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Brandon Williams on the Campbell Conversations

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On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with one of the two Republican candidates running for Congress in New York's 22nd district, Brandon Williams.

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. On August 23rd, voters in the two major political parties will choose their candidates for the 22nd Congressional district, a seat currently held by Republican John Katko, who is retiring. The district includes all of Onondaga, Madison and Oneida Counties and a small portion of Oswego County. Early voting in this primary starts August 13th. My guest today is Brandon Williams, one of the two Republicans vying for the party nomination. Now our original plan was to have both Mr. Williams and Steven Wells, the other Republican in the race, appear on the program together. But the Wells campaign declined several of our requests. So I will be talking only with Mr. Williams. His background includes experience as a naval officer and as an entrepreneur and business owner. Mr. Williams, welcome to the program and thanks for being willing to speak with us.

Brandon Williams: It's my pleasure. Very, very much appreciate the opportunity to get out and dialog, discuss, debate, even though there's no one to debate.

GR: (laughter) Well, we appreciate you making the time. So, I'm going to ask somewhat different questions than those that I read reported in the Post Standard. And let's start with the Republican incumbent, John Katko, whom you’ve criticized. What significant votes made by Congressman Katko in recent years would you have voted differently on?

BW: Well, there's you know, the main one is, you know, is the impeachment vote for Donald Trump. And, you know, there's a lot of chaos that was happening at that time. And I think it was, you know, joining Common Cause with, honestly, Nancy Pelosi and crew, you know, I think was unwise. And certainly when there was still a lot to be discovered, you know, and there was this, you know, rush to judgments in the wake of January 6th. So, you know, that's really what got me interested in thinking about actually running for Congress. In terms of John's overall record, there's a number of issues and, you know, I just don't follow it quite so closely to have a have a list. (I’m) more looking forward. But the voters have said that, you know, Mr. Katko started off as, you know, as a conservative and promised to be, you know, represent Republican values. And a lot of people feel betrayed by that, by that commitment and by his voting record.

GR: Well, are there are there more general ways beyond the impeachment vote that you would characterize how you would approach the office differently than he would, or how you would be in the office in ways that would distinguish yourself from him? Because he you know, he is an incumbent he served several terms. I think people have a sense of him. So how, what ways in which do you think you'd be different?

BW: Sure. You know, I think what we see in Congress and it's not it's not limited to any particular party. What we see is people that maybe start off or at least express a particular ideological framework. And when they get to Washington, you know, they start serving the, you know, the influence of Washington more than representing the people that supported them at home. And so and that's not unique to, you know, to John Katko. And I think voters are frankly pretty tired of that kind of behavior. They're tired of people that become more beholden to the politics of Washington than the needs, you know, back in the district. And so that in particular is how I would approach that. And I tell people to keep me honest. And, you know, if I'm not, if I become beholden to the Washington elite, then they can hold me accountable.

GR: So I wanted to ask you this in terms of where you would position yourself and how you view both the incumbent and your opponent, Steven Wells, your opponent for the Republican nomination. Do you think it's fair to say that in terms of policy positioning overall, in terms of political views, that it would be from, I guess, conservative to more to the center? It would be you staking out the more conservative side, then Steven Wells and then John Katko. Like, is that the correct order or would you not want to frame it in that way?

BW: Steven Wells was co-chair of John Katko’s Finance Committee. And, most recently, you know, was being walked around directly by John Katko in D.C.. And so there's no question that he's being supported by the same infrastructure that supported John Katko and that is unmistakable. And, you know, every arrow points to that. Now he's running you know, he's not participating in a debate because he doesn't want that to come out. He's running ads on TV calling himself a conservative. I'm actually endorsed by the New York State Conservative Party, and I'm a military veteran. He's a lawyer. So he is John Katko version 2.0, and he just does not want to be in a debate where that gets exposed. And there's a number of policy issues, whether it's the Second Amendment or, you know, the issue of life, you know, where we would diverge quite a bit.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with Brandon Williams, one of the two candidates vying for the Republican nomination in the race for Congress in New York's 22nd congressional district. Mr. Williams, let me pick up on exactly what you were just saying there about your opponent. And as you pointed out, you know, you don't have someone debate to debate here in this program. It does seem to be the case, I talked to several other reporters and people in journalism about this because I was wondering about this. It does seem to be the case that Steven Wells is avoiding interviews. I think that's fair to say. And I noticed that he did not participate in the Post Standard editorial board meeting that you were part of, which, frankly, is somewhat shocking. So I wish there was a nicer way to say this, but I'm just going to put it to you this way. What do you think he's avoiding and what do you think he's afraid of?

