Democratic congressional candidate Dana Balter on the Campbell Conversations

Oct 27, 2018

The race for New York's 24th Congressional District, currently held by incumbent Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus), could prove critical in Democrats attempts to take control of the House of Representatives. This week, host Grant Reeher talks with Katko's Democratic challenger, Dana Balter. 

This is the broadcast version of the interview. There's an extra 16 minutes of discussion that didn't make it in to the broadcast. You can find that portion of the interview here.

A note from host Grant Reeher: 

As you'll hear in the introduction to the interview, this was originally intended to be a debate between Ms. Balter and the incumbent, Republican Congressman John Katko.  Both candidates were invited to participate, and the invitation to the Congressman was issued August 13.  It left the day for the debate open to negotiation, and the invitation was issued in August in order to allow for advance planning by both campaigns. After several exchanges, including one in which I informed the Congressman's office that the Balter campaign had accepted my invitation, the Congressman's office declined the invitation on September 6. My original invitation made clear that in the event that only one candidate accepted the invitation, I would go ahead with an individual interview with the candidate who had agreed to debate.  This is the process that the Campbell Conversations has consistently followed with past debate invitations, and the practice seems only fair to the candidate who is willing to debate. This is why you will not find an individual interview with the incumbent in the fall schedule of The Campbell Conversations.

Frankly, the Congressman's decision not to debate came as a surprise. He had readily participated in debates on the Campbell Conversations in both of his previous elections. The decision was also, of course, a disappointment. More frequent public debates are, I believe, good for the democratic process, and providing a variety of debate formats provides voters with different ways to hear, view, and evaluate the candidates. I'm biased of course, but I believe that debates on this program provide a useful kind of interaction not found in the more traditional televised format. Adding to the disappointment is the fact that this is a high profile congressional election which is important to our listening area, and which could play a critical role in determining the control of the House of Representatives.

I also want to make clear that the Campbell Conversations plans and expects to continue public conversations with whomever emerges as the winner in this race. Our intention is not to close a door, but to be fair. 

Interview transcript

Reeher: Now, if this were a debate, we might start by just discussing some of the messaging in the campaign, particularly if it were negative and attack-oriented. And we’ve done this in previous debates. Again, this isn’t a debate, but your opponent’s campaign has been, I think it’s fair to say, pretty negative and attack-oriented in much of its messaging. And so, I wanted to give you a chance to respond to some of the claims being made there. I also have some questions about some of your claims. But, let me start with these. And let’s start with the one we’ve heard over and over again. I think, if people know nothing else about you in this district, they probably know that you are a visiting assistant professor, or were, at Syracuse University, the obvious implication of this being that you’re not really rooted here; you’re just visiting. So, first of all, could you explain to our listeners what being a visiting assistant professor means at a university? The title has a particular meaning.

Balter: It does. It’s a non-tenured-track position, and it’s a year-to-year contract position, as opposed to a multi-year contract.

Reeher: So, let me ask this question about that. Let’s say you were to lose this election, OK? Do you have plans to desire to teach at Syracuse University in an upcoming semester or in this area? Where are you going from here?

Balter: Well, I’m staying here. This is my home, and I live here. Whether or not I would teach at Syracuse University, I don’t know. Partly, that’s up to the university. But, my intention is to be serving this district in Congress come January.

Reeher: OK. And, let’s set down your life path as it relates to being in Syracuse because that has also been something that’s been part of this messaging. Could you just describe to me your first association with Syracuse, when you started to live here, any breaks in that time, the nature of your current commitment to this area? Let’s just sort of get that straight.

Balter: Sure. And I want to be clear about the fact that this is something I’ve talked about since I started this campaign. I’ve talked to the press about it many times. I’ve talked to voters about it many times. The congressman has put a good deal of effort into trying to make people think that I’m hiding things, which is, of course, not true. So, I moved to Syracuse in 2003. I came here for the Maxwell School, to study here, and I had a very serious injury. I had a head injury, which resulted in a very serious concussion and led to some significant health problems. And by the time 2007 came around, I was no longer able to take care of myself because of that injury and the issues that came from it. So, I moved to Pennsylvania to live with my sister’s family. They were living in Pennsylvania at the time. I spent three years there recovering, working on getting better. And then, I spent two years in Florida.

