In one of his first extended public interviews, John Katko talks with Grant Reeher on the Campbell Conversations. Katko is the former federal prosecutor challenging Dan Maffei for the 24th Congressional district seat this fall. In a wide-ranging discussion, Katko addresses whether he’s a moderate or a conservative, how he thinks about entitlements and taxes, Obamacare, and the level of dysfunction in the current Congress. He also discusses the role of money in the campaign.
Grant Reeher (GR): Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, my guest today is John Katko. He’s the Republican, Conservative, and Independence Party challenger to Congressman Dan Maffei in the 24th District this November. He recently stepped down from a Federal prosecutor position in order to run.
A note about this interview: I had hoped to have both Mr. Katko and Dan Maffei on the program at the same time. I originally invited them to appear during a week when Congress was not in active session. I told each candidate that in the event that only one of them accepted my invitation I would go forward with an individual interview.
Mr. Katko accepted my invitation but unfortunately Dan Maffei declined, without citing a reason.
John, welcome to the program and thanks for being willing to talk to me with or without your opponent.
John Katko (JK): Thanks Grant! I appreciate you having me on.
GR: You’re a lawyer. Give me your “brief” on why you think voters should not return Dan Maffei to office.
JK: It starts with jobs, the economy, failed leadership and the failure really on both sides of the aisle in Congress to address looming major issues, including fixing the entitlement programs and fixing the budgets, and more importantly the debt that is crippling our country. What has he done? What has he done in regards to any of the issues I just cited, especially the debt? He has done nothing. That’s a microcosm of what the Democrats in general are doing – they are not addressing that eight hundred pound elephant in the room, and that is the debt.
GR: What are the most significant policy differences between you and Congressman Maffei?
JK: I am more of a pragmatist. I think you have to address the big structural issues, and I think he doesn’t want to do that. I think he either thinks it’s too hard, or he just simply doesn’t have the stomach for it. But you know the most important things in life that you do are often the most difficult.
When I took on the gang task force when I saw gang issues in this city, [people said] it’s insurmountable, and try to bring together multiple agencies to work on it, was not going to happen. I made it happen. And I think I can take that same mentality to Washington and say, look, you know the Democrats and Republicans haven’t been getting along lately. I have to go down and make that happen. You have to stop calling each other names, stop trying to just toe the party line and sit down and have a reasonable discussion on how to address this. Any rational politician will tell you that the debt is a huge issue in this country, but nobody has an answer to it. Sitting down together is the way to do it.
GR: If elected, what kinds of issue areas would you put most of your attention on? Would it be the debt--would that be your primary issue?
JK: At least bringing light to it, yes, absolutely because that really is the future of our country.
The other things that I would like to work on are veterans issues for one, which is a major issue in this country and is becoming a bigger issue, and several other things, but the debt is primary, job one.
GR: What committees might you try to get placed on?
JK: Based on my background I would definitely love to get on the Judiciary Committee. I have twenty years in the Department of Justice. There are many things that I have seen that I would like to change, but I also would like to get in on something that has to do with the budget or appropriations, to try and have a voice in that for Central New York.
GR: What are the specific things you might want to push in order to attack the debt? You’ve only got a few mechanisms here -- there are taxes, there are deeper spending cuts, so what are you thinking there?
JK: I think you have to look at everything in spending and look at it in the light of, do we need this? I spent twenty years working with the Department of Justice and I can see firsthand that there are areas in which we can be leaner and meaner and save some money. The hard question is, and another thing that my opponent doesn’t want to discuss or debate, is the entitlement programs. I want them to be here for future generations, and I think it is completely irresponsible that no one is taking a look at them. We need to fix them going forward, so that our future generations will have the advantage of the same programs that we have.
Everybody that I talk to in their 30’s or 40’s, or even my age in their early 50’s -- most of them are banking on the fact that Social Security is no longer going to be there, and we don’t want that to happen.
GR: So you have brought up a few “third rails” in American politics: You’ve mentioned your openness to thinking about the entitlement programs. The other one of course is taxes. So are you open to thinking about different kinds of revenue sources that might help to fix this problem?
