This is the second half of a conversation with Democrat Dan Maffei and Republican challenger John Katko, the candidates running to represent New York’s 24th District in the House of Representatives. Readers can find the first half HERE.
Grant Reeher (GR): Congressman Maffei, Mr. Katko has criticized your effectiveness in Congress by citing the bills you have introduced and their lack of progress through the system. The fact that they haven’t passed isn’t surprising, given that this Congress seems to have an inability to pass much of anything, at least through both houses. But your bills do seem to have relatively few co-sponsors, even among your own party. Could you explain that?
Dan Maffei (DM): Well, legislation is one piece of it. And we do have some bills that we presented as things that we think are good ideas that I have gotten from going around the district to all four counties and talking to the business leaders. And it is not so much that the specific legislation, it’s trying to get those parts of it, those ideas, into other bills.
But it certainly is not the only thing that we do. We do an awful lot working with local companies, promoting local companies in terms of federal projects or defense contracts. We have done that very well. Creating jobs and preserving jobs at many, many companies like Lockheed-Martin, Saab Sensis, SRCTec, work with all sorts of companies to make sure that they are given a fair shake in trade, for instance, Nucor. Making sure that small businesses, focusing on the small businesses and making sure that they have the capital they need, etc. We worked to improve the airport, improve infrastructure and fire grants. All those different kinds of things are what make a member of Congress effective, and it doesn’t matter so much, in or out.
Now, I will tell you this: I already have been effective even legislatively. Ann Marie Buerkle opposed the Violence Against Women Act. I supported it, by going to Congress and supporting it and working with moderate Republicans like Richard Hanna. We were able to get that through and signed into law. It’s not the only example – the agriculture bill, a lot of other bills that we have worked with in a bi-partisan way. Yes, I would like to see a lot more happen, and it’s unfortunate that it has been such a do-nothing Congress with the parties, but I have been effective.
GR: Mr. Katko, listening to what Congressman Maffei has said about the larger set of activities that are related to policy in different ways, won’t you need to be engaged in those things if you’re in Washington?
John Katko (JK): Of course, but I have got to say, his answer, is wow. That sounds exactly like a typical Washington insider trying to cover up the fact that he is ineffective. The fact of the matter is, he has introduced 25 bills in the Congress and he has had very little support from his own party, let alone the other party. And when you have very few measurables like that, that are unbiased, to look at, that’s a measurable.
When you have 25 bills introduced and you get nowhere with them, that is one thing. But here is the thing that was really kind of unfortunate about it. He used one of those as a springboard for a commercial where he shows he is going to hold people accountable, and I don’t think he had any co-sponsors, or he had just a handful. And so, when you rely on those bills to tout your record, that’s when you call those into question. That’s when it heightens the importance of that. The bottom line is Congress is broken, and his answer is an example of that.
GR: What strategies do you have going in, to work across party lines, because this has been something that has been pretty tough for the members to do.
JK: I do. The very first thing I am going to do if I get elected, or when I get elected, is I want to call up the senators in the state, and I won’t care whether they are Democrats or Republicans. I’m going to call Sen. (Charles) Schumer and Sen. (Kirsten) Gillibrand and say, “What can we do together to get these things done and get the gridlock moving?”
I think it will be a very strong symbol of me working across the aisle from day one. And quite frankly, my entire career, I’ve had nothing but working with various factions, putting together task forces in El Paso, Puerto Rico, and back here, of all manner from gangs and drugs. You have to put together coalitions. Law enforcements have vastly different priorities on federal, state and local levels. You have to get them to come together, and I’ve been doing that for 20 years and I am confident that I can do it. I’m going to do it by making clear from day one that whether I am a Republican or Democrat means second to me. And you know what, it means second because I’ve had a career. Whether I am there one term or 10 terms, it doesn’t matter. So if my party gets mad at me, I don’t care.
GR: Let me push you on something you said about calling Sen. Gillibrand. I think a big question that a lot of voters still have about you is where you sit within your own party. The Maffei campaign claims you’re out at the conservative end, keeping company with Tea Party. I have asked you this before, and you said that you rejected labels. Can you give me some sense of your overall positioning in the party, so I’ll know what to expect if you go to Washington?
