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interview with congressman MAURICE HINCHEYby Ross Rice

Presently serving his ninth term in the House of Representatives on behalf of New York’s 22nd District, Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-Hurley) has become a leading progressive voice and a staunch advocate for the state. With a district that presently encompasses Ulster, Orange, Sullivan, Delaware, Broome, Tioga, and Tompkins Counties, and includes the cities of Kingston, Newburgh, Middletown, Binghamton, and Ithaca—as well as Poughkeepsie in Dutchess Co.—New York’s 22nd is as serpentine and politically diverse as a district can be. But the indefatigable Hinchey has earned the trust of the voters, and thanks to seventeen years of seniority has become a member of the House Appropriations Committee, where he has used his influence to secure federal funding for numerous projects that have been to the benefit of all.

From the beginning of his political career—with 18 years in the New York State Assembly prior to election to the House—Hinchey has always been a strong advocate of environmentalism, clean energy, and green technology. Recently he has secured stimulus funds to help fund The Solar Energy Consortium (TSEC), a regional group of over 70 small and large companies, in conjunction with state private and public colleges, working to make solar energy more efficient and affordable. So far, around 200 jobs have been created, with another 1000 projected within the next five years, and Tech City in Kingston—for years an abandoned ex-IBM industrial space—is coming back to life as a clean energy/green business incubator, with several tenants already in place.

We could fill a magazine discussing a wide range of issues (like that recent quote about Bush wanting to keep Osama Bin Laden alive) with Rep. Hinchey, but in this interview with Roll in December 2009, we kept the questions in the realm of environmental and green tech issues. We do recommend a visit to to learn more about this able and accessible representative.

You’re from Saugerties, a town that nobody around here would consider a “liberal” hotbed. But they elected you to the State Legislature in 1974, and in 1992, you defeated a credible Republican opponent to represent New York’s 28th District—now the 22nd, did the same again in 1994, and have had no significant challenger since, in spite of what most would consider a “liberal” voting record. How do you do it? And why haven’t you written a best-selling book about it yet?

Ah, that’s an interesting idea! I have an idea to write a couple of books but I just haven’t had the time (laughs). The focus of attention in this particular job is very demanding. There’s very little time outside of the responsibilities that you have both here (in Washington) and back up in the district you represent.

I’m very much committed to what I’m doing because I’ve seen the way in which we were able to bring about some effective changes into the area I represent, and good impact on the people there.

You’ve made it clear that you believe that America must reduce its demand for oil while increasing investment in renewable energy technologies. What do you think can be done nationally to stimulate renewable energy technology? Would something like New York’s NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research & Development Authority) rebate program be feasible at the federal level?

Well, I think that NYSERDA in New York is something that is very effective, and we’ve been working closely with them over the course of the last couple of years…but particularly this last year. We’ve been setting up The Solar Energy Consortium (TSEC), a not-for-profit corporation focusing on solar energy, to generate companies, corporations, jobs in the development of solar energy technology. We are working closely on this in the Hudson Valley, and other places in New York as well [that] I represent, like Broome and Tompkins Counties.

So what we’ve done is we’ve begun to work with Tech City, just outside of Kingston. We’ve been negotiating with them over the course of the last couple of years, and there are three small companies located there now engaged in the solar energy issue. We also have a larger company (Prism Solar) that was trying to get into Tech City but was unable to, so we were able to find them a place in Highland.

But Tech City is a big open space; the potential for new corporations there is substantial. We’ve had a number of companies come look at the place.

Can you tell us more about The Solar Energy Consortium, and process by which stimulus funds, like the recent $2.25 million it received, how this translates into economic and ecological improvements for the Hudson Valley?

The Solar Energy Consortium is, as I said, a not-for-profit company, and we have been engaged in getting some funding for it to operate more effectively. What the consortium does is to contact and work with companies that are in the process of developing solar technology in a variety of ways, and we are engaging them in the interests of New York State, and particularly in the Hudson Valley. And have begun to have some significant success.

The company in Highland—Prism Solar—has generated a significant number of jobs. And the fact that TSEC has partnered with over 70 small and large companies, that includes nearly a dozen that have already created 200 jobs in the Hudson Valley.

The plan is to bring in over a thousand new jobs to this portion of upstate New York within the next few years. That’s the main focus of attention of TSEC: to work with companies that are developing new aspects of solar energy, and generating the production of these new aspects in New York to create new industries. So, to focus on the development of new technology, new technologies to develop new industries, new industries to create new jobs.

Recently you sponsored legislation to have the National Park Service do a special resources study to determine the Hudson Valley’s eligibility for National Park status. But renewable power technology like wind and solar require large amounts of space to harvest wind and sun, for example the New York State Solar Farm project in Walkill. Do you foresee a clash between conservation and the needs of green technology? And can you tell us more about the benefits of National Park status?

Well, no, I don’t see any conflicts there. One of the things that we’ve done recently is we have brought in a significant amount of funding for farms in Ulster County—and other surrounding counties—for the development of solar energy use on those farms, to make them more effective and efficient, and reduce the costs they have to pay for they energy they need. (Hinchey worked in conjunction with USDA Rural Development State Director Jill Harvey to secure over $370,000 in loans for solar power upgrades for ten regional farms—ed.) This is just the beginning, but these are the things we're trying to complete more and more over the course of the next several years.

