The clock ticked off on Monday, March 31 to the end of the first open-enrollment period for Obamacare, and for New York State to pass a budget on time.
The mood in the room was heady, strong. A sense of right and moral victory. At the state level, a clear sense of confidence.
The news media were reporting that the number of enrollments in Obamacare would surpass the projected original target of 7 million (the target had been downgraded to 6 million and even that was being declared a "miracle" by the naysayers just weeks before), as they aired images of people queuing in lines snaking around the block that looked like Election Day 2012 in Florida. On top of the 7 million individual enrollments, another 3 million more children under 26 were covered under their parents plan, under the ACA reform.
Sitting next to Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who McCarthy recalled, at the height of the dramatic battle for passage, went on the floor, from member to member, to win votes needed for passage. "That's a leader," McCarthy said.
That was 2010, the end of the Democrats' control over the House. and the end of Pelosi's reign as the first woman Speaker (and first Italian-American as she noted when she came to the podium).
But as Congressman Steve Israel, who is also the chair of the Democratic National Congressional Committee charged with the challenge of electing Democrats to Congress, so much was accomplished during her four-year tenure. He drew these contrasts:
“On our first day when we were the Majority and Pelosi was speaker, we increased the minimum wage and passed Lily Ledbetter, because Democrats don’t believe a woman should be paid less. That was opening. The final day, we repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because Democrats believe it shouldn’t matter who you love to serve your country.
"From our first days to last [as the majority], we saved the economy, passed TARP, the largest increase in VA health, the largest expansion of college affordability, tax cuts for the middle class, environmental preservation, the New GI Bill, and did it because we had a leader unsurpassed. (He curiously did not mention the Affordable Care Act, the most significant health care reform in 50 years.)
"With Republican Majority – under Speaker Boehner, we haven’t extended unemployment insurance, but gave $4 billion in subsidies to Big Oil; we did not raise the minimum wage, but handed out subsidies to special interests.
"No immigration reform, no infrastructure, no jobs, no plan. But gave us 17 days shut down of federal government."
And most critical of all, and a slap in the face of Congresswoman McCarthy, who abandoned her career as a nurse to go to Congress after her husband was murdered in the Long Island Railroad shooting spree, her son gravely injured, no vote on any gun regulation, not even after the most horrific massacre in history.
"I promise to you," Israel said to McCarthy who he called "My Big Sister," "when Democrats are in the majority of the House, we will pass legislation to keep our children safe in school; background checks, fix the gun show loophole. – and her name will be on every one – her legacy."
On the other hand, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was supposed to attend the dinner but remained in Albany until the budget was passed, opened the celebration by phone, reflected how he was at the Housing & Urban Development Department under Clinton when McCarthy came to Congress, "a personal hero of mine."
As Governor, he seized on the political window that opened after Sandy Hook to pass the SAFE Act, the most significant gun control legislation in the nation.
Cuomo sounded the themes that will be important for Democrats at the federal and state level – that the successes show that government can work, that government can help improve the lives of the people, a fundamental difference the Democrats, pointed out from the Republican position.
"And that is very much one of the themes we brought to Albany as Democrats- because fundamentally, Democrats argue that government works and government can be a vehicle for social change, and a vehicle to help people, give government that performs and delivers on the promises on behalf of Democratic party.
He pointed to the numbers that show progress: Turning a $10 billion deficit to $2 billion surplus, recalling that 4 years ago, New York had the greatest unemployment level since the Great Depression and today, has more jobs than ever had in history, "thanks to a Democratic administration."
"Unemployment is down in every region," he said. "Spending is down, taxes are down, and we made this state the progressive capital once again when we passed marriage equality, raised the minimum age, gun control.
And Jay Jacobs, chair of the Nassau County Democrats, chided the Democrats for not going on the "offense" on Obamacare. He related a story of a Republican friend who, like the rest of the Republicans, had a "visceral" hatred of Obamacare (why else attempt to repeal the law more than 50 times, and in the newest assault, pass H.R. 2575, the Save American Workers Act, which would reduce the number of Americans with employer-based health insurance coverage and increase the deficit).
But his friend's attitude changed when his wife became one of the 129 million Americans with preexisting conditions, who, but for Obamacare, would have been denied health coverage.
“People condemn Obamacare in the abstract, Obamacare shouldn’t be condemned in the abstract –it’s not a question of whether the website worked initially – but the people all over the country – the millions who for the first time for many of them, have access to health care.
“I’ve never seen an army win just playing defense. It’s time for us to play offense – to give credit to people like Leader Pelosi who shepherded the bill through the House - it wouldn’t be a law today if it weren’t for her, and I’m so proud she’s in our house.
"We have a lot to be proud of – have to be proud of our Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy- you devoted your career and your life to ending the scourge of gun violence, served our community with honor and distinction.
"Americans are and always have a nation of generous people - lifting people up – isn’t that what Obamacare is about, what our Democratic party always stood for? If we remind Americans about that in this election, we can’t lose. So let’s get out there, be on the offense.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she would take her message to the President the very next day, when she went to the Rose Garden to hear Obama's announcement of 7.1 million enrollments.
She continued the theme that Congressman Israel raised - of the legislation that Israel, Pelosi and the Democrats are working so hard to pass: "good paying jobs. Change tax policy that sends jobs overseas - that's backward – we should be rewarding companies that Make it In America.
