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Juanita Perez Williams and Dana Balter debate on the Campbell Conversations

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Juanita Perez Williams (left) and Dana Balter (right) are running for the Democratic nomination in the 24th Congressional District

The congressional midterm elections this November may be the most important midterm in a generation, and even the primaries are generating national attention. One of those primaries is in central New York, where two Democrats are running to unseat Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus) in November. This week, Grant Reeher moderates an informal debate with Dana Balter and Juanita Perez Williams. 

Debate Transcript

Reeher: So, let me start with a basic question. In your campaigns so far—at least, for the most part, anyway—I think both of you have been spending more time talking about the Republican incumbent than about each other. And that makes sense; it’s understandable, but Democratic voters can only choose one of you on June 26, so I want to spend some time trying to draw some contrast. And to help set the stage for this, let me start with my very general and very brief take on this. Juanita Perez Williams has more formal, politically related experience and has the backing of the national Democratic Party organization, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Dana Balter has the support of all the county Democratic committees and a spinoff group from the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and a lot of the support of grassroots, progressive activists who’re energized by the election for president. I hope that’s fair. Let me start, Dana Balter, with you. I want to ask you something related to that in a way, getting at the basic difference. So, what is your primary purpose in going to Washington [D.C.] as a representative for the 24th District? Is it to oppose Donald Trump? Is it to find ways to work with him and other Republicans? Is it to represent under-represented minority groups, push for particular policy changes, bring federal money back to the district? I mean, what’s your central mission in going there?

Balter: My central purpose in going there is to stand up for the people of this congressional district, to fight for their interests, to amplify their voices and bring their concerns to Congress. I think that’s what a good representative should do. I believe that it is long past time for us to bring government and politics back to the hands of the people, where it belongs. That’s why I have been campaigning since September all across the district, meeting with as many people as I possibly could, and every county and every corner of this district, to hear from them, to understand what are their concerns, what challenges are they facing in their communities, and how I can help make their lives and their communities better, stronger and more prosperous. That is my goal in Congress. That’s what I think people are looking for in a representative, and it means that I will be beholden to the people of the 24th District, not beholden to D.C. insiders or corporate donors.

Reeher: And Ms. Perez Williams, same question to you. What’s your central mission in going to Washington for the 24th District?

Perez Williams: First of all, that’s a very good question. This is not about Dana Balter. This is about a race to beat John Katko and to have a voice for the 24th Congressional District. I am in this for families. I have a family. I know what’s happening here with my own kids, and I am fighting for policies that support working families in this district. So, we’re going to talk about supporting Medicare for all, quality education, real equal pay for equal work, voting to ensure that we are protecting choice for all women and ensuring that when we’re talking about real tax relief, that we actually do it and we think about the people in the 24th District. This is for the working families of central New York. That’s why I’m in this race.

Reeher: So, I’m hearing a lot of similarities there in the two answers. So, Dana Balter, let me come back to you and try to, then, pull out some differences. What do you think is the most significant, or two or three most significant, differences between you and Ms. Perez Williams?

Balter: Well, I think one of the significant differences is the way and the reasons that we got into this race. For me, the decision to run for Congress, to run against John Katko, grew organically out of work that I was doing, conversations that I was having with people all across the district. I was working as a community organizer. I was teaching issues of citizenship and policy. I was meeting people in all four counties of the district who were very concerned about what was happening at the federal level, about what Donald Trump and his administration are doing, about what the GOP Congress, with John Katko’s support, have been enabling him to do. And I, along with many people that I know, were trying very, very hard just to sit down with our congressman and have a conversation. I wanted to talk to him about healthcare. I wanted to ask him to stand up and fight for me and my friends and my family and my neighbors, and he wouldn’t meet with us. And, to me, that’s unacceptable, so I decided it was time to replace him. That’s why I’m running. We need a representative who is going to engage with the people and listen to the people. That organic growth of my candidacy, I think, is one of the significant differences between us. I think that there are some policy differences between us as well, which I’m sure will emerge as we talk about these issues. And I think the one that I am aware of now, I think that we have different perspectives on protecting reproductive healthcare.

Reeher: I wanted to ask about that later, but let me stick with just that as your answer. I understand what you’re saying about where your campaign emerged from. Juanita Perez Williams, what do you regard as the most significant difference between the two of you?

