This November's Congressional elections may be the most important midterms in a generation. This week on the Campbell Conversations, host Grant Reeher talks to Dana Balter, the Democratic Party's endorsed candidate to challenge Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus) for central New York's 24th Congressional District seat. They discuss her campaign, her policy positions, and her case against Katko.
Note: The first audio file is the full broadcast version. The second audio file is an extra 13 minutes of the conversations that did not make it into the broadcast version.
Reeher: Let me start with the basic core question, I think, for a challenger. Elections are about making choices, and you’re running against John Katko. So summarize the critical case that you’ll be making against Congressman Katko’s tenure in Congress. Why shouldn’t voters in that district reelect him in November?
Balter: I think that one of the main functions or responsibilities of a representative is to be accessible to the people that they represent and to listen to those people…I think that is the core of the job. And one of my frustrations as a voter and a resident in this district is that my congressional representative has been virtually inaccessible to me. I think that John Katko has abdicated one of his core responsibilities as a congressperson by not opening himself up to free-flowing communication from his constituents, the fact that he won’t meet with us in public, the fact that he doesn’t ask for our input before casting votes on really, really important issues. My experience shows that people all across this district are really frustrated by that, are fed up with it and are ready for something new. [They] want somebody who is going to show up, who’s going to listen and who’s going to advocate on their behalf rather than following the lead of corporate donors and party leadership, but put the needs of residents first.
Reeher: You would’ve voted differently on the tax bill—presumably, you would’ve voted no on that…Are there other significant votes where you would have voted differently?
Balter: One of the things that Congressman Katko has done recently is not only vote for but co-sponsor the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act. I am incredibly troubled by that vote …[The Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act] is basically the idea that people who have concealed carry permits in other states are allowed to conceal carry weapons in New York state regardless of New York state’s laws. So, it has essentially erased the bottom on gun safety. And it means that the least restrictive or the most lax rules hold. It takes away from a state’s ability to make its own safety rules and laws. That sort of fundamentally goes up against the idea of supporting states’ rights, but it’s also a very significant safety concern…I’m very concerned about his environmental votes. He has voted in locked step with Paul Ryan and the GOP to roll back environmental protections that the Obama administration put in place…Protecting our environment is something that is incredibly important for our kids and our grandkids…particularly in a place like upstate New York where we have all of these spectacular resources…We should be doing everything we can to protect those things. I am also concerned by his repeated attempts to defund Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood is an incredibly important community resource. We see in communities like ours, particularly here in Syracuse, tremendous numbers of low-income women depending on Planned Parenthood for healthcare…We can’t eliminate that important source of healthcare in our communities.
Reeher: Let’s go back to the tax bill. You had said that it will cost people here in this district money. Could you explain that in a little more detail because there are different components of the tax bill? And one of the congressman’s arguments in favor of it when he was explaining his vote was he was making the claim that on balance, when you look at the deductions that are going to be raised, and you look at the child tax credit…that on balance, it was going to help most of the families here.
Balter: I think it’s interesting that you characterize his argument that way because what I’ve heard him say is focus on specific components and talk about how a couple of individual components on this bill are going to be beneficial for families in central New York. I think that what he doesn’t do is take a good look at the whole bill on balance and understand what the overall effects are going to be. So, it is true that there are some families in the middle class who will see modest benefits from this bill in the short term, and I’m sure that they’re going to be very happy about that, but when we look over the long term on this bill, the overall benefits absolutely do not accrue to middle class families or working families. The vast majority of the benefits of this bill…go to the very top of the income distribution…Another thing that I’m really concerned about with this tax bill is the incentives that it gives to corporations…One of the things that the congressman and Paul Ryan and many members of the GOP have used as an explanation for why this bill was good for us is the notion that it’s going to bring jobs. But what they don’t talk about is the provision in the bill that does exactly the opposite. This bill slashes tax rates on production overseas to such a degree that it incentivizes not only large, multinational corporations, but also small- and medium-sized businesses to move their production overseas so that they pay less taxes. That has the effect of shipping already-existing American jobs offshore…and that is a tremendous problem with this bill. We need tax policy that puts the needs of working families at the center, not as an afterthought.
Reeher: When rankings of independents in Congress are done, Congressman Katko comes out near the top for a Republican. And at the end of his first term, for example, he was ranked as the eighth most independent Republican member. You have linked him to Paul Ryan several times in what you’ve said already. What is your take on his independence?
Balter: I don’t see a lot of evidence of that independence…What I do see is that Congressman Katko has voted with Donald Trump and his agenda more than 91 percent of the time. And I don’t think Donald Trump’s agenda could ever be characterized as anything close to middle of the road or reasonable. I am really concerned about a representative who displays that kind of allegiance and an unwillingness to criticize when necessary. There are a lot of things that have been happening in this country, both in terms of actual issues or policies being advanced and in terms of rhetoric, that are really harmful. And I think it is more important now than it has ever been for our elected representatives to be willing to stand up and say “no.” John Katko doesn’t do that, and silence is complicity…As a voter and a constituent of his, I have been incredibly disappointed in his unwillingness to stand up for what’s right.
Reeher: Let me just push you a little bit on that last point in terms of his relationship with the president. He was quite open and quite critical of Donald Trump as a candidate and has been quite critical of President Trump in terms of his style, but also some of the policies. He is a Republican. He’s in a majority party in Congress. You’ve got to be able to get things done, and so there is a reasonable expectation that as a Republican, he wouldn’t be spending all of his time in the resistance. Parse out why you think from where he is, he’s really let the district down.