BW: Well, I think, you know, he has a lot more money than me - self financed. And so he feels like he can control the narrative by just being on TV and not facing any of the voters. You know, he ran against Claudia Tenney and 2016 in a primary and got trounced and performed very poorly in the debates at that time. And I think learning from that believes that he can overwhelm, you know, this primary election with money. And frankly, that's shameful. That's not what happens in Central New York. You know, nobody wants to see a seat for Congress bought and sold as appears to be happening. And maybe he thinks it worked for Joe Biden. You know, in 2020 to hang out in his basement and you know, avoid hard questions. But that's not what's happening in Central New York and that's not what's happening in 2022. So we've hit a very hard ground game. We're out talking to people. We don't have the same money resources that he has, he’s going to outspend me four to one. I don't think that matters in this case and I think people want to hear, particularly in 2022, they want to hear what their congressperson is you know is all about. And I'm always happy to stand up and answer questions.

GR: So let's get into some more of the policy positions and the two that you mentioned when you were talking about Steven Wells before that you I think you saw as important differences. You mentioned the Second Amendment and I believe you also mentioned the abortion issue. So let me ask you to briefly explain how you understand your difference of position about gun rights and the issue of abortion and abortion rights as opposed to your opponent.

BW: Sure. You know, it's hard to say because my opponent won't directly answer any questions like this and specifically on issues like this. I'm the pro-Second Amendment candidate in the race. I have always grown up around firearms. I was taught to respect them, grew up hunting. I was an expert marksman in pistol in the Navy. You know, I served as a strategic missile officer on a on a Trident submarine. So six years of naval service. And, you know, hunting is important. Sport shooting is, you know, a lot of fun, I enjoy shooting. But the truth is, the Second Amendment really stands out about protecting our homes and families in an environment where we've seen a great increase in crime and violent crime. We've seen a defunding of the police that makes a lot of people feel vulnerable. We see an increase in firearm ownership across the board, across, you know, all different, you know, political points of view and ethnicity. I think that's people exercising their constitutional right. So, you know, I am pro-Second Amendment, I could go on.

GR: Tell me about the abortion question.

BW: I'm the only pro-life candidate in the race. Abortion eliminates all future possibilities for the life that it takes. And when you think about when life begins, certainly science points to conception. That's really, I think, like more than 90% of biologists and scientists would support that from a scientific point of view. And the thing I draw attention to in the abortion issue is that there's always two parties. There's the very important life and choice of the mother. But then there's the life and choice of someone who doesn't have a voice, which is the child, and that voice has to be heard. Because when a child is aborted you know, they will never walk, they will never say their first words. They will never, you know, do the things that a human – they will never fall in love or a player guitar in front of the mirror. You know, it's just, those are the things that are lost. And there has to be a discussion about both of those. And certainly, you know, the life of the mother, you know, is critical, but it's not the only part of the conversation.

GR: And I want to mention for our listeners, you're doing this interview from a coffee shop we hear some bussing tables behind you. But I just wanted to let folks know, in case they're wondering what some of those noises are. So, say a little bit more about, in the last piece there that you were talking about, and then we'll go to a break. But just explain. I think a lot of folks will want to know how you see the life of the mother and certain cases of pregnancy coming up and rubbing against your concern for life there. So, are there carve-outs in your view, for certain ways of becoming pregnant, whether that's through rape or incest? Those are the two big ones that that often get put forward.

BW: Yeah, well, of course in those circumstances. Everybody wants to know kind of where the boundary is because this has become a political issue. You know, with Roe v. Wade being overturned, it's been kicked back to the states. Nothing's going to change in New York State, right? None of the rules will change. And so I tell pro-life supporters that they need to win the argument, the hearts and minds. You know, we tried legislating this, you know, in the Roe v. Wade decision and that caused an enormous amount of tension, particularly around state rights. It's now been kicked back to the states. And so, you know, we're going to have to go out and win people and tell people that there is a decision to be made here about life. So you mentioned the carve-outs, and those are the only exceptions that I would, that I think are moral, honestly.

