Incumbent Democrat Dan Maffei and Republican challenger John Katko are seeking to represent New York’s 24th District in the House of Representatives. Last month, the New Times invited both candidates to a joint interview; Katko agreed within 24 hours, Maffei has yet to get back to us three weeks later. We’re no longer holding our breath waiting for his reply. However, they both participated in a Campbell Conversation, and this week and next the New Times will publish extended transcripts of that interview. The first part focuses on the campaign and international issues.
Grant Reeher (GR): I’ve talked to a lot of people about this program, and to a person they all wanted me to ask about the campaign itself … how it’s being conducted and, in particular, how negative and character-based it has become. A Maxwell School graduate student and I have looked through the available online information on your television ads, and we accumulated them. We divided them up by whether they came from the campaigns and the candidates, or from outside sources, including national party committees. And we looked at the attack-type of ads. There were a few coming directly from the Maffei campaign, but none that we could find directly from the Katko campaign. I am going to play for each of you the ad that we felt was the most extreme, and then I have some questions to ask you about them. We will start with an ad for Rep. Dan Maffei, which came from the campaign and the candidate himself. This is an ad about John Katko’s prosecution of former Oswego Mayor John Gosek. Here is the audio:
I’m Dan Maffei and I approved this message.
Narrator: John Katko: attacks so false, they failed to fact check. The truth: Dan Maffei fought for critical funding to fight terrorism and strengthen the border. But Katko put politics ahead of our safety. A Republican mayor faced 30 years in prison for soliciting children, but Katko stepped in and persuaded the Republican judge to give the mayor a shorter sentence. John Katko puts politics ahead of us.
GR: Congressman Maffei, what message are you trying to convey with this ad?
Dan Maffei (DM): Well, two things. One is obviously we had been attacked on frankly my patriotism. The charge had been that somehow I allowed terrorists to come into this country and wasn’t fighting for this country. That is absolutely false, so we responded to that.
And then, our records do matter. The comparison of the two records: I have a record in Congress; Mr. Katko has a record as a prosecutor. In this particular case, he went to lower than the minimum sentence for a mayor convicted of really, I mean if you read the court records, extraordinarily heinous things about trying to set up having a relationship with 15-year-olds. We think that’s relevant, because it’s an instance where it’s a Republican mayor and he is working on not getting him even the minimum sentence. And frankly, I think he maybe shouldn’t be on the streets today. He has been on the streets, by the way, longer than he was in jail.
GR: What I don’t understand about the ad as I listen to it is the notion of a political association and putting politics above safety. What is the political advantage being leveraged here? Are you saying Mr. Katko wanted to be lenient on a sex offender and used a federal Republican judge to do that?
DM: I don’t know the answers. Mr. Katko is here, why don’t you ask him why he did, why he gave him less than the minimum sentence?
GR: No, I want to talk about the message here, because there is something that’s clearly being communicated to the listener. When I listen to this ad and I watch it, this is what I am getting. And so what I am asking you is, are you saying that Mr. Katko wanted to be lenient on a sex offender and used a Republican federal judge to do that? What I don’t understand is the political association that’s being put forward here.
DM: OK, I’m not sure if it was. Look, I don’t know if it was a federal judge, I don’t know if it was the defense attorney that Mr. Katko was very, very close to, and has already sent a letter out on his behalf in this political campaign, I am not sure.
But what I am sure of is what happened. This mayor, this corrupt mayor, got less than the minimum sentence for these things, and that does compromise our public safety. And there are a lot of questions about that that remain unanswered.
GR: Neither this ad we just heard, nor the ad about Mr. Katko’s gun, nor other negative ads that you have run, as of this morning, are on your campaign website, where the other positive ads can be found. Why have you excluded those ads from your site?
DM: This is a matter of political strategy. I have no — I don’t even decide exactly what goes on my campaign website, in terms of the ads. I thought they were all on it, but it really doesn’t matter what ones go on the website.