Reeher: So, that’s 2007 to 2010. Now, we’re 2010 to 2012, roughly?

Balter: Yes.

Reeher: OK.

Balter: In Florida, with my nephew, who was a teenager at the time, he has been a golfer since he was in the crib. And he wanted to move to Florida so he could play golf year-round in preparation for college. He was trying to get into a good golf school. I’m very proud to say he ended up going to Wake Forest [University] and playing on one of the best teams in the country. So, I lived there with him for two years until I was finally well enough to sort of resume my regular life. And, as soon as I was well enough, I moved back here because this is my home. [I] bought a house, have been here ever since and fully intend to remain here.

Reeher: Now, did I read somewhere, hear somewhere that your mother lives in this house with you? Is that correct?

Balter: No. We co-own the house. She doesn’t live here.

Reeher: Oh, I see. That’s what I saw. OK, all right. So, you mentioned your time in Florida. This is another thing I wanted to ask you about in terms of the messaging from the congressman’s campaign. There’s an ad he’s got out – it’s one of his – about you living the life of Riley in Florida and also not paying your taxes. So, describe your living situation there in a little more detail. What kind of place was this, and what happened with the tax issue?

Balter: Yes. This is one of the ads I hear the most about from voters who are angry about it. So, the ad that you’re referring to, I think it’s useful to point out, was fact-checked by both the Post-Standard and the Citizen and found to be largely false and misleading. Although, the congressman still insists it’s accurate and refuses to pull it from the air. The condo that I lived in was my brother’s condo. As I said, I was living there to take care of my nephew. And that was my brother’s condo. The photograph that they show in the ad when they say that I lived in a mansion in Florida was a photograph of the community pool in the condo complex where I lived. And the issue about the taxes that the congressman is trying to make something of, I tried to run a small business, turn a hobby of mine restoring junk that I’d find at flea markets – I tried to turn that into a business. I wasn’t successful, but I owed $47 in taxes on that business that I was unaware was late.

Reeher: This is business income or sales taxes?

Balter: Yes. Sales tax. And I was unaware that I had this outstanding tax that I owed. When I got the notice, I paid it. I also paid a fine for paying it late, and so, the total amount that I ended up paying was somewhere around $111 or something like that. And, what is sort of extraordinary about the fact that the congressman chose to make an issue out of that is that he himself had a tax lien on his Virginia condo. He has also consistently over the years paid his property taxes in the state of New York late. The one time he didn’t was this year after he passed the GOP tax bill when he paid them early because he knew he was going to be penalized under the new bill. So, it was surprising to me that he decided to make an issue out of that, but I think the overall effect of what he’s going for is to try and suggest that I’m somehow lying or hiding things, which I’m not. And I think it’s really unfortunate that he’s chosen to take this path in the campaign. [It] doesn’t surprise me because I’ve seen his previous campaigns, but I think our voters deserve better.

Reeher: I want to stick with the messaging just a little bit longer and on the condo, particularly. Just describe to me very briefly, specifically, what kind of condo was this? How many bedrooms? What are we talking about here?

Balter: It was sort of a two-and-a-half-bedroom, two-bedroom plus a den, which I guess could or could not be considered a bedroom.

Reeher: OK. That’s good enough. I just wanted to get that clear. And then, there’s another ad I wanted to ask you about from the campaign. This one might be from the RNC, but I believe it’s also from the congressman’s campaign. Maybe you can clarify that to me. It’s an ad that has a mother and a child together in a room while the mother hears on the phone that some important medical procedure will not be covered by insurance if you and your fellow Democrats have been able to change the healthcare system. What changes in the nation’s current health care system are you advocating for?