Perez Williams: You know, Dana and I are both Democrats. I believe, on the big issues, we are saying the same thing. I am proud to be standing with another Democrat woman as we prepare to mount a serious challenge against John Katko. But that’s not what this election is about. It’s about the fact that only one of us has the history of being a fighter in central New York, proven results, being someone that has been out there working with our district leaders for not just a few years, but for many, many years. I have been organizing grassroots groups for many, many years, and that’s what that’s about. That’s about bringing people together, impacting communities and making change, whether it’s fighting the Fight for 15, to make sure we had a minimum wage in our state starting at a $15 rate. I did that. I helped people grow that. I worked behind many unions. I belong to a union myself. I belonged to a PEF [Public Employees Federation] union, and I fought many years ago when Governor George Pataki started to push through a program to let go of many people who were working for the state. I organized a large group. I confronted him. We saved many jobs. More recently, working with the minority community, I saw a need for a minority business chamber of commerce. I co-founded one, so I’ve been doing that.

Reeher: Let me jump in, there. So, what I’m hearing there, then, is the emergence of the campaign and the organic emergence of that and citing a longer resume of past experience. I’m going to come back, Dana Balter, to you and kind of jump off of what you said in your answer when you alluded to the policy positions that are different. I wanted to ask you to identify, I guess, a significant area of policy on which you think that you and Juanita Perez Williams have different positions. And you referenced the reproductive rights. You’ve got a broadcast ad that you’re currently running that suggests that Ms. Perez Williams is not supportive of reproductive choice for women, so is that the big issue that you would see is distinguishing the two of you?

Balter: It’s certainly one of them, and I think that is a big difference between us. I stand firmly, 100 percent, in support of a woman’s right to choose and not only protecting, but expanding women’s access to healthcare. My opponent says that she is pro-choice but seems to have been on all sides of this issue. She posted on social media in celebration of an Irish judge upholding Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws. She posted on social media about proudly marching in this country’s largest anti-abortion protest, whose express purpose is making abortion illegal in this country again. She posted on social media about her pro-life advocacy. I don’t understand how someone who says and does those things can be trusted to stand up and protect these rights.

Reeher: So, Juanita Perez Williams, how can you stand up to protect those rights?

Perez Williams: I am pro-choice. Dana knows that. She’s being disingenuous. I have been pro-choice my entire life. My mother worked for Planned Parenthood. We were a pro-choice family. I’ve raised two daughters that are now adult women, both pro-choice, and both know that, as a mother, I was always firm about the fact that we need to respect all choice for all women. It’s about preserving that right. It’s about ensuring that we respect the right for all women. I am someone that has been out there defending choice, defending all choice, and what women are seeing from speaking with me and meeting with me is that Dana and I are saying the same thing. We respect that women come to choice from different backgrounds, different faiths, different cultures.

Reeher: Let me interject, here. You’re saying the same thing, but she’s making an assertion about things that you have done in the past for which there is a trail of evidence, so to speak. So, let me just take the march that she referred to. Explain to our listeners, then, what you’re doing when you’re participating in that march and whether your views have changed from that moment in time to now and how.

Perez Williams: Well, let’s explain that moment in time. I’m a mother of four grown children. My youngest son, who is a student at a Catholic university with our church, has always marched at the pro-life event in Washington. One particular year, I went. I wanted to see what he was exposed to. I wanted to see what he was doing with our church members and with his friends, and by going there, it confirmed for me that choice is important, and we need to preserve it for all women.

Reeher: Do you find that explanation credible, Ms. Balter?

Balter: I certainly don’t find it satisfactory. Again, in Juanita’s own words, she said, “I proudly marched.” That is not, “I participated to observe.” “I proudly marched,” in a march whose sole purpose is making abortion illegal in this country. I don’t understand how that comports with protecting women’s rights. The two just do not go together.

Reeher: And Juanita Perez Williams, I give you the last word on this, and then, we’re going to move on. But go ahead.

Perez Williams: It’s not inconsistent for respecting choice, no matter what that choice is, and then being out there, ensuring that you vote for it, you preserve it. That is a logical response. If you truly respect all choice, then you preserve it and you vote for it. And I can tell you that when I was at that march, I had no agenda. It was simply there to see what my son was exposed to, and again, it reaffirmed my faith that, in fact, choice is something we must preserve. And I will always vote to ensure we do that.

Reeher: Let me take a little more time trying to draw out some other contrasts policy-wise. And Juanita Perez Williams, I’ll direct this question to you. Can you imagine a particular congressional vote that was taken during the past two years that you think you and Dana Balter would’ve voted differently on?