GR: Okay. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Brandon Williams. He's a candidate for Congress in New York's 22nd congressional district and he's seeking the Republican nomination in this month's primary. He already has the endorsement of the state's conservative party. So I think I know the answer to this, but I want to ask it anyway because the law, assuming the House has voted on it before listeners hear this broadcast, but it will be a recent law and it has gotten a lot of attention and that's what's called the inflation Reduction Act. And it contains measures regarding climate change, renewable energy, health insurance and prescription drug costs for the elderly. It's got some new taxes on large corporations, among many other things to it. And as I mentioned, the Senate has passed it and the House is expected to do the same. Is that something that you support or would you not have supported?

BW: Yeah, I certainly would not have supported it. You know, there's a lot of challenges that we're facing as a country. Americans know this. They see the challenges at the grocery store and at the, you know, when they fill up their cars and they see that in the crime statistics. They know that we're facing a whole lot of issues and, you know, what's going on at the southern border. And so when you see something named the Inflation Reduction Act, which is actually spending another $800 or $900 billion dollars, that is exactly what's wrong with Congress. And they are, you know, the congressional spending, government spending is what's fanning the flames of inflation. You can't put out a fire by throwing on more kerosene. That's not how it works. You know, I'm a businessperson. I went to Wharton, I have a MBA from Wharton. It is the reckless spending in Congress that's ruining the middle class. So if you are a working American, 61% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, their wages do not rise as fast as inflation. So they are losing ground every day and I think it's incredibly cynical that we're going to go fund this, you know, these climate activists, pet projects and agendas while the middle class is getting squeezed on energy and groceries and gasoline. And we're just fanning the flames. So I think it's very cynical that you're going to just keep squeezing and squeezing the middle class and having them lose ground. Americans simply won't stand for it and voters won't stand for it. And there's going to be enormous backlash in this cycle for that.

GR: It's been widely reported and you've already spoken to it, I think, in some ways that you have been a vocal supporter of former President Trump. You mentioned right away that, you know, the vote from John Katko that you had the most issue with was his vote for impeachment. I understand you've already endorsed him for president in 2024. And your opponent, Steven Wells, says that he will support whoever the Republicans nominate, but he doesn't say, he's not going to say more than that, it seems. So if you could just tell me briefly, why are you a big fan of former President Trump? What is it about his presidency that you really liked.

BW: Well, I haven't made any concrete declarations about 2024, so…

GR: Oh, excuse me, I’m sorry.

BW: …I don’t know where you’re reading that. But just to clear the record, I voted for Donald Trump twice. I think we're all missing, you know, $2.50 a gallon gasoline. You know, people love talking about January 6th and, you know, 2021. I tell you, when I think about January 6th, 2021, what comes to mind is you know, milk was $2.50 a gallon, gas was $2.50 a gallon. Gas is now over $4 a gallon and milk is $4 a gallon. And that's really what Americans miss. So energy independence, you know, we’re seeing new taxes under Joe Biden instead of, you know, economic growth and lower taxes under Donald Trump. We're seeing unprecedented recklessness by China and by Russia who are challenging the United States in ways they never would have two years ago. It's made the world an incredibly dangerous place. And all of that points back to, you know, who our leader is, and the fact that we've got Joe Biden, the fact that he has a historically low approval rating. I think people have buyer's remorse like never before. And so, you know, it's not hard to say that things were a heck of a lot better two years ago.

GR: And I apologize for saying that you had given an endorsement, I was basing that, I think, on some supportive things I had read that you had said about the president, which you're what you are elaborating on here. If you've just joined us, you're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is Republican congressional candidate Brandon Williams. Let me just ask you this question directly. Do you think that President Biden won the election in 2020?

BW: Well, President Biden is our duly elected president. We have a system, you know, that that was done. So I don't dispute that he's our president. That’s…never made any accusations about that.

GR: OK, and I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about the January 6th House committee hearings. You've mentioned January 6th a couple of times. First of all, did you watch those hearings?

