A growing number of observers of the 24th District congressional race are reflecting that the television campaign ads are making it the dirtiest such contest they’ve ever seen. Third-term incumbent Rep. John Katko, a former federal prosecutor, says after a long campaign it’s just the nature of it, unfortunately. He blames the bad vibes on outside groups stretching the truth.
Dana Balter, who most recently taught Citizenship and Policy at Syracuse University before taking time off to campaign, says she isn’t slinging any mud. Balter held a recent meet-and-greet at St. Lucy’s Church on the Near Westside, not a speech-making affair, but an opportunity to speak to individuals, in that neighborhood, particularly about the need for federal support to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria, but also about women’s rights, job creation and a $15 minimum wage. She says she’s running for Congress because she loves Central New York, where the sense of community is more than anywhere she’s been.
Katko is a member of the House of Representatives’ Problem Solving Caucus of 24 Democrats and 24 Republicans, working to reach across the aisle to break the gridlock in Congress. He is focusing a great deal of effort on the opioid epidemic.
Katko and Balter answered questions submitted by members of the Syracuse New Times’ editorial board, including publisher Bill Brod, editor-in-chief Bill DeLapp and news reporters Walt Shepperd, Renée Gadoua and Kira Maddox.
If the trade wars break out, do we stand to lose?
John Katko: Since at least World War II we have put up with unfair trade balances, we’ve always had a huge trade deficit and we’ve let people steal our copyrights and engage in currency manipulation. So it is high time we try to do something about it.
Now, sometimes you can take a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer, which I wish the president would do more of, but in the end we did get a better deal than NAFTA was for the United States. In this U.S. America Mexico Canada agreement, hopefully it will be ratified by Congress and we can move on.
Another Big Kahuna out there is China. For decades China has been stealing our trade secrets and getting our products and reverse-engineering them and then selling them, and they also have a lot of protectionist barriers for us getting into their markets. So are we playing a dangerous game? I’m very concerned about it. So if it continues on for a long time, I think the trade wars will hurt us. If we come to a good resolution relatively quickly, I think the short-term pain will be far outweighed by long-term gain.
We know that China and Turkey were dumping the steel rebar on our market at government-supported prices. So I testified before the International Trade Commission and we won the case. And why is it important for my district? Nucor steel (in Auburn). They’ve invested a lot more in their infrastructure and they’re hiring more and the business is absolutely booming because they have a level playing field.
Dana Balter: You could argue that we’re already in a trade war, and I think Donald Trump is working pretty diligently to escalate that conflict. We’ve already seen here in our district the detrimental effects of that policy. We saw immediately a significant effect on our soybean farmers. They lost about 20 percent of the value of their crops within two months, and that’s a huge loss. We’re talking about small family farms that operate on razor-thin margins, so I’m very worried about that impact locally.
But it is not going to stay contained just to our farming community, because escalating this trade war is going to make all the consumer goods that we purchase on a daily basis more expensive. And that means we’re seeing our health care costs go through the roof, we’re seeing gas prices go up. So I think it is reckless policy.
What is your opinion on the business regulatory environment: What’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and how does it come back home to Central New York?
Katko: I’ve heard again and again and again that small businesses, which comprise more than 90 percent of businesses in New York state, are crushed by over-regulation. So we had about 15 bills that clawed back regulations that were initiated within the last year of the Obama administration. From an environmental standpoint, we didn’t say “go ahead and destroy the environment,” we did say more common sense-like things about business and labor regulations and how we dealt with paperwork and oversight. We were getting regulated to death by the previous administration, and so we wanted to change that. What those regulations did was stunt our ability to compete on the world stage.
One small example that’s local here is Interstate 81. The regulatory burdens of just trying to just figure out what the new highway design is going to look like has been almost a decade-long process. And next year the draft environmental impact statement is going to come with three different versions and we hope finally we’re going to pick one. It’s crazy.
Balter: I think we tend to look at “regulations” as a dirty word in government, and I think that’s unfortunate. Government regulation is really important to not only the regular functioning of our daily lives, but to safety and security. What we don’t want to do is over-regulate, right? We don’t want to hamstring people and businesses; we need them to be able to thrive. We have to balance the safety and well-being of the public against the needs of companies and their ability to be flexible and responsive to the market.
