The race for New York's 24th Congressional District, currently held by incumbent Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus), could prove critical in Democrats attempts to take control of the House of Representatives. This week, host Grant Reeher talks with Katko's Democratic challenger, Dana Balter.
Note: This post contains an extra 16 minutes of the discussion not included in the broadcast version of the interview. Click here for audio and a transcript of the broadcast version.
Reeher: So, we spent our time in the broadcast portion going through the different messaging in the campaigns. That led to some discussions of some policy issues, including health care. In particular, I want to spend this time here talking about some other policy issues. So, let me just open it up to you to choose which ones you want to talk about, aside from the policy issues that we discussed in the broadcast. What do you think are the most important policy differences between you and Congressman Katko? Where are the most important differences?
Balter: I think, perhaps, the single most important difference – and I also think this is the most important issue facing our political system right now – is campaign finance reform. I think we have a political system and a Washington D.C. that are dominated by big-money interests. We’re talking about corporations and their lobbyists. We’re talking about mega-donors. And that is a fundamental problem for our democracy. It gives far too much power to those who have money and far too little power to the citizenry. Our elected officials are supposed to be there to represent us and what’s best for us. But, because of the way money dominates the system, they are doing what’s best for those donors. And, in order to change that incentive, we’ve got to get money out of the system. I have made this my number-one legislative priority, and I have signed onto a letter with 106 other candidates who are running for office right now outlining a series of actions we want to take to address campaign finance reform, accountability, transparency in government. We’ve sent that letter to the leadership in the House, to the Democratic leadership, saying, “When the new session begins in January, this needs to be the number-one issue on the agenda.” And more than 80 percent of Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, want to see big money out of politics because they understand that the fact that the system is dominated by money is why we haven’t been able to bring down the cost of prescription drugs, why we haven’t been able to make good investments in renewable energy, why we haven’t been able to pass common-sense gun safety measures. So, that, I think, is the most important thing we can do for the health of our democracy.
Reeher: So, what kind of things would you do, because you’re going to run up against the Supreme Court pretty quick on this, given its recent decision on these issues?
Balter: Yes. So, first of all, we need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
Reeher: Well, that’s tough to do.
Balter: But that’s a long-term project.
Reeher: That’s really tough to do.
Balter: It is. But the public support for it is there, and I think we’re going to get it done. But it’s going to take a long time, so we have to attack it legislatively in the meantime. I have published on my website a campaign finance and government reform agenda full of specific pieces of legislation that I support and that I will pass. I encourage your listeners to take a look at that. One of the things that we can do is improve our disclosure requirements to shine a light on dark money. For example, there’s a bill called the Disclose Act, which requires that anybody who spends more than $10,000 on political advertising, they have to disclose their donors. That way, the voters get to know who is trying to influence them and what messages they’re sending. That helps us evaluate the truth of the message and the motivation behind the message. Working to get foreign money out of elections – unfortunately, it’s still coming in. Closing the revolving door on lobbyists so that we don’t have lobbyists coming into legislation and legislators going to lobbying in ways that undermine the accountability of government and the motivation of the people who are making our laws to do what’s best for the people. Those are a couple of examples of the kinds of things I’m talking about. My opponent has taken almost a million dollars from corporate tax. And you can draw a direct line from his donations to his votes. He took more than $60,000 from the telecom industry, and he voted to allow internet service providers to sell our private data. He has taken almost $100,000 from the oil and gas industry, and he voted to allow the dumping of coal ash in our streams. He’s taken almost $50,000 from big pharma, almost $50,000 from health insurance companies, and he voted to gut health care. We deserve better than that. We need to know that our elected representatives are working for us, not for them.
Reeher: Would you be trying to get on particular committees if you are elected? Do you have preferred committee assignments in mind?
Balter: I do. I have a wish list of three.
Balter: I’d like to serve on Education and [the] Workforce because I think that speaks to a lot of really central policies for central and western New Yorkers. It can make our lives better. I also feel like that’s where I have the most policy knowledge and expertise, and I can contribute the most. I want to serve on agriculture because we are an agricultural district, and I want to make sure that central and western New Yorkers’ voices are at the table when we’re crafting the agenda for agriculture policy, and the same for transportation and infrastructure because I think that’s going to be a huge part of our economic revitalization initiative in this region. And I want to make sure that we’re at the table.
Reeher: You mentioned the letter that you signed on to and was sent to the Democratic leadership in Congress. So, one question that comes up there is would you support Nancy Pelosi as speaker?
Balter: So, I don’t know who I’m going to support as speaker until I get there, until I know who’s running and I have the chance to evaluate the candidates. I look at every election the same way. I need to – no matter who is running, no matter how long they have been in the position they’re running for – they need to earn my support. And I will make the decision based on who I think is going to do the best job. And part of that is, who is going to support the issues that are going to best help people here at home?
Reeher: And you have been in the past, and on our previous program – our previous conversation, you talk about this at length – but you have been a critic of the tax bill that was passed, in addition to the provisions regarding the Affordable Care Act just more generally. Would you be pushing for a re-do of that, a change in that?