Balter: So, I’m glad you brought up that ad because, while I am saddened by the congressman’s choice to attack me personally, what makes me angry is his choice and his supporters’ choices to use the tactic of fearmongering to scare voters about something as important as health care. And that commercial suggests that, somehow, my plan for health care is going to mean that sick children can’t see doctors.

Reeher: So, let’s talk about this. What changes in the country’s current health care system – let’s take it as it currently stands – what changes are you advocating?

Balter: So, what I’m advocating for is exactly the opposite of that – to make sure that every child can see a doctor, that every person can see a doctor. I believe the best way to do that is to take our currently successful program of Medicare, which is effective and efficient and incredibly popular. Right now, Medicare only insures the most difficult-to-insure people – the elderly and those with long-term disability. Those are the hardest to cover and the most expensive to cover. What I’m advocating for is opening the doors of our current Medicare system to everybody so that we are also covering the less-expensive people to insure, the easier people to insure. What that will mean is that every single person in this country will have insurance and access to care. They will be able to see a doctor when they need to. They will be able to afford their medications, which, right now, is not the case for far too many of our families. It is a plan that will save us money, both in terms of our overall health care costs in this country, but also at the individual household level. Ninety-five percent of households under a Medicare-for-all system will spend less money out of pocket on health coverage because, right now, the things that they’re drowning in, like premiums and deductibles, those will either get reduced significantly or disappear altogether, depending on the details of the plan.

Reeher: So, that plan, I think it’s fair to say, at least in the next two years, is not going to go anywhere. There’s no way that President Trump would sign that into law, even if the Congress could pass it, and that’s probably unlikely as well. So, are there other smaller changes that you are advocating that you can articulate quickly that are more relevant for the next two years?

Balter: Absolutely. And let me say about the two-year timeline, even if President Trump were willing to sign it into law, I don’t think it would be ready within two years. I think we have a lot of work to do to very thoughtfully and carefully craft a Medicare-for-all bill that’s going to be successful, and that will take some time. So, in the meantime, there are a lot of things we can do. I think the first thing we have to do is allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies. One of the biggest cost-drivers in our out-of-control health care system is pharmaceutical costs. And, in our current system, we see the VA [Veterans Affairs] negotiate with drug companies, and they save about 40 percent on the cost of medications. I want to see those savings be available to every American. So, that would be the first step. The second is, we need to repair the damage done to the ACA [Affordable Care Act] over the last couple of years and shore up that program, help strengthen individual markets, encourage more states to participate in Medicaid expansion because we see much better outcomes in the states that did than the states that didn’t. So, we need to work on that as well while we’re working toward the longer-term goal of Medicare for all.

Reeher: All right. I want to stick with the messaging for a bit longer because I really think this is an important issue for our political system. The last one of these ads that I wanted to ask you about from his end, and then I have some questions about your claims, concerns the political group that your candidacy emerged from – the CNY Solidarity Coalition. It’s a local version of the broader resistance movement against President Trump. His office has called this group “radical,” “a hostile and bitterly partisan activist organization that Dana Balter has helped create and grow right here in Syracuse.” One particular focus of this criticism of your association with this regards the claim that the group protested Lockheed Martin in Syracuse, a local employer, and that you are being called upon to disavow this group’s activity in this regard. How would you describe the group, first of all, if you can briefly? I know that’s a longer story, but briefly describe the group. And, do you support the protest that it made at Lockheed Martin?

Balter: So, this is another case where the congressman is really, sort of, distorting the truth to scare people. So, the organization that we’re talking about here is a group of concerned citizens. As you said, it’s part of a broader movement across the country. A lot of people are familiar with the name “Indivisible” as sort of an organizing umbrella for thousands of groups of concerned citizens across the country. And it’s people who are coming together to exercise their First Amendment rights to petition their government and speak up for the things that they believe in and against the things that they don’t. I think that is one of the most important things about being a citizen in a democracy, is that we can do that. The specific protest that he’s talking about, I wasn’t a part of. So, I actually found out about it when he made this statement. But, I think it’s another example of him mischaracterizing what was happening. The protest was not against hardworking men and women, and, of course, I support our hardworking men and women here in Syracuse. That protest, from my understanding – again, looking at it after the fact – was about the war in Yemen and had nothing to do with the employees of Lockheed Martin. But, as I said, it wasn’t there.

