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Rep. Marc Molinaro on the Campbell Conversations

Mark Molinaro
Mark Molinaro

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with newly elected Congressman Marc Molinaro. The Republican represents New York's 19th District, a large eleven county geographic area. Molinaro previously served as Dutchess County executive and prior to that served in the New York State Assembly.

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is newly elected Congressman Marc Molinaro. The Republican represents New York's 19th district, a large eleven county geographic area that spans from Ithaca in the west, to the Massachusetts border in the east and includes the city of Binghamton in the Southwest. Congressman Molinaro previously served as Dutchess County executive and prior to that served in the New York State Assembly. And before that he was elected as mayor of the town of Tivoli at the ripe old age of 19. Along the way, he was a Republican candidate for governor of New York State. Congressman Molinaro, welcome to the program and it's really good to have you here, thanks for making the time.

Marc Molinaro: I'm glad to be here, and for the rest of the interview, call me Marc, please.

GR: Well, I'll try, but I tend to go with the formal title, so we'll see. But, let me just start with this really basic question at the beginning. It's early days still, but what are your impressions of Congress so far now that you're on the inside rather than the outside?

MM: Well, you still always feel a little bit like you're on the outside, believe me. But that said, you know, you read my history, even though I've been in public service for 29 years, and I truly believe it is, as Bobby Kennedy called it, a dignified duty. You know, you walk onto the floor of the House and I'm humbled and I'm reminded that I'm there not for myself, but for 750,000, give or take, residents of this district. So, an overwhelming honor, you know, obviously the first couple of weeks, the first few days didn't start the way we necessarily wanted them to. But that's the way democracy looks sometimes. And I'm certainly getting my getting know my way around and I've hit the ground running as quick as I could.

GR: Well, I wanted to ask you a couple questions about some of the things you are doing straight out of the gate. But let me just ask you this other question, and again, recognizing early days, but Congress gets a pretty bad rap from the public and from the media. So far, do you think it deserves it?

MM: Well, I won't answer it directly. I'll say to you that there are a lot of good people who really do want to get stuff done. I do think that the Constitution itself created, and the founders created this body to be a little bit messier than we like it in 2023. You know, we can't wrap it all up, but some people attempt to wrap it all up in a short rate or it needs to be packaged with a bow, you know, not to be overly dramatic or to use the catchphrase but, you know, democracy is messy and the House of Representatives at times looks a little more chaotic than maybe people want. But, but I will say this, I've said to my friends what you see on television is much more dramatic than it is in person. And there are a lot of Republican and Democrat members from all across this country who want to work together to achieve things. Now, we might disagree on what those things are, but they want to produce something. And I am impressed by that. And I will say to a degree, I too was a little bit surprised by the camaraderie and the willingness to work together. We don't often see that on television.

GR: It’ll be interesting, I want to check in with you after a few months and see if it's still the same. But tell me a little bit about your committee assignments, you just got them recently. Are you pleased with them? Tell us what they are and how they're going to fit in to what you want to accomplish.

MM: Listen, you know, the 19th congressional district is a part of New York that often feels overlooked and quite frankly, has a lot of important demands. Investment in infrastructure, concern for farming, access to workforce, education, job opportunities, housing. I made it clear I wanted to serve on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the House Agriculture Committee and the Small Business Committee, and I was signed to all three. These are the places my background in local government certainly the challenges facing the 19th district in upstate New York and the work I've done really all of my adult life, I think has put me in a good position to be productive here. These are committees where bipartisanship is necessary. They’re also committees that have to produce meaningful outcomes. You know, we're going to oversee the distribution and the implementation of the infrastructure funding that was approved last year. We have to develop a new farm bill and reauthorize the farm bill. So meeting the needs of small family farms across upstate New York, critically important. And if we learned anything over the last couple of years during the pandemic and the economic shutdown, we learned how valuable our small businesses are, that they are, in fact, the backbone of our economy. They are the backbone of our community. And those and in those times of great need, those are the ones we turn to in order to get help. And so providing relief and assistance to family farms, to small businesses to ensure that we're investing in high speed Internet and cell service, water sewer, highways, roads and bridges throughout upstate New York. These are the committees I worked hard to get selected for. And I'm looking forward to getting to work on.

