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Tom Suozzi on the Campbell Conversations

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Tom Suozzi
Tom Suozzi

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with one of the Democratic candidates for governor of New York, Congressman Tom Suozzi. He's been in Congress representing the 3rd district since 2017 and served as County Executive of Nassau County from 2002 to 2009, prior to that he served as mayor of Glen Cove, New York.

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to The Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is one of the Democratic candidates for governor in New York state, Congressman Tom Suozzi. He's been in Congress representing the third district since 2017 and served as county executive of Nassau County from 2002 to 2009. Prior to that, he served as mayor of Glen Cove, New York. Congressman Suozzi, welcome to the program.

Tom Suozzi: Hey, Grant, thanks so much for having me on the show. I really appreciate it.

GR: Well, it's great to have you here. Let me just start with a couple of questions. Basic ones I ask you to be very brief if I can, and then we can get into more detail on some of the issues as we go. But first of all, briefly, what is your case against electing Kathy Hochul.

TS: Well, Kathy Hochul is failing. She's not addressing the issues people care about. People care about crime. They care about taxes, they care about affordability. She's not addressing any of those issues. I'm a proven executive, trained as a lawyer and a CPA, as you mentioned, a mayor, county executive member of Congress, and how to make government work. I'm a commonsense Democrat and not going to pander to the left. I'm not going to back down on the right. And I've laid out very clearly I'm focused on crime, taxes, affordability, helping our kids in our troubled schools. And now corruption's become the big issue again in New York state, the most corrupt state in the United States of America.

GR: Yeah, I want to I want to ask you some questions about that a little bit later. But let me look at your career in Congress and ask you a question about that. You've been a member, I understand, the Problem Solvers Caucus, and this is a bipartisan group in which individual members who join must join in a pair with a member of the other party. Can you give me an example of work that that caucus has done that has made a real difference in Congress or in our public policies?

TS: Well, the biggest example right now is the $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal that wouldn't have passed unless it was bipartisan. Even Mitch McConnell voted for it. He doesn't vote for anything. That guy, you know, it's 29 Democrats and 29 Republicans. We meet regularly to try and find common ground on things. Take down the crazy heated temperature and rhetoric in Washington. D.C., not an easy thing to do in the current environment, as you can imagine. And that bill would not have passed if it wasn't bipartisan. And it's going to help a lot of New Yorkers just create an enormous amount of jobs. It's going to help with things we've been talking about for decades with roads and bridges and sewer and water and electric vehicle charging stations and so much more, mass transit. And it's going to help a lot of people.

GR: Say a little bit more about your involvement in the caucuses, involvement in that. My understanding was and I've spoken to another member of Congress who's also part of the caucus, John Katko, that that caucus really developed the compromise bill that ultimately passed. Could you talk a little bit about that?

TS: Well, back in April of 2021, we went down to Maryland to Governor Hogan's Executive Chamber. And I think ultimately as residents and we had about 20, 25 members of Congress, we had half a dozen senators, bipartisan we had a few governors, and we said, listen, this has been eluding the past three presidents. Let's figure out how to get a deal done here that we can all get behind and force a compromise. And it worked. That framework resulted in the Senate passing it in August and then the Democrats dither among ourselves, you know, the are the progressives and the moderates fighting each other. But then ultimately it passed the House as well. And it's going to help a lot of people, as we said. Listen, everybody is sick and the people are sick and tired of the politicians just doing their talk points and battling each other. Gets things done to help the people. New York state has the highest taxes in the United States of America. That's not like rhetoric. That's fact. Highest state and local taxes in America. Our crime rate is going up throughout our state because of the laws that were changed by the state legislature. Our mayors, our district attorneys, our correctional facilities, our police commissioners, our parole, probation, mental health experts. People are clamoring for change, for a comprehensive plan so let's start doing what the people want. Forget about you know, you're a progressive, I'm a moderate, you're a Republican, I'm a Democrat. Forget about it. Let's work together to help the people. That's what the people want. And the reason it doesn't happen in New York state is because there's very little competition, because it's all an insider's game. It's the most corrupt state in the United States of America.

GR: Well, I want to get into all of those issues that you brought up. But let me ask this question about the primary, because you mentioned the progressives and the centrists kind of arguing with each other within the Democratic Party. And as you well know, as an elected official, the primary voters tend to be more at the extremes of either party. You've already just spoken to this. But if you could speak a little bit more, what can you say to reassure the typical Democratic primary voter? Because you got to get through a primary first. The typical Democratic primary voter that you're not too moderate, that you're not too centrist, you're not too willing to compromise.

