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Juanita Perez Williams on the Campbell Conversations

Tom Fazzio
Syracuse University

New York's 24th Congressional District, currently represented by Republican John Katko, now has two Democratic candidates vying to challenge him in November. Dana Balter, who was designated by the Onondaga, Cayuga and Oswego county democratic committees, and Juanita Perez Williams, who entered the race at a fairly late stage. 

This week, Grant Reeher speaks Perez Williams, who survived a challenge this week, when many of her petition signatures were ruled invalid by the New York State Board of Elections. But the board ruled that she had enough petition signatures to remain on the June primary ballot. 

Interview Highlights

Reeher: The timing of your entry into this race has gotten a lot of ink. And it has a lot of Democratic volunteers and activists, as well as some local party leaders, both concerned and…upset…The obvious question is why get into this race now? Explain the timing.

Perez Williams: This was not an easy decision for me. We had just come off of the mayor’s race…I continually received encouragement, locally at the state level and at the national level, to get into the Congressional race. And I truly just wanted to sit on the sidelines and see how things unfolded. I walked the streets for my opponent. I got signatures for her. I gave her donations. I truly want to get this seat back for Democrats. But what I saw, really, was very little traction. What I also got concerned about what that we weren’t serious about mounting a real challenge against John Katko…I just came to the conclusion that this is bigger than me. This is bigger than all of us. This is about flipping the House and bringing a Democrat to our district to ensure we have a voice here for working families and throughout the country. And I believed that I could do that. It was just being able to jump into this expecting that I would get the pushback that I did but being able to move forward. And I still believe that today…I heard the other day that [Dana Balter], quite frankly, has been able to get more traction in her campaign since I jumped in, and that’s what this is about. It’s about having the best candidate that moves forward and takes on John Katko.

Reeher: On the one hand, it seems like Dana Balter got very early the enthusiastic backing of a lot of Democratic activists in the district, particularly those who had already formed in resistance to the Trump election and now the Trump administration…How should voters in the Democratic Party who are going to vote in the primary sort out this grassroots enthusiasm versus more traditional kind of backing?

Perez Williams: I think it’s also, again, having a challenger that can be competitive with John Katko. And so, my short answer to your question is it’s a full package. We now have what we need in this race to have the best candidate move on and utilize all of these resources to win in November. But let me tell you what I’m a part of now…The Democratic Party, nationally, has reached out to candidates, specifically women…I am standing with 24 women—I’ve done this throughout the country now—as a team, an army if you will, where many of us are military veterans, former prosecutors. We’ve been in political races. We’ve fought the fight. And they are standing up saying, “If we get these women in, we flip the house with experience and qualifications that can move our country forward in ways that we’re focusing on families.”…It was humbling for me to get that call, but I get it, and I hope people get it, that this is about having that national attention being part of this team. And I respect Dana for all she brings, but what we’re looking for are candidates at the national level that really have the background and the experience and the qualifications to take on a Republican incumbent.

Reeher: What is the argument that you’ll be making, briefly, about why Congressman Katko does not deserve reelection?

Perez Williams: He is not able to fight for the working families of our district…I know John. Our kids went to the same school. I think he’s a nice guy. I say all the same things other people say, but his hands are tied. He has a leadership that’s irrational. They’re not concerned about the working families of central New York. They’re not concerned about our seniors and our kids and the issues that we’re facing here. And so, John is stuck with that. And all you have to [do is] look at the way he votes and the particular initiative he supports. He’ll support an initiative, but then, he’ll have to repeal it with some type of vote. He can’t be our voice…We have a district that leans toward those issues that are about our families. And we need a voice that can do that. I’ve been a fighter all my life for working families, and what really was the pivotal point in here that made me jump in is I’m very close to labor. And a lot of the labor folks were telling me that John had disappointed them…That made me stand up and say, “We’ve got to get in there. We’ve got to do this.” And that’ll be our message in November.

Reeher: When there are rankings done of members of Congress…[Katko] does come out as either particularly bipartisan or independent from the Republican Party relative to his peers…He was recently ranked the seventh most bipartisan member of Congress by a nonpartisan center at Georgetown University. And that included both Democrats and Republicans…How are you going to make the argument that you want to make there resonate with voters when he’s got those kind of numbers and rankings that he can point to?

Perez Williams: We know he’s voted 91 percent of the time with President Trump, 87 percent of the time with Paul Ryan. If being number seven makes him closer to independent with those types of voting numbers, clearly, we have a problem. And it demonstrates what’s so horrifically wrong with our country right now. We have a system that is just so right and so conservative and not focusing on the needs of the people. I think it will be easy to truly move away from that type of data and information and talk about what’s really happening to people in this district…There’s nothing that he stands up for in these particular matters to make it known why it is he’s fighting for these concerns and what it is that the outcome will be.

Reeher: You mentioned the prospect of the House flipping over to the Democrats earlier on in our conversation. I wanted to ask you question about that. That is definitely, I think, part of the message of the Democratic Congressional candidates all across the country that this is going to happen and this is yet another reason why it would be a good idea to put a Democrat in that particular seat…But, that’s not a done deal by any means. It’s completely uncertain right now who’s going to control the house after the midterm elections. So, the question I wanted to put to you is, taking that logic and thinking about it, what will voters here be left with for the 24th district if they elect a freshman Democrat…and the House is still controlled by Republicans?

Perez Williams: I think that’s part of this testing of people that have been part of the selection process…You see a Republican congressman who’s tried to act as a moderate, but yet not been successful in getting his support from the leadership to make the change, even when he is in the majority. So, we’re not having that be a successful component from him being in that role, so we’ve got to put that to the side. Having a Democratic congresswoman from this district that, by the way, leans Democrat means you have someone that, at the very least, is connecting to the people of this district…I think what we have here is we have people who are not connecting with what John Katko is trying to do, and he has not been successful, for the most part…I’m a fighter. I tell people that all the time, but I think it’s good for the people to have someone that stands up for them…I put myself out there as a moderate Democrat…I can work across party lines; I have to all the time.

Reeher: You lost [the mayoral race] to Ben Walsh. As an independent, he won by 16 points. That’s in a city that’s overwhelmingly Democratic, so there’s obviously going to be a mobilization challenge, I think, for your campaign. Add that to the fact that Congressman Katko carried the city of Syracuse in his last election. So those two factoids right there, I think, suggest some challenges. How are you going to overcome that?

Perez Williams: I learned a lot from the mayor’s race. And what I learned really is that we aren’t as occupied by as many Democrats as we think. [We have] a lot of unaffiliates, a lot of independents. We have to reach everyone. We have to be inclusive. I’m not going to talk about labeling where I fall on the spectrum of a Democrat. I think we need to have our arms open. I’m going to have my arms open to women, to veterans, to folks that are living in the rural areas to the inner city. It’s not about a party; it’s about people and how they connect.

Interview highlights have been edited for clarity

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.