Balter: I’m not asking Congressman Katko to pick up signs and march in the street and say, “I’m resisting Donald Trump.” What I’m asking from Congressman Katko is to be a voice for the 24th district on issues here that people really care about. For example, when the president goes on television or goes on Twitter…and conflates the issue of immigration with national security in such a way that he is trying to foment fear and xenophobia in this country, I expect my representative to say, “Let’s have a reasonable conversation about national security. Let’s talk about what it is and what it isn’t.”…There is a lot of intentional chaos created by this administration, and the people who live at home who are trying to make it through their day-to-day lives feel a tremendous amount of anxiety about that. And I think it is incumbent upon our electives to use their voices to tell us where they stand and to be a bulwark against that chaos for their communities. And that doesn’t mean being part of the resistance. That means being an honest broker of American values.
Reeher: We were talking about independents before we were talking about John Katko’s independence from the Republicans. Let me ask you about yours. Could you give me a couple of significant policy positions on which you differ from…Democratic mainstream? Where would you differ from those?
Balter: One policy that I feel very strongly about is healthcare policy. And I am a supporter of Medicare for All. I think that we need to have a single-payer system in this country for a number of reasons. One of the most significant is that it’s the smart economic policy…If we had single payer, which separated healthcare from employment, small businesses would be able to reinvest those resources in their businesses…It would also free up people who want to be entrepreneurs who are afraid to leave their jobs because leaving your employment means losing your health insurance. If employment and health insurance were not connected, they would be free to start their own ventures. And we have to support small business growth because that’s the engine of our economy. Single-payer healthcare is a smart economic choice for our country. It’s something I feel very strongly about.
Reeher: The example you just gave me…is both one that does have a lot of prominent supporters…but it is an example where your position is…to the left of the Obamacare position—blend of public and private…Is that the way I should understand how you relate to the Democratic Party? Are you on the more progressive wing? I know elected officials and candidates don’t like being labeled, but it is a shorthand that helps people try to sort it out.
Balter: I don’t like being labeled. And the reason I don’t is—it’s not a strategic reason—it’s because I don’t think the labels apply. The danger I think in using labels is that everybody has their own idea of what those labels mean. And so if you use them as a shorthand, what have I found, is that it’s a very quick way to lead people to misunderstand the point.
Reeher: So let me try it this way if I could…Give me an example of where your position would be considered more conservative than the mainstream Democratic position. Where would you differ there?
Balter: I’m not sure where my position would be more conservative…For me, one of the things that I think sort of brings me to the other end of the political spectrum is not only my willingness but my insistence on working together. Both because of the way our government is structured and because of the polarization that we see right now, the only way forward—the only way we can make progress in this country—is by working together…the old reaching across the aisle. As far as I’m concerned, that has to be the primary focus of our lawmakers once they are in office.
Reeher: Give me a couple examples if you could of where you would see, if you were elected, good opportunities to work with Republicans on particular issues. Where do you see where you as a member would be working across the aisle with Republicans and also, to extend the question, with President Trump?
Balter: Let’s stick with healthcare for a minute. I said I support Medicare for all, which I do. I think that is the ultimate goal, but it’s going to take us quite a while to get there because there’s a lot of work to do before we can get there. In the meantime, we need to protect and fix the [Affordable Care Act]. So one of the things that came out of our national conversation in this last year is an acknowledgement by all parties that there are things in the ACA that need to be addressed that aren’t working as well as they can. I think that’s great ground for working together…I also think if we look to the conversation on gun safety right now, I think that we have a tremendous opportunity for real bipartisan legislation to institute universal background checks and close purchasing loopholes, something that has 97 percent support among the population and tremendous support among both sides of the aisle in Congress…Infrastructure is another area of policy that is something that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are really interested in moving forward on. And there should be lots of ways that we can move forward together…I think that there’s a long list of issues like that.
Reeher: The incumbent, Congressman Katko, has passed a number of initiatives in his first couple terms, more than most other members did at his level of seniority. And that has been something that he has pushed when he has talked about his tenure. One ranking of freshman members of Congress after his first term had him as the most effective new member of Congress. How do you assess that claim? How do you assess that characterization of him?
Balter: I appreciate that level of commitment and that work that he’s done. To me, it is not the only measure that matters. And what I’m really concerned about is not necessarily the number of pieces of legislation that my representative works on; It’s the issues that my representative chooses to tackle and where my representative stands on the issues that matter the most to our communities. Again, given the chaos of everything that is happening this year, I’m concerned that Congressman Katko has been absent on some of the biggest issues and even the issues where he claims independence from his party, like healthcare. He voted against the AHCA, the healthcare bill in the house, and uses that as a signal of his independence from his party. But then he voted for the tax bill, which effectively guts the [ACA], after promising his constituents that he would not repeal the ACA without a good replacement. And while technically the tax bill isn’t a repeal, it accomplishes virtually the same thing. On top of that, when the healthcare debate was going on in the house, Congressman Katko, who wants to be a champion for mental health, was nowhere saying, “Mental health parity needs to be in our healthcare law.”…Those are parts of the picture that are incredibly important to me more than numbers of bills.
Reeher: Import tariffs have been in the news recently…Leaders in your party in recent years have become more protectionist than they were before. What are your views on tariffs and free trade and protectionism?
Balter: I am concerned about a protectionist approach not just in terms of trade, but as an overall perspective on foreign policy and our engagement with the world. I think that protectionism as a strategy is not a good strategy…Donald Trump came out and said, “We should have a trade war. Trade wars are good.” Trade wars are not good. They serve to alienate our allies. They give other countries like China the opportunity to become dominant in markets, and they end up hurting more American consumers than they help. So I have a lot of concern about that general approach to the policy.