JK: Absolutely. I am absolutely not a 100 percent any-type kind of guy. I am a fiscal conservative. I believe we need to have government responsibility with respect to spending. I believe on the social issues, I’m far more moderate than Mr. Maffei has tried to paint me. Every single thing he has called me, from extreme radical to out-of-control.
GR: Give me some examples of those social issues where you are more moderate, because I think this is a point of confusion for the voters.
JK: Sure, for example, gay marriage. It’s a states’ rights issue and New York state has spoken. That’s it. I don’t think that we need legislation or anything, that’s it. And my personal beliefs are what they are, but as far as from a legal standpoint, it’s a states’ rights issue. That’s a more moderate issue.
GR: Congressman Maffei, why then are you so sure that Mr. Katko is out on the right within his party? That’s been one of your central messages. As a federal prosecutor, it is not like he is against the government.
DM: No, he sounds exactly like Ann Marie Buerkle did four years ago when she said she was moderate. Sure, she had some concerns, she was pro-life with Mr. Katko, but that wouldn’t be a big issue. She would focus on the economy. Let’s look at the facts: We don’t have a whole lot of positions that Mr. Katko has taken. Even on something like the Ryan budget, he said, “Oh, I’m not going to tell you, because I’m not in Congress yet, how I would vote on that.”
But some things he has told us about. The bi-partisan budget agreement that saved $85 billion and is keeping the government open until right through 2015 that I supported, he opposes. Very bi-partisan. The bi-partisan bill in the Senate to provide just for background checks for firearms, something that the FBI has plenty of statistics tell you makes places safer — it’s bi-partisan — he opposes it. The immigration bill in the Senate — we clearly need comprehensive immigration reform to secure our borders and to make sure that farmers have workers that they need — he opposes it. So, what bi-partisan stuff is he for?
And in terms of working with Sens. Gillibrand and Schumer, ask Sens. Gillibrand and Schumer. I worked with them all the time. That’s the only way you can get things done, is in a coalition. Mr. Katko, I think he says, well I’ll call them up, as if they haven’t ever picked up the phone. It just doesn’t … it doesn’t work that way, and we’ve been down this road before with Ann Marie Buerkle, and you know, I’m not sure if we should risk it again.
GR: So Mr. Katko, Congressman Maffei has listed some specific positions that he says you have taken. Can you address where you sit?
JK: On those particular issues?
GR: Those issues, because the argument here is that they point to something more general. Can you address this in some way?
JK: Let’s go over the issues again so I can get you, take them on one by one.
GR: The Ryan budget – that was the first one.
JK: The Ryan budget: Listen, he has had his plants going to every single town hall, and I have had tons of people asking me, where do you stand on the Ryan budget? They want to be able to take that, to show that I support the Ryan budget because I hate the elderly and I’m going to cut Medicare. Well, it’s not true. I have made it perfectly clear, I am absolutely against …
GR: So you are not for the Ryan budget?
GR: You don’t support the Ryan budget?
JK: Absolutely not.
DM: So you would vote “no” on that budget?
GR: Sounds like that is what I am hearing.
JK: I would vote “no” on principles, on that budget, which included … I would have the courage to stand against my party. Let me finish, Mr. Maffei, and calm down. I am going to vote “no” against any budget that has cuts to Medicare or Social Security, period.
DM: You have criticized me voting against budgets that have had those things. You said Dan won’t support a budget. Of course, I did support the bi-partisan budget bill, but I didn’t support those budgets because they all weren’t adequate. But with you, you are going to do exactly the same thing, you are going to vote “no” on all of them, too, because they either do those things, violate all those principles, or they have a lot of spending on that amount, and I don’t think you are going to support the Democratic budget.
JK: You’ve got to have the courage to stand up for things. When you are not worried about your job more than your constituents, like Mr. Maffei is, I’ll do that. I’m more worried about my constituents’ jobs than my own. And that is why the voters got Obamacare. This medical device tax, which you knew is a killer for this area. He knew it’s going to be a killer, and he still voted for it. He succumbed to the pressure from his party, and that’s not what I’m going to do because I have a career, and I have a life outside of politics. He does not.
