Susan Vento lost her husband — longtime U.S. Congressman Bruce Vento — to mesothelioma 13 years ago, but she never lost his passion to fight for what was right.
She continues his work today, honoring his legacy.
Vento has reignited her battle against the asbestos companies and the big business establishments that continue to push legislation on state and federal levels that aims to erode the rights of individuals seeking justice through the legal system.
She is back calling legislators, writing letters and sending e-mails. Vento is also giving speeches, raising awareness to the threat, and toiling like she has throughout the past 13 years, making sure the working class her husband once represented is not forgotten now.
Representative Bruce Vento of Minnesota, a Democrat who served 24 years in the U.S. House, died in October 2000 — just eight months after being diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
“It’s my way of honoring his life, and the work that he did,” Susan Vento told Asbestos.com this week from her home in Minnesota. “I’m as motivated now as I ever have been. The old adage, ‘time heals all wounds’ might be true, but the wounds don’t go away. Once your life is touched by this [mesothelioma], you can’t let go. It’s a horrible way for anyone to die, but for me, it would be more horrible to just walk away now.”
Bruce Vento came from a large and proud first-generation Italian-German family. He was first elected to Congress in 1976. Vento loved being a champion for the working class and the environment. He helped author the groundbreaking Homeless Assistance Act, which was retitled in his name after his death.
His wife is a former elementary school teacher and former contract negotiator for the statewide teachers union in Minnesota. Like her husband, she learned to stand up for what she believed.
Susan Vento says his name and service in Congress has given her a forum that many asbestos fighters and patient advocates don’t have. And she doesn’t take that lightly.
“I consider what I do a privilege, but also a responsibility,” she said. “I’ve learned that I’m more resilient than I thought. I was proud of him, and what he did. Before he died, this was our battle together. And it still is.”
She also serves as spokesperson for the Asbestos Cancer Victims Rights Campaign, a national advocacy movement designed to help protect the rights of those harmed by asbestos exposure.
Vento is especially concerned now with House Resolution 982, titled “Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency (FACT) Act.” It is being pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Georgia Pacific, which has more than 300 manufacturing companies spread throughout the U.S., Europe and South America.
The FACT Act would require more transparency when filing claims with asbestos-company trusts, but only for victims and families affected by the asbestos disease and none from the companies responsible for causing the health issues. It would make it considerably more difficult and time consuming for mesothelioma patients to be compensated by negligent companies.
Vento worries that when the partial government shutdown soon ends, and the debt ceiling debate cools — and many people relax — the FACT Act quietly could work its way through Congress and become legislation.
The House Judiciary Committee in the spring voted 17-14 to pass this bill to the House, where it likely will be taken up later this year. Opponents of the bill had hoped it would die this past summer.
“It’s on the back burner, but once the government reopens for business as usual, things could move quickly and surprisingly. They didn’t put that kind of effort last spring into this bill for it to not go anywhere,” she said. “This is not the time for us to relax. This is a time to ramp up. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Vento and other opponents of the bill were disappointed and frustrated last spring that they received no opportunity to offer testimony for House members before the Judiciary Committee passed the bill.
“It’s a bad bill, completely one-sided,” she said. “It requires unbelievable disclosure on the part of the victims. It talks about transparency that would require all kinds of personal information on a public website, but nothing on the part of the asbestos companies. My husband would be saddened by the actions of his colleagues on this one.”
There is similar legislation being pushed, or already passed, at the state level by the same groups, further imposing burdens for asbestos victims trying to receive compensation. Ohio recently enacted a law requiring victims to work through the trust system before their case could be heard in court. Mesothelioma advocacy groups believe the trend has become a major threat to the legal rights of asbestos victims.
Her work now is more important than ever.
Vento was part of a move in 2003 and 2006 that defeated similar federal legislation that would have restricted the rights of individuals. It’s a fight that seemingly has no end.
Mesothelioma is diagnosed in an estimated 3,000 Americans annually, and almost a third of those are military veterans, who have been disproportionately exposed to asbestos while serving their country. A large portion is occupational exposure. For example, Bruce Vento was exposed in his 20s when he was working part-time in a factory producing asbestos products.
Although progress in therapy is being made, there is no established treatment that can stop the growth of mesothelioma. The average life expectancy after diagnosis remains in the 9- to 18-month range. Asbestos use has been reduced dramatically in recent decades, but it continues to be used commercially. More than 50 countries in the world have banned its use. The toxic mineral is not banned in the U.S.
“I would love to wake up in the morning and read that researchers have come up with successful ways to treat mesothelioma, and that legislation has been passed to ban asbestos,” she said. “But until that time, we will continue to fight.”