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Part one: Colleen Deacon, Eric Kingson and Steve Williams on the Campbell Conversations

Tom Fazzio
Democrats (from left to right) Steve Williams, Colleen Deacon and Eric Kingson during a debate moderated by Campbell Conversations host Grant Reeher

New York's 24th congressional district has changed party hands four times in the last four elections.  This year, the Democratic Party has targeted incumbent Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus) as someone it can beat in its quest to retake control of the House of Representatives.  And this week on the Campbell Conversations, host Grant Reeher moderates a debate among the three Democratic candidates hoping to run against Katko in November under the Democratic banner.  It's a lively and at times testy conversation. 

Grant Reeher (GR): Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. On June 28, the Democratic Party in the 24th Congressional District will be holding a primary to determine who will run on the party line in November against Republican incumbent John Katko. It’s been identified by political analysts as a likely very competitive race, in a year in which the party control of the house representatives may be in contention. My guests today are the three candidates running in that primary. Each of them has appeared individually on the program in the past. They are Steve Williams, an attorney in Syracuse; Colleen Deacon, a former staffer for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand; and Eric Kingson, a professor at Syracuse University. The 24th District includes all of Cayuga, Onondaga and Wayne Counties, and the western part of Oswego County. Our conversation today will be split over two weeks. We will air the second half next week. I expect to be speaking on air with Congressman Katko soon after that. Steve, Eric, Colleen, welcome to the program.

Let me start with the most basic and central question. Only one of you can run as a Democrat against John Katko in the general election and Steve, let me start with you with this, what’s the most important thing that distinguishes you from your two democratic opponents in this primary?

Steve Williams (SW): Well, thank you, Grant. I wish I could say there was one thing, but there are several, there are several. Number one, I’m the only veteran running in this race, whether it be considering these folks here or John Katko. I’m the only one who served in the military. I was a lieutenant commander in the Navy; I served eight years and was active duty for five years. I think that’s important in today’s day and age when our national security is at stake. Secondly, I’m the only person running who’s got private sector experience. I run a small business, and that’s also important because small businesses are now the life blood of our community. We’ve lost all these giant manufacturers and we’re dependent upon small businesses. And you know, thirdly, Grant, everybody else in this race is backed by some national political establishment organization. Every single person. Colleen’s backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Eric is backed by the Democracy for America organization, John’s backed by the Republican National Committee. These are national organizations. I haven’t sought nor do I want their backing because I want to be serving solely the interests of this district. And you know what, that’s resonating with the folks of this district and that’s why my campaign is surging because I’m beholden to nobody but the people in this district.

GR: I want to come back to that issue of endorsements later, but let me stick with this first basic question. Colleen, what distinguishes you from your two democratic opponents?

Colleen Deacon (CD): Well I think first and foremost, the work I’ve done in this region. I’ve been on the ground, I’ve been rolling up my sleeves for the past 12 years, fighting hard for the people of this district and I understand what our challenges are. You know, I’ve worked with our veterans in the community to connect them with job opportunities, I’ve worked to fight against unfair trade practices and keep jobs here in this region. I’ve worked with our seniors to help them avoid financial scams and financial fraud. I’ve been doing the work here for a long time and I want to take that experience to Congress to continue to fight hard for the people of this district. And furthermore, I think my own personal story of somebody of whom, when I was just out of college, I was waiting tables for a living and my job did not come with healthcare or sick time, so when I became pregnant with my son, I had to rely on Medicaid, because I didn’t have health insurance and I had to go on food stamps and WIC to keep us healthy after my son was born. So I know what it’s like for the many families that are struggling across this district and across the country and I want to bring that perspective to Congress. It’s not a unique experience, but it’s a perspective that’s not represented in Congress. You know, how many members in Congress can actually say they’ve had to use the programs they’re voting on? That’s what I want to bring to Congress, my experience, my perspective and my ideas and really represent the people of this district.

GR: And Eric, let me ask the same question to you, then. What distinguishes you from your two Democratic opponents?