GR: And more specifically, are there particular policy initiatives that you are prioritizing for your first year in office?

MM: Well, I mean, beyond ensuring that we are focused on driving down the cost of living, that does mean by the way, making smart investments in infrastructure to make it more affordable, working to confront the housing affordability and the need to support business growth in upstate New York. Those are the priorities the residents who sent me to Washington expect me to focus on. You know, I used to say this during the campaign, and I have always said it as an elected official, any politician or candidate who thinks that their opinion matters more than the people they represent is likely not to last very long. I come to Washington and this job with a mission to speak on behalf of the people I represent, and the people I represent are concerned about safety in their community, they're concerned about job opportunities, they’re concerned about cost of living, those are our priorities. I will say I did have the opportunity to speak to the President briefly about these issues, but you likely know this because you follow the work we've done the last few weeks. Also focused on mental health. It's an area that I have a great deal of background in and ensuring that those who struggle with mental wellness and substance use disorder have the treatment and the services they need that we're focused on, on intervening when necessary and helping those with developmental, intellectual and physical disabilities. Those are our priorities. For me, my first official bill was the Think Differently Database Act. This is a, we can talk about it, but a clearinghouse if you will, of federal and other supportive services for those with disabilities. A single point of access so that families and individuals who navigate through the bureaucracy and the different maze and labyrinth of services can go to one point and identify them. I know this challenge as the father of a child with a disability. I've seen it and lived it as a public official and so I'm bringing to the table the things that I that I said I would, the voice of this district. And of course, those priorities that I think we as a nation have to focus on.

GR: That bill sounds like it will be an important resource for a lot of families. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with freshman Congressman Marc Molinaro, who represents New York's 19th congressional district. So you and the rest of the New York Congressional delegation, as I understand it, met with Governor Kathy Hochul recently. You obviously have some experience of her from your prior service, but what were your impressions based on that meeting?

MM: Well, yes, Governor Hochul and I worked together when she was Lieutenant Governor. I was among the first calls when she became governor. I served as president of the County Executives Association and during the midst of the pandemic, or at least the end of the pandemic if you will, we had important work to do. You know, there are a couple of things. One, we come to the table willing to work together. I want New York to succeed and I want Washington to support the people of upstate New York. And so where we have commonality, again, we talked about housing, mental health issues and the need to ensure that there are services and support. I said to her what I said to the President, if you want to meet on those issues, you'll find commonality, you'll find cooperation, you'll find somebody who's going to advocate with you. I also, though, brought concerns, there is a concern that infrastructure dollars don't end up only in the big cities, but find their way to smaller communities, smaller cities like Ithaca and Hudson and Binghamton that upstate New York gets the attention and the investment it needs to drive down housing cost and to open up access to daycare, (I) brought those concerns. But I also was very pointed and very clear that some of her budget proposals, in particular the redirection of Medicaid dollars meant for vulnerable neighbors, those dollars go to the city of New York and to counties across New York in order to ensure that people who struggle with poverty, people who need access to supportive services have access at the local level. Her redirection of $1 billion dollars in direct federal aid for Medicaid services instead of going on the ground in our communities and to our neighbors, going to Albany and a state bureaucracy is just unacceptable. It will devastate, and I think and I said to her, it distorts and undermines her stated purpose. If the stated purpose is to ensure those who are most vulnerable, those who live in poverty need access to Medicaid, which I support, then the dollars need to get on the ground and not into the bureaucracy in Albany. And I asked her to reconsider.

GR: Tell me more about that, because I did read about that and I was a little confused. Where is this money going? I mean, obviously, Medicaid is a program that is funded by both the state and the federal government. And in New York being the only state that the counties get involved in this funding stream as well. But, where exactly is that billion dollars being redirected when you say it's going to Albany?

MM: So it's going to the general fund.

GR: Just right in the general fund?

