Aspiring Congressman Fights for Wounded Vets
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, how to steer clear of saying the wrong thing to a disabled co-worker and knowing when to let go of a car lease. We'll talk about that in just a few minutes. But first, we want to take a closer look at bringing the disabled into the workforce. Robert Straniere of Staten Island, New York is running for a seat in the House of Representatives. If he wins, he says he will start a Wounded Warrior Workforce Initiative. He plans for a third of his post-election team to be made up of wounded veterans or members of their immediate families. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've invited Robert Straniere to join us here in our Washington studio. Thank you for coming.
Mr. ROBERT STRANIERE (Republican, Former New York Assemblyman): Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: So first of all, how's the campaign going?
Mr. STRANIERE: Phenomenally well. You know, I was about the last guy in the door for the 435 districts because of the circumstances that the Staten Island and Brooklyn district found itself confronted with in May. But we've caught up, and we've got our campaign in place.
MARTIN: You are a conservative Republican. You're running for the 13th Congressional District in New York. And just to remind people, the incumbent, Vito Fossella, has decided not to run for reelection because there's some disarray in his personal life which came to light, and also, the person who initially was going to run for that seat suddenly died. So there's been a lot of sort of disarray in that...
Mr. STRANIERE: But we've gotten the campaign back on track in 30 days, and there's been just a tremendous response to our message on our candidacy.
MARTIN: And, of course, there's another candidate, and the primary is September 9th. I think we want to be fair and announce that you do have an opponent, which leads me to the first question. You launched this Wounded Warrior Workplace Initiative, and as we've discussed, it would aim to have Congress hire more wounded military veterans and their families on their Congressional staffs. How did you come up with this idea, and why is it important to you?
Mr. STRANIERE: You know, I am a veteran of the Vietnam era myself. I was a reserve tank commander. Just by chance or luck did not wind up going to Vietnam, but I've always been active in veteran and military affairs throughout my career as an assemblyman, which was 24 years in the legislature.
Back in May of 2004, I was at the armory on Staten Island when we said goodbye to the troops and saw their families leave for Iraq. And I fully intend to be there at the Staten Island Armory when they come back, which I hope is real soon. But it became clear to me that some 30,000 men and women are coming home - they're coming home with terrible injuries, psychological and physical, which is bad enough considering their heroic service to this nation, and yet many, many find themselves unable to find real jobs. Often, people who are disabled or disfigured or have other kinds of physical limitations have difficulty in finding meaningful employment.
We support our troops has to be something more than a slogan. And to its credit, the congressional leadership last winter recognized that this was a shortcoming and initiated what they're calling a fellowship program for, in effect, internships that are soon to be initiated. We would hire about 50 people in the Congress.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask about that. There is this fellowship program. How does your proposal differ from the program that the House already has in place?
Mr. STRANIERE: Well, this is not an internship. These are real jobs working on congressional staffs, both in the district offices, which should be 435 throughout America, and certainly here in Washington, D.C. So these would be men and women filling actual positions as they become available in the halls of Congress and on staffs.
I think not only the members of Congress and theirs staffs, but everybody who comes to Washington or comes to a district office will understand what it means to have served this nation and look forward to continuing to serve our nation in an appropriate, meaningful way. These are not make-believe charts.
MARTIN: Do you think that your experience as a Vietnam era veteran, when many veterans feel that they came home to the opposite of appreciation, to, in some cases, sort of active hostility, informs your view of this? Did you ever feel that way, even though you didn't go overseas?
Mr. STRANIERE: I'm sure it was part of it. I remember it took us until 1992 before we had a parade in New York City in honor of the veterans of the Vietnam era. It took that long for America and New York to really open their arms and say we made a mistake. We really do and did appreciate the sacrifices that you made. And I must say this, Michel. It's not just the veterans themselves. It could be a member of their immediate family because some of these wounded warriors may physically have limitations that will not let them even leave home. But maybe a wife, a brother, or a child...
MARTIN: A husband.
Mr. STRANIERE: Who does have a responsibility for this wounded warrior can just as strongly make a contribution. When we think about the experiences that people have in the military, dedication, discipline, teamwork, focus, initiative, responsibility, patriotism, these are all the traits and qualities I think we want in people who serve the public, and this is really an extension of this commitment to public service.
MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with congressional candidate Robert Straniere about his initiative to hire more wounded military veterans and members of their families for his office. Of course, there are those who would say you are in a competitive race. Publicity stunt?
Mr. STRANIERE: I don't think so at all because what we're doing here is reaching out to congressional candidates all over America. We've already had nearly 20 who responded, Republicans, Democrats, and one independent. So this is not a publicity stunt at all. What we're doing is building on an idea that Congress accepted with the program they authorized last December, and which they just announced last month they're going to start with 50 fellowships. But this goes far beyond it.