Eric Kingson (EK): Thank you. To begin, I have experience, I have experience which has changed national policy affecting everyone in this district. One hundred fifty-two thousand people who receive Social Security benefits would have had their benefits cut if the organization I co-founded, Social Security Works, did not exist. We’re located at the AFL-CIO in Washington; we’re very closely connected to labor, women’s organizations, disability and the like. So I can say that I’ve done something, not that I want to do something, and I can take that same determination and put it into a variety of issues -- high cost of pharmaceuticals for American families and for central New York families. Other distinctions -- I’m the only one who will say, unequivocally, I support Medicare for all and I think of a way to do it. I think I am the only one who will say, I will not accept corporate money, win or lose -- well win the primary -- I will not accept it. Our campaign finance system is a disaster. We all have to stand up, both individually and collectively to change it or we’re going to lose our democracy. I’m the only one who will unequivocally say our nation needs to deal with a dramatic set of changes. I’m also the only one, I’m very clear that our children’s democracy is at risk. [Donald] Trump and [Sen. Ted] Cruz in particular are dangerous human beings. It’s distressing that anyone would hesitate on saying they will not support them. John Katko has not said he will not support them; he’s playing his middle-of-the-road game. Very clear, we have to draw a line on that. We have to get a lot of young people involved. I’m also the only one who endorses Bernie Sanders though I will be delighted to work for Hillary [Clinton] if she is the nominee.

GR: So each of you in different ways talked about your own experiences as what you see as distinguishing you. And Eric you sort of moved from there into talking about some policy positions. That’s what I wanted to ask the three of you again about next, because even though I’m going to get in to specific policies and the conversation that we’ll have next week, I wanted to give you each a chance here to encapsulate what you think are the most important policy differences that distinguish you from your two opponents. So Colleen, let me start with you on this, what separates your policy positions from your opponents? Are there important differences there that you see?

CD: Yeah, I would say paid family leave is an issue that I want to be a champion for, as I mentioned just a few minutes ago -- my struggle when I had my son, not having the option for paid family leave. I want to go to Congress and really fight hard to have a policy in place that helps businesses, that helps employees, and helps families.

GR: Now, are you saying, and I want to be really clear because I’m looking for differences here, are you saying that your two opponents don’t support paid family leave?

CD: No, well I can tell you that Steve, I know, his position has evolved with paid family leave over the course of this campaign and I think that’s been a valuable part of the discussion.

SW: Well that’s false but I’ll respond to that.

GR: Well no, we’ll get there. Go ahead.

CD: So, anyway I want to be a champion for paid family leave. It’s something I personally struggled with and I personally know firsthand what it’s like. And I will go to Congress -- you know, since I kicked off this campaign, it’s something I’ve been talking about and I’ve been a strong supporter of. I would say the student interest rate is another issue that I really, really want to focus on. As somebody who literally just paid off their student loans last March, I know what it’s like for the many graduates who are having to go into this economy with limited job opportunities and having to be straddled with student loan debt on their backs. So that is something I want to go to Congress and fight really hard to make sure we’re reducing the interest rates or fighting hard to do everything we can so students aren’t in these tough situations after they graduate from college.

GR: Now Eric, same question to you, but again I want to emphasize I’m looking for your sense of the difference between you and the other two candidates.

EK: Okay, I have been a champion for paid family leave for many years. I have worked on caregiving beginning in the 1980s. I have the experience of having seen the evolution of caregiving as an important public issue, as opposed to a private expectation of women. A public issue we have to invest in. I’ve written about it on my record. I’ve been doing it for a long time. Differences, I would say that, I differ on – well, I mentioned Medicare for all. I don’t hear either of them saying it. I differ with Steve very strongly. He opposes the Hyde Amendment being repealed; it stops low-income women from receiving the same choice to have, to bring a child to term or not. I strongly support the repeal of it. Steve has some kind of idea, oh, it’s going to kill family leave, it’s going to kill Planned Parenthood politically, it’s hooey. The same week he said that Planned Parenthood endorsed Hillary, who favors eliminating the Hyde and it’s a major plank in the Planned Parenthood proposals. I have worked nationally with many organizations, many members, and that’s something I bring that I don’t think many others have. And I’ve had experience beginning with the civil rights movement, then working in communities, then teaching young men and women -- and some older men and women, too -- some 400-500 in the 19 years I’ve been at Syracuse University.

GR: Okay and then, Steve, again, same question here. What distinguishes your policy positions from your other two opponents, and you have a response apparently you want to make also about the paid leave. Go ahead.