MM: Yeah. And that's the issue. So her predecessor tried to accomplish this legislatively. And thankfully, Senator Schumer and county executives like myself were able to undo it. I think Governor Hochul is making a mistake because, again, these, so it's federal Medicaid dollars that we direct to the state of New York. The state does, you know, is then supposed to ensure that those dollars get to the counties and city of New York. And again, New York's the only state in America, as you said, that does it this way. And I don't necessarily oppose this concept. Having local connection to ensure that folks in Tompkins County and Broome County, those social service workers, they may know neighbors and neighborhoods better and so they administer the program on behalf of the states so that we make sure the most vulnerable in the community have access to that service, have access to the supports that Medicaid provides. And what the governor simply is doing administratively is taking a billion of those dollars and instead of directing them locally, city of New York and counties, she simply putting it into the general fund to offset state spending. That is unacceptable. And what's at risk is truly undermining and weakening the ability of counties like Cortland and Chenango and Tioga to deliver the service to the people who need it most and instead support a state bureaucracy.

GR: Well, I don't want to spend too much time on $1 billion out of $227 billion in the state budget. But let me just ask you briefly, really quick here. So now that you've explained that, how does that happen? Because I would think that the federal government would just say you can't do that. I mean, the federal government does have the ability to tie certain strings to this money. And I would think that that would be one that would be a no-no.

MM: Well, it was the federal intent that counties like Cortland get these dollars. It isn't, however, because New York's the only state that does it this way, it's not written into the statute. And so, and again, Governor Hochul’s predecessor, we remember him, attempted to do the same thing legislatively and we said that won't happen. And we had the legislative option, state legislators said we're not going to support that. What Governor Hochul is attempting to do is to ignore the intent. I know what the stated intent was, I was on the calls and she knows what the stated intent was because she heard from us when she was Lieutenant Governor. She simply, because it's not codified, she's ignoring the intent and administratively taking the dollars back. And again, you know, by the way, in places like Cortland Tioga, Chenango, these are dollars that do support access to daycare, Head Start, early intervention services. These are important programs that the billion dollars is important, but it's also a big deal at the local…you're correct, it's $1 billion out of hundreds of billions for the state, but it's $1 billion out of only a few million in counties like Cortland and Broome and Tioga and so on.

GR: I see. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, I'm Grant Reeher. I'm talking with Republican Congressman Marc Molinaro. He was elected this past November to represent New York's 19th congressional district. So we were talking about before the break the state budget and some of the dollars there for the Medicaid. I wanted to talk now about national government budget because New York State isn't the only government entity with budget issues, and the national government is facing another debt ceiling moment in the coming months. Many Republicans want serious discussions about limiting future spending, being tied to those negotiations about raising the debt ceiling. What are your views on that?

MM: Yeah, just as after I perhaps give my kids their credit card and they run up the debt, I know I have to pay the bill, but I might ask them to change the way in which they spend money in the future. I come from local government, we have to justify every dollar, and I believe in that now in Congress. And so we want to negotiate with the President. I think it's important that we ensure America's financial security, but that we also commit to a roadmap that helps us balance a budget, drive down waste, fraud and abuse, confronts deficit spending, ensures that we're not continuing to expand our debt. That is an important conversation and what Republicans in the majority of the House like me want, is a reasonable, sensible and responsible approach to future spending. The President early on said he was unwilling to negotiate, which is interesting because the President, when he was a member of the United States Senate, rarely, I don't think if ever voted for a, and I could be entirely wrong, but he rarely voted for a debt ceiling increase without expecting some reforms. In fact, he argued there should be some reforms. But early on, the President said he wasn't going to negotiate. He met with the speaker, he said the other night at the State of the Union he understands we have to work together. I am hopeful and confident, (the) President should come to the table, as I did as a county executive with a spending plan, a roadmap towards reform, justifying and being smart stewards of taxpayer money. We will meet him at that table and negotiate to ensure a fiscal stability and reforms that that that are responsible for taxpayers.

GR: So, that all makes perfect sense and sounds reasonable and it's one thing to negotiate, but then it's another thing to, and here I am just going to say I'm probably using language that the president used…

MM: That’s fair.

GR: It's admittedly loaded here. But, you know, it's another thing to sort of hold the debt ceiling hostage to very specific kinds of things that you want to see. And there are some members of your caucus that I think are pretty aggressive about wanting to do that, maybe not in the middle, but more on the edge. What are your views about that if it comes down to like you know, we're getting two weeks out and that kind of thing?