GR: I’m going to come back and ask you a question about Obamacare later. First a question about the economy. A recent article in The Post-Standard by Mark Weiner argued that your plans for the economy are more similar than different. You both want to help small businesses, lower and simplify taxes on businesses and support some government programs designed to help economic activity. So Mr. Katko, did Mark Weiner get it right? And where are the most important differences in your plans for strengthening the economy?
JK: I think he has it right. I think we generally agree on the principles of how we are going to get this economy going again. So in the end, it all boils down to who has got the best opportunity to get it done. Mr. Maffei has been in Congress four of the last six years, two of them he had control of the House, the Senate and the presidency, and he’s got nothing done. Last year alone, 3,100 jobs left Central New York; 3,100 jobs. The recovery in Central New York lags recovery in New York state, and recovery in New York state lags recovery in the nation. We have given Mr. Maffei an opportunity for four of the last six years to lead us, and nothing’s happened. The jobs continue to bleed. In January, another 300 jobs are leaving Auburn. So the plans are similar enough; where I think it boils down to who gives you the best opportunity to get that done. Is it someone like Mr. Maffei who has had his chance and hasn’t done it, or is it someone like me who is new, fresh, give him a chance? If I don’t do something in two years, I expect my constituents to throw me out.
GR: Congressman Maffei, do you see important differences between your plans for strengthening the economy?
DM: I think the difference is, in my plan, which actually came out in April of last year after going to extensive meetings with business leaders and economic leaders in the district, has details. It talks about how you are going to pay for things. A lot of what Mr. Katko says is, “Oh, let’s keep the good and get rid of the bad.” But he doesn’t say how to pay for anything. He says he is fiscally responsible, but he doesn’t point to any cuts that we should make. He doesn’t point to any way to pay for things. There are no details in his plans. In fact, the seven bullet points that he offered fit on one sheet of paper. Yeah, they were principles. And those principles, we agree.
But let me tell you something that we are very different on. You just heard Mr. Katko say that I have no life outside of politics, and that I care more about myself than my constituents. It’s those kinds of attacks that are simply personal. You know, he is impugning my motives. That is exactly what is wrong with Washington today. It’s that the Republicans and the Democrats, instead of trying to talk about issues and find out where they agree and move on. Instead, he is just insulting me, and he is saying that I don’t care.
I deeply care. It’s just that it is not worthy of a response and maybe that’s why you just decided to move on. But it is one of the biggest problems in Washington. You send him there, you only get another person for John Boehner who’s going to just insult the Democrats. You got Democrats down there insulting Republicans. I take a different approach. I have proven that over the last two years.
GR: A question now about the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Mr. Katko, you brought this up a little while ago, and this question is for you. It’s extremely unlikely that there will be any chance of a significant revision of this legislation during what would be your first term in Congress. So why then is changing this law an apparent pillar of your campaign?
JK: We could never account in its mediocrity, we could never account in its bad bills. It has to be addressed, and if two years from now I would come back to you and nothing’s done, then it is time for you to throw me out. We have to start working on these types of things. We can’t accept … your premise is what’s wrong with Washington. When you sit there and say it is extremely unlikely.
GR: You’re going to get a veto even if you could get this through the two houses, and it requires a change in the Senate (Republicans having 60 seats), that’s just not going to happen.
JK: No, I don’t think I’m talking about repealing the bill. I’m talking about fixing it. I think there’s great portions of Obamacare, there’s great principles. First of all, everyone has health insurance. No matter what happens, we have to make sure everyone has health insurance. And we have to take a look at some of the great provisions, like the wellness provisions in there, and the 26-year old policy and portability from pre-existing conditions. Those are all good things, and there’s a lot of good things in Obamacare. But there is also a lot of things that are very bad about Obamacare, and I think we have to have that can-do spirit.
We can’t just say Congress is broken, and were not going to get anything fixed. And I think President Obama … some of the most productive Congresses in our country’s history have been when you have one party that controls the House and the Senate, and the other one controls the presidency. That’s when a lot of things get done, for some reason, I think, because everyone gets kind of accountable on both sides. And I think I really see that coming. I see the Republicans are going to be able to take control of the Senate, and we are going to be able to get things done.