JK: I am never going to say never to anything, but I don’t think that it should even be remotely discussed unless we’re in a crisis mode. I don’t want it to be said that at the end of this discussion I meant to say higher taxes. No way! I think that has always been the easy way out. The hard way out is to roll up our sleeves like our forefathers did and make the tough decisions.
And as far as the “third rail” goes with entitlements, that’s one of the problems I have with politics. Every time we say fix entitlements, everyone says, “Oh my god, you might throw grandma out in the street and let her starve to death.” Well that’s ridiculous. My parents are on social programs. They are on social security, they have Medicare. I want it there for them and I don’t want it to be reversed for them. We are very smart people as a country; we can find ways to fix it together, but not separately.
GR: You’ve never held elected office before. You have never worked in or served in a legislature. Why do you think you would be effective in this role?
JK: One of the problems with our current system of government is that too many people are making politics a career. When you rely on being a representative of your people as your career, I think you make decisions that are ultimately self-serving. I don’t think that is good for the country and quite frankly, I think my opponent does that. I’m not that, I have had my career. I want to go down to Washington for the right reasons. I want to serve for as long as they need me and I make that decision based on what the people need and not on what I need.
GR: Can you give me an example or two of the decisions that you think that Congressman Maffei has made that you think might have been self-serving?
JK: Sure, he moved to Washington. He lives there. I would never do that, that’s one.
GR: Anything else?
JK: I think that a lot of times he votes based on pressures from his party and you see that on his handling of Obamacare. He is on record that he never read the bill before he voted for it, which to me is the ultimate irresponsibility. Once the bill was passed, he saw what has happened and some of its impact in Central New York and he started to run from it. He is moving to repeal portions of the very bill he voted for. After he saw that Welch Allyn lost 200 jobs.
GR: How well do you think the Republican Party in the House of Representatives currently functions?
JK: Part of the problems in congress are at their feet too, and there is no question about that. Both sides are wrong for not sitting down with each other; there is no question about it. I happen to think that the leadership in this country, the real failure, is at the top. President Obama is a very polarizing figure and basically, it is his agenda or forget it. And I look at two well-respected presidents in the not too distant past, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. They both had strong people on the other side. Clinton had Newt Gingrich and Reagan had O’Neill. Tip O’Neill and Reagan were titans in their parties. They found a way to get along and they found it through leadership and so did Clinton and so did Gingrich. We don’t have that now. It starts at the top. The Democratic and Republican sides are at a gridlock in Washington, and neither one have clean hands in it.
GR: The Maffei campaign is already painting you as Tea Party-ish. So where are you? Would you consider yourself to be a moderate Republican?
JK: I don’t want to give myself a label. I am a fiscal conservative. I think I am basically a social conservative, but I am also a pragmatist. By that, I mean, I want to get the job done. One of Ronald Reagan’s famous sayings is, “I’ll take 60 percent now and I’ll keep working on the other 40 percent.” That’s a good way to go in, a good attitude to go into congress with.
And about my opponent trying to call me a Tea Partier: He is trying to be divisive, and that is a good example of him not wanting to really engage in the issues. He is trying to label me as some Tea Party conservative. I have never said I was a Tea Partier, no one has ever said I was a Tea Partier, except him. It is really irresponsible for him to try and do that type of labeling, and it doesn’t serve the public at all.
GR: Let me try this again: Richard Hanna and Marie Buerkle. Which one are you closer to there?
JK: I don’t know. There are qualities to both of them that I like and there are qualities to both of them that I don’t agree with, so I’m not going to pigeon-hole myself.
GR: Now, you mentioned pragmatism several times. The pundits are putting a very high probability on the Senate going over to a Republican majority this fall. So let’s just imagine that that happens. Will you enlist in another set of efforts with your party colleagues to roll back Obamacare?
JK: I don’t know if you say roll back. Obamacare is a mess, and the ten to eight million people that are in Obamacare -- six million of those are people that had their insurance policies cancelled when Obamacare went into effect. So it is nowhere near the raging success that they said. Why is it that Obama on his own has made a decision not to implement the mandate for employers to provide insurance? Why did he delay that until after the elections? He sees a ticking time bomb for small businesses. There are a lot of good parts about Obamacare. Every American should have health insurance. If we could make it happen – absolutely. If up to twenty six year olds have their [parents’] insurance, great! There are some good parts of it. But quite frankly it was so thrown together, and was so ill conceived, that I am not sure if it can be fixed.