MM: Well, I mean, first, I don't, I mean, let's be clear, there are different views. There are some people on the Democratic side who don't think we should ever stop borrowing, that it's okay to borrow and spend and it doesn't have any effect on inflation or the stability of the American economy. So everyone has their view. I think you will find that there will be a good number of people who want to be sensible, responsible and deliver what I think is a rational approach to controlling future spending and maintaining America's fiscal stability. Now, you said something that I do want to I take, not take issue with, but put point to. If it comes down to the last two weeks, listen, if we're doing our jobs, if the President is doing his job, and this is incumbent on the executive. And again, I was a mayor, I was county executive. It's incumbent on the executive. The executive drives that dialog, the executive does. And so it is incumbent, it's his responsibility to come to the table, even where we may not agree to see if there's a way to mold consensus. But if his view is do nothing, well then he's holding us hostage to and that's unacceptable. There needs to be dialog and compromise. Even the Senate, Democrat and Republican have said, well, we're going to leave it to the House and the President, okay, let's negotiate.

GR: All right, no, fair enough. Now, let's think about, again, thinking about the national budget and some of the big ticket items here and thinking about spending. Are you in favor of any kind of spending reduction measures that would concern the three, you know, three of the really big domestic programs, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security? Are you interested and looking for places to cut back there?

MM: So unlike Medicaid, right, Medicare and Social Security do have the trust funds that, of course, have the question of future solvency. My approach, first, I do not support touching Social Security or Medicare in the context of debt ceiling negotiation. And I do not and would not take action as a member of Congress to harm Social Security and Medicare. I believe what is necessary now to ensure long term solvency of both is what we've always done. Bipartisan, bicameral, legislative executive commission, work over time, identify the reforms that make sense, come to agreement, present back to the American people in Congress what steps makes sense, do that separate and apart from year to year debt ceiling budgetary decisions. That's what I would do as an executive. And it's what I believe as a member of Congress. Medicaid is slightly different because it is subsidized in many ways by ongoing annual operations. But this is what I would offer to you overall. We often as individuals start by arguing the big things we'll never find agreement on. When it comes to spending and budgeting, I always have always found the best approach is to start in the low hanging fruit and then move from there. There is massive waste, fraud and abuse, we know that it exists. Albany, New York is a great example. $11 billion in unemployment, this is federal dollars, in unemployment fraud that we know exists. If we just could show an earnest effort, and by the way, you heard the President allude to it during the State of the Union, if we show an earnest effort to confront those things, there then can be movement and consensus on the bigger things. Let's start there on budgetary concerns, but Medicare and Social Security ought to be protected. And I do not support diminishing those programs.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is freshman Congressman Marc Molinaro. You mentioned President Biden's State of the Union address a little while ago. I wanted to ask you what did you think of that speech generally?

MM: Well, again, I'm going to be the geek and tell you that, you know, just being in the room is an honor. And I know there are people out there who say, well, you should be, you know, be more angry or less angry or nicer. Being in the room knowing that 750,000 plus people are, you know, sending me there is an honor. I say what I offer, what I what I thought very candidly. There were moments where the President spoke about outreach and compromise, and I embrace that. On mental health, veterans services, even, by the way, while I do not think he spoke to it comprehensively enough, even the conversation about the opioid epidemic and fentanyl pouring into our country, and I'd like to talk about that in the context of border security as well, but maybe we'll get him there. But those are issues that there is agreement, there's commonality and there's and there's a willingness to work together. I heard that, I welcome him saying it, and I want to get to work - the Cancer Moonshot, there are things that that I know we can achieve if we truly mean it. And I trust and I give the president credit and take him at his word. There were moments where, frankly, I thought it was, you know, as a little bit, you know, campaigning and a couple of cheap shots that frankly we just don't need. I get it. You know, this is the world we live in. But, you know, he didn't confront both the border security necessary to confront whether it's at our ports of entry or at our border. We know that synthetic opioids, fentanyl pouring into the country that has to go hand in hand with community policing and treatment services. He said clearly what he knows to be untrue. Republicans, in quotes, Republicans are not proposing dismantling Social Security and Medicare. He knows that that's not true yet, he was willing to say it anyway. So I just would say that I get it, we understand the 90 minute speech you're going to say things I agree with and don't. I accept the willingness and the olive branch. I hope he's earnest and honest about it. And I told him so on his way out of the chambers But there needs to be seriousness about some of those bigger challenges, like inflation, like border security, like the opioid epidemic that that we have to be honest about.