"Infrastructure, collective bargaining. And building confidence in who we are as a people -a nation of immigrants.
"We are fighting for comprehensive immigration reform to be passed now. Every person who comes to America with hopes and dreams, makes America more American."
Presently, the United States is deporting 1,100 peopled each day, but 11 million would be legalized and on a path to citizenship if immigration reform is passed.
"One man is standing in the way: Boehner," she said, noting that if the measure would come to the floor, it would in fact pass.
"Give us a vote," she said.
The Democrats are working to "restore confidence in who we are as a democracy: a government of the many, not of the money. When we win, we will reduce role of money and increase level of civility – that’s what democracy is about – and Steve Israel is working hard to restore confidence in the oath of office, 'protect and defend the American people.'
He is a strong advocate in following the lead of McCarthy, insisting on calling for a vote for gun control
And he’s most proud of the district he represents – Israel brags about his district, the source of his strength."
But Pelosi reserved her most effusive praise for Carolyn McCarthy:
"The respect she commands, how respected she is in the Congress. She comes with the strength of a person who had felt the pain and in generosity of her spirit, wanted to make sure no other family suffered.
"Running for Congress is not for faint of heart.
"She brought a balance to the debate – this was remarkable – she went to floor, passionate about the issue, but dispassionate in her presentation – non-threatening.
"I asked her, how do you do that? and she said, 'You know, part of it is I am a nurse, and that’s what nurses do.' Her demeanor Is comforting, not alarming.
"The combination of her experience, her commitment, and demeanor is what made her so effective as a Congresswoman."
When she returned to the floor [after being treated for cancer], people flocked to her – they love her so much.
"You know about gun violence prevention, but Carolyn is also an accomplished legislator: Financial Services Committee, Education and Workforce Committee, a champion for early childhood education and volunteerism."
Pelosi noted that on April 21, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act reauthorizing and expanding national service programs. The last bill that Sen. Kennedy worked on before his death, it was named for him, "but Carolyn was the leader in the House. The day the bill signed, he said all the credit in the House belonged to her."
"Carolyn is a leader not only in what she does – it’s what she inspires others to do. It's that she has known of what she speaks, and has a plan to get it done. A true leader.
"Steve calls her 'My Big Sister,' I call her “My Little Sister' – a family affair.
"It’s personal for me to be here."
Then Carolyn McCarthy came to the podium.
"Ever seen a politician speechless?" she said.
"Leader Pelosi –I watched you on floor, especially during Health Care – how you went from member to member, sat with them and got it through. I hear the stories of people who had a preexisting condition – they are true - I spent 32 years in nursing another 18 years still in nursing, but in Congress.
She spent a career in nursing and more recently, her family has had to nurse her.
"Several weeks ago, had my first CAT scan after treatment – no cancer."
She added, "When people grumble about the money that government spends – a lot goes into medical research – cancer, diabetes, heart disease, young children.
"Those are the things we fight for. Why you are a Democrat."
She said, "I came to Congress and got Equal Pay and a chance to vote for it for everybody else.
"After Sandy – I had to learn so much, we never had a disaster like that – I was going to shelters and seeing the people. Still too many are not in their homes.
"This is USA – we can be better than that, we should be better, we are better than that."
She reflected back on that meeting of her “'kitchen cabinet' in my kitchen – trying to convince me to run. Who am I to be a Congresswoman? – a nurse, a wife."
She wasn't supposed to win the first election, nor the second, the third, the fourth.
"My opponent kept telling people that I was a ‘one issue’ – guns.
"Damn right – I care about saving lives. But I am also a woman. No woman has only one [issue].
She related how she loved the job of Congresswoman, even with how frustrating it is in Washington.
"But coming home on the weekends, holidays, meeting with constituents – my biggest pride was going to schools to talk to students.
"I tell them, 'I have dyslexia, so I can’t read a speech but somehow I got to Congress.'
"In the lower grades, I knew I was smart but I didn’t know why I couldn’t read, write…
"Many children are like that- and many have become famous and heads of companies.
"Don’t ever tell a child he can’t learn. Don’t ever tell anyone they can’t do it.
"I'm Irish. My parents wanted a better life for their children. As Democrats, we want to give all children a better life, the best chance they could have.
She reflected on "the work I have done –I look at my wall, the ‘what have you done lately?” wall. there are 7 or 8 pens there – every member wants a pen from when a bill you were involved in is signed.
Everyone deserves to have a bad day; plenty of days wanted to just stay under the comforter – and not go to work. But you go to work to fight …
"No one person can get the job done. I thank everyone in this room, my team, my staff, my family.
You believed in me, gave me the strength to fight for what I believed in."
"There are some nice Republican people in Washington – unfortunately they’re retiring . Leader Pelosi would say we’ve worked with them, passed bills together [Pelosi murmurs agreement] – but what they are trying to do nationally is bringing us down – not just Democrats, but the people. Because if they bring us down, people will believe what they hear [about ineffective government].
"We are the greatest country in the world – and people are forgetting that.
"We as US citizens have been blessed in so many ways. Yes we have problems, but keep working at them.
"Come early next January, won’t be sworn in as Member of Congress. I won’t be able to vote for all of you.
"But you have not heard the last of me."
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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