BW: I did not. It's, you know, they're not judicial proceedings. There's no due process. No one's been allowed to refute the accusations that are being brought. It's been highly edited and selected video for a narrative. And it looks very much like, you know, like a Stalinist type trial where, you know, they stack the jury, they fabricate the evidence and off it goes. And so I don't think we've had a, you know, any kind of real open, honest and fair analysis of what actually happened on January 6th. And, you know, if you remember back to you know, to the Russia hoax, you know, where this whole narrative got spun out, spun up, you know, and that dominated the first two years of Donald Trump's presidency. You know, you just see that, you know, at the end, it turns out it was all pretty much a hoax. And we spent a lot of money and we tore up the country on it. Americans are really tired, really tired of this control of narratives that aren't really seeking the truth. They're only trying to damage political opponents. It's not that January 6th was immaterial or that nothing happened, I don't think that. But we're not really after the truth. I'm a nuclear engineer. I'm a military veteran. You know, I'm a relatively dispassionate person when it comes to those kinds of political issues. But I care a whole lot about the truth and I care a whole lot about facts. And so there just doesn't seem to be an honest commitment to do that. It seems to be just to destroy President Trump, including these FBI raids on his home. It really smells very, very bad. You don't have to be a Donald Trump fan to say this is not right.

GR: Is there anything that you have read, though, or seen about the president's behavior on that day that would concern you, though, about the president…former president.

BW: Well, look, we're a nation with over 200 years of precedent in history and, you know, unique in the world in leading the way for a peaceful handover of power. And for all of the irregularities and certainly there were a lot of irregularities in the 2020 election, you know, placing the country above self is very important to me. And it was important in my decision to volunteer to serve in the Nuclear Navy. And so whoever his advisors were, whatever information was coming to him in the moment it seems like, you know, it seems like kind of lost sight of whether this was about, you know, our nation and its systems or whether it was about you know, one individual. And so, you know, that's all I'd say about that. I'm not critical of the president in the aftermath of November leading up to January 6th. I think so much of that information has been hidden and misrepresented. You know, we should we should actually get to the bottom of it sometime.

GR: How do you view the people who did break into the Capitol? How would you characterize their behavior?

BW: Well, I always say that before I decided to run, I actually sold my buffalo skin hat with horns and got rid of that. I'm just kidding, of course. It's not okay to break into the Capitol. It's not okay to do damage, you know, to something that, an institution that’s so important to us. And, you know, whether they were invited in or whether, you know, they broke through the windows and caused some vandalism, I don't think that's an acceptable expression of, you know, a frustration or protest. I don't think the Black Lives Matter that burned down a whole bunch of buildings and, you know, caused so much damage, I don't think that was acceptable either. And so I really think that we need to, you know, culturally, not legally, but culturally rein in the acceptability of this kind of destructive protest. And again, you know, not through a judicial process, but to say, hey, that's not acceptable.

GR: So we've only got a couple of minutes left. But I want to squeeze in two more questions if I can. The first one is a very political question about the 22nd district. It was carried, as I understand, pretty handily by Joe Biden in 2020. Given that, do you think that your political positioning as the more conservative one in the race will allow you to be viable in a general election? Because it would seem to me that you could make the argument that you'd have a pretty steep hill to climb, particularly if the Democrats go with a more moderate candidate for the general election, which we'll have to see what they do in the primaries.

BW: Yeah, I think that's you know, that's a little fiction spun by the political insiders that are trying to hold on to, you know, to their particular view. If you see what's happened in the last two years with inflation, with energy prices, with the debacle in Afghanistan, you know, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with the supply chain issues. If you if you just look at all of those things, whatever it was that supported, that Joe Biden alleged that he was going to do, he certainly has not and he's not delivered. And people are now more aware. I think of it as like in a foxhole. People were in there, you know, ducking under the grievance war that was going on and the 401k was doing okay. But all of a sudden, gas is $4.50 a gallon. They poke their head up and their 401k is down 30% and they're like, what happened? And I think it's a return, a hunger to return to Ronald Reagan kind of conservatism and to come back to a system that worked. You remember when Reagan took office in ’80, you know, we were in a lot of trouble. And if you fast forward to 1996 with Newt Gingrich and even Bill Clinton in the White House, we had a surplus budget and we had a generation of conservatism and a generation prosperity. And so that's where I think things are going in this cycle, is a return to conservatism as described by Ronald Reagan.

GR: Well, we'll have to leave it there. That was Brandon Williams. He's the Republican candidate for Congress in New York's 22nd district. Next week, I plan to interview the Democratic candidates in that primary race. And again, as a reminder, the primaries are August 23rd. Mr. Williams, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me. And I want to wish you good health on the campaign trail.

BW: Great. Thanks, been a pleasure.

GR: 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.