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Sarah Klee Hood and John Mannion on the Campbell Conversations

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Sarah Klee Hood / John Mannion
Sarah Klee Hood / John Mannion

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. One of the most closely watched congressional races in the entire nation in this November’s general election will be that for New York's 22nd district right here in the Syracuse area. The district contains all of Onondaga and Madison counties and portions of Oneida, Cortland and Cayuga counties, including the cities of Syracuse, Utica and Auburn. The district is currently represented by Republican incumbent Brandon Williams, who is in his first term. My guest today are the two Democrats hoping to challenge Williams in November. State Senator John Mannion and DeWitt Town Councilor Sarah Klee Hood. The primary election is June 25th. Now, this is an informal debate or a shared conversation of sorts. We have just under a half an hour and we've got two candidates. So I've asked the candidates to be brief and extremely to the point, and I've let each of them know that I'll interrupt if necessary towards that end. I should also note that I help run a program at Syracuse University for veterans who are interested in pursuing public office and prior to serving on the DeWitt Town Board, Ms. Klee Hood was a participant in that program. Both candidates have appeared on this program previously. Counselor Klee Hood, State Senator Mannion, welcome back to the program, it’s good to have you both on.

Sarah Klee Hood: Thanks, Grant. Delighted to be here.

John Mannion: Thank you, Grant.

GR: So, thanks again for making the time. So, here's my first question and I'll start, Senator Mannion, with you. I've been reading through your previous debates, and I've looked at your websites, and it does seem to me that regarding policy positions, the two of you are very similar, first of all, and secondly, you're pretty standard for the Democratic Party I think at this point. There is support from both of you for expanding a lot of public programs to aid middle earners and lower income earners. But I don't really see anywhere either of you that you'd want to cut back significantly on spending. So in my understanding, if either of you get in and you get your way in Congress, the government's going to get bigger. You've both talked about letting the Trump era tax cuts expire, but that would involve raising some taxes, mostly on higher earners, but not cutting back on programs. So. Senator Mannion, I just want to start, are there any kinds of programs at the federal level that you'd be willing to cut back on or restructure in a way that they would significantly spend less?

JM: I think the first thing that we have to look at, Grant, and thank you for the question, is that you did reference, you know, some of our highest earners. And what we've seen over the course of a couple of generations now is that that rate is really dropped. So I think it's reasonable that folks pay their fair share and that we do make that adjustment. As far as the programs, 100% committed to the maintenance and expansion of Social Security and Medicare. You know, I do think that there are efficiencies in government that we absolutely have to look at and I think that we have to hold these federal departments accountable. You know, budgets are about priorities, so I do think we have to take a hard look at some things. You know, there was certainly a great inflation of the federal budget and therefore our debt during the Trump administration. And I do see in the Biden administration that we have a real investment in our future in manufacturing and in infrastructure. But still, I think we have to look at efficiencies in government and we really have to hold those departments and agencies accountable.

GR: Any specific programs that you can point to, though? That was a very general answer about just sort of taking a broad look, any specific programs that would be on your list?

JM: You know, I think there is support for multiple corporations. There's these grant programs or investment in those, particularly in the large fossil fuel industries that we have to look at. We have to look at minimizing that, cutting that down. And that's something that should have been done a long time ago.

GR: And then one other follow up and I'll move to Councilor Klee Hood. Can you point to something in your voting record in the state legislature where you voted to cut a program?

JM: So what we just saw and what's out there in the media is a program that was going to increase costs on individuals as far as utility costs, and that was called New York Heat Act. I voted against that because it was going to disproportionately raise dollars, you know, the costs of utility rate payers of our customers. So in that regard, I voted no on that. An adjustment was made, and then I voted affirmatively so it wouldn't disproportionately hurt the people that I currently represent. I was sent here to make sure that central New York got their fair share and I believe that I've done that. I'm proud to secure funding for programs that are really making an impact locally.

