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Congressional candidates Sarah Klee Hood, Chol Majok, Francis Conole on the Campbell Conversations

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Sarah Klee Hood, Chol Majok, Francis Conole.

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with the Democratic candidates Sarah Klee Hood, Chol Majok and Francis Conole who are running for New York's 22nd District primary taking place on August 23, 2022.

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. Congressional and state Senate primaries are next Tuesday. And today, my guests are three of the four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for Congress in New York's 22nd district. Sarah Klee Hood, Chol Majok and Francis Conole. The Sam Roberts campaign did not respond to our request in time for our taping of these interviews. You'll hear from each of the three candidates in turn, briefly answering a similar set of questions. If you're just starting to pay attention now the race, we're hoping that these brief discussions will give you a quick sense of each candidate and some of the differences between them. Last week, I spoke with Brandon Williams, who was pursuing the Republican nomination, and you can find that interview on WRVO’s website. Steven Wells declined several requests for an interview. My first guest is Sara Klee Hood. Ms. Klee Hood is currently serving as an elected counselor in the town of Dewitt. She's also an air force veteran and the director of a climate technology incubator. Ms. Klee Hood, welcome to the program and thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

Sarah Klee Hood: Great. Thanks, Grant. I'm so glad to be here.

GR: Well, I want to try to fit in a few questions in the short time we have. So let me just get right into it, I'll start with this one. I read the report of the Democratic debate that was sponsored by the Post-Standard, and I didn't see a whole lot of policy differences between the four candidates there. In terms of policy, what do you think most distinguishes you from the other three candidates?

SKH: Sure. I think at face value, the fact that I have stated policies. I'm not couching my position based on latest polls, and I'm happy to share them with you. My four policies are actually inspired by services that the Department of Defense provides to every troop, regardless of background, identity, income, etc. and they really figure out a way to take care of the home life so that folks can go into the economy and help to drive it forward. And that is universal health care, income driven child care, paid family medical leave and free access to college and trades through programs such as on the job training, tuition assistance, critically manned degrees and access to the trades, really. So I'm not reinventing anything, I'm just repositioning programs that already are available through the Department of Defense and I'm looking to bring those to a greater audience.

GR: Okay, thanks, that's very concise. So, those are the policy things. What about the other relevant ways that you think you are most different and distinguished from the other three candidates?

SKH: Sure. So I am an actual climate champion. I work for both state and federal agencies within the climate policy sector. My job is to work with small businesses to help them create climate technology to address and combat climate change. And one of the great offshoots of my job is I've had a hand in creating, to help create hundreds of jobs here locally in Central New York. And that's called workforce development. I would love to bring that to the federal purview. Having lived in every corner of the U.S., there are many more cities like Central New York than there are Boston, L.A. or New York cities. And it's time that we turn the attention back to those smaller towns to help drive local economy. Similarly, I'm the only woman in the race, and I am the only woman whose rights have just been stripped. So you better believe that I am ready to ensure that we codify Roe. If not for my generation, but for the next generation to come. I'm raising two daughters. My grandmother fought, my mother fought, here I am. I do not want the next generation having to go through this again.

GR: Okay, thank you. Now, in the previous two election, cycles in this district, Dana Balter was able to excite the grassroots activist base among the Democrats. What are you bringing to the table policy wise in this cycle that you think will be able to excite that same base?

SKH: Sure. So the irony of all of it is it goes back to the four positions that I stated earlier. They are very inclusive in nature in what they do. They help to build the foundation and they help to ensure that we are taking care of the home life while providing social safety nets. If you have health care, you won't be waiting for, you won't be delaying your need for health care. If you're able to afford child care, you can reenter the workforce. It's really to ensuring that we're taking care of the home life. And particularly in this race, I don't know if it's because the maps have changed three times because we are in a special election when Election Day is August 23rd. It's been very confusing for folks upfront to understand what the new district is because we're now three counties and we're three completely different counties than the previous NY 24. Heck, we're even NY 22 now, including Onondaga, Madison and Oneida. So there's been a lot of confusion around that. But I have to tell you, we've got momentum. It came on when it needed to and it's been great. I'll tell you, it's a lot more fun to have momentum than to not.

GR: So thinking of the current Congress, which member or members of Congress do you think is most like you?

SKH: I'm going to say there's probably nobody like me. I'm fairly certain anybody in their right mind, having gone through this candidacy will not come out the same way. But I, I really appreciate what Katie Porter has been able to do. She is calling out, to be frank, the BS, the corporate BS that has been going on, the talking outside of both sides of the mouth in terms of where corporate litigation happens and where then ultimately it ends up at the consumers lap. So I would love to be considered a voice of the people and in my efforts, I am trying to return the public back to the idea of public service. So we are out in every county, I have I have folks that are out in Oneida that I've seen more than I've seen in my family. So we're out there, we're meeting a lot of folks, we're learning the issues, and that is bar-none top importance to me is ensuring that I know who the people I would be representing are. There's nothing worse than a candidate or representative who falls flat on the local issues because they're not invested.

