OSWEGO — Congressman John Katko, R-Camillus, who over three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives has positioned himself as a bipartisan bridge builder and independent voice for central New York, is seeking a fourth term representing the region, and is facing his most challenging battle yet.
Katko, a Republican, has been elected three times in a district that in two of those elections voted in favor of a Democratic president. The Camillus Republican is in the middle of tough rematch against 2018 Democratic opponent Dana Balter in a race that has received national attention and outsized campaign spending for a central New York congressional campaign.
The 24th Congressional District includes the western portions of Oswego County, including the cities of Oswego and Fulton. It also covers the entirety of Onondaga, Cayuga and Wayne counties.
The former federal prosecutor’s straightforward mannerism and pledge to be an “independent voice” in Congress led him to claim a surprisingly lopsided victory over incumbent Democrat Dan Maffei in 2014. Katko later cruised to another victory in 2016 against Democrat Colleen Deacon before Balter mounted the closest challenge yet two years ago.
Recent polling suggests Katko and Balter are virtually tied, and the race will likely be the closest in the district in more than a decade.
Asked why voters should choose him over Balter, Katko pointed first to his bipartisanship over the past six years and his desire to continue those efforts, which he says are essential to overcoming the challenges facing the region and the country.
“The biggest thing I’ve achieved, and the essential reason that I left a job I loved to do this, is I wanted to go to Washington to show that bipartisanship can work and we need to get back to a time of compromise,” Katko told The Palladium-Times in an interview last week.
Katko told The Palladium-Times that Balter’s convictions and passion are something to admire, but argues she’s “just not a good fit for the district,” which had flipped back and forth between Democrats and Republicans prior to his election win six years ago.
“It kept going back and forth, and I understood that, so I said ‘I’m going to make myself the most bipartisan guy I can,’ because then I can represent everyone’s interests,” Katko said of why he’s survived three elections in what many consider a swing district.
The three-term congressman pointed out he has repeatedly been honored with awards for bipartisanship, something he says he’s “very proud of.” If more lawmakers earnestly practiced bipartisanship, Katko believes the nation would be better positioned to solve the seemingly intractable issues that come up over and over again before being stalled by partisan bickering.
“I really do think that compromising and working together with your opponents is the way to go,” Katko said. “No problem is insurmountable if we work together.”
If the race feels like déjà vu to some voters, it’s because it largely mirrors the race from 2018. Aside from the campaign and election taking place amid a global pandemic, perhaps the biggest differences are a controversial president is beside Katko on the ballot, and his opponent is now a more seasoned politician after emerging victorious in a pair of Democratic primaries and learning from the 2018 loss to Katko.
Two years ago, the two biggest issues in the race for New York’s 24th Congressional District were the 2017 tax cuts and health care. Fast-forward to today, and taxes and health care are again central to the campaign.
Democrats, including Balter, have argued the 2017 tax reform package — which Katko voted for and has championed in recent years as an economic driver — has benefited the wealthy and corporations with few, if any, benefits for average Americans. Katko says that’s simply not true, and points to the low unemployment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a surging stock market as evidence of the tax cuts’ effectiveness.
“No one can deny that the economy was booming,” Katko said, adding, however, that the pandemic has since been disastrous for businesses.
On health care, Katko points out he was one of few Republicans in Congress who stood behind the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare, refusing to repeal the health care law without a viable replacement, which Washington Republicans have yet to put forth. Katko stands by his decision not to support the repeal.
“My party and my president both wanted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and I was one of the few Republicans who had the guts to keep my word and vote against it,” Katko said. “And I was in a lot of trouble with the president for that for a long time, but I didn’t really care… and I’m proud of that.”
The Camillus Republican says, however, Balter and the Democrats current plans for health care, which include expanding Medicare, would “absolutely lead to a gigantic tax increase” that the nation cannot afford.
“Medicare has four or 5 years before it’s insolvent, so we need to fix it just for the people who are on it now,” Katko said, noting adding individuals to the program, through the Democrats’ plan to lower the age of eligibility and place newborns into the program, would balloon the cost of Medicare.
Katko says interstate competition for health care would help lower costs, in addition to medical malpractice reform and lowering prescription drug costs. Another significant savings could come from creating and funding a high-risk insurance pool, he said, noting the majority of health care costs are spent on a small percentage of individuals.
“If we do all those changes I dare say health care would be a lot cheaper for us,” Katko said.
Throughout the campaign, Katko and his allies have painted his opponent as a tax and spend liberal whose policies would crush the small business community. He says higher taxes and nationalized health care would be disastrous for a nation working to jumpstart an economy battered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Katko, who in 2016 said he did not vote for President Trump, came out earlier this year in support of the president’s re-election campaign. With Election Day approaching, Katko conceded Trump’s presence on the ballot this year does not likely help his own re-election effort, but he has continued to stand by his support of Trump over former Vice President Joe Biden.
Asked about moves that directly impacted Oswego and Oswego County, Katko said he’s been advocating for Oswego County and central New York in Congress, and say’s his efforts to promote local tourism and historical preservation, along with infrastructure programs, have largely been successful. He pointed specifically to the ongoing efforts to create a national park at the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum — something he said is only a matter of time — and the Lake Ontario National Marine Sanctuary.
“I’ve done a lot for Oswego and I’m proud of all of it,” Katko said, adding his efforts alongside Congressman Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica — who is facing his own tough rematch in his re-election bid — to force international regulators to take further action to prevent shoreline flooding on Lake Ontario appears to have been successful.
Election Day is Nov. 3.