SW: Well, absolutely Grant. First, let me say this. I’ve been at forums with these folks for about six or seven months, and quite frankly there’s very little that distinguishes us on policy issues. Now, Colleen has tried to fabricate some kind of difference between her and me on paid family leave. It’s her effort to do that is disingenuous at best. I’ve been in favor of paid family leave for years. The trick is to pick the right plan and that works the best. She knows that, that’s a false distinction. But you know, what really distinguishes me is I’m the only independent person here. I’m the only person who’s going to be working for just the people of this district. I’ll be beholden to no national organization. Now Eric brought up the Hyde Amendment. Let’s be clear on that, okay? I’m pro-choice and I defend Planned Parenthood. I was at a Planned Parenthood rally after the Planned Parenthood in Colorado was attacked. But the fact of the matter is that if you apply or don’t apply the Hyde Amendment to certain legislation, it will not pass. I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about. The Affordable Care Act only was able to pass because President Obama got the support of some conservative Democrats who would not have supported it but for the application of the Hyde Amendment. And just so the listeners are clear what we’re talking about, the Hyde Amendment prevents federal tax revenue from being spent on abortions. So the Affordable Care Act would not pass unless they applied the Hyde Amendment to it. Planned Parenthood would not be funded but for the Hyde Amendment. So you know people need to be careful about applying that or not applying it because it’s going to make legislation fail that I think everybody at this table is in favor of, I think everybody is in favor of the Affordable Care Act. You can ask them but I think they are.

GR: We have just about a minute before the break, Colleen, I want to give you a chance to respond on this paid family leave briefly.

CD: Sure, so as I mentioned, I’ve been in favor of paid family leave since I got into this race in October. I know Steve, I know his position has evolved. He was at the Auburn Rotary Club talking about how the devil is in the details. Well, you know to be perfectly honest with you if we don’t have somebody who wants to go to Congress and be a true champion for paid family leave then we might as well send John Katko back to Congress. So Steve, he’s walked his comments back and that’s good, I’m glad that he’s evolved but he was not originally supportive of paid family leave.

GR: Eric I want to come back to something you mentioned and Steve also commented on it a different way. You endorsed Bernie Sanders and you were endorsed by Democracy for America, which is a progressive organization that raises money for Sanders, and your two opponents have endorsed Hillary Clinton. Steve, I was kind of curious, before you were talking about this and framing this as kind of he’s partly an establishment candidate because he’s got the backing of this organization. Because Sanders is running as the anti-establishment candidate, so we’ll have to sort that out. But Eric does the fact that you’ve been endorsed by this Democracy for America and the fact that you endorse Bernie Sanders and your two opponents endorse Hillary Clinton, does that tell voters anything important about your candidacy?

EK: Yes, and I should also add National Nurses United, a major national union for nurses has endorsed me as well, and there are others that are coming up, and I’m very proud to get them and pleased. But I think the key thing is that the voters have to decide who they want, not politicians in Washington, not organizations. It’s up to voters to make that decision. I am not an established candidate. I have not spent my life doing anything but working on social policy; I’ve worked on economic security forever.

GR: Well, let me jump in and push you a little bit. Does the association with Sanders, the endorsement of Sanders, does that tell voters something important?

EK: Absolutely. It tells them I support Bernie’s agenda, generally. I’m a strong Democrat. It tells them, they don’t know, but I’ve worked with Bernie. We worked to stop cuts to everybody’s Social Security. Four or five of us were on the phone with Bernie; I’ve introduced him. It says something, too, when I say I want to expand Social Security benefits, I know what I mean by that. I built the agenda that Bernie and even Hillary is now using about expansion.

GR: Steve Williams, let me turn to you now and bring up something again that was brought up in the first half of the program. Colleen Deacon has lined up the support of prominent democratic elected officials in the state and in the area, as well as the Onondaga Democratic Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Now this word’s been thrown around a lot this year and I just threw it around again to this – establishment. But she does seem to have the backing of the Democratic establishment here. Why shouldn’t that be taken as a signal to Democratic voters about whom they ought to back in the primary?

SW: Well, that’s a very good question and that’s very simple because often times the interest of the national party or the country in general differ from the interests of this district. See, I’m concerned Grant about representing the people of this district and what they need and that doesn’t always mirror what the Democratic Party wants, whether it be Nancy Pelosi or Steny Hoyer or any other leaders of the party. I’m here to represent the people of this district and that’s why I take great pride, actually Grant, in not seeking nor getting the endorsement of any of these nationally recognized political established organizations.

GR: Well, let me interrupt you on that. So what if Chuck Schumer had come in and said I want to endorse Steve Williams, you would have said no thanks Sen. Schumer?

SW: Probably yeah, probably, because I can tell you, I don’t agree with him on everything and I didn’t ask him and I didn’t seek it out. But let’s be honest here about what’s going on. Colleen’s experience is working in Sen. Gillibrand’s local office. She works for a U.S. senator. That U.S. senator, of course, is going to back her and use her might to get Colleen endorsements. And that’s fine, because quite frankly I don’t think the people of this district care about those kinds of endorsements, as Eric pointed out. What we care about are the votes of the people of this district. You know, I had to get 1,250 local Democrats to sign petitions to get me on the ballet. I got close to 3,000 signatures. Those are the things I care about. I care about the fact that after I speak someplace and get my message out, I get very favorable, positive responses, the numbers are very good. The campaign is surging and it’s based solely on grassroots politics.