MARTIN: What do you say that those who argue that this is, in effect, a quota? The Republican Party is traditionally very hostile to quotas. Some members of the Republican Party are also hostile to Affirmative Action, which doesn't require quotas, and there are those who'd say this is a quota, as if you're targeting a specific population.
Mr. STRANIERE: I think that's a fair observation, but this is not a quota because this is not a matter of law. This is a matter of policy and commitment that a member of Congress can and I believe should make to reach out in looking to fill slots on an individual's staff, to give an opportunity to people whom perhaps otherwise would never get this opportunity and perhaps would never even think, because of the circumstances, that they find themselves in, hey, I can go and work in a Congressional office.
MARTIN: But why is that different from hiring people from disadvantaged backgrounds, for example, who may have gone to under-resourced schools or be from ethnic groups that have traditionally suffered discrimination? Why is this any different?
Mr. STRANIERE: Michel, you can make that case, and clearly, throughout my years in the Assembly, I was very proud to have a very diverse staff. I had really one of the first Asian Americans to work for the legislature who was on my staff. I had African Americans on my staff. I had people of the Jewish faith, Italians, Irish. It was just the way it worked out. And also, by the way...
MARTIN: Was that a result of a specific outreach on your part?
Mr. STRANIERE: I attempted to reach out and bring people into my office and into my political campaigns, and I felt good about that. I did a lot of work as assemblyman with what I call the new American communities that we have in our city and certainly on Staten Island. So this is a position and an attitude and a feeling that I have always had, and I might add that I have on my campaign staff right now two veterans. I have a veteran who actually fought in Vietnam, who's my deputy campaign manager, and the treasurer of my campaign is a retired naval officer. So we've already begun that process.
MARTIN: But are they persons who were wounded in the current conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan?
STRANIERE: No, they are not wounded, but this is what I am doing. We are going to have a meeting on Wednesday in both Staten Island and another one in Brooklyn with all of the veterans organizations because we want to get the word out, and we want people to know that we are actively seeking men and women to come and help us in our campaign. And after I'm elected, find a place on my staff, both in Staten Island, Brooklyn, because there are two district offices, and here in Washington, D.C.
MARTIN: How do you respond to - this is the same issue that arises in questions about Affirmative Action that's related to race, ethnicity, economic disability, et cetera - how do you say to people who wonder whether, gee, was I hired because I'm really qualified for this job, or was I hired because of an attribute that doesn't go to the core of who I am? What do you think of that?
Mr. STRANIERE: Michel, I think the men and women we're talking about have clearly demonstrated the skills and the experience that we all agree we want in public service, and we certainly want in the Congress of the United States. Veterans and their families have a very important role, a very important statement to make. And frankly, I think just their presence can influence how we react to issues of war and peace.
MARTIN: What statement do you think their presence offers that would not be there were they not there?
Mr. STRANIERE: I don't think that the average American understands what it's like to be wounded in battle, to come home disfigured, physical limitations, serious mental and emotional problems, and the fact that you are giving people the opportunity to have real, meaningful jobs is a strong message to me about commitment, about understanding, about appreciation.
But this is not a handout. These people have an opportunity to make a very very positive contribution to our country and by example show how you can overcome limitations. Listen, we had two presidents named Roosevelt, one Republican and one Democrat, who I think sent a very strong message in their times to this country about how a person with limitations can perform very well, as we have right now in the state of New York with Governor Paterson, who I think is a great example to this country of somebody being governor of the second largest state in America who has a severe limitation. He's legally blind.
MARTIN: He's legally blind, for those who don't know. He's only the second legally blind governor to serve, and the first being one who served, I think, only for about nine days.
Mr. STRANIERE: Yes, you know your history.
MARTIN: Yes. So, finally, have you thought about what kinds of accommodations that you might have to make in order to have such an inclusive think-force.
Mr. STRANIERE: I think, as the program evolves, Michel, we'll see things that we will have to respond to, and we will find solutions because these are exactly the kinds of men and women and families that I think can and will be part, certainly of my campaign, and after January, my congressional staff.
MARTIN: Will you come back and tell us how you're doing in meeting this goal, and should you be elected, in meeting the goal of actually filling these jobs with your intended...
Mr. STRANIERE: Not only that, Michel. Later today, I will be releasing the names of the candidates throughout the United States who've signed on to our program.
MARTIN: Robert Straniere is a Republican. He's running to fill the 13th Congressional District seat in New York. He joined me in our Washington studio. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. STRANIERE: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: And if you are wondering which members of Congress and candidates have already signed up for the Wounded Warrior Workforce Initiative, we have the latest list on our website. Go to npr.org and click on Tell Me More.
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