Rep. John Katko on the Campbell Conversations
This week on the Campbell Conversations host Grant Reeher is joined by first-term Congressman John Katko, who represents central New York’s 24th district. The wide-ranging discussion covers the funding for Planned Parenthood, poverty in Syracuse, Katko’s effort to be moderate and bi-partisan, his campaign support from the Republican Party’s Patriot Program, and the Republican presidential field.
Note: This interview was recorded before Speaker of the House John Boehner announced that he would retire from Congress at the end of October.
Grant Reeher (GR): What do you regard as the top two or three initiatives that you've taken during your first term?
John Katko (JK): One of the things that's even taken me by surprise is how much I'm diving into the poverty issue in Syracuse. That's one thing I'm very interested in. I'm also excited about my ability to explore and work on national security issues on the Homeland Security Committee. And I'm still doing something I wanted to do during the campaign, and that's the Interstate 81 project.
(GR): On the poverty issue, you talked a lot about this during your campaign. It's a huge issue, it's been around for a very long time in Syracuse. It's getting a lot of attention in the media lately, both the level of poverty and it's concentration. What have you been trying to do to address this?
(JK): Trying to raise awareness of the issue, to start. When I started my time in office, Syracuse was the 23rd most impoverished city in the country. A new report came out and now we're 16th. And right down the road in Rochester, and this shocked me, they are the 3rd most impoverished city in the country. You have two upstate New York cities that have profound poverty issues. As you drill down into the poverty issue, you see that poverty and education go hand in hand. In Syracuse, 50% of kids graduate high school. In Rochester, 42% of kids graduate. And we're condemning those kids who don't graduate to a life of probably less achievement. I've been very concerned about it and I've been diving deep into those issues. We've been having seminars, talks, visiting food pantries, I've spent a lot of time in schools talking about this issue and trying to raise awareness of the issue.
(GR): You have worn a purple tie and have said that you would be dedicated to reaching across the aisle and the purple tie was a symbol of that. How has that been going?
(JK): Great. There's a thing in Congress called the Tuesday Group, and that is a group of independent-minded Republicans that meet every Tuesday at lunch and discuss issues and how to work together. I'm also part of an organization called Main Street, where we discuss issues and how we can reach across the aisle. In my opinion, Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill were polar opposites as far as political philosophies go. But they engaged each other, they got a long and they got things done. History is loaded with people who have reached across the aisle and that's when we've been most productive, and I think I'm part of that ilk. I've introduced a number of bills, and every one of my bills has a Democratic co-sponsor. And that's why I've had four bills pass the House and there are many others in the hopper, because I reach across the aisle. You work with the other side, you befriend them, you talk to them. It's not heresy, it's how things should get done.
(GR): One vote where you did not break with your party was the recent vote to defund Planned Parenthood. Could you explain your vote?
(JK): It's never an easy issue. During my campaign I was absolutely for funding Planned Parenthood. The law is clear that any federal funds cannot be used for abortions, so that's not an issue. What has concerned me is that there is a series of about 20 videos, and they're horrific. And it's pretty clear to me, as a prosecutor who is analyzing the evidence, that at least some people in Planned Parenthood are engaged in the selling of body parts. And that's against the law. That troubles me, and on top of that, what troubles me more is that I don't think the birth mothers knew this was going on. To me, it's not about abortion. It's about whether they're breaking the law or not. And so it's not just defunding Planned Parenthood and saying "See ya later" and capitalizing on this. No. It's about temporarily suspending funding to them pending the outcome of an investigation. We have three committees investigating this issue, and it's a terrible issue. But it's not like we're going to take those funds that were being used to help women's healthcare issues and forget it.
(GR): Let's talk about the Republican presidential field. Do you think the media's "Trump mania" has hurt the Republican Party?
(JK): No. I think it's been a very healthy discussion. It's pretty interesting though. Who would have thought a few months ago that Scott Walker would already be gone and that Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump would be near the top right now? That's pretty amazing. But their polling is going to help drive their decisions. But it's still early on. In my race, even 30 days before the election, most polls had me down by double digits. And in the last 30 days, it swung 30 points, from being down 10 to up 20. It's a sign that, until the actual voting comes near, people really aren't paying attention to the issues. They're being entertained by Trump right now, there's no doubt about it. I think when people start paying closer attention to the issue, the race is going to tighten up.