And I would like to sit with both sides and be honest, bipartisan effort to find a replacement for it that works. I’m not saying throw it out and forget about it, let’s find something that works.
GR: So let’s imagine you could have a conversation in congress that would result in some kind of significant change. You know right now that it is going to get vetoed by the president. And that veto is not going to be overturned. So that just seems like an exercise in pointlessness.
JK: Yeah, you say that but I think that enough of the Democrats are running away from Obamacare as an issue in this election as it is. That you need ten more votes, right? I think it is ten to overturn the majority in this. You need 60 votes, I believe it is.
GR: You are talking about getting something through the Senate?
JK: Overcoming the veto. So at first I don’t subscribe to this thought that there are some Democrats who would cross party lines to do this. And it is incumbent upon us as leaders to get a bill that everyone supports, instead of having one like this that is just a mess.
GR: The most recent reports of recent fundraising that I have seen show you trailing the congressman by quite a large margin. If outside money pours into this race again like it did in the last two elections, that kind of spending could be much larger than the internal money that either of you would raise. But I imagine that the concern for your campaign is that if you don’t raise enough money yourself, early on, then that outside money won’t ever come in to this race. That is a bit of a Catch-22 for you. How are you dealing with that?
JK: We have a great financing team. Our finance chairman worked for [Congressman Jim Walsh]. We have an unbelievable experienced amount of people on it. And then over the next six weeks we are going to have a tremendous number of high quality fund-raisers. The last week alone I took in $50,000 in donations. So we are going to hit our mark and here is what is important about that: The Republican National Committee has targeted our race as one of the top races in the country. And we are on what’s called “on the radar,” which means that we are definitely a race to look at.
And if we get a certain benchmark again by June then we [could be] what they call a “young gun,” which means we are at the top amount of support from the national party, and from leaders all over the country. But make no mistake about it -- we are doing this on local money unlike our opponent. If you go down the FEC filing list to see my percentage of money coming from local people, as opposed to national people, it’s a stunning difference.
Mr. Maffei’s campaign has bought people from out of state and his campaign manager is from Georgia. Our entire campaign is Syracuse and homegrown and that is going to help us.
GR: In the last election Dan Maffei only did two debates. I noticed in his press release this time, in agreeing to debates with you, he used the phrase “televised debate.” That doesn’t leave very many opportunities. How are you going to try to get him to do more public things, where you are both there and you can interact with each other?
JK: We’re just going to have to keep asking him. I think the hallmark of our democracy is fair, open and honest debate. It has been that way since our country was born and I think it is really tragic that he is not interested in fair, honest, and open debate, and I don’t know why. And I think that is a real problem for him. It is not a problem for me because I will talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere. You have to have a dialogue. You don’t have to scream at each other. But how can the American people make a choice if they don’t have the ability to size up the candidates side by side? And the fact that he doesn’t want to appear with me probably is a good indication of how he feels about standing side by side with me and letting people compare us. And not even debates -- let’s sit down and have a cup of coffee or a beer and talk, and let people size us up. Why this is such a big hurdle? Why wouldn’t you do that? Don’t you want the American people to have some faith that you can handle a little heat?
GR: What is the title of the chapter of life that you’re currently living?
JK: My teenage boys are driving me nuts.
GR: What’s your worst trait?
JK: My worst trait is that I don’t even need caffeine and I have a lot of energy. Just ask everybody in my office.
GR: What professional or creative achievement in your life so far has surprised you the most?
JK: Well, I would have to say my work in helping to create the gang task force and all the success it has had in Syracuse. I never in my wildest dreams thought that we would be that successful in dealing with the gang problem in Syracuse. I am forever proud of that and I am eternally grateful for all the great people that I have worked with in that job over the years.
GR: That was John Katko. John thanks so much for talking with me.
JK: Thanks. I hope you will have me back.
GR: Well, note again that I will attempt to have both candidates together on a future program.