First-Term N.Y. Lawmakers Attend State Fair

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First-term New York Democrats Rep. Dan Maffei and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand made their rounds at the New York State Fair. Freshmen lawmakers have been feeling the heat this summer, as they try to sell their health care ideas to constituents.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

This summer, many members of Congress have seen and heard the hot health care debate firsthand, thanks to rowdy crowds at town hall meetings. No one has felt that heat more than freshmen Congress members. So, some of them have sought out their constituents in less formal settings, such as fairgrounds.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook followed two freshmen lawmakers to Syracuse as they worked the crowds at the New York State Fair.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Dan Maffei and Kirsten Gillibrand have a lot in common: they're both Democrats, they're both defending seats they've only recently taken up - Maffei in the House, Gillibrand in the Senate - and they're both about to devour fat Italian sausages, piled with grilled onions and peppers.

Representative DAN MAFFEI (Democrat, New York): Every time you come here, we eat something that's not good for you.

Senator KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (Democrat, New York): I know. I'm psyched.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. MAFFEI: So I just want to apologize for that in advance.

SEABROOK: These aren't just any sausages. They're Gianelli sausages, a New York cuisine of its own, widely credited for helping to elect Hillary Clinton to the Senate. During her campaign stop at the fair, Clinton gobbled up a Gianelli. Her opponent did not. A political tradition was born.

Sen. GILLIBRAND: I'm going to try the sausage.

Unidentified Man: Go for it.


Rep. MAFFEI: If you can look good eating that sausage, you're going to be senator for life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: This year, Maffei and Gillibrand are looking for more than just handshaking and photo ops.

Sen. GILLIBRAND: I'm going to my constituents. They don't have to come to me. So it's just not all those who (unintelligible).

Nice to meet you. I'm Kirsten Gillibrand.

Unidentified Woman: Hi.

Sen. GILLIBRAND: Nice to meet you. How are you?

SEABROOK: Senator Gillibrand grabs a bench at a picnic table where a local family also scarfs up sausages. It doesn't take long for the subject to turn to health care.

Sen. GILLIBRAND: Health care costs have increased about four times greater than our salaries in the last several years. If you don't have employer paid for health insurance, the cheapest you will find is about a thousand dollars a month. And so, if you're being asked to pay $12,000 a year and your family income is $40,000, it's just not affordable. You can't - it's not an option.

SEABROOK: Meanwhile, Congressman Maffei has made his way into the Center of Progress Building, where New York businesses are showcased, and where a voter grabs the chance to talk to him.

Mr. STUART KANE(ph): Congressman, Congressman.

Rep. MAFFEI: Hi.

Mr. KANE: Stuart Kane.

Rep. MAFFEI: Hi, Stuart.

Mr. KANE: I see you're doing a great job, and I really hope that you will pledge for a public option of the health care.

Rep. MAFFEI: I have. I have. I do have a lot of constituents that want to make sure that they still have the options to keep their own health care. But as long as it's a public option, I've been very supportive of that.

Mr. KANE: Excellent. You're doing a great job. Thank you very much.

Rep. MAFFEI: Good. Thank you very much. Really appreciate...

SEABROOK: This kind of interaction is invaluable to lawmakers. It helps them get a real feeling for what their voters want unscripted. And that's doubly important when they're in their first term.

As Maffei walks along the booths, shaking hands...

Rep. MAFFEI: Hey, Fred(ph).

FRED: Hey. How's it going?

Rep. MAFFEI: How are you?

SEABROOK: What he hears the most about? Not health care, even though that's the main concern of his party leaders right now.

Rep. MAFFEI: You know, the people just walking up to me, and like these kind of contacts, more often than not, they're economic questions, not health care questions.

SEABROOK: Is there something in you that wishes you weren't doing both things at the same time?

Rep. MAFFEI: I don't see we have a choice. Yeah, I would love it if we weren't in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the country was in very good shape. But that's not why I ran for Congress. I ran for Congress to take on the issues we have. And the economy and health care are two of the most important.

(Soundbite of roosters)

SEABROOK: Over at the poultry exhibit, Lisa Blank(ph) from Clayton, New York, bears out Maffei's concerns. Blank worries the health care debate is a distraction.

Ms. LISA BLANK: I guess for now, I'd like to see this discussion be tabled, more ideas be brought forward. I think that the private sector can do a better job of managing than our government can at this point in time.

SEABROOK: But Tom Thurston(ph), up from Corning, New York, wants lawmakers to seize the moment.

Mr. TOM THURSTON: I don't care how they pass it. Just - if they don't, I mean, it's sinful. It'd be sinful not to.

SEABROOK: Both Congressman Maffei and Senator Gillibrand have to show voters they're up to the challenge of fixing health care and the economy if they want to keep their gig at the New York State Fair.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.

BLOCK: Speaking of health and the New York State Fair, here are some of the healthy snacks you can enjoy there. You might try the so-called blooming onion, the size of your head, follow with a pizza-sized helping of fried dough, and of course, those Gianelli sausages we heard about. Oh, and don't forget a deep-fried Twinkie or a deep-fried Snickers for dessert. Yum.

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