“Polish it”: Conrgressman Paul Tonko and the spirit of public service

tonko headshot

Pat Gareau, Creative Editor

As a strong math student in high school, Congressman Paul Tonko ultimately chose to go to college for engineering. Despite a strong interest in politics, he was reserved about the prospect of living a public life.

However, that strong interest remained with him after graduating from Clarkson and he volunteered with a local campaign.

The Democratic Party leadership saw how much thought and energy he put in as a volunteer and they encouraged him to run as a candidate. His strong interest in politics developed into a passion as he was elected to Montgomery County’s Board of Supervisors in 1975, then to the New York State Assembly in 1982 and all the way to Congress, where he has represented most of the Capital District since 2009.

“The engineering was drawing on my strength academically,” said Tonko. “The politics was drawing on my soulfulness, wanting to be there, make a difference for people.”

When Tonko entered politics in the 70s, there was a lot of discontent following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. As many people lost all faith and stopped participating in politics, Tonko thought helping repair the system was a better approach.

“A lot of my contemporary friends who were impacted by Vietnam were rejecting authority of all kind, including government,” said Tonko. “They all walked away from those institutional blocks, many of them, and never came back.”

Tonko’s attitude toward problems in society remains that we should contribute toward improving them. He noted that the founding fathers begin the constitution with, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” Tonko believes that we continue to work toward perfection but it is important to acknowledge that government isn’t perfect.

“We can either leave it tarnished with our complacency and inaction or we can polish it,” said Tonko.

Tonko’s mission to polish society through the government has taken him from the local to the state to the federal level over nearly 40 years. As a supervisor of Montgomery County he started learning about government in ways that would help him throughout his career.

“The pulse of the people is measured and sensed in that front line of politics,” Tonko said.

During 25 years in the New York State Assembly, Tonko was involved in a variety of legislation with the education and transportation committees. He also chaired the energy committee, which drew on his experience as an engineer in the utilities field.

Some of his proudest accomplishments were passing a law that brought mental health care coverage to an even level with general care, and the power for jobs program and the heritage corridor concept, which unified localities in the Capital Region and highlighted the rich local history of the area.

As a member of Congress, Tonko continues to draw on his experience in energy policy to promote efficiency and renewable forms of energy.

“Energy efficiency is our fuel of choice,” he said.

Tonko believes that energy efficiency and technological development is a key component in fighting climate change, which he identified as one of the biggest long term challenges for the younger generation.

“Climate change is a daunting challenge,” said Tonko. “You will inherit the ripple effect of our negligence or inaction.”

Climate change is one of many societal challenges young people face. Although younger people tend to have lower rates of voting and political involvement, Tonko sees some reasons for optimism.

“There is an interest, at least, in making the world better in your generation which is phenomenal. We need to tap into that,” he said.

“Politically there are tons of issues out there for which to push hard for reform and strengthening. We need your intellect and your idealism to make the world a better place,” said Tonko.

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