One thing I was very upset to see this year was the rollback of Dodd-Frank regulations. I was very upset with members of my own party for supporting that. It is likely to send us down the path back to recession, which is the last thing that we need as the economy is picking up steam. I think we need to be really thoughtful and careful about how we choose to regulate and deregulate.
What would it take for the government to seriously engage the issue of poverty?
Katko: I saw poverty firsthand when I was a federal organized crime prosecutor for my last 15 or 16 years in Syracuse. When I walked up the back steps of a house in Syracuse and opened the door to talk to a witness, the amount of extreme poverty that I saw was jarring, and it’s mind-blowing what I saw little kids being involved with. I saw no support at home, kids are going to bed hungry, there’s nobody there to help with their homework. They were left on the streets because of their mom, usually a teenage mom, is not capable of taking care of herself, let alone a child. So he’s on the streets by 10 or 12, slinging dope for the gangs, and by eighth and ninth grade he’s fallen so far behind that he just waits until the magic age where he can drop out of school.
And so what do we do about it? I’m a very strong supporter of early intervention with childhood poverty. We plussed-up Early Head Start and a lot of school feeding programs, we plussed-up spending for Meals on Wheels; I’m a very big believer on Meals on Wheels because poverty isn’t just for kids, it’s for everybody. From a housing standpoint I fought to protect federal funding for affordable public housing and fought against the proposal to eliminate the community development block grant programs.
Can we do more? Yeah, but I also think a key component of that is the tax cuts. Because right now if you’re a family of four making $50,000 a year, the chances of you paying federal taxes any more are pretty slim, if not none. And it gives you another ability to help get these people up out of poverty.
Balter: We’re the 13th poorest city in the country, and beyond that dubious distinction, the highest concentration of poverty among black and Latino households in the entire country. That is not the kind of title that we want to hold. If we’re going to really tackle the issue of poverty, we have to address it from many different avenues, because it is not a simple problem. When you’re talking about a community like the city of Syracuse, you’re also talking about generational poverty, and it is an entrenched circumstance that results from a whole series of systemic issues that are in place.
I support having our minimum wage be a living wage, to raise it to $15 an hour, indexed to inflation. Right now far too many people work full time and are still living in poverty. Once we have those good jobs, we need to make sure that there’s transportation available for people to get to and from those jobs. This is one of the challenges we have in our region.
We have to deal with an education problem. As we see growth in high-tech economy jobs, infrastructure jobs and green technology jobs, skilled trades are going to become increasingly important. We need to focus some of our educational investments on vocational and technical training, on good post-secondary options for people who don’t want to go to college.
We need to address the crisis of affordable housing. And we’ve got to make sure that every kid in our community has access to high-quality education, because that’s their best chance at economic success later in life.
What’s the best way to approach the immigration situation?
Katko: I was at the forefront of perhaps my most disappointing experience in Congress. Myself and about 12 other Republicans got together over a five-week period concerning immigration reform. I’m the head of the moderate wing of the Republican Party and very proud of it; there’s 51 of us and I’ve represented their interests, and so the biggest issue for a lot of the conservative Republicans was border security.
Of course Trump’s always saying “Build a wall, build a wall,” so we have to have a more secure system, right? So we said, “You want $25 billion for the wall? You’re not gonna get a wall across the whole country, but we’re going to give you barriers and increase barriers where we need them, like California, which is screamin’ for a barrier with Tijuana.” We’re going to appropriate $5 billion a year over five years for electronic sensors, plussing-up security on the border, plussing-up judges to handle the cases and revamping the asylum claims.
So what about the Democrats’ biggest concern if you want this to be bipartisan? DACA kids, right? And so we said, “OK, all 1.8 million DACA kids would immediately have status.” And when the spending was done for the border within five years, they would start their path to citizenship.
So here’s what happened. The last week that the conservative wing of the party and two individuals in particular who are on Fox News every night praising the president started chirping in his ear. So the president gets very mixed messages that last week; it wasn’t until Thursday night or Friday morning when he finally realized, “Oh my God, this is a great bill. It gives us everything we want and takes care of the DACA situation,” so he came out to give a full-throated endorsement of it.
But it was too late: Only about 125 of the 245 members of the Republican Party voted for it. But the thing that disturbs me most of all is that not a single Democrat voted for it. So it’s very, very frustrating that politics got in the way. I think if the president got behind it earlier and we worked better with the other side and then they put down the politics instead of just oppose everything that the president is doing, I think we would have had immigration done.