Balter: Absolutely. And I think that there are a lot of ways that we can do much better. What that tax bill did, essentially, is reinforce and exacerbate the wealth and income inequality in this country. It continued to make the rich richer by giving them the vast majority of the benefits of that bill. What I want to see in our tax policy is I want to see us put hardworking families, seniors, veterans, students at the center of our policy because what our past history shows us is that, when working families and middle-class households are doing the best, that’s when our economy thrives. This bill does the opposite of that. And the argument was made to us, “We’re going to give all of these benefits to corporations, and then, they will use this money to increase wages and hire more people.” But we already see that that’s not what happened. Some people did see a boost in wages. We’re talking very small boosts in wages. And any boost is good, but an extra $20 a week in your paycheck does not justify the kind of giveaway to the top tier that we saw. And, if we look at what those corporations have done with the windfall they received, instead of hiring and raising wages, the vast majority of it has gone to stock buy-backs, which has the effect of making shareholders wealthier but doesn’t do anything for employees. And we need to raise the standard of living of the hardworking folks who are making those companies work.
Reeher: So, let’s talk a little bit about you and how you developed the ideas and the values that you hold. So, could you just tell me, what were the most powerful influences on the development of your political views and on the development of your policy views? Looking back on your life, where do you think those really got shaped?
Balter: Well, I think it started in really early childhood, and this is a story I’ve told throughout the campaign because my younger brother has cognitive disabilities. And so, I had the experience of growing up with him and moving through the world by his side and fighting against bullies and trying to help him overcome the challenges that he faced and watching my parents advocate for him to make sure he had the best opportunities and resources so he could thrive. And it taught me how important it is to stand up for the underdog. And it taught me that each of us has a responsibility to make sure that every person in our society has dignity and access. And ultimately, I want to see those ideas be at the heart we create and every policy we write. I really sort of shifted to an interest in policy in the beginning of my professional career when I was working in Disabilities Services. I was there as a teacher. I became a director of education. So, I came at it from an educator’s point of view, but in that work, I met lots of families who were struggling the way my family had struggled to find the best services and the best resources. And I worked with a lot of our clients, interacting with government agencies and sort of understanding how this system works. And I found that our clients were coming up against barrier after barrier after barrier in society. And if we really wanted to help people be successful, achieve whatever it was that they wanted to achieve, we had to figure out how to pull down those barriers. I thought the best way to attack that problem was through a better understanding of public policy. That’s why I went back to school to study it. And it was really through my study of public administration that I gained much more detailed insight into how policy works, how government works, how to think about our public problems in analytical ways to understand the root causes and assess the various alternatives and figure out what’s actually going to be the best alternative to really address the problem and also think about things like feasibility. Maybe it’s a great idea, but is it actually something we can do? That’s a really important part of public policy. So, I think it’s kind of the sum total of my personal and professional experiences that have prepared me for this job.
Reeher: Just a couple more questions if you’ve got the time.
Reeher: Do you have a political hero living? Living political hero, who would it be?
Balter: I don’t think I have a living political hero. I’m not really one for heroes.
Reeher: OK. How about somebody you admire? Let me back it off just a little bit. A living political figure that you would say, “You know, I admire that person.”
Balter: There are a lot of people that I admire. I look at people who are currently serving in Congress who are standing up and stranding strong in the face of a lot of pressure to do what’s right. One person who comes to mind is Adam Schiff, who I really feel like has been fighting the good fight on integrity and ethics for us. But what I’m really the most motivated by are the everyday people across the country who have stood up to become politically engaged because they are not happy with what they see happening. That, to me, is what’s exciting about politics. It’s when we as individual citizens recognize that we have the power to shape things, that it’s not about a leader, a hero; it’s about us. And the past two years have been the most extraordinary example of that, and that’s where I draw my inspiration from.
Reeher: Well, let’s expand the denominator a little bit. Let’s take people living or dead, OK? Do you have a political hero in that category? Is there someone that is no longer with us that you would look back to and say, “Oh, that’s someone I would really admire”?
Balter: I’m a big fan of the Roosevelts, particularly Eleanor. I think FDR did a lot of great this country, and I’m very grateful for his leadership, but I don’t think he would’ve been half the president he was without Eleanor. And I think that, especially at a time when women were not listened to or valued particularly, she was an extraordinary person. And what I love, first of all, I think she has endless wisdom for us to listen to and apply to our own lives. But what I really love about her approach to being a political figure is that she travelled the country. She was out with the people. She was curious and empathetic and passionate about making the country better. And she understood that, in order to do that, you had to show up in people’s communities and find out what their lives were like and listen to them to understand what they needed and then, bring that back to Washington D.C. and use it make policy that was going to make the world better. I think she might be the greatest example of that that have, and it absolutely has shaped the way I view the job of politics.
Reeher: Last question: does your campaign have a theme song? Or what would be the theme song of your campaign?
Balter: We don’t have one.
Reeher: Well, what would be that, if you’re in the back seat being driven to your 20th appointment for the day?
Balter: I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and I just have not come up with anything.
Reeher: I stole that from the gubernatorial debate.
Balter: Frankly, I just like music that is inspirational. Anything where the lyrics are talking about somebody sort of coming into their own and taking power over their lives, that’s what gets me going.