Reeher: Had they located the protest there because Lockheed Martin builds some of the weapons that are used in that? Is that the connection?

Balter: That’s my understanding, yes.

Reeher: OK.

Balter: But, again, this I only know from looking at the event after the fact.

Reeher: Well, let’s just ask the question, then. All right, you looked at it after the fact. Do you support that protest or not support that protest or have some other opinion on it?

Balter: I support people’s right to participate in free speech and exercise the First Amendment. In theory, that’s what we all get into public service for, is protecting those fundamental rights that we have as Americans.

Reeher: OK. Now, I want to ask you about some of your claims or some being made by the Democratic Party on your behalf. First of all, the main theme of your critical message, I think, is pretty clear. And that is, and these are my words now – just my words to describe what I think your campaign’s claim is – that, despite appearances, Congressman Katko is really not that moderate and is, in fact, more like other Republicans than not and goes along with President Trump most of the time. One assertion in that regard that’s been put forward in support of this is that he has “voted 90 percent of the time with Donald Trump and Washington special interests.” That’s a quote from a mailer. Now, the problem with that kind of claim, from the standpoint of the political scientist that I am, is that a lot of those votes that are being counted there are either noncontroversial or relatively insignificant items, such as the naming of the building happening. And we’ve talked about this before when we had our individual interview in the cycle. There are a lot of other facts that would point against this claim of yours, looking at the congressman’s record. First of all, independent rankings of members of Congress consistently find Congressman Katko among the most moderate, independent and bipartisan members. His bills have Democratic co-sponsors – that’s a fact – and he’s passed a lot of legislation for someone at his rank – another fact – in his time of office so far. So, tell me, if you can briefly, what are you really basing that argument on? Is it primarily a focus on the tax bill vote? What’s driving this argument of yours?

Balter: It’s his overall record. And I think that, looking at the 90 percent statistic is a good initial guide. That comes from FiveThirtyEight.com. They take out, when they figure out this statistic out – which they do for all members of Congress, and this is a nonpartisan site – they take out a lot of the noncontroversial and unimportant things. Their focus is on substantive issues, which is important because some of the other rankings that the congressman cites don’t do that, and they include a lot of things that are done to pad the statistics. And that makes him and others look more moderate or more independent than they actually are. FiveThirtyEight’s reporting on this is pretty good, but if we dig into his votes, we can see very clearly that he is not the moderate that he claims to be. He told us when we first started running for office in 2014 that he’s a fiscal conservative and a social conservative. In his own words, he said that. And his voting record shows us. The tax bill was a party-line vote. He has a terrible record on environmental issues, just like the rest of his party does, doing things like voting to dump coal ash in our streams and allowing pesticides and toxins and chemicals in our water supply. He campaigned saying that he would never vote to defund Planned Parenthood, and his first year in office, he did it four times. He is a co-sponser of the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act. That is an NRA bill that our law-enforcement community tells us makes us less safe. And on the rare occasion that he actually does vote against his party, it’s a matter of political convenience. It’s when his party doesn’t need his vote, and so, he is allowed to vote against to come back here and tell us. And one of the votes that he holds up as sort of his greatest badge of independence was his vote against his party on the Republican health care bill because he said to us, “I will never repeal the ACA without a good replacement.” He voted against that bill, but then, he voted for the tax bill, which was a backdoor way to accomplish the same thing because in the tax bill, they killed the key provision of the ACA that made the entire thing work.

Reeher: Let’s specify what that was. What was that provision?

Balter: It was the so-called “individual mandate” that requires people to have insurance.

