When it comes to Congress, Oswego County is often neglected.
Two districts roughly bisect the county on a vertical axis with Oswego, Fulton, Hannibal and the western half in the 24th Congressional District while Mexico, Central Square and the northern towns fall within the 22nd Congressional District. Already existing in a liminal state between central New York and the North Country, Oswego County goes largely unclaimed; Onondaga County and the city of Syracuse dominate the politics of the 24th. In the 22nd, Utica, Binghamton and the wide corridor of CNY farmland and Alleghany piedmont that connect them gets the attention. Oswego County is just one of seven other counties fighting for relevance — in both districts, it accounts for less than 10 percent of the population.
These two enormously expensive and influential elections will blanket airwaves in the coming months in an effort to make sure you know every character flaw, every unholy aspect and every unpaid parking ticket of each of the following individuals: U.S. Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, and Democrat Dana Balter, and U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, and Republican Claudia Tenney.
The storylines in this coupling of couplets run deep, right down to the dual construction of the incumbents and challengers: Katko and Brindisi are peas in a pod. Balter and Tenney could not come from further apart on the political spectrum.
When The Palladium-Times spoke with Katko on election night 2018, he was fresh off a tight but clear victory against Balter and had barely stepped off the stage after giving his victory speech when he aligned himself with Brindisi, who was also basking in his electoral win about 90 minutes down the Thruway.
“I’m going to do exactly what I’ve always done, which is work on consensus. I can work with Anthony Brindisi, for example. There’s a lot we can do,” Katko said when asked what constituents could expect from his third term, with cheers of supporters still echoing in the background of the phone call.
The two white, male, CNY-raised attorneys have, shockingly, found much common ground. The pair routinely craft legislation and advocate for policy together. Despite being from different parties, Brindisi and Katko both attempt to walk a tightrope as close to the middle as possible without toppling over. The two are so close to each other in ideology, they can high-five over the party gap. Both businesslike, maybe even a little staid, Katko is a former federal prosecutor and Brindisi served in the New York Legislature. For both men, it’s so far worked to blister down the high road of consensus and bipartisanship — even if the results of those good intentions can be sometimes hard to find. Congressional dysfunction has recently allowed unemployment insurance to lapse while trying to hammer out a deal on the next COVID-19 pandemic stimulus package. Katko told the Pall-Times last week the White House and U.S. Senate leaders are “failing miserably” and while that point is pretty impossible to argue, it also gets those $1,200 government checks no closer to Oswego County families. For Brindisi, it might be even rougher: he gets to sit around, already having voted for relief measures, but now watching while upper management screws around and delays everything. On Thursday it was widely reported a deal was dead until at least September when the Senate will reconvene.
“Katko, Brindisi go to D.C. arm-in-arm,” a Pall-Times headline read in December 2018 as Brindisi was attending freshman orientation and Katko was gearing up for his third term. They’ve split on several notable issues: most recently on H.R. 6800, also known as the HEROES Act — the aforementioned pandemic stimulus. Brindisi voted up, Katko voted down in a largely party-line vote. They took the same stances on the impeachment of President Donald Trump: affirmative from the Democrat, negative from the Republican.
Another thread connecting the men: the economy. Voters are less likely to shed their representatives when markets are up and steady, and despite the pandemic the S&P 500 this week moved closer to a record high. The strength of both men’s voting blocs is derived, largely, from white middle-class families for whom the macro state of the United States financial landscape is a major driving force when pulling the lever on Election Day.
Many things can be said about President Donald Trump, so here’s another: he appears to inspire investor and consumer confidence. It may not be enough to save him in November, but the state of the economy will boost both Brindisi and Katko barring a devastating crash in the next three months.
While the incumbents are simpatico, the challengers could not be more avversaria.
