it. I think it was important that we didn't undermine the full faith and credit of the United States by not allowing a debt ceiling to collapse, but also by getting concessions out of the administration and out of the Senate to agree to some things like permitting reform so that we can get back to getting people back to work, so we can have more energy and abundant energy. You know, even our own energy department, the Department of Energy in Washington has stated that we need 40% more energy in the next ten years than we need now. And they're talking about using fossil fuels. So I would much rather see us take advantage of less emissions, things like natural gas instead of coal. So there's a lot of things that we can do on the energy front, which I think is really important. So I think that was one of the, H.R. 1 is our important legislation and important bill, we did get some concessions for it. Some other things that we got in that bill was also something that would actually institute work requirements for some welfare programs, including TANF and others. I'm in a meeting on TANF, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families right now and Ways and Means, and our biggest complaint from every employer across all sectors across this entire state is that they can't get people to work. And we need to start giving incentives for people that are capable without children that are dependent or able to work that don't have, you know, special needs or different issues where they can't work, to get back to work, because we do have a problem with getting productivity and growth and that's what we're going to need to get out of this fiscal crisis. So that was another aspect of that bill that was important. And I think a lot of people think that it was actually an appropriations bill. We didn't spend anything and we didn't cut anything. What we did is come up with a framework. So now as we go through the National Defense Authorization Act amendments and bill this week, when we conclude that we're going to be getting it through the appropriations process, and that's where the metal is going to, you know, hit the road because that's really the Super Bowl. And that's going to be really important going forward, is how we do appropriations and what we do in order to make sure we have growth, that we are able to cut some of our unnecessary spending, we're going to go double down on going after some of this fraud, abuse and waste and also claw back some of the code funding that was unspent so that we can lower the national debt and bring us back into some fiscal sanity so that we don't have this inflationary problem that we're seeing. Though it's not rising as much as it was before, it's still high.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is upstate New York Congresswoman Claudia Tenney. I wanted to ask you a question about something that you've been issuing, your office has been issuing a lot of press releases on. That's the plea bargain of Hunter Biden regarding criminal tax charges and a gun related felony charge. Just briefly, what's your concern regarding how this case was handled?

CT: Well, first of all, this is a unfortunate, that it took Chairman Jason Smith, who is the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee now to actually open up a whistleblower portal where whistleblowers who challenge our government and some of the things they see can come forward without being retaliated against and charged with anything. And so these whistleblowers came forward and they presented this evidence. And it's interesting, they weren't looking for anything on Hunter Biden, they were actually investigating an international porn ring and what ended up happening is it led them to Hunter Biden. And they found these unusual payment, when you add them together with the suspicious activity reports that came up from the Treasury side, they added up. And there were there were millions and millions of dollars coming from Romania, Ukraine and China through Hunter Biden and his entities to various members of the Biden family, including potentially Joe Biden. So the Department of Justice, as revealed by the whistleblower, Whistleblower One, was actually slow walking the ability of this evidence to be investigated. In fact, one of the DOJ officials tipped off the Biden administration transition team to prevent them from getting to a storage container that had documents that it would have led to more evidence on what's happening with Hunter Biden. And this plea deal was rushed. And we're hoping, as a member of the subcommittee on Oversight for Ways and Means, that we can actually get some kind of either, you know, some kind of I'm not sure what word I'm looking for, but to make sure that we can get public and make part of the record, I guess, is what I went for, it's already public, the whistleblower testimony. We want to make it part of the record and we want this judge before considering this plea deal on July 26 to actually be able to see that there is a lot going on. There are foreign, there's other people being charged with violating the FARA Act and Hunter Biden is clearly involved as a foreign agent. He has not signed up as a foreign agent, so he needs to do that, and that's a felony. You know, there are other, they slow walked some of these cases so that each year when we got into ‘14 and ‘15, the statute of limitations was actually told and there was evidence that that was intentional. Based on testimony and notes, contemporaneous notes from the whistleblowers and other people like Attorney General Weiss down in Delaware, and that he has given conflicting statements. So it's opened up a Pandora's box and kind of goes, you know, dovetails with a lot of what's being discovered on the Oversight Committee with Jamie Comer and so we're looking into this. That's our job as oversight is to look into what's going on in the administration. And a lot of this is very irregular, it looks like Joe Biden was using his son to funnel money to his family and to himself and this is inappropriate. It's very corrupt and so we're going to get to the bottom of it. And we think that this is a rush to a plea bargain and we're going to try to make sure the judge has all the information that this shouldn't be the end of the road for Hunter Biden.

GR: We've only got just a few minutes left, but I want to squeeze in this other topic and I'm sure you can talk about it for quite a long time because your background as an attorney. But I did want to ask you about the Supreme Court because it's been issuing a lot of decisions and obviously they've been making a large impact on the country. And, you know, we could just tick them all off, but they've been issuing a lot of decisions of great import to the policies and the life of the country. Are there any particular decisions that the Supreme Court has made that have especially pleased you or concerned you? And again, we only have a couple of minutes left.

CT: Yeah. Look, I think the Supreme Court is doing a stellar job of upholding the Constitution, moving away from a lot of political decisions, although a few of the decisions, you might argue, were somewhat political. But I think, you know, the Supreme Court is basically just saying, you know, for example, you know, I know this is a controversial one, but the Dobbs decision was the abortion decision. It didn't ban abortion, it just said it's up to the states. And so this has been misinterpreted and extrapolated improperly by, you know, pro-abortion advocates. And to be honest, with you, as a New Yorker and I'm pro-life, we have late term abortion in New York based on the New York law. I debated that bill when I was a member of the state legislature and, you know, this is a bill where if you're pro-life now your advocacy begins. If you want to protect life, you need to be an advocate at the state level. And so you know, we didn't win when it comes to that if you're pro-life, but it depends on the state. And I think we should have had this conversation fifty years ago instead of holding off and we would probably be in a different place in Roe versus Wade, we wouldn't have had we wouldn't have had to go through a Dobbs decision. So I think we're going through that process and I think there's a lot of unnecessary angst on the decision. And I think it's great that we're going to discuss it, we're going to talk about it and find some common ground on it and what's the most humane and best way to deal with that. But that's just one decision. A lot of the decisions have just kind of realigned us back to constitutional thinking. So I think the Supreme Court, on balance, has done a pretty good job. You know, I think we're going to be looking to the court to, you know, to not necessarily please conservatives or liberals, but they're going to be holding up the Constitution. I think that's exactly what they're supposed to do. As the daughter of a Supreme Court justice from New York, that's the role of the judge. They're supposed to interpret the laws, not make political decisions. So I feel like the courts at least are moving in that direction mostly.

GR: Well, we'll have to leave it there. I wish we had more time. And I see the curling stone behind you. So I'm already thinking that when we have the Olympics, next time, we're going to have you on to talk about curling in addition to what's going on in Congress. But that was Congresswoman Claudia Tenney and Congresswoman Tenney, again, I just want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.

CT: Thank you so much. And by the way, the very first curling fundraiser had in Washington I did this year. It was called, “The Miracurl on the Frozen Swamp”.

GR: (laughter) You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.