Will Grass-Roots Voters “Flip” the 24th Congressional District? urbancny.com Interviews Democratic Candidate Dana Balter

They say, “It’s not how you fall that matters, it’s how you get up.” Dana Balter the designated candidate for the 24th Congressional District didn’t fall, she was waylaid by the intrusion of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. What once appeared to be a clear path to the Democratic Party’s Nomination for the opportunity to face Republican incumbent John Katko in November had a pall cast upon it.

What was designed to destroy the local party’s designee, appeared to make this candidate stronger. Like a Marvel Superhero, Dana Balter gained energy from the unexpected and unprecedented electoral rocks thrown her way. Armed with her electoral lasso, she achieved the impossible consolidating progressives in a move that’s akin to herding feral cats. As if she were outfitted in Black Panther’s, Wakanda complete with the most powerful of substances, Vibranium. The DCCC action became a defibrillator to the entire Balter campaign. Voters of the 24th Congressional District became angry, and then weaponized their anger into grass-roots voter engagement and participation.

Balter embarked on her own Town Hall style tour of the district, appearing at public functions designed to solicit from the public, what they’re looking for in a Congressperson. The candidate, a professor at Syracuse University began the campaign not very well known; the silver lining to this cloud is how Dana Balter emerged from the challenge as a victor, dispelling the belief that she was weak. Balter easily defeated challenger Juanita Perez Williams in a blowout victory.  With all of the outside money and energy thrown into this campaign, it’s no wonder that this woman not only beat back the challenge, but became a stronger contender by doing so.

Urbancny.com interviewed Dana Balter again, now that she’s mounting a campaign to unseat incumbent Republican Congressman John Katko. We asked each candidate to describe what’s going on at this point in the campaign.

Balter: “We had such a spectacular result in the primary, not only the win, but what was more exciting to me and to my whole team was voter turnout.  We almost doubled turnout over the last election cycle. It’s extraordinary to see that kind of change in one election. I think that is a reflection of how much energy and excitement there is  across this district for this campaign and for this race, for the opportunity for people to stand up and demand change and demand the kind of representation that they want in Washington, and I think that bodes incredibly well for us in November.

What are you picking up from voters?

Balter: I think the overarching message that I get is that they are very frustrated with the way government is working right now or not working as the case may be. And particularly frustrated with John Katko who is supposed to be representing us and our interests in Washington DC and instead, what I’m hearing from people is that they feel like he is supporting Donald Trump’s agenda, which we know is incredibly harmful and is extreme. And that’s borne out by the facts, he votes with Donald Trump over 90% of the time.  People feel like he is towing the party line. These days the party line from the GOP is unacceptable, because it’s all about enabling Donald Trump’s radical agenda.  What people here are looking for, what the voters in this district are looking for, is somebody who’s going to stand up for them and advocate what’s best for them and what’s best for Central and Western New York. “

Urban CNY: What is the most significant issue facing Central New York Residents?

Balter: “I’m not sure that I can choose just one, I can select a couple. As I look back on conversations I’ve had with voters since September. Health care is definitely at the top of the list. Far too many people in our communities are unable to get the kind of care they need, they’re unable to see a doctor when they need to, they are faced with making choices like, should I buy medicine or should I buy food.  Nobody should have to make a choice like that.

One of the things that I think that has gotten people really angry recently on this particular issue is John Katko’s vote on the tax bill, he promised us that he wouldn’t repeal the ACA without a good replacement, and then he turned around and voted for the GOP  tax bill. The Tax Bill guts the ACA it absolutely destroys it.

As a result we are seeing premiums skyrocket, our largest insurer here in Central New York has said premiums are going to go up by 36% next year. On top of that, because of that Tax Bill vote, now people with pre-existing conditions are being threatened. Pre-existing conditions is not just things like cancer. Preexisting condition includes anything from asthma to pregnancy. And if you look at the numbers, just here in our district, just in the 24th there are more than 296,000 adults under the age of 65 with preexisting conditions.  As a direct result of John Katko’s vote, those people are being threatened. People over 65 have Medicare, so we don’t include them in that number. These are the folks whose health coverage is being threatened.”

Urban CNY: Conceal Carry Reciprocity Act. Why shouldn’t we be afraid?

Balter: “I think it’s important to note, not only is he in favor of it, he was a co-sponsor on that bill. This is astonishing to me, because he was a prosecutor. Part of his pitch is about how he’s going to keep us safe.  On this it’s so clear that he’s doing the bidding of the NRA, who by the way like to give him money, he’s the 3rd most well-funded member of congress from the NRA that we have. That Bill thanks to John Katko has passed the House of Representatives, is a terrible piece of law.

Our Law Enforcement communities tell us, it is a terrible piece of law, the people responsible for keeping us safe tell us, that makes us less safe. Here in our district, D.A. Fitzpatrick came out against that piece of legislation and if D.A. Fitzpatrick tells you, you’ve become too extreme; it’s time to take stock of what you’re doing.  It is the opposite of what we should be doing, we should not be making it easier to for people who are potentially dangerous to bring guns into our communities. We should be doing things that make us safer and reduce the incidence of gun violence, like passing Universal Background Checks.”

Urban CNY: Areas within the City of Syracuse are topping national lists for concentrated poverty among African Americans. Without resorting to Tax Cuts, what can Congress do to address urban poverty?

