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Maffei vs. Katko: In their first debate, candidates discuss negative ads

Ryan Delaney/WRVO and Katko for Congress
Incumbent Democrat Dan Maffei, left, and Republican John Katko, right, are running for N.Y.'s 24th Congressional District seat

The race for the 24th Congressional District has been characterized by its negative campaign ads. Grant Reeher, host of WRVO's Campbell Conversations, moderated the first debate between incumbent Democrat Dan Maffei and Republican challenger John Katko. In this portion of the debate, Reeher asked each candidate about their use of negative ads. Part one of the debate aired onWRVO on Sunday, October 19 at 6:00 p.m. 

Ed. note: In part of this exchange, Dan Maffei refers to a negative ad released this week by the Katko campaign. That ad was not available at the time the debate was recorded. The ad can be seen here

Television Commercial: I’m Dan Maffei and I approved this message.  [narrator voice] John Katko, attacks so false they failed to fact check.  The truth -- Dan Maffei fought for critical funding to fight terrorism and strengthen the border. But Katko put politics ahead of our safety.  A Republican mayor faced thirty years in prison for soliciting children, but Katko stepped in and persuaded the Republican judge to give the mayor a shorter sentence.  John Katko puts politics ahead of us.

Grant Reeher: Okay, so Congressman Maffei what message are you trying to convey with this ad?

Dan Maffei: Well, two things.  One is, obviously, we had been attacked on, frankly, my patriotism. The charge had been that somehow I allowed terrorists to come into this country and wasn’t fighting for this county. That is absolutely false, so we responded to that.  And then, our records do matter. The comparison of the two records. I have a record in Congress, Mr. Katko has a record as a prosecutor.  In this particular case, he went to lower than the minimum sentence for a mayor convicted of really, I mean if you read the court records, extraordinarily heinous things about trying to set up, having a relationship with fifteen-year-olds.  We think that’s relevant, because it’s an instance where it’s a Republican mayor and, you know, and he is working on not getting him even the minimum sentence.  And frankly, I think he maybe shouldn’t be on the streets today. He has been on the streets, by the way, longer than he was in jail.

GR: What I don’t understand about the ad as I listen to it is the notion of a political association and putting politics above safety that’s a quote.  What is the political advantage being leveraged here?  Are you saying Mr. Katko wanted to be lenient on a sex offender and used a federal republican judge to do that?

DM: I don’t know the answers, Mr. Katko is here, why don’t you ask him why he did, why he gave him less than the minimum sentence.

GR: No, I want to talk about the message here because there is something that’s clearly being communicated to the listener.  When I listen to this ad and I watch it, this is what I am getting. And so what I am asking you is, are you saying that Mr. Katko wanted to be lenient on a sex offender and used a republican federal judge to do that?  What I don’t understand is the political association that’s being put forward here.

DM: Okay, I’m not sure if it was. Look I don’t know if it was a federal judge, I don’t know if it was the defense attorney that Mr. Katko was very very close to, and has already sent a letter out on his behalf in is this political campaign, I am not sure.  But what I am sure of is what happened. This mayor, this corrupt mayor, got less than the maximum.  I’m sorry, less than the minimum sentence for these things and that does compromise our public safety.  And there are a lot of questions about that remain unanswered.   

GR: Mr. Katko, the question for you on this is, can you explain the reason for the plea deal in this case and whether it was unusual in some way? 

John Katko: The implication which Mr. Maffei did not answer was that he was clearly trying to say that there is some sort of corrupt deal here. And he even mentions the term quote “Republican judge,” who happens to be appointed for life, has been on the bench for forty years, has never had his integrity questioned until this commercial.  And so this case was a standard case in how you prosecute cases.  Mr. Maffei has three advance degrees, he is no dummy, he knew exactly what he was doing and he knew exactly what he was trying to imply, that there was something untoward in what I did.  And that’s unfortunate because that case was an incredibly difficult case. We had a wiretap on him, we could not prove that he had ever had sexual relations with underage girls and thank god that didn’t happen. So, what we had was an individual who was talking about it on the telephone, simply talking about it.  He went to prison for three years and was removed from as a mayor, listed on the national registry as a sex offender for talking about it. And so we introduce an undercover and basically a sting operation after he showed his predisposition to it, we introduce a sting operation and we arrested him as he was walking into a hotel room where he thought he would be having sex with a fifteen year old girl, or two fifteen year old girls. Mr. Maffei’s ad said he was facing thirty years, Mr. Maffei is smart enough to know that under the federal sentencing guidelines he was facing no longer than five years.  That was a maximum statutory, statutory maximum sentence was thirty years, he knows that sentencing guidelines drive the cases. So he was facing a five-year case. He cooperated with us, which is a standard procedure in federal cases. And he cooperated with us to lead us to other investigations in the Oswego area.  [S]ubsequently to that the police chief was removed from Oswego. And in subsequent investigation and for that Mr. Gosek received two points off his sentence. But here’s a clear thing you got to understand in the federal system, and I know Mr. Maffei understands, and that is in the federal system the judge accepts, rejects or modifies any plea and they have done it every which way every time. They are the ultimate arbiter of the sentence we have no control over the sentence the judge gives.  There are times I have gone in and recommended ten years he has given fifteen, and when I recommend ten he gives five. It is entirely up to the judge.  The judge gave him a thirty-six month sentence. He was sent to a facility where he was evaluated as a sex offender, he was given every manner of testing possible, he served his time, and he was released in the community.  Basically as far as a federal case goes, it was run of the mill as it gets.