GR: And so Councilor Klee Hood, the same question, what kinds of programs at the federal level would you be willing to restructure significantly or cut back on?

SKH: Sure. So I think I'm going to fundamentally push back against a lot of the Republican talking points as of late. They are looking to find tax cuts or programmatic cuts to deliver, if you will, in quotes, “for the American people”, which is absolutely they are looking to strip away the fundamentals of the pillars of the US government. As somebody who managed a $25 million federal budget while I was an officer in the US Air Force, I believe that we can definitely scrutinize our defense spending. I recognize that in the global picture, the US has a responsibility to its allies, but I also know from my own personal investment and time managing federal budgets for multiple years there is a lot of area where we can start trimming some of that fat away. Similarly, the fossil fuel industry, whether it is through incentives or through government partnerships, we really need to look at divestment there. And at the end of the day, the 2017 trickle down Trump tax cuts, they are not helping Americans, it's set to expire. We have a real opportunity to capitalize on this in 2025. And Grant, just to put some numbers to your comment, we are starting the tax 2017 tax code that really gave folks that were making $400,000 or more significant tax breaks. I firmly believe that if we start taxing the ultra-rich we can bring back money annually year over year. For example, when our taxes such as the tax program we have now is skewed to the rich and to corporations, we're losing less than $350 billion a year starting in 2017, excuse me, 2027 if we don't modify the programs that we have on the tables now. So at the end of the day we don't need to start significantly reducing how we're funding federal programs. We need to have an equitable tax code that truly is proportionate, regardless of how much money you are making, so that we can start bringing back some of that money. And it's through taxes, but it's not through taxes at the middle class or the working class, it's for the ultra-rich and corporations. Let's close the loopholes. The carry tax interest loophole, which is the most sought after loophole in our federal tax code right now, it's allowing $41 million annually to be evaded from the US, from the US government, meaning that we are missing out on over $41 million annually in tax revenue. So I fundamentally believe that we can get there simply by readjusting how we look at our tax structure. And with that we also have to ensure that we are funding the IRS so they can do their job.

GR: Well, let me ask you then also, can you point to something in your voting record in Dewitt, where you have voted to cut a program?

SKH: Sure. I'm proud to be a local elected official because that means I get to implement federal policy with all of the baggage and none of the budget. It means we have to get very creative at the local level. I'm proud that Dewitt has been able to maintain the tax cap. Last year, we went above it by, I think 1% to maybe 2%, still at less than 5% taxes with an increase very nominal. The point being, though, we don't have a significant budget. So in order to make up that lost revenue to ensure that we have the funds for the police department, the highway department, the rec department, all of the services that folks would expect from their community government, we've been looking at public / private partnerships, which is really where there is an opportunity here. Not only does that bolster the services and programs available to the towns within that representation, but it also helps small businesses get a piece of the pie while also having some skin in the game.

GR: Okay, I want to interrupt here because we're going into sort of a different argument about public / private partnerships but Senator Mannion let me come back to you. Councilor Klee Hood did mention something pretty specific there and what she's willing to look at and pare back and that was defense spending. Do you agree with that or is that something that you think should be hands off in terms of looking for cutting?

JM: I talked about, you know, efficiencies in government and that would certainly include the Department of Defense. But I think we have to be very careful about that, I'm talking about efficiencies. As far as funding goes, we have to be flexible. We have to be in tune to what is happening in the geopolitical space. So in regards to that, I would be very careful about taking a hard stance about cutting military spending, considering what's happening in the world and where we might be moving forward.

GR: Okay, and Councilor Klee Hood, any just super quick responses to that response?

SKH: Sure. Through my six years managing a federal budget of $25 million, I can tell you there's a lot of room for efficiencies there. I feel confident that there are rooms that we can maintain our global responsibility as a global leader in the current geopolitical landscape while ensuring that there are cuts to be made.

