SYRACUSE — Dana Balter is seeking the Democratic Party nomination in Tuesday’s primary, an election she’s proven she can win. Can she repeat her 2018 performance and continue to ride a ceaseless campaign of activism and momentum to a successful general election?
An article published in this newspaper May 15, 2017 describes Balter as a member of a coalition that protested a town hall event held by U.S. Rep. John Katko at Onondaga Community College. In the three years since, Balter has appeared in no fewer than 50 news stories according to The Palladium-Times records.
She’s been seeking this smoke for a long time.
“I have demonstrated to the voters of this district I will be a very good congresswoman,” said Balter, reached by phone this week. “Not only will I fight with every ounce of energy I have and work extremely hard to amplify the voices of the 720,000 people in this district, we will re-open government back up and re-engage the public.”
Coming from another candidate, that may sound like political palaver. The roots of her campaign go all the way back to that May 2017 night, when she and other protesters demonstrated for greater transparency from Katko and what they considered too-strict rules for participating in the town hall.
“It’s not actually a town hall,” Balter is quoted as remarking to Pall-Times reporter Ryan Franklin. “This is not satisfactory.”
Her dissatisfaction with “a lack of open democratic communication with (the NY-24) constituency,” is, years later, at the front of her mind when asked why Democratic Party voters should trust her again. An often-told story during campaign interviews and public speeches in 2018 recalled the difficulty she says she experienced in trying to speak with Katko. Katko’s office at the time denied the claim he was inaccessible. In Balter’s administration, she would install citizen advisory boards, execute a robust town hall schedule and use “multiple methods of two-way communication.”
The genesis of her quest for Katko’s job (and first attempt at elected office) may have begun holding a sign outside the OCC auditorium, but she’s now the principle of a multi-million dollar operation. Balter won the 2018 Democratic Party nomination, dispatching with ease two other primary candidates considered more mainstream than the former Syracuse University professor. For her, it was no upset, and she was simply bearing the standard for a movement dedicated to “advancing the policy agenda we want, but also restoring the health of our democratic process.”
“I’m happy to make the case for myself but I’d rather let John Katko do it for me,” she said. “On election night 2018, he said ‘I really hope she doesn’t run again. She’s a tough opponent.’ I’m the best positioned person.”
Shoe leather and grassroots organizing gained Balter a foothold early in her 2018 run. She announced her candidacy in September 2017, more than a year before Election Day. She impressed local Dem committees, especially in Oswego County.
“I’m proud to support Dana Balter,” said Tom Drumm, chair of the Oswego City Democratic Committee. “She’s provided focus and leadership and that separates her from the pack.”
In 2014, Katko defeated incumbent Democrat Dan Maffei in a landslide to take office. The next election, he similarly crushed his Dem opponent by nearly 20 percentage points. Balter came within a 2.5 percent swing of Katko and just months after her narrow loss, announced her intention to run again. She’s been on the campaign trail for almost three years straight.
“I’m ready to finish the job with her,” Drumm said.
Balter’s erudite, earnest enthusiasm for public transportation, climate change, fossil fuel independence and workers’ rights is part of why she says she’s “demonstrated a breadth and depth of knowledge across policy areas that will allow me to do the work well.”
Where to begin? How about bringing back civics classes?
“We talk a lot about making sure kids are prepared for job markets, and that’s important, but that’s only one part of why we need public education,” Balter said. “Another equally important part is to ensure people know how to be citizens in a democracy. It’s about more than how many people comprise the U.S. Senate or how to fill out a ballot.”
Having spent her career in academia makes education a pet issue for Balter, who “earned (her) very first paycheck at 12 years old teaching Sunday school.”
Educational equality is another issue of focus, consistent with her advocacy for expanded rights for gay and trans Americans. While all policy discussion brings out Balter’s considerable intellect, when the talk turns to social justice she displays her genuine emotion. Every kid, she says, “deserves the resources and opportunity they need to get a fair shot no matter how they identify.”
“Not only has this federal government failed to protect students, it has worked overtime to undermine and roll back protections and it puts our kids at risk,” Balter said. “One of the most fundamental responsibilities of the Department of Education is to ensure children are safe in school, that their rights are respected and they have equal access and opportunity.
“I’m looking forward to getting into that,” she added coolly.
Balter has two distinct advantages against Democrat primary opponent Francis Conole: cash and cred. Balter has nearly double the available funds as Conole and by virtue of the biannual crush of advertisements that bombard viewers, listeners and browsers, her name recognition “is nearly at high as John Katko’s” she says.
“We’re building on everything we did last cycle with our phenomenal campaign team,” Balter said. There are 1,900 of her loyal volunteers standing by, she claims, ready to “do the work required to win in this district: voter contact.”
Primary election day is June 23.