WILLIAMSON — Wayne County Democrats and residents of the state’s 24th congressional packed the Young Sommer Winery in Williamson for a candidate forum in which two of the three Democratic candidates vying to unseat incumbent U.S. Rep. John Katko discussed topics such as guaranteed annual income, immigration and veterans affairs.
Candidates Dana Balter and Roger Misso attended the forum hosted by the Wayne County-based Citizens’ Response Network, and addressed questions such as: can an issue of stagnant wages be aided by the inclusion of a guaranteed annual income? How to fix a “broken” visa system for immigrants seeking to contribute to the agriculture economy in the district? And how to straighten out “massive problems” found in U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) hospitals?
Balter, a former Syracuse University professor and community organizer who ran against Katko, R-Camillus, in 2018, kicked off the night by saying the turnout for congressional campaign events in Wayne County “never disappoints,” and encouraged “closet Democrats” in the district to come out. The former Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs professor touted support from Wayne voters, saying Democrats garnered 40 percent of the county’s vote during the 2018 election.
For Roger Misso — a Naval Academy graduate who worked as a defense assistant in the House of Representatives and as a chief speechwriter to Admiral Michelle Howard, the first African American woman to hold a four-star rank — it was time to come home. Misso is originally from Red Creek in Wayne County and reflected on his home county’s values of fairness, hard work and accountability.
Absent from the forum was Democratic candidate Francis Conole, who could not attend due to a scheduling conflict, according to event organizers.
Universal Basic Income
A question about quality of life and stagnant wages turned into a inquiry regarding guaranteed annual income, which has become a popular proposal adopted by Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Yang’s proposal suggests every adult would receive $1,000 in universal basic income from the federal government each month.
Both Balter and Misso said while they don’t disapprove of the proposal of a “freedom dividend,” as Schenectady native Yang has called it, they would like to await results from studies of the plan.
“The things that concern me about universal basic income is the way it has been laid out,” Misso said. “It would do away with a lot of the other programs that people have relied on that have increased the standard of living here, especially in Wayne County. I am not there yet, but that doesn’t mean I won’t get there.”
The Red Creek native added he does not want to give up on the notion of “doing more for working people in more traditional means.”
Balter cited Stockton, California as a case study she wants to review further down the line.
“One thing that we know for sure is the best way to get people to not be poor is to give them money,” Balter said. “We don’t do that very much in this country.”
Balter cited a report she said was compiled by the country’s top poverty experts that could help solve child poverty in the U.S., which she called the “grossest” part of the poverty issue.
“They looked at every kind of program,” she said. “What they came back with is that the single best way to alleviate poverty is to give every family in this country $300 a month for each child. If we did that, child poverty would be cut by 50 percent. That is a staggering accomplishment.”
With NY-24 blending rural and urban communities, both candidates spoke on the importance of fixing immigration policies instituted by the current presidential administration that could hamper farm laborers, as well as debilitate the economy in cities.
“It is a very important economic issue,” Balter said. “And not only in rural parts of the district where this is an agricultural issue, but I live in the city of Syracuse and our economy is powered by immigrants and refugees.”
Balter said the country benefits from immigrants through their entrepreneurship.
“We know from all of the data that Donald Trump, John Katko and their colleagues don't want you to know that immigration is really good for our economy,” she said. “Immigrants start small businesses at a 30 percent higher rate than native-born Americans do.”
Misso echoed Balter’s sentiment, and added immigration is also an issue that comes down to values.
“What kind of country do we want to be? We have to answer that for ourselves post Trump and Katko,” Misso said. “We cannot be a country that builds a wall. That is fundamentally against who we are.”
The construction of the border wall proposed by Trump, is also crippling other areas of funding in the country — such as the military construction budget — which according to Misso could help maintain military bases and develop military housing.
“These are the things that I have seen up close and personal and worked out,” Misso said. “Things like the toxic black mold issue that we have on military bases and military family housing around the world.”
Misso also praised the New York Legislature for passing the Green Light Bill, a piece of legislation that would approve driver's licenses for people regardless of their immigration status.
Balter and Misso addressed issues of VA medical staffing, as well as accessibility to veteran’s benefits.
“You can't get much lower than what's happening now. There are something like 35,000 vacancies in the VA across this country,” Misso said, noting he considers the Canandaigua and Syracuse VA branches a “bright spot” in the agency’s national network of medical services.
Misso blamed Katko for “approving budgets” that do not “hire enough people” and do not “put money toward the problem.”
Balter noted there should be a two-pronged approach.
“We need to make sure that we are supporting our veterans who are being served by the VA,” she said. “(The other approach) is to make sure that we are supporting the people who staff the VA and people who provide those services.”
The former Syracuse University professor added elected officials need to support medical professionals working for the VA who have been affected by confrontations between the executive and workers unions.
“Under this administration, Trump has engaged in some pretty outrageous rules, rollbacks and changes to limit public employee unions,” Balter said. “We have to make sure that the worker protections are in place, that it is a good place to work at and that it is a place where people can get their work done.“
The Primary Election date for the NY-24 congressional district is June 23, 2020.