Reeher: It was, I think, more specifically than that, correct me if I’m wrong, it was the financial penalty that’s assessed if you do not have insurance. That’s what was removed.

Balter: Yes. And as a result of that, we saw a couple of things happen sort of as a direct result of that that are really important. One, premiums started going through the roof, and we saw state after state after state release numbers of what all of their insurers are going to do with premiums in the next year. And, right here, in our district, we saw our largest insurer announce that they were asking for premium increases of 39 percent next year. That kind of an increase throws thousands of people off insurance. The second thing that happened that may be even more concerning is this lawsuit that we’re seeing in Texas where 20 GOP-led states are suing the federal government, saying, “Now that you’ve taken out this key provision of the ACA, the rest of the bill is invalid.” And so, we are now seeing challenges to all the other provisions that we need: The ability to stay on your parent’s insurance till you’re 26, the ban on discriminating against women and charging them more for health care, the ban on lifetime caps – so, babies who are born and half to go in a NICU may reach their lifetime insurance cap before they even make it home out of the hospital – and most importantly, a threat to coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. And, in our district alone, that’s almost 300,000 people under the age of 65, right? All of that is a direct result of that vote on the tax bill. This is anything but a moderate agenda.

Reeher: One follow-up on that, if you could briefly because I want to try to squeeze some other questions in, but what is exactly the connection that you are arguing between the repeal – let’s just take the policy – the repeal of the financial penalty attached to not having insurance – so, that was part of the ACA – and the rising premiums? What is that connection because I don’t think it’s obvious on its face? Why would that trigger rising premiums? One might argue, I think, that those rising premiums are part of a more general problem in our health care system and are being driven by bigger forces than that. What is that connection?

Balter: So, it’s true that premiums would have risen anyway, but they would’ve risen by very small amounts. They rise every year because our health care costs, generally, are rising every year. I say that there is a connection there because the insurance companies say that there is a connection there.

Reeher: Why would they take that and say, “Oh, now we have to raise premiums”?

Balter: Because, by removing the penalty, that means that people who were buying insurance but felt that they didn’t necessarily need it – so, young people, healthy people, people who are not worried about getting sick – will stop buying that insurance because now, there’s no longer a penalty if they don’t.

Reeher: So, the pool gets sicker and more expensive.

Balter: Exactly. And that separates us into two risk pools.

Reeher: OK.

Balter: And we’re left with the same kind of high-risk pool, which the congressman advocates going back to, that we had before the ACA. And that’s what drives everybody’s costs up.

Reeher: OK. There’s another major theme of your messaging, is that the congressman hasn’t made himself available to the public – part of your original rollout of your campaign – and has refused to participate in public forums where he might be challenged by people. So, what’s your evidence for this? Briefly, what’s your evidence for this?

Balter: Now, I was part of an effort that went on for many months trying to get him to hold public town hall meetings after Donald Trump’s election so that we could talk about some of these issues that our voters and residents here in the 24th District are really worried about. He flat-out refused to participate in any of those things. He doesn’t do open, public town hall meetings despite these problems—

Reeher: What about these panels, though, panels on the opioid crisis? They’re out in the open, as far as I understand, and people come and ask questions. Tell me why that’s not a genuine openness to possible confrontation by members of that.

Balter: So, one reason is that they are single-issue focused. They are also expert panels who are talking about things, as opposed to a discussion with the congressman. And he’s done a number of them over the years, and when he says, “And then, we’ll open up for questions,” what I have seen is one or two questions at the end and, with very few exceptions, always on the topic that he has announced. So, the difference is between this hyper-controlled environment and something that is a truly open conversation about the thing that the voters are concerned about and want to talk to him about. And it’s a pattern with him. It’s not just about not having those meetings; It’s also about calling his office to ask a question about where the congressman stands and consistently getting the answer, “I can’t share that information with you” or “I don’t know.” There is a very troubling lack of communication between him and his constituents.