Perez Williams: No. I believe that we, again, agree in many of the same policies and, as Democrats, believe that we would always support legislation that helps the working men and women of this country. And so, I can’t think of anything that we would have done differently, and I believe that as we move forward, both of us really have the same message, and that is to ensure that we’re talking about a good economy for central New York, that we’re ensuring that any legislation that goes through takes care of the people of central New York. And I’m confident that I’ll be able to do that as congresswoman.

Reeher: Dana Balter, same question. Can you think of a vote in the past two years in Congress where you think the two of you would’ve voted differently?

Balter: I’m not sure because I don’t yet know enough about where Juanita stands on specific issues. So, I can’t speak to specific votes that might have been different. I think the general message that Juanita is giving now, those are certainly things that I generally agree with. I think our general objectives are the same. We are looking to support legislation and bring resources back to this district to help families in central New York, help the people that John Katko and the GOP have abandoned with their tax bill and their sabotage of the ACA. And what central and western New York is looking for is a representative who’s going to stand up to that, be a voice for, or rather, amplify the voices of the people here in the district. And I think that they are looking for somebody who has a clear grasp on policy, who can understand the problems that our community is facing and be able to assess alternative solutions to those problems and choose the ones that are going to be most effective for us. And that’s why I believe I am the better candidate.

Reeher: So, let me stick with you. There’s been a lot of emphasis recently on finding a way to lessen the political polarization in the country and the lack of cooperation between the two parties, a lot of discussion about that. And the incumbent, John Katko, has on his resume some efforts to do that, including just recently on the immigration issue. Let me ask you, Dana Balter, on what issues would you realistically imagine that you could work with Republicans on in Congress?

Balter: I think there are a number of issues that are ready for some real bipartisan work. One that I think we have not been paying enough attention to and we can make a lot of progress on is a carbon dividend, which is a market-based solution to one of the biggest problems we face in terms of climate disruption, figuring out how to manage our carbon emissions. This is a market-based solution that is supported by conservative thinkers and conservative policymakers. It is also supported by liberal thinkers and liberal policymakers, so I think this is an area where we can reach [a] consensus quickly and make important progress for our country. I also think that we have a lot of common ground on the issue of infrastructure. It’s a need that both parties recognize. It’s the kind of program that both parties support. It’s something that not only will solve a tremendous problem that we have here in central and western New York and across the country in terms of crumbling infrastructure, but it’s also a way to bring lots of good union jobs for people who need work. So, that’s something where I think we can go a long way working together.

Reeher: And Juanita Perez Williams, same question to you. On what issues could you realistically imagine working with Republicans on in Congress?

Perez Williams: I have to put to the forefront immigration. I mean, obviously, that is an ongoing piece of legislation that we’re trying so hard to ensure we get real immigration reform for this country. And presently, our own representative is really giving us no solutions, but people want to talk about this on all sides of the aisle. We have farmers concerned about labor. We have families being torn apart. We have workers hiding in the shadows. We need real immigration reform. I have my own experiences to that issue. I myself grew up on the border. I watched my father [get] harassed by the border patrol. I have a story. I’m connected to that issue. I’ve worked with many people in the community with regard to what ICE [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] is doing, really terrorizing communities. And I believe that I can offer my own perspective, what I’ve experienced, what we’re seeing here, and reach across both sides of the aisle.

Reeher: Let me jump in, if I could, on that, just to ask you a follow-up on that issue. So, the Republicans are, obviously, expressing a lot of concerns about border security and illegal immigration, so where would be the place that you would meet them and find the common ground there to move something forward?

Perez Williams: Absolutely. We know that bringing the National Guard to the border, talking about a wall, does not make us make us more secure. Again, I can offer my own anecdotes, what I have known from my own experience. Where we can come together is to talk about how when we do not create pathways to citizenship for people who have been promised these pathways, what we create is a chilling impact in this country. And we have people who are not responding to their children going to school, the emergency rooms, reporting domestic violence. This effect has impacted all of us. And again, as I talk about this issue, it’s impacting our farmers. It’s impacting business. It’s impacting labor. So, when we reach across the aisles and we see that it’s impacting all of these different constituents, again, my sense is that this is a conversation that everybody can now come together and see if we don’t come up with some reform how it starts to hurt our economy throughout the country.

