In Public Service: Velázquez fights for Zika funding
Congresswoman hopeful ‘some type of action will take place’
Political pressure will lead to the federal government pumping more money into research, health care and prevention of the Zika virus, according to U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez, who spoke to the Brooklyn Eagle about the worsening health crisis.
“We are going to push hard for funding,” she told the Eagle in a phone interview.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), whose state is being hit hard by Zika, is coming under increasing pressure to move the Republicans toward voting for a solid bill to provide funding, Velázquez said.
“We will see progress in this fight. There are so many cases, not just in New York and Puerto Rico, but in Florida,” said Velázquez, who was born in Puerto Rico and is the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress.
“I believe some type of action will take place,” she said.
Velázquez said part of the hold-up is the refusal of GOP senators to include in a bill funding for education on Zika preventative measures such as condoms. “Zika can be transmitted sexually. But the Republicans are insisting that no language about condoms be included in the bill,” she said.
She is also upset that many Republicans are calling for funds that are currently used to fight Ebola be transferred to the Zika crisis. “It’s two different diseases,” she said.
Velázquez and the Democrats are pushing a bill that would provide $1.9 billion in funding to fight Zika, partly because that is what scientists are recommending. “We need to follow the lead of scientists who know better,” she said, adding that she doesn’t think the $1.9 billion will be enough. “It’s a good start but it will not be enough,” she said.
Velázquez represents the Seventh Congressional District. She first won the seat in 1992.
Her district, which includes parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, is the only tri-borough district in New York City’s congressional delegation. The district includes the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Sunset Park, Red Hook and Brooklyn Heights in Brooklyn and Woodhaven in Queens.
Velázquez has been a barrier breaker all of her life.
She was born the small town of Yabucoa, Puerto Rico and is one of nine children. Velázquez’s potential was realized early. In school, she progressed quickly, was able to skip several grades and enrolled in the University of Puerto Rico at the tender age of 16.
She graduated magna cum laude in 1974 with a degree in political science, becoming the first person in her family to graduate from college. She earned a master’s degree from New York University and taught Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College.
In 1983, Velázquez served as a special assistant to U.S. Rep. Edolphus Towns.
Velázquez ran for a House seat in 1992, defeating longtime U.S. Rep. Stephen Solarz in a Democratic Primary.
Velázquez was named “Woman of the Year” by Hispanic Business Magazine in recognition of her support of minority business owners.
Velázquez has had a busy year in the House of Representatives. In June, she took part in an extraordinary sit-in on the floor of the House organized by Democrats to try to force Republicans, who hold the majority of seats in the House, to bring a gun control bill to the floor for a vote.
She was honored to take part in the sit-in, but she confessed to having mixed feelings.
“We need to treat the institution with the respect it deserves. But the sit-in showed how desperate some of us felt because of the Republicans’ inability to pass common-sense legislation,” she said.
“In the last decade, we have seen so many people die from gun violence. It’s not just mass shootings like Orlando and Aurora. This is about everyday tragedies,” Velazquez said. “It’s unbelievable to me that we can’t find commonality on this issue.”
Velázquez said she believes very strongly that the law should be strengthened to prohibit an individual on a terror watch list from buying a weapon.
“If you are on a ‘no fly’ list, you should not be able to buy a gun,” she said. “That’s a common sense solution.”
Velázquez would also like to see the assault weapons ban reinstated. The ban went into effect in the 1990s, but when it expired 10 years later, Congress did not renew it. “Those guns are used to kill people,” she said.
The assault weapons ban proposal has the support of the law enforcement community, according to Velázquez. “Police officers are the first to say that it is important to ban these weapons,” she said.
But the most important factor in the gun control debate is public opinion, she said. “Public opinion is on our side. The vast majority of Americans favor a no-fly, no-buy law,” she said. “The winds of chance are moving in our direction.”
Velázquez, who is running for re-election in November, said she thinks there is a chance, because of Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, of the Democrats regaining control of the House.
“So many Republicans are depressed by the top of their ticket, Donald Trump. You see a lot of people coming to his rallies, but not a lot of people want to actually vote for him. Republican voters might wind up staying home on Election Day. In many places, Republicans are giving up,” she said.
On other topics: Velázquez, who is the ranking member of the House Committee on Small Business, said she is excited about recent business growth in Brooklyn.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard is in her district, as is the Brooklyn Army Terminal and Industry City. “This is a city that is thriving in terms of small business,” she told the Eagle.
But there is more the federal government can do to assist small businesses, according to Velázquez. “Government should establish policies to help small businesses,” she said.
And government should help business owners get back on their feet after a natural disaster, she added.
Velázquez is particularly proud of a bill she sponsored that was eventually signed into law that re-opened the loan application process at the Small Business Administration (SBA) to give business owners whose businesses were damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012 the chance to obtain loans to rebuild.
In New York state, $23.6 million was made available for the SBA to assist small business owners.
“The SBA failed small businesses after Sandy but we stepped in straightened it out,” she said.
Velázquez also pushed a bill to provide up to $1 billion a year to the SBA to allow the agency to provide investment capital to small business owners. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) sponsored the legislation in the Senate.
“It means jobs,” Velázquez said.
She has also pushed for banks to lend money to small business owners.
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