John Katko, prosecutor and political neophyte
As WRVO profiles congressional races in central and northern New York this week, we turn to the 24th Congressional District. It features a well-known Democrat who has struggled to hold onto the office, and a political neophyte. Today, we profile John Katko.
When John Katko decided to quit his job as a federal prosecutor in January to run for Congress, his sister was surprised.
"I’m like really, are you serious,” Cindy Hoyne said. “He’s like yeah. He’s not your typical politician; I think that’s what floored me the most.”
But the more she thought about it, the more it made sense.
"I guess I can see it, because he’s in it for the right reasons,” Hoyne said. “He really is. He really believes he can do something."
Katko himself admits it’s a bit of a stretch to jump from U.S. attorney to candidate for Congress in one swoop.
“This is a tremendous leap for me, because I went being completely apolitical, to neck deep in the political end of the pool,” he said.
Katko was raised in Camillus as one of the middle children among a gaggle of five girls and two boys.
“Coming from a house with seven kids, you’ve got to learn to speak up. You get run over if you don’t.”
Ultimately it is his family that’s pulled him into the game.
"I want my kids not only to grow up here,” Katko said. “I want their kids’ kids to grow up here. They can only do that if there’s enough opportunity here. And how many times have you seen people, parents tell you, your kids are leaving here. That’s got to change. And I firmly believe it can change."
His degrees from Niagara University and the Syracuse University Law School led him to a job in Washington D.C., where he found his ultimate legal calling during a training program.
“I’ll never forget walking into a courtroom for the first time, and they told me how to announce myself -- as John Katko for the United States of America and it was like, that lightning bolt struck me, and I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
That moment was the beginning of 20 years as an attorney in the Department of Justice, with stints along the way in Texas and Puerto Rico, before returning home to central New York.
It was his experience in Syracuse, as a leader in organized crime and high-level narcotics investigations, that Katko’s local reputation took hold.
Sgt. Tom Connellan of the Syracuse Police Department is the supervisor of the Gang Violence Task Force that Katko formed.
“We went after the worst of the worst gangs,” Connellan said.
The task force brought down several gang members at a time when gang violence was prevalent in certain city neighborhoods.
“We were one of the first cities to go after a gang under the RICO act,” Connellan said. “And that model has now taken off and is now used all over the country. So what John presented to us, and what’s been done, is now just a really successful model for locking up violent gang members throughout the country.”
Katko says dealing with drug dealers and murderers helped prepare him for a job in Congress.
Katko says it’s about being honest with people, and laying down the options which is something he did with gang members.
“It’s amazing these hardcore -- some of these were killers, and they would change,” Katko said. “I was treating them with respect, and they hadn’t been talked to like that almost ever in their lives.”
On the trail
One of the things Katko enjoys from first foray into political life is shaking hands with senior citizens in Liverpool, but his pivot into politics has had its negative moments.
An attack ad, released by Democratic candidate Dan Maffei, recounted an event in Katko’s time as a federal prosecutor.
“A Republican mayor faced 30 years in prison for soliciting children. But Katko stepped in and persuaded the Republican judge to give the mayor a shorter sentence. Katko puts politics ahead of us,” says the narrator in the TV commercial.
Hoyne said that ad really got to her brother.
“When they’re trashing his integrity as a prosecutor, that really gets to him because he takes pride in his job and he’s not a corrupt prosecutor,” Hoyne said.
Katko bristles at attack ads that suggest he’s a right-wing extremist, saying he’s never been a political ideologue, and that he joined the Republican Party after years of no party affiliation at all.
“I’m not an extreme right-winger,” Katko said. “I’m a fiscal conservative, first and foremost, and that’s why I got into this race because we have an almost $18 trillion in debt and we’ve done nothing to work on it. That worries me. That worries me about my kid’s future. When we have deficit spending and continue to spend. That’s what makes me tick.”
He said the past 10 months have taught him a lot about the world of politics.
“People really care what’s going on in this country,” Katko said. “And you can feel the passion. And that’s kind of heartwarming. So that’s one thing I’ve learned. But you know, I’ve had threats my whole life. I’ve had contracts on my life, so I can handle that. I just hope the American people can see through the garbage.”
Katko lives in Camillus with his wife and three sons.