GR: And so to go back to the four pillars, policy wise of your campaign, obviously to expand on those things, you know, cost money and we have to if we're going to be fiscally responsible, we have to figure out ways to raise that money. So, are there certain taxes that you would be in favor of raising above the rates that they are now currently?

SKH: I don't think we need to impose any more taxes. What we seriously need to do is looking at closing loopholes for the top earners and corporations. If we’re able to do that we will generate significant money. But I also think it's a matter of prioritization. When we prioritize… well, let's take the Department of Defense for example. We always seem to have money for the Department of Defense. We always seem to have money for corporate bailouts. It's a matter of prioritizing American health standards before other priorities. And I'm fairly certain that once we realize that if we can prioritize American health standards, we'll be driving our economy forward on the back end because we'll have a healthier workforce.

GR: Okay, and I wanted to ask you a question about a law that Congress just passed that's obviously getting a lot of attention, and that's the Inflation Control Act. I'm not sure whether it's the right name for that law, but it's a, you know, it's a series of some pretty ambitious things that involve both spending and some revenue enhancements. Would you have voted for that?

SKH: Absolutely. For the United States, this is one of the most advanced climate policy efforts that we have ever undertaken to date. It is fantastic. I would love to be able to help in understanding how we put a finer point on where that funding should go within the climate policy sector. But I am ecstatic to see that we are addressing it as the crisis it should be. Similarly, we're also closing corporate loopholes, so we will not be raising taxes on anybody unless maybe you're a hedge fund manager, you are a top earner. But the average American, everyday Americans are not going to be seeing an increase in this. And that's what we should be doing. We should be closing those loopholes to ensure that we are not further taxing the middle class and working class. It's simply unacceptable.

GR: Okay, great we'll have to leave it there. That was Sarah Klee Hood. She's the Democratic candidate for Congress in New York's 22nd Congressional District. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with the candidates pursuing the Democratic Party nomination for Congress in New York's 22nd Congressional District. My next guest is Chol Majok. Mr. Majok is currently serving as an elected city councilor in Syracuse, the first refugee elected to such a position. He's also served as a workforce development director at the Syracuse Northeast Community Center. Mr. Majok, welcome to the program, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

Chol Majok: Thank you for having me, Dr. Reeher.

GR: Well, it's great to have you. So let me start with this. I read a report on the Democratic debate that was sponsored by the Syracuse Post-Standard and in reading through the write-up there, I did not see a whole lot of policy differences between the four candidates. I wanted to ask if you could briefly tell me, what do you think distinguishes you most from the other three candidates in terms of policy?

CM: Well, that area, you know, I am pushing for housing and support for rural Americans. That is something that (n)either any of these candidates have and I have it. And I have personal stories that are attached to these two policies, although I have a whole lot more. These are two main policy agendas that I'm pushing through. When I get to Congress, I want to push for housing, which is to build more houses, incentivize homeownership. As somebody that came through foster care, that came through poverty, it is hard to stabilize America without proper housing and none of the other candidates talking about it and that's what I'm pushing for. Rural Americans have been forgotten. As a little boy growing up in rural Sudan, farming was everything to us. So I understand what farmers go through because I was a farmer myself. Dairy, grain, peanut, you name it. That's what we did and that's how we lived as people. And that's what sets me apart. And I'm not just saying all of this because they are attractive. I'm saying it because I have lived it. I know the impact of housing. I know the impact of what it is to live as, as a farmer and as a rural person.

GR: So maybe this is just a follow up to what I just asked. But I also wanted to know, other than policy in what other important ways do you think that you're different from the other three candidates in the race?

CM: So I bring something that none of these candidates bring, and that is that I am a refugee. I am a walking example of what it is to come across the border with just a plastic bag of document, yet come to America and make something out of yourself. And we need to push that more in America. To show people that the promise that America give to people, the promise of prosperity as real as possible. Look at Chol Majok as an example. I came here with nothing went through foster care, came as an orphan and went to school. I have as high as doctorate as you know, you mentor me doing that. I have a family, I have a wife and I have children and I have a house. A house that, going back to the example of incentivizing housing, without incentivizing me buying a house I could have not bought it. And now I have a family and stable, I'm paying my taxes to the city. I'm building our city. You know, this is what it is all about. Bringing a candidate that people can identify with, that people can see themselves through and have inspiration and courage to want to be better.

GR: So in the previous two elections here for Congress in this district, Dana Balter was the nominee and she was able to really tap into the grassroots activist base of the Democratic Party. I wanted to know what you bring to the table that you think would excite those same activists that Dana Balter was able to tap into.