TS: I'll never compromise on my values. I'll work with people to get things done. I'm a lifelong Democrat. I was the New York State Environmentalist of the Year by the New York League of Conservation Voters. I was the New York Immigration Coalition's Person of the Year for the work I did to help the undocumented and kicking ICE out of Nassau County when I was county executive. I have 100% rating from the Human Rights Campaign. I have 100% rating from Planned Parenthood. I have an F rating from the NRA. I'm the chairman of the Labor Caucus in Congress. I founded the Labor Caucus in Congress. I'm a lifelong Democrat with proven Democratic credentials of getting things done to help people, to lift people up, to solve problems. I created a thing called No Wrong Door in Nassau County with Health and Human Services that helped low and moderate-income people to lift them up out of poverty. That was copied by a Republican County Executive up in Onondaga County, Joanie Mahoney. So I know how to get things done in government to help people. And it's not about these extremist views. It's about working together to solve problems. That's what I've done throughout my entire career. That's what I'll do as Governor of New York state.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher here, and I'm speaking with New York Democratic Congressman Tom Suozzi, who's running for governor in this year's election. Well, you mentioned the things that are going to be your priorities. Can you tell me specifically some of the initiatives that you'd undertake as governor that would push out on crime and taxes, affordability?

TS: So I have on my web page and talk about it often my 15-point crime intervention and prevention plan. I've talked about reducing income taxes by 10% in New York state, I want to address property taxes as well, and I've talked about helping our troubled schools. Let me first talk about crime intervention and prevention. Intervention are the things we need to do right now to make people feel safe because people are worried in different communities. In New York City, they're afraid to take the subway, for example. And then there's prevention, which is the long-term things we need to do to fix the systemic problems in our society. Short term on intervention, we need to give judges the discretion to consider dangerousness of the defendants that come before them. 49 other states have that. The federal government has that. New York state's the only place that doesn't have it. It doesn't make any sense. The governor has not treated this like the serious crisis that it is. We need to address the raise the age law that they change where it's incentivizing gang members to give guns to 16 and 17 and even younger kids saying, don't worry, you won't get in trouble under the new laws. We're seeing more young people with guns than ever before because they're trying to circumvent the law. The discovery process has resulted in all of many of our cases being dismissed because the district attorneys and the police cannot comply with the timelines that have been set up. So we got to wake up and treat this like a hair-on-fire problem and bring together all the players to set up a comprehensive effort to address this problem. You don't agree with my ideas or I don't agree with your ideas. Let's figure out what we can agree on. But let's recognize the people are scared. This is affecting human life. This is affecting people's businesses. So that's crime. On the issue of prevention with crime, it's part of my education plan. 75% of the people in jail have a drug, alcohol or mental health problem. 50% of the people in most jails have a learning disability. When we fail children at a young age and don't give them an opportunity to succeed in life because of all the pressures of their home life or the dysfunction at home or the other problems that they're facing, they can't make it in life afterwards. So you look at third-grade test scores of the best school districts, the most at-risk districts, they're very similar. But by eighth grade, the kids in a good school district are skyrocketing. Great. The kids in the other school district have fallen off the face of the earth. We need to do what Bishop Desmond Tutu said. We spent a lifetime pulling people out of the river. Let's go upstream and stop them from falling in the river in the first place. To do that, because we already have the highest taxes in America. We already have more spending per student than any state in the United States of America without the results. Going to change the way we look at this. We need to bring all of our health and human service programs, social services, health, mental health, veterans, seniors, youth, physically challenged, drug and alcohol, bring them into our schools. The not-for-profit. The people that are funded with federal money and state money, local money bring them into our schools to help kids navigate the problems that are smaller at a young age that become the bigger problems later on in life. Right now, our whole society is geared towards a person, not an adult, in trouble showing up at the window to get a welfare check for a housing voucher or heat assistance or food stamps. Let's change our mentality and focus on preventing small problems from becoming big problems. Helping kids succeed in school. They'll succeed in life. So that's going to take a long time, but I know how it can be done. I did it as part of my No Wrong Door program in Nassau County. We just have to bring that into our schools.

GR: And on the issue of taxes, you've brought this up a couple of times. It's true. New York state perennially ranks either at the top or near the top, depending on who's doing the ranking for tax burden relative to other states in the country. You mentioned both income taxes and property taxes. Do you think there are certain high taxes here in the state that are more damaging to the state's overall well-being and its competitiveness than other taxes? Are certain taxes more problematic?