Balter: There is no reason that we can’t have an immigration system that both protects our security and works for our economy, and at the same time treats people humanely. Our immigration system is pretty much broken all over the place, top to bottom, and we need a lot of changes to get it working better. We see huge challenges here in our district with the visa system because of our agricultural communities. I hear from farmers all the time who really struggle with trying to find enough employees for their farms. The seasonal visa system doesn’t work for dairy farms that aren’t seasonal farms. And the system doesn’t allow them to find full-time, year-round employment to support their families.
In order to figure out what the best approaches are or how to make those fixes, it’s really important to make sure the people at the table in the discussion include the people who are using the visa system. It doesn’t make any sense that you can go talk to any farmer and they can explain to you exactly what the problem is, and yet somehow the federal government hasn’t figured out how to fix it.
The U.S. Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh left a lot of people on both sides feeling more bitter and entrenched in their views. What can you do in Congress to help the country get past this?
Katko: There were no winners in the Kavanaugh hearing. Both sides lost and both sides lost terribly. For women that are sexually assaulted, who in their right mind is going to come forward? Which is terrible; I’ve worked a lot with Vera House on this issue and talked about it. On the other hand, who would want to go into government leadership? We don’t know what happened, I believe they both believe what they were saying, and the truth may lie somewhere in between. And look what’s happened in their lives: Kavanaugh’s name has been destroyed, his kids are threatened and need bodyguards and so does she (Christine Blasey Ford).
So I’ve got to continue to do what I’ve been doing, which is very, very difficult in this environment, and that is to lead by example. I said before I went into Congress that it has to be bipartisan, that I don’t even submit a bill in the Senate without a Democrat’s name on it. Because of that, I’ve been very successful, oddly enough, with bipartisanship. I’ve had 33 bills passed the House in less than four years and 20 signed into law: 10 by Obama and 10 by Trump.
Balter: I think the sort of hyper-partisan and rancorous environment that we have now is the result of a decade or more of moving in this direction. I don’t think the Kavanaugh confirmation process caused it, I think it is a symptom of it.
As a member of Congress, my focus would be twofold: one, working in Congress with colleagues. I think the way we need to move forward together is by beginning our conversations on the issues from a point of agreement, finding the places where we agree and building from there. When we agree with each other, even if it’s on a small item, when we agree with each other, it allows us to build some trust and respect, and that has to be the foundation of our work, otherwise we’re not going to get anywhere. We need to make progress in Congress, and we also need to do that to model that kind of behavior for everybody else.
The second side of it is what I would do here in the district and how I would interact with constituents. I think the only way to come out of this hyper-partisan and toxic environment that we have now is to renew our ability to engage in civil discourse. We don’t listen to each other anymore. That’s why I am really committed to things like open town hall meetings. My hope is that the people who show up to that room are not all people that support me, they’re not all people that agree with me. If you have conflict constructively, if you disagree respectfully, you actually end up making better decisions.
On your Hoffman hot dog, do you prefer mustard or ketchup?
Katko: Spicy mustard, definitely, not yellow. And with chocolate milk!
Balter: I’m probably going to get a lot of flack for this, but I’m an “all” on the hot dog. I like mustard, ketchup, relish, onions, the whole thing. If it’s going to be only one topping, it’s got to be sauerkraut.
Do you have any favorite movies dealing with politics?
Katko: I don’t have a favorite politics movie in mind. In my previous life my job was so serious and I saw so much death and destruction, so I like comedies because I like to laugh. My favorite movies include Dumb and Dumber; I love Jim Carrey and I can recite every line. I also love Stripes, Animal House and Caddyshack.
Balter: The first political movie I ever saw was Mr Smith Goes to Washington, and I am forever the optimist and idealist, so that one just goes right to the heart of me. If I can expand the genre. The West Wing is my favorite television show of all time. What it embodies for me is sort of the best of what I think government can be. Regardless of your political affiliation, or your perspective on the issues, at its heart it was about a group of passionate, intelligent, dedicated people who devoted every ounce of themselves to working for the betterment of their country. It gives me goosebumps, it makes me cry, it makes me stand up and cheer, it is sort of the embodiment of everything that I believe public service is.