Covering topics ranging from Iran to sequestration, Virginia’s 11th congressional district Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) spent an hour presenting and answering questions for voters at a B’nai B’rith International brunch held at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia on Sunday.
Despite briefly touching on the congressman’s record on Israel and Iran, domestic and local issues, such as sequestration, jobs and the budget deficit, most concerned the 50 or so attendees.
Connolly’s district represents the third largest number of federal employees and contractors in the Virginia, and the congressman told the audience the anti-federal government political climate in the nation today is counterproductive – even if the goal of those wanting the shrink the government is to cut the nation’s debt.
“It’s a deliberate attempt to allow things to atrophy because we don’t like government,” he said. “We don’t believe in it. And that is a tragedy when we look out into the future, and it directly affects things like the debt.
“Here in Northern Virginia – what created our wealth, what created our quality of life – is that partnership in terms of federal investment streams that our private sector has been able to” take advantage of and flourish.
Rather than further cripple federal agencies, Connolly said that Congress needs to work to strengthen and modernize them, so that rather than making them bigger or smaller, the agencies can become more efficient and accountable.
Using the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as an example, he pointed to the billions of dollars in unpaid taxes and fraud that the IRS fails to pursue because of lack of resources. Connolly said that annually, unpaid taxes total approximately $350 billion. Multiplying that number by 10 years, he said that this revenue would be able to make up a substantial portion of America’s debt.
“Think about it. We don’t have to slash investments. We don’t have to raise anyone’s taxes. Just collect the money that’s owed,” said Connolly.
Elected to Congress in 2008, Connolly has been a fixture in area politics since 1995 when he was first elected to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
Speaking about his support of Israel, Connolly, who has visited Israel six times, said that he does whatever he can to strengthen the already solid relationship between the United States and Israel.
“My voting record is 100 percent pro-Israel,” Connolly said. “I was a staffer in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 10 years, and I actually helped write the bill that provided loan forgiveness for Israel and aid.”
Yet, Connolly said that on some occasions, Israeli leaders also deserve criticism, specifically when he feels that they’re undermining prospects for a two-state solution.
“Israel is no more perfect a nation, and its political leadership no more so than any other nation,” he said, “and I don’t necessarily hear criticism as being somehow disloyal and undermining the relationship. My observation is, from my six trips, that debate is very robust. But I don’t see that as my role.”
He considers himself supportive of AIPAC, but he also received campaign donations from JStreetPAC and an individual donation from JStreet President Jeremy Ben-Ami. Connolly does not view working with the two opposing organizations as a conflict, adding that he doesn’t see his role as being critical of the different political positions AIPAC and J Street want to carve out for themselves.
“I see my role as protecting American interests in the region and to further those interests,” Connolly told Washington Jewish Week after the event. “My business is to try to find allies I can work with on the Middle East and related issues. I work with AIPAC and I work with J Street when I can.”
Connolly’s district also covers a large Turkish community, and in Congress, he is one of the co-chairs of the Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations and Turkish Americans. Worsening ties between Turkey and Israel, fanned by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has on occasion elicited a response from Connolly to the Turkish government, warning that if the trend continues, it will only hurt Turkey’s image in the United States, as he will not sacrifice his relationship with Israel.
During Operation Protective Edge, the recent war between Israel and Gaza, Erdoğan told supporters that Israel’s atrocities against the Gazans have surpassed the atrocities of Adolf Hitler.
In response to those and other comments, Connolly and other caucus leaders directed a stern letter to Erdoğan on July 29, calling the Turkish president’s remarks anti-Semitic, “historically inaccurate and provocative.”
Connolly, in an interview, said he stands by that letter and criticized Turkey’s inaction toward the terrorist organization, the Islamic State (IS), as it threatens the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobani, just across the Syrian-Turkish border, where Turkish troops are amassed.
“I am a critic of the Turkish government’s reluctance to join in our coalition because I think in the long term, it’s not in their interest to do what they’re doing right now,” he said. “I think the Turkish government is holding back and making preconditions largely as a bit of a smokescreen, because Kobani is a Kurdish-Syrian area and he doesn’t want any kind of spillover with his own Kurds in Turkey. I understand that sensitivity, but Kobani falling is in no one’s interest, including Turkey’s.”
The brunch was originally scheduled to be a candidate forum, but Connolly’s GOP opponent, Suzanne Scholte, did not reply to the organizers’ invitation.
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