TS: I think they're both problematic. I think that property taxes, because they're regressive, they're not based upon your ability to pay. And a lot of people we find are house rich, but income poor, is a very serious problem, especially senior citizens who have seen their homes appreciate over the years. But now they're on a fixed income. They can't afford to stay in the house that they grew up in because they just can't afford it. But income taxes are stopping people from staying here. I mean, everybody who listens to your show knows somebody that moved to Florida, that moved to North Carolina, that moved to South Carolina and moved to Texas, or Arizona. I mean, this is all over the state. We have the biggest net outmigration of any state in the United States of America. So they're all a problem. Why do we have such high taxes? Well, we spent two and a half times the cost of the national average on Medicaid. Yeah, we spend more than Texas and Florida combined and Texas and Florida are both bigger than New York. It's broken. I fought for the property tax, I'm sorry, the Medicaid cap when I was county executive in Nassau County, and I got it but we still see these rising costs because of a lack of accountability. We spend more per student, as I said before, than any state in the United States of America. But our results aren't better. We have more unfunded mandates from the state of New York for our schools than any other state in the country. We need to move from mandates to guidelines. If schools are doing well. Leave them alone. Their kids are graduating. If their test scores are good. Leave them alone. If they're in trouble, let's swoop in and help them with the resources they need, with the expertise they need to solve the problems and let's do my idea related to Health and Human Services of bringing those services into the schools to help the kids at a young age to succeed. Because you can't succeed academically if you're having problems at home with someone's got a drug, alcohol or mental health problem.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with current member of Congress and former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi. The Democrat from the Third District is running for New York state Governor in this year's gubernatorial election. Congressman you talked about bail reform, discovery, the Raise the Age law, and I want to get a more specific sense of what kind of changes you'd be pushing for there. Is it the case that you want to go back to the status quo ante? What was before the reforms, or do you want to do something a little bit different from either of those two?

TS: No, we don't want to go back to the way it was before. We want to try and reform the reforms that were done. We don’t want to end it, we want to mend it. With cash bail, for example, cash bail is unfair. I was the county executive in Nassau County. I ran the 12th largest police department in the United States of America, bigger than Detroit or Boston. We had the lowest crime rate in the United States of America for any community, over 500,000 people. I ran a corrections facility. I saw people that were arrested for low-level offenses They get a $300 bail. One person could pay the bail right away. The other person can afford to pay $300. They languish in jail because they couldn't pay $300. We had private sector people that actually raise money to get people out of jail for these low-level offenses. So cash bail is not fair. But when they got rid of cash bail in New Jersey, they set up a dangerousness standard. They gave judges the discretion to look at whether or not the defendant before them has a record of violence, that they're violent now, if they've committed a whole bunch of other crimes before, give judges the discretion to consider dangerousness. And you know what? Monitor the judges is a judge being unfair and only remanding people that are black and brown used statistical evidence to find out what the judges are doing. Same thing you should be doing with police officers and use of force and things like that. We can use data. We can use technology to monitor behavior. Martin Luther King used to say, you know, you can't legislate morality, but you can regulate behavior. Let's use data and technology to monitor the behavior of people that we think might be breaking the rules and being unjust. We have to have justice. We have to have safety. People have to be safe. The prerequisite to prosperity is safety. The prerequisite to anything in society is safety. We don't want to go backwards and see more crime in our state.

GR: Let me ask you a question about the redistricting process that we've gone through so far this year. I think, to put it kindly, the process has been a mess. It's possible that it could have an effect on the timing of your primary, but I guess we'll have to see about that. As governor, would you be willing to wade back into that issue or was this most recent amendment to the state's constitution, all that can be done, at least for a while? I've talked to several elected officials that think, well, you know, that's it. For a while. We can't go back into that again. What would be your position on that?