GR: Doesn’t it though? If you are going to run this and run it over and over again?
DM: OK, well, we will put them on the website, that’s fine. Like I said, I thought they were all on the website. There is no reason why. Clearly everybody sees the ads. We follow the regulations on saying who it is.
At the end of the day, this campaign is about two things: It’s about who has the vision to help the economy and to build the middle class in Central New York, and it’s about the comparison of our two records. You are telling me … I guess, I don’t know if you are telling me by implicating that these ads shouldn’t be run. And I do think that is the implication here, or at least from your students who talked about it, you are saying that Mr. Katko’s record as a prosecutor, his record of not following the standard procedures in terms of securing his firearm, that those things aren’t relevant. I disagree. I think those things are very relevant.
GR: No, I’m not saying they shouldn’t be run. That wasn’t the presumption of the question. The presumption of the question was we have these things out there, (the ads are) the primary way that voters learn about the two of you and so I want to have a conversation about what it is you are trying to say.
DM: Yes, the website is a secondary way. I will have all the ads on the website. I admit I didn’t realize that those particular ads were not on the website. I thought they all were.
GR: Mr. Katko, the question for you on this is, can you explain the reason for the plea deal in this case and whether it was unusual in some way?
John Katko (JK): Absolutely, and first and foremost I want to note that I have been a federal prosecutor for 20 years. And I have handled every manner of highly sensitive and the most difficult cases. In El Paso, Texas, going after cartel-level drug traffickers, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, going after the most violent people on that island and perhaps the most violent people in the world. In fact, when I was in Puerto Rico, I tried the biggest murder case in the Department of Justice at that time, this side of the McVeigh bombing case. And then I came back to Syracuse and dedicated my life to crime fighting and making the streets safer for our kids and for our families.
GR: But what about this particular plea deal?
JK: I am laying the ground work, because the implication which Mr. Maffei did not answer was that he was clearly trying to say that there is some sort of corrupt deal here. And he even mentions the term quote “Republican judge,” who happens to be appointed for life, has been on the bench for 40 years, has never had his integrity questioned until this commercial. And so this case was a standard case in how you prosecute cases.
Mr. Maffei has three advanced degrees, he is no dummy, he knew exactly what he was doing and he knew exactly what he was trying to imply: that there was something untoward in what I did. And that’s unfortunate, because that case was an incredibly difficult case. We had a wiretap on (Gosek), we could not prove that he had ever had sexual relations with underage girls, and thank God that didn’t happen. So what we had was an individual who was talking about it on the telephone, simply talking about it. He went to prison for three years and was removed from mayor, listed on the National Registry as a sex offender for talking about it. We introduced an undercover and basically a sting operation, after he showed his predisposition to it, we introduced a sting operation and we arrested him as he was walking into a hotel room where he thought he would be having sex with a 15-year-old girl, or two 15-year-old girls.
Mr. Maffei’s ad said he was facing 30 years. Mr. Maffei is smart enough to know that under the federal sentencing guidelines, he was facing no longer than five years. Statutory maximum sentence was 30 years. He knows that sentencing guidelines drive the cases. So he was facing a five-year case. He cooperated with us, which is a standard procedure in federal cases. And he cooperated with us to lead us to other investigations in the Oswego area. And I can’t say anything other than subsequently to that, the police chief was removed from Oswego. And in subsequent investigations and for that, Mr. Gosek received two points off his sentence.
But here’s a clear thing you’ve got to understand in the federal system, and I know Mr. Maffei understands, and that is in the federal system the judge accepts, rejects or modifies any plea, and they have done it every which way every time. They are the ultimate arbiter of the sentence; we have no control over the sentence the judge gives. There are times I have gone in and recommended 10 years, he has given 15; and when I recommend 10, he gives five. It is entirely up to the judge. The judge gave him a 36-month sentence. He was sent to a facility where he was evaluated as a sex offender, he was given every manner of testing possible, he served his time, and he was released in the community. Basically as far as a federal case goes, it was as run of the mill as it gets.