GR: Okay, my next basic question and I'll stick with you for this Councilor. It's obviously, I think probably the biggest question for the Democrats voting in the primary and for independents and some Republicans as well. But it's, briefly, I know I know both of you could speak for hours on this, why would you be the stronger Democratic candidate in the general election against incumbent Republican Congressman Brandon Williams?

SKH: I think we're all here because we want to win in November. We are uniquely positioned to be able to bring home a win that is long overdue for central New Yorkers through a Democratic victory. But we need to think about this strategically, not emotionally. Yes, we should vote for the candidate that has the federal professional and personal experiences that meet the moment of this day. But what's more important is aligning us to a strategic win in November, and that is me. We need a nominee that is able to contrast and compete with Brandon Williams and win over some of that support. We need a veteran. Veterans give Republicans and independents an opportunity to vote for a Democrat that they normally would never have voted for. In a post-Roe era, women are mad, man, I am pissed off. We need a woman that is going to be able to support women's rights regardless of the political tides. And we need a candidate, let's be frank, that isn't burdened by ties to Albany. We can't forget that Lee Zeldin won this district by a lot last time. Republican playbooks are vetted for anti-Albany politics, if you will. And we need to have a candidate that will be able to both remove themselves from that conversation to avoid the attack ads, but to speak eloquently about the needs of today without it being tarnished by Albany. And we need someone who doesn't have, you know, multiple publicly published material that's at the ready for Republican attack ads. But at the end of the day, it's about a strategic win for the Democrats in November and we have to align ourselves strategically.

GR: Okay. Those are three reasons I heard. Senator Mannion, you obviously are going to get the same question, but I'm going to have to give it to you after the break. Right now, I'll just have to tell folks that you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with Dewitt Town Councilor Sarah Klee Hood and New York State Senator John Mannion. They're the Democrats running in the primary to challenge incumbent Republican Brandon Williams in New York's 22nd congressional district in this November's general election. Okay, Senator Mannion, just before the break, Councilor Klee Hood laid out why she thought she would be the better candidate in the general election, that's obviously arguably the biggest question for voters in this primary. So she listed three reasons, why would you be the better general election candidate?

JM: So, thank you, Grant. I'll say that I have a proven electoral record and a proven legislative record. So as far as my electoral record goes, I have flipped a Republican seat that was held by them for 100 years. I currently represent a district that has more registered Republicans than Democrats. Of the 42 Democratic Senators, I'm the only one that has that distinction. There are seven Republicans that have that distinction. And also, I would say that in my last election, 7000 more Republicans have voted than Democrats and I won. I work with everyone. 33 municipalities. 29 of them are run by Republicans, so I have a proven track record. And I believe that it's not just, you know, great campaigning or whatever, it's also the deep relationships that I have in the region. I was a teacher, my wife and I have lived here our entire lives, I was a union president and all of those things are contributing factors. From a legislative standpoint, you know, I'm proud of the committee work I did as the first ever Chair of the Standing Committee on Disabilities. I have emboldened a woman's right to choose prior to the overturning of Roe v Wade with a 100% score card from Planned Parenthood. I have expanded universal pre-K into upstate New York and made sure the funding was there to support our schools. And it was a co-prime sponsor on Green CHIPS legislation to make sure that if a semiconductor chip manufacturer uses clean energy and hits their job numbers, there are incentives. And as a result, Micron is coming here with the largest private investment in the history of this country. I'm battle tested, I have broad based support as I mentioned, including multiple elected officials. So I believe that has positioned me in a great spot. The people here trust me, I know those folks and they know me.

GR: Okay, so I have a follow up question for you. And then I have a follow up question for Councilor Klee Hood. My follow up question for you is, the councilor did mention something that has been on my mind and thinking about this election. And when we look back at the previous election, it was obvious that Brandon Williams linked Francis Conole with Albany, even though he had no real ties there but nonetheless, that was his messaging and it seemed to work. You saw pictures, for example, in his ads of Francis Conole right next to Kathy Hochul. How are you going to deal with that? Because I'm sure that Congressman Williams has got four people at least combing through your voting record right now. So how are you going to deal with that Albany, for lack of a better word, the attempt to put a taint on it.