TS: You know, it's so important that we look at, you know, there's passing laws and there's making speeches and there's holding people accountable. The corrupt nature of our state is based upon the fact that there's no competition. You know, people are dying over in Ukraine right now for freedom and democracy. Freedom and democracy is politics. Politics is based on competition. If you don't have competition where candidates are debating each other and saying, oh, I have better experience than you do, oh, I can lift more people up than you can. I can do it cheaper I can do it faster. I can do it better than you can. It doesn't work. The reason New York is broken is because it's been an insiders game for decades. The governor has collected more $70,000 checks, which is permissible under current rules, which I'm suggesting we change, from people who do business with the state people seeking a cannabis license or people to nursing home, or people to developers seeking some sort of benefit from the state lobbyist. The governor's collected more checks like that than any of her predecessors, more than Cuomo did, more than Spitzer or Paterson or Pataki did. It's no wonder the system is broken. There's no debate. There's no competition at all. Did the governor raise a bunch of money because people said, I'm so inspired by the Buffalo Bills deal, I'm so inspired by Brian Benjamin, I'm so inspired by the fact you're not addressing crime or taxes. No, it's an insider broken system. We need to fix it. We need to have competition in New York state. I'm bringing that competition. I'm saying I'm a proven executive. I'm a commonsense Democrat who won't pander to the left. And I'm going to get things done on crime and taxes and troubled schools.

GR: On this issue of the redistricting, though, I just want to push you a little bit harder on this. The commission just failed in its mission…

TS: I think day one Grant. I said it was gerrymandering.

GR: And so so what do we do now? I mean, you know.

TS: You hold people accountable politically. For failing to do their jobs. Vote Kathy Hochul out for signing that bogus map. Vote out the legislators who promoted these bogus maps That's the, we have to hold people accountable for their failure to do their jobs. I mean, the law was pretty clear. We all knew that the Democrats and I. Listen, I know that the Democrats. I'm a Democrat. We wanted to get an advantage in Democratic seats because we got screwed by the Republicans in the other states. So we're trying to balance it out here in New York. So we did it. The problem is they didn't follow the rules. They broke the rules. And that's not me. That's the New York State Court of Appeals saying that. So isn't it time we hold people accountable? The Buffalo Bills deal. It was announced four days before the budget was due. It's the biggest net giveaway to an NFL team in the history of the NFL. No public hearings. How is that possible? We get people freaking out about crime. They're not addressing crime. How is that possible? Hold the elected officials accountable. Get vote them out of office for not representing the people's interests. I will fight for the people as I have throughout my career.

GR: If you're just joining us, you're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is New York gubernatorial candidate Congressman Tom Suozzi. Well, let me ask you another question about Kathy Hochul specifically. She is the first female governor in the state, but she's also the first upstate governor in many, many decades. I think it might be over a century, actually. So if you were elected, you would be another downstate Democrat. Talk to our voters here in upstate. Why would they want to give up on having the first upstate governor they've had and so long?

TS: I think the first law would be the first Long Island governor since Theodore Roosevelt. That was pretty good for upstate. So I would fight for upstate because I believe the biggest potential for the future of New York State is north of Putnam and Rockland Counties. I know that upstate New York, as in all of New York state, is oppressed by the high taxes and high regulation that come from the five boroughs. The five boroughs pass all these laws. All these regulations cause our taxes to go up, try to do all these different things. And it makes it so you can't locate a business here. If you're in New York City. You can take it. It's the economic engine of the world. It's Wall Street and finance and real estate. And sure, they can take all this oppression and high taxes. Downstate New York, the suburbs, they can feed off of the mothership of New York City. If you're upstate New York and you don't have a university and you don't have a hospital or you don't have a jail or you don't have a major tourism destination, you're in trouble. You can't possibly overcome the oppression that comes from New York state government. I know this well. I've studied this issue for years. I fought for the Medicaid cap. I fought for the property tax cap. I fought against Shelly Silver and Joe Bruno, when I did Fix Albany dot com. I'm fighting now to reduce crime, to reduce taxes. People say, Oh, you're a Democrat. You're talking about crime and taxes. That's a Republican issue. No, it's not. Democrats are fed up with the crime and taxes as well. I'm not I'm not talking about them like Fox News talks about them. I'm talking about responsible ways to address the issues of crime and taxes and regulation and affordability and troubled schools that are oppressing my upstate friends and neighbors who are going through this. I do these telephone town halls. I've covered the entire state with telephone town halls and then I go visit the places I did the telephone town halls. After I do them, I'm going up to Albany and Newburgh this weekend. I had 5000 people on the call on Monday, or Tuesday night. And I've talked about a hundred thousand registered Democrats throughout the state, including in Onondaga County and in surrounding areas and central New York. People that I talked to on these telephone town halls, you know what they ask about? Crime and taxes. Look at my polls. What do they talk about? Crime and taxes. So everyone says, oh you're a Democrat, why are you talking about those? Because the people care. That's what the people care about. Enough of these shibboleths and cliches. Let's talk about what people care about.

