By Grace Bennett
Photo by Carolyn Simpson
Editor’s Note: We were immediately struck by the modest building on Mamaroneck Avenue housing our Congresswoman and her staff serving the 17th district. But that the offices were alive and buzzing with busy staff and interns came as no surprise at all. While we waited for Congresswoman Lowey–who has been serving our country since 1989– to meet with us in her office, it was fun to take note of various framed photos, the ones of her together with Hillary Clinton, in particular, as I’ve personally observed the warm relationship between the two at different local events over the years.
I also noted her graduation certificate from the Bronx High School of Science, which I attended as well. It was the first thing I mentioned, since us “Scienceites” do have a special bond. And indeed, she seemed tickled to learn that I attended Science too; a brief personal chat followed and also with photographer Carolyn Simpson about her own background and about her daughter’s photography pursuits, too! And then we dove right into a photo shoot, after which I sat down with Rep. Lowey for a 30-minute discussion about a range of issues she holds most dear…from her initiatives for improved rail crossing safety to an in depth discussion about her tireless efforts to prevent gun violence.
Grace: Please comment about the specific upgrades and safety improvements for railroad crossings…What are the chances of that all happening and of money being appropriated for that, and what are some of the solutions that would make a difference?
Rep. Lowey: I think it’s essential that we really look at every rail crossing and that we do a careful analysis of every crossing. And, this is what I discussed with Sara Feinberg, who is the acting commissioner in charge of this effort. I brought her up to Chappaqua because of the loss of life (following the Metro North tragedy). And, we have to be sure that the crossings are safe. If they are not in an appropriate place, we have to look at closing some down, opening others. But we can make them safe and therefore we need an accurate evaluation of every crossing…because we cannot lose another life. (*1)
Grace: Regarding your work with the Social Security Caregiver Credit Act; as a caregiver, many people would be affected by loss of income. Please explain why this issue so important to you.
Rep. Lowey: As I travel around the district, the caregiver initiative is one of the most important bills I have introduced. If you have an Alzheimer’s patient, and the daughter or son becomes the chief caregiver, and they have to leave their own job, they are making a huge sacrifice–not only their job, but to their future benefits from Social Security.
So what this would do, is create a credit that would be added to earnings to calculate future Social Security benefits. The credit is progressive and varies on an income-based sliding scale. (*2)
Now there are technicalities and that it won’t be more than a national average. What is most important, if you are taking care of a loved one and in most cases, with a lot of love and care and concern, you don’t have to sacrifice the money that you would get after you retire.
Many families have decided that a child, a grown adult, is the best caregiver, rather than hiring someone from the outside, and hiring someone from the outside would cost even more. And that’s why this is so important, whether it’s a patient with Alzheimer’s or other illnesses, I am very proud that this, I hope, will be able to help so many Westchester families.
Grace: During the first Democrat debate, gun violence prevention came up as a key issue; as someone who is such a strong voice on this issue…how did this make you feel?
Rep. Lowey: I feel so proud not only to support Hillary as the next President, but her strong language on preventing gun violence is absolutely essential. We need real leadership. The fact that the NRA has such influence in Congress is an embarrassment to me.
With Newtown, and all those lives were lost, and now in Oregon, it’s unconscionable that Congress hasn’t taken action. There are thousands of lives that are lost every year as a result of guns. [33,000 gun deaths in 2013–the most recent available number and we lose 90 people per day to firearms.] And what’s amazing is on the Appropriations Committee, I introduced language to do research, so we can really determine why these lives were lost. (*3)
Was the person mentally ill, were they addicted? We have a lot to learn. The language I introduced would take the place of language that was offered 20 years ago in my same Committee and I wanted to reverse it, and the Republicans wouldn’t support me. It shows you the power of the NRA. We’ve got to do this research, it is essential.
Grace: How or why did you develop a passion to prevent gun violence?
Rep. Lowey: As a mother and a grandmother, and I would even say as a woman, it is astonishing to me that the NRA has such influence on so many colleagues of mine, men and women. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Grace: How does the NRA do that? Have they tried with you?