It’s important to note at the outset of this analysis that Dana Balter and Claudia Tenney are not running against each other, and the success of one would have no bearing on the other. Artificially pitting two successful women against each other is a justifiably cancelled practice but for working as hard as Balter and Tenney have to earn the votes of constituencies joined by a common CNY culture and separated only by lines on a map, there could hardly been a more stark contrast between the two.
While the male candidates walk “arm-in-arm,” Balter and Tenney hold up a mirror to each other; they have a lot in common, and a lot of reflective difference. Highly educated, highly competent upstate women running for Congress, Tenney and Balter are battle-hardened firebrands seeking to unseat male incumbents in districts that will likely support their party’s presidential candidates. They both say they want good schools, a strong national defense and to help their constituents get ahead in a modern economy. Perhaps they both like dogs, or opera, but to our knowledge this is where the similarities end. Don’t take our word for it:
Balter: Supports Medicare-For-All. “We need to stop segmenting our populations and think about health care as something everyone in this country should have, regardless of their identity or the group they belong to.” (The Palladium-Times, Nov. 3, 2018)
Tenney: Supports repeal and replace of Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). “(Repeal and replace) is critically important and one of the most important things for an issue we have to tackle.” (PT, Nov. 1, 2018) “The president is doing what the Democrats won’t in trying to fix prices on prescription drugs and demanding transparency from drug companies. Dems have spent the last year obsessed with impeachment.” (PT interview, Nov. 22, 2019)
Balter: “The way you make the economy strong is not with the failed policies of the 1980s and giving money to rich people while propping up the stock market. Can I afford to take my kid to the doctor? That’s the real economy in central New York.” (PT interview, July 13, 2020)
Tenney: “People in Oswego County have been saying, ‘thank you for the tax cuts.’ If you’re an average person making middle-income wages, working for companies in this region, who is complaining? The wealthiest people in New York City, maybe, because (the GOP) tax cuts eliminated loopholes.” (PT interview, Nov. 22, 2019)
President Donald Trump
Balter: “President Donald Trump poses a danger on a national stage, and we are less secure than before he came into office. He’s fomenting hatred and bigotry and making marginalized communities in this country less safe.”
Tenney: “Claudia Tenney is a fantastic candidate running in New York, where she was a Great member of Congress” — President Donald Trump on Twitter Feb. 12, 2020. “Please join President Trump and me in our “Great American Comeback” — a renewed domestic economy, better trade deals, more support for our veterans, putting a stop to illegal immigration, and putting American businesses and their workers first.” (PT op-ed, June 17, 2020)
Balter: Endorsed by pro-choice Planned Parenthood PAC. Will “fight to safeguard women’s access to reproductive health care. This includes well-visits, preventive care, cancer screenings, and safe abortion services.” (Electdanabalter.com “Issues”)
Tenney: Endorsed by pro-life Susan B. Anthony List. “Throughout my time in Albany and Washington I have been a leader on the issue of life and protecting mothers.” (Utica OD, Jan. 2, 2020
They’re both trying to knock off male incumbents in districts that should, all things being equal, be theirs to take. Hillary Clinton in 2016 won NY24 going away — as did Trump in NY22. The president and first family have been strong supporters of Tenney, visiting CNY in 2018 to stump and fundraiser for her.
Voters in 2016 in electing Donald Trump sent a message that they wanted a president who would speak what was on his mind in a direct way, stand up for conservative/populist values and stop what is seen by supporters as a nationwide demographic shift toward, and a media bias in favor of, the modern left.
If you like Donald Trump, you are going to love Claudia Tenney.
There’s no liberal sacred cow or challenge to her position that the New Hartford attorney won’t torch with a stinging wit, and the 2020 election will be the latest in a long-running feud between Tenney and Brindisi, also from the Utica area. The two served in the New York Assembly together, where Tenney was possibly the most conservative member and certainly the one who was most unafraid of taking on Democratic Party leaders regardless of the power imbalance. She liked to punch above her weight, so to speak. She prolifically targeted Brindisi and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver will spend the next 78 months in prison on corruption charges. Point, Tenney.