GR: And what did you think about the level of, well, it was called heckling in the media. But, you know, the back and forth that that happened there. Did that feel like that was okay in that moment to you? You talk about the honor of being there, or did you have the sense of, oh, this is not what we should be doing in this moment?

MM: The President came at our invitation to the House of Representatives and then pointed at us and called us and said something he knew was definitely a lie. And so to get a little bit emotional about that, I did have to ask forgiveness from my wife. I did boo I think for a moment that, you know, that's just not right. The individual heckling, I don't embrace that I don't think either side. And we heard it, you know, you have you have sort of the folks there supporting him are chanting a little bit. It's not the kind of thing I engage in. But at the end of the day, you know, we live in 2023. The President, though, if you saw there were moments where he engaged too and it was almost greater life for him. I mean that respectfully. Little more energy like he's going back and forth. You know, we just live in a different time. I'd like to keep the jeering and heckling to a minimum but you know you come in to our, into the House of Representatives you call the majority liars you're going to probably get a little bit of that Bronx cheer from time to time, you know.

GR: Fair enough. Well, we've got about 3 minutes left or so. And I wanted to get into one other thing, is a different topic that I just wanted to hear you reflect about a little bit, which is some reflections on your party and where representatives like you might fit in. You, in the conversation we've been having so far, you remind me a bit of John Katko, who just stepped down from the district that's centered here in Syracuse. And, you know, you're arguably one of the last of a breed of a certain kind of Republican in upstate New York, more of a moderate willing to work across the aisle. And there used to be a rich tradition of those kinds of Republicans around this area of New York and in upstate. And it does seem like there are fewer and fewer of them, fewer moderate Democrats, too, I should note. And I don't really have a crisp question formulated here, but I'm just interested to hear what your thoughts are on that. I mean, how do you see yourself in that regard?

MM: Well, what I would offer is what I what we used to say when my wife were dating we would joke, well, let's not let's not use labels, let's just figure it out. And I do mean that. Listen, there are reasonable, responsible people in both parties who want to govern. We have firmly held beliefs. I have firmly held beliefs, in fact, some of my beliefs are very conservative. But I come to public service with a respect for the need to work with the other people who come to public service. I don't get to select who Georgia or California or Illinois sends to the House of Representatives. I don't even get to select who Buffalo sends to the House of Representatives. But I do have to figure out ways to work together. I think we are losing that, that is a challenge. We can have firmly held beliefs. We should hold firm to them, but we also need to be respectful of those differences and find ways to find common ground. I'm hopeful that many years from now, when I've concluded my service as a member of the House, that they will simply say that I was willing to work to deliver for the people I represent. And that means, by the way, being responsible, being rational, being reasonable. But I also would tell you that there are there are a lot of folks like me. I serve in the pragmatic wing of the party, and there are sixty to eighty members who are engaged every day. And by the way, talking with our very more conservative or perhaps even more bombastic members to say this is how we move the needle for the people we represent. This is how we protect and preserve America. This is how we make better the life of the people we serve. That conversation is something I will always engage in because I respect the dignified duty that is public service.

GR: Just a couple of seconds left, literally, but I mentioned John Katko before he joined the Problem Solvers Caucus. Are you taking a look at that, you thinking about trying to get into that?

MM: I am. They're having a bit of a like a, like a brief, I’ll say a mixer, it’s Zoom. We're all getting together. You know, it's like it's like when you started college, you know, you have to figure out which table you're going to go to, which club you’re going to join.

GR: Right, what club.

MM: I mean, listen, I've been a problem solver my whole life, so it seems like a place to land. I'm certainly meeting with them and talking with them, but I do find myself in the governing wing of Washington, delivering results.

GR: That's good to hear. We'll check in with you hopefully in a few months. That was Marc Molinaro, Congressman Molinaro, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. I really appreciate it.

MM: Me, too. I appreciate it as well.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

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.