WRITTEN BY AUTUMN CLOUDEN
Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez visited St. Francis College this week to share her stories of acting on women’s issues and becoming the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected into Congress.
The event was hosted by SFC Scholar in Residence and former Assemblywoman Joan Millman as part of the Women in Government series.
“Very few women actually get elected into office. From polls we know that women are problem solvers and good listeners and women make up more than 50% of the population,” Millman told the audience. “Yet there are fewer women appointed to office. Women have a difficulty to raise money for a campaign. So, I wanted to get someone on the congressional level to speak and talk about experience.”
As a member in the 114th Congressional District, Velázquez serves as Ranking Member of the House Small Business Committee and senior member of the Financial Service Committee. She is also serving her 12th term as the Representative for New York’s 7th Congressional District. In addition, she serves a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Hispanic Caucus and Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity.
“Women comprise half of the population, but we represent half the U.S workforce,” Velázquez said to the audience. “It is important to give women a seat at the table. We give a unique perspective into any legislative conference.”
One of nine children, Velásquez was born in 1953 in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico; a small town of sugar-cane fields. As a child she recalled her father, a farm worker with a sense of justice.
She grew up watching her father who got involved in political activism. Velázquez stated that her second and sixth teachers were more influential figures in her life.
“They knew I was afraid to speak and they challenged me to participate more,” she said. “There are always someone encouraging me and in my case they were always women.”
She attended the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras at the age of 16 and became the first in her family to earn a college diploma.
She graduated magna cum laude in 1974 with a degree in political science. Velázquez then went to NYU where she received a scholarship for political science and earned her Master’s in 1976. Before entering politics, she taught at the University of Puerto Rico at Humacaco from 1976 to 1981 and Hunter College from 1981 to 1983.
“The role of education and government is important to help the young realize their goals,” Velázquez told students. “Providing the resources to help the young realize their true potential is something the government should do.”
While teaching American Politics, Velázquez recalled how the students presented the idea for her to run for office.
“That idea was foreign to me. I did not think that maybe a teacher would qualify me. Then I remember the community activist approached me and said I should run for office,” she said.
Valuing the potential to do more for the people, the governor of Puerto Rico asked Velázquez to be the Director of the office of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
“I told to the Governor that I would do the job on one condition to put together an agenda help the Puerto Rican community in New York City and across the nation,” Velázquez said. “I felt that the community was invisible in terms of school, housing and other issues Puerto Ricans face. The only way to help was to empower the community to create change by exercising their voting rights.”
An advocate for Latino rights, Velázquez agreed to fulfill her agenda. While serving as the Director of the Department of Puerto Rican Community Affairs in the U.S in 1986, she created a program called Atrévete (Dare to Go for it!). The program became one of the nation’s most successful initiates to increase Latino empowerment.
“We increased the electoral participation from 26 to 52 in 1989. Five years later we have increase in census population,” Velázquez said. “By 1990, the Puerto Rican and Latino community sought to create a congressional district and we did.”
In 1983, she was appointed Special Assistant to Congressman Edolphus Towns. The following year she became the first Latina appointed to serve on the New York City Council.
Velázquez also received support from the first woman to run for Vice President who sent her a letter encouraging her to not give up.
With the help from the president of a union, they decided to put together a campaign in 1992 for an open seat for the congressional district vacated in 1984. Velázquez talked about feeling scared of winning the seat due to opposition from incumbent Stephen J. Solarz.
“We were scared. We had an 18 year incumbent with $4 million,” she said. “We also thought about how we would face a spilt vote because there were five Latino candidates. The incumbent would have an instant win.”
Velázquez explained that at the time she did not have enough money to finance the campaign.
“I was a newcomer I was a new face, how was I going to make myself known to voters? I took a loan against me apartment and put in towards my campaign and the rest is history,” she explained to the audience. “I defeated the most power congressional incumbent.”
In 1992, Velázquez became the first Puerto Rican woman elected to the U.S House of Representatives. She made history on several occasions while serving in Congress – becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve as Ranking Member of a full house committee in 1996 and the first Latina to chair a full Congressional committee in 2006 when she was named Chairwoman of the House of Small Business Committee.
Velázquez has also worked to improve opportunities for the poor and working class, encouraging legislation for affordable housing, quality healthcare and education and combat worker’s abuse.
Throughout her career, Velázquez continues to stress the valuable role women play in the government. One key event that was essential was during the drafting provisions in the Affordable Care Act to combat against insurance companies who discriminated against women.
“It was not accident that in the law we include children will be and should be covered until the age of 26. The women from the Congressional Women’s Caucus pushed for theses legislation in the Affordable Care Act,” Velázquez said. “I wonder if a law like that would have those types of provisions if women were not in office.”
Velázquez claimed that without women’s contribution to the economy, the United States would have a GDP equivalent to New York, California and Illinois.
As Chairwoman of Small Business Committee, she has developed legislation to regulate trade, federal contracting and capital reform particularly for women. She set up a legislation that required the federal government to provide 5 percent of spending to women.
The U.S Women Chamber of Congress took President George W. Bush to court, when the bill was not implemented in 2002. Velázquez provided 163 members with a signature agreement and won with the federal court ordering Bush to put the law into effect.
Among her other successes, Hispanic Business Magazine named Velázquez “Woman of the Year” in 2003 for her support for minority enterprises and influence within both political and business sectors.
“I give you all the example to have a women perspective in order to have a better America,” Velázquez said. “Women control so much power and we must demand that we create an environment that enables more women to do more and be recruited at a political party level.”
Continuing her political agenda for empowerment, Velázquez is currently working on legislation to lend support to Puerto Rico, which is currently experiencing a debt crisis.
“Puerto Rico is apart of the country. We are pushing for legislation to that will provide room for Puerto Rico to restructure from debt,” she said.
On a final note, Velázquez hoped that her audience would let her experience guide them to make active choices in society and to not be discouraged.
“Don’t you ever underestimate the power of one individual,”she told the students. “Always be engaged, participate because America becomes a better nation when our citizens are involved.”