GR: Colleen, I imagine you want to respond to that, but I also have a question I want to put to you, so maybe we could fold these two things together. This is a question about John Katko. John Katko has appeared to be very active as a member of Congress. He’s taken an active role on committees, he’s initiated legislation, he’s had some success. He’s also seemed to establish a record as a Republican moderate, even sometimes being among a small handful of members voting against measures supported by the rest of his party. How are you going to make the persuasive case against him in a general election? Why should voters hear “fire a moderate Republican?”

CD: Well, first I want to go back to the original discussion. You know I have a lot of support on my campaign, momentum is building and it’s not just the fact that I work for Sen. Gillibrand’s office, it’s the work I did in Sen. Gillibrand’s office, in Mayor Driscoll’s office for the past 12 years, fighting hard for this district. You know people understand that I was helpful, got things done and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. I’m going to continue to fight in Washington, so I’m honored and I feel great that I have the support of all of the state and national folks that I do. I think it’s a testament to the work that I’ve done. But going further, some of the things that I did while I was in Sen. Gillibrand’s office and Mayor Driscoll’s office, you know, we worked across party lines when I worked with Republican mayors, or Democratic counselors or independent county supervisors. It didn’t matter who we were working with, we worked across the aisle really as long as we were getting things done for the people. I mean I worked very closely with Congressmen Richard Hannah, who is a Republican in the Mohawk Valley region. You know, we worked on Blue Water Vets and expanding pre-K together. So those are the things I want to continue to do together in Congress. I want to continue to work across the aisle, work within my party, work outside my party, representing the people of the 24th district. That’s what I want to do. You say John Katko is a moderate Republican. I don’t think he’s a moderate at all, so I think we need to replace him with someone who is going to actually stand up and fight for things like jobs and the economy. That’s the number one issue I’ve been hearing since I’ve been on this campaign trail, and John Katko has done nothing to address that issue at all.

GR: We just have a few minutes left but I wanted to give each of the two other candidates, Eric and Steve, a chance to also weigh in on the Katko issue and anything else that you’d want to say very, very briefly. Eric let me start with you, just a minute or so.

EK: Okay, our economy is unsustainably giving money to the most well off. That’s usually problematic and we have to deal with it. We have to make massive investments in infrastructure for our kids, for businesses and the next generation. And I don’t know if the others would agree, I would finance with a financial transaction tax and also raising the maximum levels of taxation on multi-millionaires and billionaires. They owe that. In terms of grassroots, my campaign is powered by two people who ran the Bernie Sanders campaign in central New York and we will have a very strong grassroots. In terms of an endorsement from Mr. Schumer, I have to tell you, I would take it even though I disagree with him, I have a hunch Steve would too and if you want to give it to me Colleen, go ahead [laughter].

GR: All right, Steve, I’ll give you the last word here, just a minute. Any thoughts on why we would want to fire a seemingly moderate Republican like John Katko and anything else you want to add.

SW: Well absolutely, I can tell you because John is not a moderate, he knows that. The only time he votes not in line with the Republican party is when his vote doesn’t count, when they know that the bill isn’t going to pass or it’s going to pass and get vetoed or they don’t have the votes to override the veto. It’s nothing but parliamentary trickery and I think anybody who is a sophisticated voter knows that. And you know, John’s a nice guy, I know John, our kids played soccer together, but he is wrong on the issues for this district. He doesn’t believe in climate change which is out of touch with the times. He doesn’t believe in women’s rights, he thinks people on the terrorist watch list should be able to buy assault rifles. Those are the wrong positions for the people of this district. And you know Grant, I’ve got a long history of taking on tough fights and winning them. I’ve represented union pension funds who lost millions in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme against big special interests. And I won those battles and recovered for those union pension holders. I fought big corporations who weren’t paying fair wages to their workers under the fair labor standards act and I’ve won. So I’ve got a track record of taking on special interests and of service, including my time in the Navy and that’s what’s resonating with the people of this district.

GR: We’ll have to leave it there for this part of the discussion. That was Eric Kingson, Steve Williams and Colleen Deacon. The second half of our conversationwill air next week in which we’ll cover more specific policy issues. Again the primary is June 28. Thanks to the three of you for talking with me.

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.