CM: Well, you know, Dana tapped into a different population. I am bringing another different population. Dr. Reeher, when you see the population that is excited about me, these are people that have never voted before.

GR: Okay.

CM: Because now they can see themselves in the process and they want to get involved. They want to get engaged. Dr. Reeher, everywhere I go they are like, Chol, keep going. Keep going for us, keep going for us. We can see you, we feel you and we want to come out. And they are doing that. And yes, Dana, tapped into a different population and I'm doing the same thing. This is what democracy is all about, Dr. Reeher. Being able to bring people that people can identify with and want to be engaged and want to be involved. That's how you strengthen democracy. Yes, policies work. Policies can strengthen community. But if you want to really strengthen democracy, bring people that people get excited about because people can identify and see themselves through that candidate. That is what I'm bringing.

GR: So in terms of the current members of Congress right now, is there one or two that you think you would be closest to that when you're looking at Congress, you know, say that person is like me, or like I would want to be in Congress.

CM: Well, Governor Hochul stole them for me. Delgado…

GR: (laughter) Okay, so recently former member, we’ll count that.

CM: I really like Delgado because when I look at Delgado, he was very invested in the in the rural. He has quite a good number of, you know, legislation that were supporting rural America, which is what I want to emulate when I get there. So that's what I'm looking for. Another person that when I look at him are folks like Hakeem Jeffries, you know, people who would, and their style of getting people involved and giving people hope. That's who I have come to look at and really admire what they are doing because of how they rose to where they are today. There's a lot of that. I always talk about, you know, there’s policy and then there's lived experience and how you do it. You know, that has a lot to do with how you legislate later, and when I look at them, I see my struggle a little bit related to how they came about. So those are the two that I can identify with.

GR: Okay, that helps, thanks. And then I wanted to ask you a specific question about policies in that, are there any kinds of taxes that you would be in favor of raising at the national level if you were to be elected?

CM: Well, I like to think of myself as a fair individual and as American we have built this nation on equality and that equality can go as far as taxes as well. People should be paying their fair share of taxes. So people who are wealthy should be paying their part. I as a struggling dad, as a struggling husband, you know, as a working person, I pay my taxes, you know, based on how much I make. The same people who make billions and millions of dollars should be paying their fair share. So I'd be in favor of that because I think it's a fair thing to do.

GR: Okay, and then the last question, we only have literally 5 seconds left, so have to be pretty much a yes / no kind of thing. The recently passed inflation control act, which Congress just passed and President Biden is going to sign into law. Would you have voted for that?

CM: Yes.

GR: We'll have to leave it there. Chol, I just want to say, you mentioned your family, you have a beautiful family, congratulations on that. That was Chol Majok. He's the Democratic candidate for Congress in New York's 22nd Congressional District. Thanks again.

CM: Thanks for having me.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with the candidates pursuing the Democratic Party nomination for Congress in New York's 22nd district. My final guest is Francis Conole. Mr. Conole is a former naval officer with service in Iraq and is currently serving in the Navy Reserves. He ran for this seat in 2002, but lost a primary to Dana Balter. Mr. Conole, welcome to the program and thanks for taking the time to speak with me.

Francis Conole: Grant, it's so wonderful to be here with you today. And as we just talked about the last time I saw you was in studio right before the world shut down right before the pandemic. So it's been a challenging and tough couple of years, but it's great to be back with you.

GR: You were my very last in-person interview, so I wish we were doing this one in-person today as well. But let me start with this question. I read the write up in the Post-Standard of the Democratic debate that the four candidates had. And in that write up, I didn't see a whole lot of policy differences between the four candidates. So my first question is, what do you think distinguishes you most from the other three candidates in terms of policy specifically?

FC: Well, I think that there is a degree of policy alignment. I think I'm running alongside three great Americans, three great candidates. And I think what really differentiates me is not just my experiences growing up here, I have deep roots in the community, but I also think that I have that experience really at the senior levels of our federal government, serving as a senior intelligence analyst in our intelligence community, but then also at the Pentagon as a Middle East policy advisor. Advising at senior level, advising a Cabinet level official on issues concerning the Middle East, navigating the tough environment both over in the Middle East but also engaging with our White House, Capitol Hill, the state department, our eighteen intelligence organizations. And so I bring to this, really that experience at the federal level, or at the senior level of our federal government.

GR: Well, you anticipated my second question there - I think I already answered it, which was, other than policy, what relevant ways are you most different from the other three candidates. So let me just ask a follow up to what you just said then. Our current member of Congress in this district, John Katko, is kind of carved out an expertise in cybersecurity, among other kinds of security. You just mentioned international security there. Do you think that would be your expertise then, in Congress if you were to go to Congress, is that area of policy?