GR: Now I want to listen to this ad about Congressman Maffei and again it comes from the Republican National Committee.  We could not find similar ads from Mr. Katko’s campaign itself. 

JK: Grant, can I interject for one second, I think that is important to note that there wasn't one of those ads are from my campaign.

DM: Grant, this week one of those ads attacking me directly from his campaign has run.

GR: Okay, I did not see that and we did not find that one. Here's the audio. 

Television Ad: [narrator] Just look at the news, raising kids there’s enough to worry about and now this. So why is Dan Maffei putting us at risk. Maffei voted to cut funding for the combat troops fighting to protect us. And here at home Maffei voted to keep law enforcement from detaining illegal immigrants who had been suspected of crimes.  With all that’s happening, Dan Maffei is a big risk. The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

GR: Okay, so Mr. Katko, what's the message that the Republican Party is trying to convey with this ad?

JK: Well I want to start preliminarily by noting what you noted at the beginning and I’m sorry for interrupting you, I won’t do that again. And that is that my campaign has not been running those type of ads. Okay those ads perhaps stretch the truth, but I think the people got to understand, and I don’t think they always do, there’s four quadrants to this campaign. There is Mr. Maffei and how he runs his ads, there is his outside groups on his side, outside groups on my side, and myself.

GR: But, voters don’t make that distinction when they are hearing it.

JK: I know that they don’t.  

GR: So let’s focus on this one. What’s the message that the party is trying to convey with this ad do you think?

JK: I think the message is obvious and I don’t know if I necessarily agree with them. And quite frankly I don’t support ads that stretch the truth and I don’t support ads that aren’t fact based.  I think a lot of these ads take liberties, just like the ad that Mr. Maffei has of me take liberties. I don’t think they have any place in politics and I think it is very unfortunate and one of the most shocking things I have had to get used to in this campaign. 

GR: So follow up, I think I know the answer but I want to ask it any way, do you think then that Congressman Maffei does not support our troops and do you think he increases the risk to our safety?

JK: If that is what that is saying, I don’t think in the truest sense that it is true. He is an American.  He is not going to sit there and say come in bad guys, but they are questioning his judgment on certain votes and if they are stretching the truth, that’s wrong.

GR: So, Congressman Maffei can you briefly explain the two votes you are being criticized on in this ad.

DM: The votes that they’re citing, as far as I remember, had nothing to do with the charges. The combat troops, I think they are citing the fact that I didn’t support continuing the Afghanistan War and had nothing to do with the current combat troops. The detainees is even more confusing, they just don’t hold up and that’s been shown by independent observers like the Auburn Citizen and that’s why we had to defend them. But I do want to make a couple of quick points. One is, you say it’s not relevant these other factors. Mr. Katko who is by the way this week running a negative ad himself out of his own campaign...

GR: I’m sorry, I’m saying something’s not relevant?

DM: Well, I’m not saying if you’re saying it but you said we don’t want to talk about what Mr. Katko pointed out that you’ve got the parties and you’ve got the individuals. Far more, a huge percentage, of Mr. Katko’s entire effort, the effort on his side is the Republican Party directly from Washington. So to not make that distinction, sort of say oh John’s got some ads and Dan’s got some ads.

GR: No, my point was that most voters don’t distinguish the difference.

DM: No and I agree with that point. But the fact is almost all of Mr. Katko’s ads, or ads against me on his side, are by the Republican Committee.  So, if that’s the case then it’s a little less of a distinction.  Two, he is running an ad this week that is critical of me directly and I believe misleading.