Rep. Lowey: The NRA would not even approach my office because I have been such a strong supporter of gun prevention violence my entire career. How can we not do accurate background checks? How can we not determine whether a person is mentally ill, or whether they are responsible enough to have a gun in the home. I don’t want a gun in my home. I don’t have a gun in my home. I don’t even want to lift a gun…You don’t need assault weapons, and you don’t need to be able to have repetition in the magazines that could just slaughter dozens of people at the same time.
I will continue to fight those who are trying to prevent us from doing even a simple amendment like allowing research to determine what we need to do to prevent this violence and what kind of laws we should have in place.
Grace: What’s the problem with holding a gun show in the County?
Rep. Lowey: I don’t like these gun shows where anybody can come up and exhibit their guns. I don’t think we need a gun show in Westchester County. And, it was disappointing to me to see the County Executive approve future gun shows. Is there an accurate check on those who are purchasing a gun? If you are selling a gun in just a few minutes or in an hour, you should be able to do an adequate background check so you know who is buying the gun. And again, I want to see background checks on the dealers and the sellers. Are they responsible people and will they comply with all the laws that are in place?
Grace: Can you please explain the ‘terror gap?’
Rep. Lowey: It is shocking to me that you can be on a terrorist watch list and prevented from getting on a plane, but you are allowed to go and buy a gun. This is totally inconsistent.
Grace: Can you address the rural to urban trafficking of guns?
Rep. Lowey: This is the problem. We have tough laws in New York State. However, you can have someone from a neighboring state without the tough laws come in to New York, come in to our crowded city and destroy a family’s future, by killing the mother, the father or a child. So you need Federal gun laws so you can’t travel with guns from a state with loose laws to one with tough laws.
Grace: Taxing ammunition – what is your view about that?
Rep. Lowey: I don’t think it should be easy for you to buy ammunition over the internet. I think there has to be a lot more work. If it were up to me, I would not allow the sale of ammunition over the internet. I want to see who is buying it. I want to know how much they bought. Certainly taxing may have some impact but I do not know what the studies are on that.
I think if someone wants to buy ammunition, they are going to buy it even if it is a little bit more. That is why I don’t like sales over the internet. I think you should be able to go to the store, use your identification, do an adequate background check; the dealer should have an adequate background check, and the purchaser.
Grace: Where do these differentiations come from; when does it become ever so more dangerous?
Rep. Lowey: I would ban the importation, sale, manufacture, transfer, possession of magazines that hold more than ten rounds of ammunition because sometimes someone may have accuracy and shoot their targets with one round, but if you have repeated rounds, you could really destroy a group of people in a classroom.
Grace: What’s the chance of these bills coming up for a vote before the next election?
Rep. Lowey: I feel very confident that our task force in the House, which is composed primarily of Democrats, will present these bills to the Congress, but because of the power of the NRA, especially on the Republican side of the aisle, I don’t think they’ll get passed. But I know that we are going to work very, very hard, and we are introducing a package of bills that I think can make a difference.
We have been talking about preventing gun violence for so many years, and again after Newtown and Oregon, it’s hard for me to believe that even somebody who leans toward the position of the NRA would vote against simple background checks.
Grace: How do you reconcile the 2nd Amendment with gun advocate claims that all these initiatives violate it?
Rep. Lowey: Well, we just disagree. I don’t think these initiatives are in violation of the 2nd Amendment. And, we have a responsibility to protect the public good.
Grace: What is your biggest wish regarding gun violence prevention?
Rep. Lowey: It seems the most basic legislation is adequate background checks. It should go from three days to 14 days, but I would even compromise; we just have to make it stronger. The burden should not just be on the purchaser, but on the dealer too. We need to be sure there are responsible dealers selling those guns. And make sure that the purchaser has a background consistent with the law.
Grace: Tell me about your initiatives for youth and family. I’ve noted some wonderful work!
Rep. Lowey: In communities like Chappaqua and Armonk, most families provide so much enrichment to their children in the early years that you can compare the outcomes. Other communities are not so fortunate…but everyone should have the opportunity to have dreams, and to fulfill their dreams…Every youngster should be able to gain a head start in a Headstart program; every youngster should have preK and full day kindergarten because many studies have shown that that is the beginning of a person’s education. So I have pushed to increase dollars for Headstart and preK and most of the money for education does come from state and local.