Here is one thing you should understand: Nobody wanted to do this case. They brought the case first to the state; the state wouldn’t touch it. And they brought it to me because they knew I would do it. I fought for that case and I fought hard, and I took a lot of guff from a lot of people, and I am very proud of that case. The clear implication from Mr. Maffei’s commercial is that something untoward happened, and that’s basically the kind of implication of where his campaign is at.
GR: Now I want to listen to this ad about Congressman Maffei, and it comes from the Republican National Congressional Committee. We could not find similar ads from Mr. Katko’s campaign itself (the interview took place the morning of Oct. 15).
JK: Grant, can I interrupt for one second? I think that is important to note that none of those ads are from my campaign.
DM: This week one of those ads attacking me directly from his campaign has run.
GR: I did not see that, and we did not find that one. Here is the audio (from the most extreme ad we found):
Narrator: Just look at the news. Raising kids, there’s enough to worry about, and now this. So why is Dan Maffei putting us at risk? Maffei voted to cut funding for the combat troops fighting to protect us. And here at home, Maffei voted to keep law enforcement from detaining illegal immigrants who had been suspected of crimes. With all that’s happening, Dan Maffei is a big risk. The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.
GR: Mr. Katko, what is the message that the Republican Party is trying to convey with this ad?
JK: Well, I want to start preliminarily by noting what you noted at the beginning, and I’m sorry for interrupting you, I won’t do that again. And that is that my campaign has not been running those type of ads. Those ads perhaps stretch the truth, but I think the people have got to understand, and I don’t think they always do, there’s four quadrants to this campaign. There is Mr. Maffei and how he runs his ads, there is his outside groups on his side, outside groups on my side, and myself.
GR: But voters don’t make that distinction when they are hearing it.
JK: I know that they don’t.
GR: So let’s focus on this one. What’s the message that the party is trying to convey with this ad?
JK: I think the message is obvious, and I don’t know if I necessarily agree with them. And, quite frankly, I don’t support ads that stretch the truth, and I don’t support ads that aren’t fact-based. I think a lot of these ads take liberties, just like the ad Mr. Maffei has of me takes liberties. I don’t think they have any place in politics, and I think it is very unfortunate and one of the most shocking things I have had to get used to in this campaign.
GR: So do you think then that Congressman Maffei does not support our troops, and do you think he increases the risk to our safety?
JK: If that is what that is saying, I don’t think in the truest sense that it is true. He is an American. He is not going to sit there and say, come in bad guys. But they are questioning his judgment on certain votes, and if they are stretching the truth, that’s wrong.
GR: Congressman Maffei, can you briefly explain the two votes you are being criticized on in this ad?
DM: The votes that they’re citing, as far as I remember, had nothing to do with the charges. The combat troops, I think they are citing the fact that I didn’t support continuing the Afghanistan War, and (that) had nothing to do with the current combat troops. The detainees is even more confusing, they just don’t hold up, and that’s been shown by independent observers like the Auburn Citizen, and that’s why we had to defend them.
I do want to make a couple of quick points. One is you say it’s not relevant these other factors. Mr. Katko, who is by the way this week running a negative ad himself out of his own campaign.
GR: I’m saying something’s not relevant?
DM: Well, I’m not saying if you’re saying it, but you said we don’t want to talk about what Mr. Katko pointed out, that you’ve got the parties and you’ve got the individuals. Far more, a huge percentage, of Mr. Katko’s entire effort, the effort on his side, is the Republican Party, directly from Washington. So to not make that distinction, sort of say, oh John’s got some ads and Dan’s got some ads.
GR: No, my point is that most voters don’t distinguish the difference.