FC: Well, I think that what I bring to this is a framework of problem solving at the senior level.

GR: Okay.

FC: What I did, you know, applies. Not only that I focus on our national security issues, but the myriad of really complex challenges we faced in the Middle East going back and forth with the secretary to Jordan, going to Lebanon, going to Israel on the ground in Iraq. There were such complex challenges that we faced in that region. And I think that I bring that framework of problem solving, of critical thinking, of really taking on tough challenges at the senior levels of our government that applies here to Central New York, because we face some real complex challenges here in Central New York. So I'm laser focused here. Our national security challenges are extremely important to me, but my central focus is what we're facing here in Central New York.

GR: Okay. Now, I mentioned in my introduction that you ran previously two years ago and lost in the primary to Dana Balter. She beat you handily I think it's fair to say, twenty six points. So I wanted to know, what are you bringing to the table this time that you think will excite the grassroots activists among that, that activist base among Democrats that I think Dana Balter was able to tap both in 2018 and then 2020, what are you bringing this time?

FC: Well, I was extremely proud of the campaign we ran. Running for office, it's both exciting, It's a true honor, and it's very challenging. But that was a tough time for our country. You know, as we were talking before we went on the air here, we opened up our office and then two weeks later, the country shut down. And so what's been exciting, it's been a year, I've been on the trail a year, we launched this campaign ready to take on the tough fight in August of last year. And what's been extremely exciting is, is being able to be out in the community, to be visiting all of our counties. Now, we've been through multiple iterations of redistricting, but my message to all Central New Yorkers is that there's really so much on the line in this election. I mean, we launched this campaign with a simple message that, especially now as our country grapples with a multitude of crises, we can name we could go through them, the list keeps going. It feels like every week, every month there's a new crisis that lands on our doorstep. We talked about the pandemic, there's a crisis of climate change that we're seeing here Central New York. We have a gun violence crisis. We have a crisis of our working families. We have a crisis with the overturning of Roe versus Wade, freedoms taken away from women across the country. And so what I bring to this is a commitment to take on these crises, to fight for working families and to fight for freedoms.

GR: So thinking about the current members of Congress, which one or more than one, if you want to name more than one, do you think you're most like? When you look at Congress and you say, you know, that's kind of a person I might model myself after.

FC: I think that one of my mentors and someone who I admire, I served with her at the Pentagon. She was our assistant secretary of defense is Elissa Slotkin. She represents out in Michigan. Michigan, like a lot of parts of our country, faces similar challenges that we face here in Central New York. And what I've admired about Elissa, is she takes both a fighting approach, but also a very pragmatic approach and a common sense approach to a lot of the challenges that working families and the middle class face throughout her district. And there are challenges, again, that we see stretching across the country. It's common sense to want to fight for a living wage. It's common sense to want to take on corporations that get tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas, something that we felt here in Central New York. It's common sense to want to lower costs for working families, to lower the costs for prescription drugs and health care. And, you know, Elissa is someone who I've admired and I admire her approach and the way she's represented out there.

GR: So we've got about a minute left unfortunately, I want to try to squeeze two questions in, if I can. The first one is just as a follow up to what you just mentioned there about taxes and corporations. I'm reading your materials, you are in favor of raising some taxes. For example, the higher earners paying Social Security tax, which they currently don't do now. Could you just speak a little bit about what taxes you're in favor of raising, what kinds of taxes?

FC: What I'm in favor of is, you know, corporations and billionaires and millionaires paying their fair share, Grant. I mean, look at what we've seen really over the past four decades. This past October, it was released that the top 1% now have more wealth than the entire middle class. The concentration of wealth, I love this country, but it's something that we get wrong, the concentration of wealth of this country, in this country is something that comes at the cost of working families. And so what I want to see is corporations, millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share specifically on Social Security. I've talked a lot about this. This is something that's very important to me. So many of us have, you know, so many here in Central New York very much need Social Security. And so what I've talked about specifically on that is raising that exemption. Right now, there's an exemption above 250,000 so you have, you know, again, millionaires paying about as much as we pay. We have two millionaires on the Republican side running right now. Both of them have a net worth in the millions of dollars. Steve Wells' personal financial disclosure, you needed to spend an evening to get through it, It was about 40 pages long. And so, yeah, look, you know, millionaires, it's great if they're doing well, but they need to pay their fair share and it can't come at the cost of middle class families.

GR: Well, that's all the time we have, unfortunately. I wish we had more. But Mr. Conole, I want to thank you again for taking the time to speak with me.

FC: Thank you, Grant.

GR: Those were the candidates for the Democratic Party's nomination for Congress in New York's 22nd Congressional District, Francis Conole, Chol Majok and Sarah Klee Hood. The primary is Tuesday, August 23rd. 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.