Grace: Let’s talk about Planned Parenthood. Why did you take such a lead on that and please talk about the shutdown threat.
Rep. Lowey: It is hard to believe that 151 Republicans voted to shut down the government and we kept it open because of the combination of the Republican and Democratic votes. Planned Parenthood (PP) provides a whole range of essential health care services to a whole range of people across the country; it’s not about abortion. It’s about birth control to prevent unwanted pregnancies. It’s about screening for STDs.
PP has become an absolutely essential factor in almost every district across the country and to try and shut down PP when in fact the bill that the Republicans said they wanted to attach closing off all funds to PP didn’t even have funds for PP in it because the competitive funds come later in the process. I was very pleased that we were able to keep the government open but it seems that the Republicans still want to have hearings on PP…
Grace: Please talk about the Algonquin pipeline which so many people are worried about and protesting. What is your view about its safety?
Rep. Lowey: I’ve been concerned that this pipeline runs too close to Indian Point. And, I’ve taken a strong position that Indian Point should be closed. We are working together with activists in the community to interact with the federal agencies that control this decision and I’m still hoping that we can get a consensus on what is safe, and the impact that that pipeline on the citizens.
Grace: Is it close enough to Northern Westchester to cause harm?
Rep. Lowey: If God forbid there was an accident at IP, it would affect everyone in a 50-mile radius that includes New York City.
Grace: What else do you wish to communicate to our readers as we come to the close now?
Rep. Lowey: It is such an honor and privilege for me to serve communities across Northern Westchester. The families care. They care about the environment; they care about the schools, they care about every factor that impacts their lives. For me, it’s a privilege to serve. I have many who come to my office, sometimes it’s a veteran who wants medals that he hasn’t been able to get, or needs assistance with health, education, or disability benefits. Sometimes it’s a senior who has not had adequate Medicare payments. Certainly the issue of rail crossings has been a major focus of my office since that tragic incident.
Grace: And a little personal information our readers would enjoy knowing about you?
Rep. Lowey: Well, I am married to Steve Lowey for 54 years. We have three children and eight grandchildren. It is such a joy for me to be involved with their lives. I feel very privileged that I have a warm, caring family, and that I can also help people in our community in need of service. Sometimes they are so desperate they don’t know where to go. We have an outstanding, very responsive staff and that makes my heart feel good. To wake up every day and know that you can just do good things and help people is a real honor and privilege.
For more info about Rep. Lowey, visit lowey.house.gov.
Grace Bennett is Publisher and Editor of The Inside Press, Inc. Special thanks to Kat McKee and to Debra Hand for, respectively, transcribing and editing assistance.
Footnotes (as supplied by Congresswoman Lowey’s office):
(1*): Congresswoman Lowey co-sponsored the Rail Crossings Safety Improvement Act (which passed the House on March 4 as part of the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act–PRRIA) that would invest in state and local governments’ efforts to build bridges, tunnels or otherwise relocate roads in order to improve the safety of grade crossings for passengers, motorists and pedestrians. (This is awaiting a vote in the Senate.)
Congresswoman Lowey successfully included a provision in a House transportation spending bill that would increase the federal funds for grade crossing improvements from $220 to $350 million.
Congresswoman Lowey fought successfully to set aside $6.5 million for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in a House transportation bill to develop a national media campaign on grade crossing safety.
After bringing FRA Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg to the Roaring Brook Road crossing in Chappaqua, to demonstrate the pressing need for action on improving safety at grade crossings throughout our region, the DOT announced a new partnership on grade crossing safety–integrating DOT’s grade crossing data with Google Maps to alert drivers about grade crossings.
(*2): As an example, someone who is a full-time unpaid caregiver would receive a Social Security credit worth around $22,000 a year, while a caregiver who works part-time and earns $33,000 would receive a credit worth around $5,500. The Social Security Caregiver Credit would phase out when the caregiver makes more than the average national earnings.
(*3): There is a standing 20-year prohibition on federal funding on research related to gun violence. The 2016 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations bill, reported on June 24th by the Appropriations Committee, continues a “general provision to prevent any funds from being spent on gun research,” including data collection, according to the Committee report.
Lowey offered an amendment during the Labor-HHS-Education markup to remove this mindless prohibition, which was defeated by a unanimous Republican majority.