DM: No, and I agree with that point. But the fact is almost all of Mr. Katko’s ads, or ads against me on his side, are by the Republican Committee. So, if that’s the case, then it’s a little less of a distinction. Two, he is running an ad this week that is critical of me directly and I believe misleading. And three, we could have avoided a lot of this if we had talked earlier on about setting up a campaign pledge. I sent a campaign pledge over to Mr. Katko, said let’s get rid of all of the outside shady groups that don’t disclose their donors. He chose to ignore that, he didn’t want to sign on. He could have gotten back to me and said, “Dan, you know what, I’ll do that, but I even want to get rid of the groups that do disclose their donors,” and that would have been fine. It would have been on me, and I would have said, “OK, let’s do that. Let’s get rid of all the outside groups.” That would have been fine with me, too, just have the two campaigns. He couldn’t sign on to that because he knows that the bulk of his support comes directly from John Boehner and the Washington Republican Party.
GR: A quick response to that?
JK: Sure. This pledge he is talking about is when he had $900,000 in the bank and I had none, and he is asking me to sign off on something that I couldn’t sign off on. I couldn’t agree to it at that time. And frankly, if he was so concerned about airing the issues he would have agreed to open town-hall debates, which he has completely rejected.
GR: Congressman Maffei, your campaign is in the middle of something it calls, and I am quoting here, “30 days and 30 ways that John Katko is too reckless and too radical for Central New York.” There has been a new press release on this theme every day. Coming back to a question I asked you before, why are these press releases not on your campaign’s website with all the other press releases?
DM: I will have the person who is in charge of my campaign website get back to you. We will put them on. I don’t know why they are not on. They should be on. We want to make them known to the press. We are clearly trying to get attention to the comparisons between myself and Mr. Katko’s record. So I will take responsibility for not taking more of a direct role in putting together my campaign website.
GR: A question about the Ebola outbreak: The spread of this virus is generating some real concern in this country. The computer models show that this disease is going to go up before it comes back down. Mr. Katko, is the U.S. response adequate, and should we be doing something more or different than what we are doing?
JK: Well, the U.S. response was delayed. And it is kind of a hallmark of the Obama administration that they don’t react in a timely manner to outbreaks of violence or outbreaks such as this. The Ebola outbreak happened in June. And we are still trying to feel our way through this. Now we have two people in Dallas that are infected with the Ebola virus because of arguably shoddy treatment procedures.
We’ve got to do better than that as a country, especially when we see an epidemic as serious as this. We have responded better in the past, and I think we need to get our act together and respond strongly now. I think the way to do it is listen to the officials, listen to the experts, and to proceed accordingly. And not politicize it, that’s for sure. This is something that should not be politicized.
And that’s why I was troubled to hear today that Mr. Maffei was going to have a press conference on the Ebola thing, by himself without consulting the county officials. It was only after the county official told them that they needed to be involved did he get them involved. This is not a political issue and this is not finger-pointing time. This is time to make sure our procedures are good and whatever they need to staff these things, make the agencies ready to go, which is the way to go. The Centers for Disease Control has done a good job so far but they need to do better.
GR: Congressman Maffei, is this something that Congress can be proactive about, or is this the kind of issue that we have to rely on the presidential administration to craft a response?
DM: I think Congress does have a role to play. Certainly working on the Science and Technology Committee looking at this and other kinds of diseases, it is important. We also have a role to play in funding the CDC and the NIH that do the research, etc. And unfortunately those funds were cut by the sequester. Both parties were complicit in that. I opposed the sequester, but they were cut and maybe that’s part of the reason why my opponent points out that the response was late.
But I will agree with him, this should not be a political issue. The news conference we had, we’re meeting with hospital officials fully including the city, the county, anyone who needs to be included. It’s on the official side, I’m not trying to make a political issue out of it. I don’t know who would. It really is something that is a matter of public safety. And I will point out that while we shouldn’t panic, we need to be ready, even here in Central New York. If there’s a case, if we’re ready, if we take those precautions, then it will be OK. But we have to make absolutely sure we are ready.