JM: So I'm proud of the record that I have, Grant, and people are appreciative of the work that I've done. I do believe that I'm a good reflection of the district and I've acted accordingly in Albany in delivering for the district and really making certain things a priority that I've heard at the doors and on the phones for years of what we need to do, accelerating middle class tax cuts, suspending the gas tax, providing property tax relief. But also we need safe communities. So a lot of the issues that we seem to have been attacked on involved bail. In my time in the New York State Senate, I have only strengthened those laws, giving judges greater discretion, making more crimes bail eligible and addressing the reoffending issue. In fact, I had the support of law enforcement all along, including in this election, as I'm endorsed by the New York State Troopers PBA. It was my legislation that helped create the Syracuse Regional Airport Authority to make sure that that location is safe and it could be staffed. It is the first police force created in New York in 50 years, and I'm proud of that accomplishment.

GR: Okay. Councilor Klee Hood, the question / follow up I wanted to ask you is, the senator mentioned unions once, but obviously he has gained a lot of support from different unions. And I wanted to ask you about this because I'm going to put my political scientist hat on now. It is my sense that this general election is going to be a lot about, for Democrats in particular, turnout.

SKH: Yes.

GR: And one of the things that unions do effectively do in general elections is turn out voters. So, how would you address this question of the, what might seem to an outsider looking in that the senator has an advantage there with the unions behind him in terms of turnout in the general election?

SKH: Sure. So I think that there's a difference between union logos and endorsements on a website and the rank and file members. Last cycle, when I ran in this race, despite being significantly underfunded, we came up about 1100 votes short. And that's because of the union support that we have within the rank and file members knocking doors for us. But we're talking about your question (that) was pointedly at the general election, and I have great relationships with all of the labor unions. They're supporting John right now because he was a former labor leader, that's what they should do. I have veteran organizations, women organizations, environmental organizations supporting me because that's where I am. It makes sense. But I can also tell you that, you know, when you get feedback, like, yes, we're supporting Senator Mannion right now, he's our guy, but, man, we're really excited for Sarah should she win the nomination. It just goes to show that the support goes both ways. But if they had to choose somebody, I'm good where I am. I appreciate the rank and file support that we have. But I have zero concerns about their support coming through in a general election.

GR: I see, okay, all right, thank you. So I did want to ask a question about abortion because it has been such a huge issue for the country in the last few years and it's obviously something that the Democrats are going to be running on all over the country. And it seems from your campaign rhetoric of both of you that that you're going to do the same in the general election. But, and I'll come back to Senator Mannion I guess to start with this. In looking through and listening to what you've had to say, both of you, it's a little uncertain to me as to what limits, if any, you would put on access to abortion. So, Senator Mannion, let's just start from scratch here and just say, what kinds of limits are you comfortable with short of on demand abortion until the day of delivery? I'm using an extreme example here, but I want to just try to understand this.

JM: So I'm proud to have been endorsed by Planned Parenthood in every one of my previous elections. And in this election, they have not endorsed and they will not until after the primary. But I have a proven legislative record in protecting a woman's right to choose and protecting their providers. I will say that these decisions should be made between a woman and their health care provider. I have a 100% voting record from that…

GR: …I'm going to interject here because there's no doubt that both of you are for choice. I mean, you're both clearly that way and you've both spoken passionately about it. What I'm asking is, are there any limits on on-demand abortion that you are comfortable with?

JM: When I ran in 2018, I supported the Reproductive Health Act. I was not elected, and then in 2019, the Reproductive Health Act was passed into law. I had supported that, as did many and in fact most Democratic majority members at that time. And I have emboldened that law. So I support that law, and that's where I stand.