GR: If you look at recent evidence, there’s a lot that suggests that from a big-picture standpoint, Obamacare is working. Let me give you some statistics from the Commonwealth Fund: First, the uninsured rate among adults has fallen by 25 percent since the enactment of the law, and the biggest declines have been among the lowest incomes. Medicare hospital re-admissions have declined since the act. The rate of growth in overall per-capita health care spending has significantly slowed since the passage of the act. So what kinds of indicators would it take for you to say that overall, this has been a good reform, a good piece of legislation?
JK: Well I’m not saying overall there has been or hasn’t been. We have to identify the problems that are wrong with it and fix it. I think there are a lot of problems. I think one of the biggest things is that Mr. Maffei — I was watching the debate the other day he had with Ms. Buerkle in 2010 — and he said that Obamacare would help keep costs under control, and that is a direct quote. We know that is not true. We are having huge cost increases. And I have talked to manufacturers across this district, and individuals. The manufacturers and businesses that have normally provided health insurance for their folks, and had like a $500 deductible, are now having to push off more and more of the cost of that health care, because it is skyrocketing. And we have another double-digit increase again this year coming up, and it is squeezing the middle class, for the middle class that he professes to champion. Those people are getting squeezed bad by this bill. And you couple that with an increase in deductibles, it really puts a lot of middle-class families in peril. And those are the things that we need to look at. So, yes, for some segments of society it is going well, but some segments are really struggling with the financial burden. It is crushing. And the other thing that in some of the studies I have seen recently, a lot of people are foregoing medical treatment, a lot of people because they cannot afford the deductibles. Twenty percent of Americans now aren’t getting check-ups because they can’t afford the deductibles. And those are the types of things you need to look at and fix, because there is no question about it that health care has become more expensive.
GR: Congressman Maffei, do you think that this reform is working? Again, I have cited some figures overall that show some pretty good trends, even for costs.
DM: There is no question that the Affordable Care Act is not perfect. And there is no question that the Affordable Care Act is doing some good things. The question is, should we have just voted “no,” as Mr. Katko would have, and continued to do nothing? Incidentally, prices were sky-rocketing long before the Affordable Care Act. And in fact, if you look at the numbers, medical inflation has gone down. Our utilization has gone up, more people are using health care, particularly preventive health care, and that is one of the pressures on prices. And some of it is artificial. I wrote the superintendent of insurance, because I thought the rates were too high, and they helped lower the rates. I have sponsored a bill that helped lower rates for citizens, so that’s another thing.
I have crossed party lines to try to fix the things that are broken many times, and have taken the heat from my own party for it. But to sort of say, “Oh, we never should have done this,” and we can do all the positive things but none of the negative things, is living in Never-Never Land. And that’s not, unfortunately, where members of Congress have to be if they really want to represent their constituents. Incidentally, I’m the leader of the Democratic effort to repeal the tax on medical devices. Mr. Katko knows that, he knows that I have been fighting for that. He knows that I have helped lower it during that process and we will get rid of it, but we may have to do it in a bi-partisan way.
GR: Congressman, Democrats in this election have distanced themselves from this law. Only a few are really publicly embracing it in their campaigns. Why is that?
DM: You would have to ask them. I mean, I stand by the bill. I think it is a good bill. I think it needs changes, in that sense our positions aren’t that different. The difference is that while Mr. Katko talks about it, I am actually doing it. Working with Republicans to make changes. Some of them have actually already passed and been enacted; many of them have not because we haven’t gotten enough bi-partisan support. But I am working on getting more bi-partisan support, so you can keep your insurance to make sure that businesses are better prepared, those sorts of things. And also we have been helping, case by case, businesses figure it out and move on. I’m on the exchange myself. Mr. Katko says it is all political ploy. But I’ve been taking myself off of any kind of government subsidy for health care, and went on the New York exchange. Actually I think Mr. Katko, if you are so sure you are going to get elected, why don’t you start doing that right now? Because that way you are in the system and you know both the bad things and the good things about it.