Reeher: I have questions here at the end sort of about the politics of all this, and I want to explore a little bit. And Juanita Perez Williams, I’ll stick with you. When you ran for mayor last November, the party establishment originally didn’t back you. And you ran, however, a decisive primary victory against the person who was selected by the city party organization to be the nominee. But, in the general election, there was a different story, and I think it’s fair to say that the Democratic Party and you underperformed in that election. And you may have run into the wrong candidate at the wrong time, but still, it was a pretty wide margin of victory for Ben Walsh. So, [to] Democrats looking at the two of you and trying to figure out who they’re going to back to challenge John Katko, reassure the Democrats that are looking back at that mayor’s race that you’d be the better bet in facing off against another popular, and arguably, another politically moderate candidate just one year later. And please leave room for Dana Balter to get her version of the question that she’s going to get in your answer. So, how are you going to reassure Democrats about this?

Perez Williams: Well, first of all, it was not the result that we wanted, but it was a great movement for people. We brought out more people who had never voted before. We created, really, engagement for so many people, and it’s why I’m in this race. I’m in this race because people continue to knock on my door and call me and say, “We need you to run for Congress. We need you to take the issues, your voice and your passion to the next level so we can ensure that we have someone representing us at the federal level.” So, I see it, really, not as though we didn’t get the final point, but we are moving on, and we are growing this movement. Many of these folks are behind me now as we move through this particular race, but it’s a different race. It’s a race where, when I got in, there was no national attention. And I wanted that to happen. I wanted the 24th Congressional District to be on the radar. And when I got in three days later, it became a red-to-blue district. What does that mean? That means this is a battle station. This is where we’re going to get people coming in to not just help me, but to help our party, help our party win this, help our party have the funds to beat John Katko in November. And the national endorsements are coming in, as you mentioned. I’ve gotten endorsed by Vote Vets, the national veteran organization that wants vets in Congress. I’ve gotten the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus. I’ve got the endorsement of the Congressional Latino Caucus, a Latino organization that supports Latina women who are pro-choice. I am getting national recognition because I’m in this race and I am bringing it to this district. And that’s why we’re going to win—because it’s a different race with people realizing we now have the ability to do this.

Reeher: Dana Balter, I’ve a different version of the same question for you. The national Democratic Party organization, looking at this race and how it was shaping up, apparently decided that, in order to have a better shot at winning, it needed a different kind of candidate, one with better connections to funding, more experience in government and politics, and, I think, if I’m reading some of the things that are coming from the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee], offering more diversity in some ways. So, how do you reassure Democrats that you’d be the better bet in taking on this two-term incumbent with this long resume of previous public service? Because it seems like the DCCC had that in mind when they put their backing behind Juanita Perez Williams.

Balter: So, a few things. First of all, I would be happy to go toe-to-toe with Juanita on national endorsements. I have a whole group of national organizations who are behind me. The focus of the organizations who are backing me is on grassroots. They are organizations that believe that politics belongs in the hands of the people and they are organizations that are looking to rebuild the political future of our country from the ground up, not the top down. They want our politics to be dictated by the voters, not by D.C. insiders. I’m particularly proud that I’ve received the endorsement of the National Organization of Women because they know that I will stand always, 100 percent, to protect, defend and expand the rights of women across this country. I think that the most important thing in being able to take on John Katko, in being able to win in November—which we need to do not only for our district, but for our country—is being able to harness the power of the people in this district. And I have demonstrated that I can do that. I have been campaigning since September. I have built a movement around this campaign. I have tremendous supporters all across the district. It’s why I have over 800 volunteers working on my campaign across the district. It’s why I was able to submit 8,000 signatures in the ballot process, which is more than any candidate has ever done for this office. That is who votes in an election. It’s the people on the ground who have to believe in you and back you. And all due respect to Juanita’s efforts in the mayor’s race. She’s the first Democrat to lose the city of Syracuse in 20 years. The city of Syracuse is the most Democratic place in the district. We need somebody in this election who can galvanize support from across the district, and my campaign has already demonstrated that I can do that.

Reeher: Just 15 seconds, and really only 15 seconds. Let me press on that last point about losing as a Democrat in Syracuse.

Perez Williams: We garnered almost 10,000 Democrats to show up and vote in November. That was a success. That was a grassroots movement that moved forward without the backing of the local party. And since then, I have garnered the local Democrats, more coming throughout the district, that see we can win because of that movement. So, I am proud of it.

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.