Just 4,000 votes out of 247,000 cast separated Brindisi and Tenney in 2018. She’s betting this time will be different.
“I’ve always been the underdog in every race,” Tenney told The Palladium-Times in a late 2019 interview. “(2018) was a very frustrating and difficult year. (Brindisi) won narrowly and he’s proven he’s not changing his position. I’m very surprised, but in some ways not. I warned everybody!”
But how does she really feel?
“(Brindisi) is just what he was in the Assembly: far left, supporting things that hurt us but always deflecting and blaming it on me,” she continued. “I’m in the best position to win and get back on the track of productivity. He’s proud that he banned the harvesting of shark fins. Is that something acutely impacting the people of this district? I don’t know.”
Tenney breezed through a primary challenge in June, after she had already spent months consolidating support among local party committees. Her near-constant campaigning for the past half-decade and high profile while in the Assembly has also won her fans outside of the region.
“The Conservative Party loves her,” said party Chairman Gerard Kassar of Brooklyn. “She’s a former member of Congress, she’s very active, she has all the stuff going for her she always does — in a district that’s going to be strongly supporting a Republican for president. She’ll raise the money, bring people together and if she can do that, she’ll win.”
The presidential election figures to play heavily into down-ballot races this November, so let’s compare a couple quotes about the Democratic Party ticket:
“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want to cozy up to Communist China, defund the police, throw open our borders to dangerous criminals and smugglers, raise our taxes and take away our health care choices.” –Claudia Tenney
“I applaud Vice President Joe Biden for his selection of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. As the first Black woman and the first Asian American to join a major party’s presidential ticket, she understands the gravity of this moment in American history and will bring critical leadership skills and deep policy expertise to the position of Vice President.” –Dana Balter
For their stark policy differences Balter and Tenney both possess the same unsentimental righteousness. Don’t use air quotes when you talk to these women about changing the world.
“The stakes are so high, we can’t afford to have politicians not take a stand on issues and just keep their jobs. I will be somebody very clear about the set of values and principles I base my decisions on,” Balter said in a July interview. ”Every person deserves dignity opportunity, and we’re obligated to stand up and fight for people who cannot fight for themselves.”
Balter describes herself an an “educator at heart,” and on the topic of schools, rejects the president’s recent calls to “open schools immediately.” Kids need social interaction and interaction with adults other than their parents — but “we have to make sure we can keep kids and educators, and all the people who work in the buildings safe,” she said.
Balter has so far won two elections (primaries in 2018 and earlier this year) and proven she’s a formidable candidate. Katko even said so on election night, and Balter often quotes the man himself, saying that he hoped she wouldn’t run again. The two will tangle again over fiscal responsibility, military spending and other D vs. R mainstays but with the weight of history and nearly five years of sparring behind them. In many ways, these are issues that were litigated already in 2018 but think fast — what was the beef between Katko and hotel workers in 2018? No idea? Well whatever it was, it cost $2 million in television and radio ads. Some issues will stick in the minds of voters, some won’t.
Katko has been recently hitting Balter on support New York’s bail reform laws, a strategy that takes advantages of the controversial court and jail protocols enacted by the Democrat-controlled New York legislature. Here’s the problem: Congress is federal government. Balter couldn’t change New York’s bail laws even if elected, and even if she tried.
“It’s ridiculous he keeps bringing it up because what we should be talking about is ensuring we have a criminal legal system that is a criminal justice system,” Balter said. “It needs a lot of reform and I understand why John Katko would be reluctant to talk about the problems in the criminal legal system because he was part of that system for decades and should know better than anyone how rife with injustice the system is.”
Like a skilled fighter, Balter mixes feints and counters with her jabs.
“It an important time to stand up for this community,” she said. “It’s an important time to think big and push for progress. I have a tremendous amount of hope that we come out of this dark, scary period and we’ll be at the beginning of an era of great change.”