GR: So I wanted to ask you a question about the political culture in Albany. You've already talked about it. You've mentioned that the corruption comes, in your view, from it being fundamentally an insider's game, that there's no competition. And really, every gubernatorial candidate says, I'm not trying to discount what you've said, but every gubernatorial candidate says they're going to change the political culture of Albany. I can't think of one who hasn't done it and none of them prior to you have succeeded. I mean, you've pointed out very well the ways in which both Andrew Cuomo and now Kathy Hochul have not really changed the political culture of Albany so far. She hasn't had a whole lot of time to do it. But nonetheless, Andrew Cuomo arguably made that culture worse from what we've learned about his behavior. So I mean, what's your special sauce to unlock this? Because you'll be on you'll be unlocking something that nobody else has been able to unlock so far. If you're if you're successful at all.

TS: Let me say that Blair Horner, who has been in Albany for 30 years, he's the head of Nyberg, said that Kathy Hochul's budget process was the most secretive budget process in the past 30 years. He's been up there. She has fostered a culture of corruption. The fact that she brought this lieutenant governor in without any vetting process, the fact that everything was closed door, she couldn't talk about a crime plan she leaked to the press, what's my secret sauce? I've done it. I've done these things. I've taken on the establishment. I was a young county executive in Nassau County. I started Fix Albany dot com. I said, I'm going to defeat a Democrat in the Assembly and a Republican in the state Senate until you start listening to us at the local level. And I defeated a Democrat in Nassau County. I defeated a guy named David Sidikman with a Democrat named Chuck Lavine. And then I helped Dave Valeski beat Nancy Lorraine Hoffman. And you know what? Shelly Silver and Joe Bruno started listening to us. I became the president of the New York State County Executives Association. And they brought us in and we got the Medicaid cap, which stopped the growth of Medicaid cost at the local level. I've run against the establishment. I ran against Eliot Spitzer, OK? It didn't turn out very well for me. Didn't turn out very well for him either, obviously. But I fought for the property tax cap. He was totally against it the Democrats were against it. But I knew people were suffering under the property taxes. And you know what? A year later, he appointed me as chairman of the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief. And Paterson, when Spitzer got kicked out, reappointed me to that position. And you know what? We got a property tax cap. I've fought the establishment in Congress. I'm the vice-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus. 29 Democrats. 29 Republicans. You don't think I've gotten beaten up by Democrats saying, what the hell are you talking to the Republicans for? That's what we have to do to get things done. So I'm not just saying I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that. I've done it. I can do it because I've done it. I will fight for the people. It's not worth being in these jobs. I'm giving up Congress. I can stay in Congress for the next 20 years if I want to do and keep on getting reelected. But I'm so fed up with what's happening to our state. I'm so fed up with my party that's not talking to the people about the things they care about, crime and taxes. You know, when Trump won, I went to a big roundtable of the Democratic National Committee every said, what happened? How did Trump, what happened? How did that happen? And a guy from a union said, you know, the Democrats used to show up at the church picnics and at the bars, and they would talk to us about what we were concerned about. So we don't see them there anymore. So that hit me that we have to start focusing on the issues that people care about. And people in New York right now, they care about crime and taxes. And I'm a proven executive. We can get it done.

GR: We only have a couple of seconds left. And this is kind of a lightning round question, but I can see the books behind you. Listeners can’t. But you've got some really wonderful books about different leaders behind you. I see one about Robert Caro, Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln. Just really quick, is there one person that you can point to in history that you think you've learned the most about leadership from?

TS: Well, my father, which not anybody else knows, but he was an Italian immigrant who came to the United States and fought in World War Two and lives an American success story and got involved in politics. I still have a picture of my father campaigning with John F Kennedy that always inspired me to get into politics. But I'm looking at my in my background, too, and I see Harry Truman up there. I just loved Harry Truman because he was just so straightforward. He just said what was on his mind. There was no around the edges. It was kind of just straightforward. So I like that kind of leadership.

GR: All right. We'll have to leave it there. That was Congressman Tom Suozzi. The Democratic primary for governor is currently scheduled for June 28. Early voting begins June 18, and absentee ballots must be requested by June 13. Congressman, thanks again for taking the time to talk with me and be well on the campaign trail.

TS: Hey, thanks, Grant. I hope you'll have me on again.

GR: I would love to do that. You've been listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

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.