GR: A question now about the response to the Islamic State, and the Middle East. Congressman Maffei, there are lots of concerns here, but one of them is a concern among many quarters that the United States may be getting dragged into another extended war in the Middle East. Are you concerned that we are on some kind of slippery slope with our involvement?
DM: I am concerned. I don’t think that we should do another ground war in Iraq. In fact, I think that would actually be playing into the terrorists’ hands. I think that’s what they want. That is what they can recruit with. It’s one of the reasons why I opposed the president’s plan to put trainers and weapons into Syria, to try and find these so called Syrian moderates and train them. I don’t think that makes any sense. It is putting boots on the ground, because the trainers are going to be boots. And there are other things that we can and need to do in order to make sure that we control the threat that the Islamic State, so-called Islamic State, is creating. So I am working very, very hard on my Armed Services Committee. Now that’s the most important thing to protect us from terrorism.
GR: Mr. Katko, how would you assess the U.S. response so far?
JK: Well, if the most important thing Mr. Maffei says is to protect us from terrorists, you don’t wait until they are in the United States to do so. We had to go in after al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, after they already came to the United States. That was too late then, and we knew they were there. That’s why I was troubled by Mr. Maffei’s vote against funding other troops and funding for the air strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. I am absolutely agreeing with Mr. Maffei as far as not getting into another ground war. But we have to do something, and sitting there and voting no and doing nothing is not a response.
We need to go after ISIS where they are. We need to support people to help them fight themselves. When the Iraqi Army turned and ran away when ISIS first came to Iraq, that’s when I thought to myself, you know what, why are we going to spend more blood and treasure there? But when they start beheading our journalists and beheading Americans and taunting those vicious acts, we know that they are serious. We need to do something.
GR: What specifically would you do, because there have been some airstrikes. You don’t want to put boots on the ground, to use this phrase that both of you used, but what is the thing in between that you would want to see us do?
JK: I didn’t make it clear, I apologize. I support the president’s action, President Obama’s bipartisan support that he received to fund the soldiers there. To help them fight themselves and to provide air support. The problem is, and which concerns me, is it may not be working. ISIS still seems to be doing OK. We’ve got to do something over there, and that’s why what the president proposed and what a bipartisan group of individuals, Mr. Maffei said no to but everyone else did say yes to, was we’ve got to do something now. And that’s what we’re doing. I don’t want to do ground troops, unless it is an absolute last resort, and I don’t think we’re there yet.
DM: My opponent is all over the place on this, and in fact, he’s been all over the place. He did say we should consider ground troops earlier, now he doesn’t want to. That’s fine, but he doesn’t say what we should do. He says that I should have held the president accountable, which is exactly what we did, but now he suddenly supports the president. He certainly didn’t have that position when it first came out. He said we shouldn’t wait and stuff. We waited a long time to hear his position. In the end, there’s no plan.
Let me give you the plan that we should be doing, that we are doing some of, but not all of: We need to be aiding the Kurds; we need to be making sure we cut off the supply of funds to ISIS, which we can do by cutting off the oil trade, the illegal oil trade; we need to be bringing in a broader coalition of the global community; we do need to be doing these targeted air strikes, particularly when they are for humanitarian reasons; and we need to have anti-terrorism kinds of strikes, like the one that got Osama Bin Laden. That is a plan. What Mr. Katko offers is rhetoric.
GR: About this point the congressman has raised: What is the end game? What is the exit strategy that you see, and what you would put forth?
JK: Well, there is no exit strategy because we are not in there. We are providing material support and we are providing advisers, if you will. And we are providing air support.
Mr. Maffei misrepresents what my positions have been. I’ve never said we should have troops over there. That’s just flat wrong, and he knows it. But the bottom line is, what we are now doing is what we should be doing in a bipartisan manner. We have agreed that it should be done. And we’ve got see how that goes. I don’t think that we should introduce ground troops unless it is absolutely necessary, and there is a bipartisan coalition effort. I don’t see ground troops as being the answer right now.
Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.
Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.