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Local Luminary: Joel Tyner 

click to enlarge MATT  PETRICONE
  • Matt Petricone

Joel Tyner’s electoral career got off to a rousing start in 1980 when he was elected student body president of Rhinebeck High School. The community activist’s success at the polls didn’t carry over so easily into post-secondary school life. Tyner ran for five different county and state offices between 1996 and 2000 before being elected to the Dutchess County legislature as a Democrat in 2003. Tyner, an unapologetic progressive, represents the towns of Clinton and Rhinebeck in the Republican-dominated legislature, and has been a vocal minority figure on issues ranging from sustainable development and the environment to health care and taxation. (Tyner is up for reelection in November.)

An early childhood teacher at Little Tikes Day Care in Poughkeepsie, Tyner has worked in education for the past 20 years, from the Belmont School of Global Studies in the Bronx to the Poughkeepsie City School District.

Tyner’s radio program, “The Real Majority Project,” airs on Sunday nights from 9 to 11pm on WVKR (91.3FM). The show is a mix of opinion, airing of the public record, and call-in chat with progressive notables like Jeff Cohen, Medea Benjamin, John Hall, and concerned local residents. This includes Tyner’s loyal conservative opposition, who call in to debate Tyner, making for interesting local radio, like Air America writ small, without the goofiness. (The show has been on hiatus since June, and will start broadcasting again in early November, after the election.) Tyner, who got his start in radio as a music DJ in the late '80s, describes his program as “poll-driven politics in the best sense.” The name of the program is taken from Tyner’s belief that polls indicate that Americans across the political spectrum agree on a range of issues—universal health care, campaign-finance reform, environmental protection—that are not often represented by the focus of mainstream political debate.

Tyner lives in a big house in the town of Clinton with his mother, Judy Malstrom, and eight cats. Tyner’s website (www.joeltyner.org) catalogs his opinions and legislative accomplishments, as well as links to government documents and petitions supporting progressive issues.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the Hudson Valley and what are some possible solutions?
The high level of local property and sales taxes crushing small businesses and all of us—and there are quite a few cost-saving innovations proven to work elsewhere that should be implemented here without further delay to save our tax dollars. Making sure those without health insurance get access to health care before costly emergency room visits (as in San Francisco), real Empire Zone accountability, ending millions of dollars’ worth of legalized kickbacks in county government annually with campaign finance reform (as in Rockland County), recycling sealed, unused prescription drugs in nursing homes (as in Tulsa, Oklahoma), allowing county employees and retirees the option of getting prescription drugs from Canada (as in Schenectady County), fully funding senior transportation to aid aging in place and save Medicaid dollars (as in Boston’s Beacon Hill Village), slash costly recidivism at our county jail with a job court (as Lancaster County, PA, does), and save money with a housing-first approach for our chronically mentally ill homeless (as Westchester County does).

Favorite restaurant?
Starr Cantina in Rhinebeck.

If you were president, what would your first action after taking office be?
I would help small businesses, corporations, and all of us save loads of money—by signing into law HR 676, the US National Health Insurance/Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, Rep. John Conyers, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and over 70 other members of Congress. There are now 50 million Americans without health insurance; medical illness and bills contribute to half of all bankruptcies. According to Harvard researchers, HR 676 would save well over $300 billion a year by replacing private insurance companies with a single public payer that would assure universal coverage of all medically necessary services—while allowing patients free choice of doctors once again. Administrative waste stemming from our reliance on private insurers consumes one-third of all health spending—US hospitals actually spend 24 percent of their budgets on billing and administration, while hospitals under Canada’s single-payer system spend only 12 percent.

What do you sing along to in the car?
Patti Rothberg, A Tribe Called Quest, Failin’ Phelan and the Straight A Students, and Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.

What can citizens do to make their voice effectively heard in local government?
Trite but true: “If you’re not outraged you’re not paying attention.” So pay attention (you’ll be shocked at what you discover). Start going to your town board or city council meetings—and your county legislature meetings—and start asking questions and speaking up. Call and write your representatives; letters to the editor make a difference too. Form a new group—and hold press conferences and rallies. Contact Assemblymember Kevin Cahill’s office to be updated on the common-sense legislation that gets passed by the Assembly each year (that the GOP-controlled state Senate refuses to even consider). Call Congress toll-free at (800) 828-0498. Finally, remember—we’ve all heard it before, but Margaret Mead’s advice for us still rings true: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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