GR: Both of you have talked a lot about the middle class, and you have done it in this program, but relatively little about the poor. And some policies to help the middle class do also help the poor, but many of them fly over their heads, economically. Syracuse is one of the poorest cities in the nation. Congressman Maffei, what can the federal government do to fight poverty in Syracuse?
DM: I do think the overall emphasis of a member of Congress from this area has got to be the middle class, because if the middle class succeeds, Central New York succeeds generally, and that helps all other groups. The poor need to work themselves into the middle class, so the key is creating more jobs. And that is why we have worked very closely with all sectors of the Central New York economy. Manufacturing — I was just at a manufacturing plant last week that is starting to hire — hires a lot of new immigrants in order to try to figure out ways that they could further expand. Job training is a big factor, and I have been working with that. We’ve helped them to secure funding, working with the senators for OCC to continue job training, making sure that people have the skills that they need. That is extraordinarily important. So the key thing to help the poor is to create jobs and that’s where our entire focus has been, creating jobs, bringing them into the middle class.
GR: Have you had any direct experience of poverty in your life?
DM: Well, that is sort of a personal question. I don’t, no. My family was middle class while I was growing up. I did go into the food stamp challenge, but that is not a real comparison. You spend one week on the food stamp budget, and it certainly puts you in touch with what people have to struggle with, and it allows you to … normally if I buy a $3 loaf of bread, I had to buy a $1.25 loaf of bread, which had much less nutritional value, so I learned a lot, but it doesn’t compare. No, I grew up middle class and was very, very lucky and fortunate.
GR: Mr. Katko, is (fighting poverty) an area where you would be more favorably disposed to greater government involvement than in some other policies?
JK: Absolutely, positively yes. When you are the 23rd lowest-rated city in the country for poverty, that’s an alarm bell that should be clanging all day, every day. And that is exactly what I think we should do, and address that, and I have already brought that to light. I have met with the reverends and the ministers in the city in a coalition manner and talked about it. I have seen the poverty first-hand, and I see what the results of poverty are. I’ll note for a fact, though, that the poverty rate has increased under Mr. Maffei’s watch and the number of jobs that are supposedly helping the middle class are bleeding out of this area. There’s 3,100 jobs lost last year alone. …
Let me talk about the program, the program itself that I would do, that I have seen rather with gang cases. The vast majority of gang members I have prosecuted, approximately about 150 of them, by the time they get to me they are hard-core criminals, and there is no place for them but jail. But I saw how they grow up. I saw how they lived. And I saw the poverty they’re in, and I saw what lack of nutrition gets you. For example, the Food Bank of Central New York gave out 150,000 more meal equivalents last year in Central New York than the year before. That means people are hungry here.
… To bring these immigrant children to Central New York, it costs more than $8 million for 35 days for 250 kids to be here. What if we took that money, first of all, we got those kids back to their parents back in their own countries right away? What if we took that money and worked on nutrition programs in this city? What if we took the Big Brother, Big Sister program and took all those people that were excited to help the immigrant children? What if we partner them up and get them excited and get them fired up to be mentors and leaders in the community? We should have, and it should be a public outrage that we are the 23rd poorest city in the country.
And yes, jobs are very important. I absolutely agree with Mr. Maffei on that. Absolutely, jobs are critically important. But it is not the only one, we have got to feed these kids. Many of these kids in the summer time they don’t have …
GR: Let me interject. What I am hearing then, is you would be in favor of more federal support for these kinds of things.
JK: Yes, but it’s not just the federal support and throwing dollars at a problem because that never works. You have got to have partnerships, public-private partnerships like the Food Bank and the Big Brother, Big Sister program. You’ve got to encourage community support and I know that — God, I sound like a Democrat when I talk like that — but that is how I feel, and I have seen the bad end result of not taking care of these issues.
GR: Have you had any direct experience of poverty in your life?
JK: Well, I don’t know if I could call it poverty, but when I was in college I took an internship in Washington and I literally had no money, and I remember — I have never told this — but I remember going to blood banks around the city once a weekend to get $25 for a pint of blood because I needed money to survive. So it would give me a little taste of what it is like, but I grew up in a happy middle-class family. That semester in Washington, I got a little taste of what poverty was like, and it’s not pretty.
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.