One of the things that I have been focused on for a long time, ever since I was in the State Legislature in Albany, is the historic significance of the Hudson Valley, and how it’s played such a dramatic and strongly positive role in the development of not just New York, but the nation—the Hudson River being the initial main transportation facility in North America.

Then, of course, the Hudson River—during and after the Second World War—suffered a great deal of pollution. One of the main focuses of my attention when I was chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee (in Albany) was to upgrade the environmental quality of the Hudson River, and Hudson River Valley. The river had suffered from decades of neglect. Our idea was to get people on both sides of the Hudson to trust each other and work together to improve the health of the river both ecologically and for the good of the people who live near it. One of the ways we achieved that was to set up the Hudson Valley Greenway, which has been enthusiastically embraced by many towns and villages up and down the river.

In 1993, my first year in Washington, I introduced legislation that would set up the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, and we managed to get it passed in ’96. The HRVNHA has drawn national attention to the Hudson River Valley, and has had an effect on promoting a deeper appreciation for the area by the people of New York.

And now what we’re trying to do is to move the Hudson River Valley to become a unit of the National Park Service. That doesn’t mean the Park Service is going to own large amounts of property in the area, but it means that the NPS is going to look at and understand and appreciate the national significance of the Hudson River Valley. As a result of that, there will be a significant amount of federal funding that will come in to promote an array of businesses and industry by recognizing the great value of this area, and the historic contributions it has given, going back to the Revolutionary War.

One of the things we’ve done already (to promote awareness and appreciation) was setting up the Walkway over the Hudson (in Poughkeepsie), a project I had been working on for years. And it jumped into success, frankly, after I was able to get the first federal funding for it.

Speaking of the Hudson River, earlier this year the Supreme Court allowed the use of “cost benefit analysis” by the EPA to determine the Indian Point nuclear reactor’s compliance with the Clean Water Act. This allows them to assign dollar values only to commercially or recreationally harvested fish, disregarding 98.2% of affected aquatic species in the river. What do you think would make an accurate cost benefit analysis of aging nuclear plants like Indian Point? Does nuclear power have a green future?

Well, I think that there are other ways to develop energy that HAVE green futures. The nuclear power situation in New York has been very expensive.

(Back when in the State Assembly) I can remember going down there with the then-Speaker of the State Assembly, going through that plant with him, and the two of us being concerned about the quality of that power plant, the potential dangers associated with it, among those dangers, of course, its close proximity to New York City.

I don’t think it’s been exemplary in many ways: its impact on the Hudson River, the life within that river has not been positive. The problem is that that particular facility does provide a significant amount of energy into the New York metropolitan area. And the question is if that is going to go away, what’s the source of energy that will replace it?

That’s one of the main reasons we have to focus on alternative energy, particularly solar energy. Because one of the basic principles of the development of TSEC is the notion, the realization that one of the largest sources of alternative energy is New York City! New York City is a place that has the ability to develop solar energy in a variety of ways around these cities—and one of the things that we’re doing in the context of TSEC is to work with corporations that are developing solar cells that are flexible and more efficient, and can be placed in a variety of ways in the context of building, and generate more of the energy that is needed in each of those buildings.

Quick question about 2010. What do you see for the midterm elections in your crystal ball? Do you think the Republicans will take back many seats, or will they be held off?

It’s really hard to say. We know historically that not in every midterm of every president, but in midterms of most presidents the party of that president has losses. We don’t know if that will happen in the context of 2010, what we’re trying to do is to deal with the set of circumstances that have been placed upon this country over the course of the previous eight years, during the Bush administration.

So much spending occurred outside of the country, particularly in Iraq. And how little spending was engaged inside the country except for money that went into special interests like the investment banks and that TARP bill, and things of that nature. And how we are so strongly in need of internal investment in this country.

I can remember when Clinton ran for office in 1992. One of the main things he talked about was the need for internal investment to upgrade the quality of life in this country, to focus on a whole host of things including transportation, education, health care, and all of those things that needed to be dealt with. But unfortunately, he lost his majority two years later, and he had to deal with the Republican domination of Congress for the next six years. And he wasn’t able to bring about what he wanted.

We have had decades of a lack of appropriate investment internally in our own country, meeting its needs. And that has to change. Hopefully we’re in the process of changing that now.

You seem like a guy who is personally very committed to being an effective representative, not just somebody passing through en route to higher office or bigger paydays in the private sector or K Street. Having said that, do you see yourself as moving beyond being a Congressman….or, do you like where you are now?

Well, I’ve thought about running for other offices, including running for the Senate, and running for the Governor of the state of New York actually, some years ago. I didn’t do it for a number of reasons that were internal.

But the situation that I’m dealing with now as a member of the Appropriations Committee, and the ability that I have as a senior member of this Congress now—I’ve been here for seventeen years—I am perfectly happy doing what I’m doing with the abilities I have thanks to seniority. I’m also on the Defense Appropriations sub-committee. I have the ability to be strongly and positively effective for the district I represent and for New York State. I’m happy with what I’m doing, and have no intention of doing anything else.

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