WILMINGTON — For Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., the problem-solving, bipartisan approach he learned from his time in New Castle County government has carried over into how he looks at governing at the federal level.
“Whether the challenge is gun violence in Wilmington or migration from Guatemala to our Southern border. Whether it’s trying to figure out a way to reduce prescription drug costs or infrastructure, I try to keep an open mind about every one of my colleagues,” he said. “I try to figure out who I can work with and who I can’t.”
With that problem-solving approach in mind, Sen. Coons, who was formerly New Castle County executive before being elected to the U.S. Senate, is one of 22 senators who have been negotiating a more than $1.2 trillion infrastructure package (with $539 billion in new spending and the rest being spending that “otherwise would have happened, but hasn’t been appropriated”) meant to help Americans as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This would be the single biggest infrastructure package since (President Dwight D. Eisenhower),” Sen. Coons said. “Relative terms, absolute terms, the biggest infrastructure package in American history and it will deal with a whole lot of things that matter.”
Sen. Coons discussed some of those areas the infrastructure package could benefit during a “Coffee with Coons” meeting in Wilmington.
For the average American, Sen. Coons said the infrastructure package could mean improved commutes times, more access to broadband, cleaner drinking water through updated treatment plants and strong electricity grids.
“The good news, bad news is those are all things you might not notice directly,” Sen. Coons said. “But you’ll notice how they impact our economy.”
Speaking to more noticeable changes, Sen. Coons said he traveled to Vietnam a few years ago to find the country’s airports newer than many of America’s.
“I’ve been struck by how much we’ve been living off the infrastructure investments that were made by our parents or grandparents,” Sen. Coons said.
Noting he uses public transportation to commute from Delaware to Washington, through aging bridges and tunnels, he said America does not have modern infrastructure compared to other counties.
Sen. Coons said investing in infrastructure also could benefit neighborhoods that were divided by the construction of major highways back in the 1960s.
He said the expansion of highway systems disproportionately affected neighborhoods with high populations of people of color.
“(Highway expansion) was used to divide neighborhoods and to do, what at the time was called slum clearance or urban renewal, and knock down historic neighborhoods that were overwhelming Black and Brown neighborhoods,” Sen. Coons said.
In Wilmington’s case, he said the construction of Interstate 95 saw the demolition of historic churches, homes and neighborhoods.
Noting “you can’t put those neighborhoods back,” he said through the infrastructure package, there could be solutions to lessen the divide caused by the highway.
“You can’t tear up the freeway and rebuild the neighborhood, but you can make investments that address equity of access and community connectivity,” Sen. Coons said.
Sen. Coons said the infrastructure package also aims to improve broadband by building it out in rural areas.
In terms of children whose education may have fallen behind due to remote learning, Sen. Coons said that falls to states and school districts to handle. He said the federal government did provide a “record amount” of emergency resources to schools last year.
He said there is no specific federal program to help students engage with schooling — be that remotely or in the classroom again.
“That very much is a local challenge,” he said.
Within the infrastructure package, Sen. Coons said he’d like to see funding for HVAC and air handling equipment for outdated school buildings.
Speaking to vaccination rates, Sen. Coons said people seeing their elected officials get a COVID-19 shot is important in showing that the vaccines are safe.
“I am convinced that the vaccines are safe. They are effective and they are the only way we get out of this pandemic as a country,” he said.
However, he said, it’s often more important for people with vaccine hesitancy to hear from leaders within their communities.
“I’m clear that saying I got vaccinated isn’t moving a lot of people,” he said. “Hearing from someone who, maybe you can identify with better or you pay more attention to — whether you’re a young person or from a community of color — having someone you trust or look up to say, ‘well I’ve been vaccinated, you should be too.’”
Sen. Coons said state and local governments have been trying “everything they can think of” — through lotteries and giveaways — to get people vaccinated. He said it’s important to remember these efforts are meant to end the pandemic.
“If we can’t persuade people to get vaccinated, the odds are we’re going to have to go back into lockdowns, into mask wearing,” Sen. Coons said. “The only way I know of to persuade people to get COVID vaccines is to show them the evidence. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that there is some chip embedded in vaccines.”
Sen. Coons also spoke about efforts at the federal level to end gun violence. He said this week, President Joe Biden is convening a conversation on gun violence and what more the federal government can do to reduce it.
Sen. Coons said he’s heard from violence interruption experts with backgrounds in community activism and law enforcement as well as academics to look at breaking the cycle of violence.
Sen. Coons said President Biden is proposing $1 million in new program money for violent crime reduction, noting some would benefit law enforcement, but the majority would fund new intervention programs.
In the last 30 years, violent crime numbers have reduced, Sen. Coons said. However violent crime has increased in recent years, which, he said, could be attributed to guns being available or due to the COVID-19 pandemic or social unrest.
He said he is working on a bill, with bipartisan support, that would make it mandatory that law enforcement be notified if someone applies for a gun who had previously been denied the purchase.
“Because what do you know about someone who’s not allowed to have a gun and just went in and tried to buy one?” Sen. Coons asked. “They’re going to try and get it some other way and they’re probably not trying to get a gun for a good purpose.”