GR: Well, can you just tell our listeners what those limits are just so we’re clear?

JM: Sure. That limit is what the Democratic majority voted on in that time and what I support is up to 24 weeks and then beyond that is the health, mental health, risk of life to the mother or an unviable fetus when an abortion can occur.

GR: Okay, and Councilor Klee Hood to focus it on the last thing that Senator Mannion said. Are you comfortable with those same limits or would you like to see fewer limits than that? I'm just trying to see where a difference is here.

SKH: So this is where the difference comes in. I'm a woman, this is personal for me. My rights have been removed and I had to seek abortion care while I was serving in the military. So when we ask about term limits and restrictions, it's fundamentally a flawed question because you're not asking the right question, Grant. So I'm going to say the right question might be, do we as American citizens trust women to make the best decision for themselves, their future and their family in conjunction with their doctor? Yes or no? If we trust women to have that autonomy of self, that understanding of what is best for them, with medical guidance, then these questions are moot.

GR: Okay so let me interject and get clarity here. So, the senator said 24 weeks, so, if what I'm hearing from you is correct is, let's say we get to 27 weeks and a woman has this conversation with her doctor, you're okay then with going forward.

SKH: If there needs to be, I trust the woman to make the decision that is best for her. And I would also like to kind of caveat that and go back to your point. I don't support on-demand abortions until the day of birth. So let's be clear there. That's a wedge conversation that is used by Republicans to drive an issue that simply doesn't truly exist in this space, but I support...

GR: …But If that's the legislation that one would vote for, then that's the situation we would be in, I mean…

SKH: That's not the legislation that's on the table. What is on the table is H.R. 12, the Women's Health Protection Act of 2023. And I adamantly support this, which prohibits governmental restrictions on the provision of and access to abortion services. We need to trust that our women have the cognizance, the understanding, the competence to make the best decision for themselves, their family and their future, in addition with a health care provider without the opinions of politicians in the medical room.

GR: Okay, We're almost out of time, I'm going to have to ask these last two questions as a lightning round kind of thing. So this is going to be sort of like, you know, vanilla or chocolate ice cream kind of thing. Here's the first one, and Counselor Klee Hood, I'll stick with you. John Katko preceded Brandon Williams in this position, and he was by all measures, extremely bipartisan and extremely productive. He had a rule that he would not introduce a piece of legislation unless he could get a Democratic co-sponsor. Would you consider adopting the same rule regarding a Republican co-sponsor?

SKH: Yes, with the caveat to women's rights.

GR: Got it. Okay, Senator Mannion, same question.

JM: (Bipartisan) support is very important and the work that I did in my committee involved, almost every piece of legislation had Republican co-sponsors, and I would commit to that.

GR: Okay, and I'll stick with you for my final question. Again, sort of a lightning round kind of thing. I am going to try to get Congressman Williams on the program before autumn comes around. I have tried before, I have not succeeded, but I'm going to try again. If I am successful, what question, briefly, would you most want me to ask him?

JM: Would he support a national abortion ban?

GR: Okay, and Counselor Klee Hood, what is the one question you would want me to ask Congressman Williams?

SKH: Will he remove himself from the Republican Study Committee?

GR: Okay, all right, those were both succinct. You were very cooperative on that. I want to thank both of you. That was State Senator John Mannion and Dewitt Town Councilor Sarah Klee Hood. Again, these are the two Democrats that are running to challenge Brandon Williams in this November's general election. The primary election is June 25th and early voting begins June 15th. Senator Mannion, Councilor Klee Hood, I want to thank both of you, first of all, for taking the time to talk with me. But I also seriously want to thank both of you for the way that you have made yourselves both available in these kinds of formats in this primary season. I think voters have had a lot of opportunities to learn about both of you. Not everybody does that and you have, so thank you.

JM: Thank you, Grant.

SKH: Thanks, Grant. It was a pleasure, have a great one.

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.