Balter: “We have a lot of anti-poverty programs in place already that we know help; we should be expanding those programs instead of cutting them. One of the things that I will do in congress is support bills that expand and fully fund these anti-poverty programs. Representative Barbara lee is a champion in this area, and I am eager to get to work with her on some of these programs.

One of the things that I think has added to the problem, and increased the threat to people who are already living in poverty is what’s been happening at the Department of  Housing and Urban Development, under the so-called leadership of Ben Carson.  We’ve seen him come out and say things like, ‘we are going to increase rent by 20% on people living in poverty. We are going to cut Section 8 Housing Vouchers, we are going to reduce spending on affordable housing, we are going to stop capital investments in affordable housing’. In a city like Syracuse we know how devastating those kinds of cuts are. We can’t let them happen; we should be doing the opposite. We should be investing more in those things, so that we can ensure that people have safe, affordable places to live.  Because that is a fundamental building block in being able to pursue success. We are trying to set people up so that they can have good jobs, and earn good incomes, and be able to support themselves and their families. Having safe affordable housing is the first step in making that happen.”

Urban CNY: Why can’t we have a Town Hall style meeting?

Balter: “We have very different definitions of what a public meeting is; the closest he’s come to a Town Hall meeting was that event at OCC. That event was really an infomercial for John Katko that was held in an auditorium that seated, I believe 300 people, they issued 100 tickets, and you had to get a special ticket to get in there. What we see from him repeatedly, through all of these events he does, that he insists are public meetings and town hall meetings. They are very controlled environments, where the people who are allowed in are limited, where questions are pre-screened, where he answers very few, even though they are prescreened questions, and there’s no real exchange.

What’s frustrated me about politicians throughout my whole adult life, when you listen to a politician answer a question and they don’t actually answer the question, and they dance around the issues.  Instead of addressing the concern you have, they say what they want to say, on the few occasions that John Katko actually talks to people, that’s what he does. What I believe a public meeting is supposed to be, is an opportunity for people to ask questions about things that concern them, and get direct and honest answers from the people who represent them.

I have throughout my campaign been having open public meetings, town hall meetings; I’ve been on a listening tour, I will continue that and I will continue to do that when I’m in congress.  What I mean when I say a town hall meeting, is a meeting that is open to the public, in hopefully a large venue, where attendance is limited capacity only by capacity of the venue.  Where you don’t need a ticket, you don’t have to be invited, where they are opened to everybody and where questions are not prescreened.

Anybody who comes to that meeting has the opportunity to stand up and ask their questions and get answers to those questions, so that it is a real conversation about things that matter to people.  You asked me earlier, what I’m hearing from voters across the district? A desire for that kind of connection to their representative is the thing that I hear about the most, everywhere I go. Especially when we are in a time of such chaos and uncertainty in this country, where there is so much anxiety about what’s happening in our federal government on a daily basis, it is so important for people to be able to connect to their representative and be heard by their representative, that’s what Town Hall meetings are all about.”

Statement to the candidate: As African-Americans, many of us feel threatened by the anti-African American rhetoric that appears to be fueled by words spoken by the President.  He was seemingly supportive of alt-right forces chanting anti-Black and anti-Jewish statements in a widely publicized rally. The next day there was death in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

From Starbucks to Papa Johns, there appears to be a climate of distrust of African Americans, with African Americans being reported to the Police for simply going about their business. Whether it’s a CVS store, swimming pool, or public park, this is happening on a more frequent basis.  What do you say about this trend? And what can we do about these incidents?

Balter:First of all, I think the things that you are describing are repulsive. I understand a little bit of it on a personal level because I’m Jewish, and I had a very personal visceral reaction to watching the Tiki Torch marches in Charlottesville as those white supremacists were chanting Nazi chants. But I also recognize, that people can’t tell that I’m Jewish by looking at me, so I’m not subject to that on a daily basis, in the same way that an African American may be subject to racism on a daily basis.  What’s important to acknowledge when we talk about this, is that this is not new. It’s just become more socially acceptable, so it feels more overwhelming. I think a lot of us have been able to ignore or at least not recognize the extent to which many people in this country, many people of color has lived with this their whole lives. We can’t ‘not see it’ anymore because it’s much more overt, and astonishingly has been sanctioned by the President of the United States.

I think we have a lot of work to do as a country. I think the first thing we have to do is use our voices to speak out against it. I recognize that there are many people who have been doing this, for not just decades but centuries. I don’t think there’s no excuse for people to be quiet anymore, we all need to be allies.

When I look at the job of being a representative in Congress, I think one of the most important tools that a representative has at their disposal is their platform, people listen when they speak. They care about what they have to say, and because of that, I think it is an absolute responsibility of our representative to speak up and speak out, about what is right and what is wrong. And when something is so egregiously wrong as what you’re talking about here, to not say anything is absolutely unacceptable. I have said over and over again and I will continue to, silence is complicity.

I think there has never been a more important time in our country, certainly in our modern history, for people to speak up. I’m encouraged by the level of response to the kinds of incidents that you’re describing, that we see across the country, that people are speaking up; I think that’s a great sign. We have a long way to go to get to the point where those incidents don’t happen in the first place. But it’s incumbent, on all of us, especially our leaders, to insist that every person in our society is able to live in security, and live with dignity.”