National News

National Democrats Wade, Uninvited, Into New York House Race

Posted May 30, 2018 4:48 p.m. EDT

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — As a first-time Democratic congressional candidate, Juanita Perez Williams would seem to check off many of her party’s most prized boxes: female, person of color, military veteran and, as the runner-up in last year’s mayoral race in Syracuse, local name recognition.

Those attributes have not been lost on national party leaders, who were looking for a formidable candidate to challenge the Republican incumbent, John Katko, in the 24th Congressional District in Central New York, a key battleground race.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee not only successfully wooed Perez Williams to run, it also helped her collect signatures on petitions to get on the primary ballot, and it placed her on its coveted “red to blue” list, a nationwide roster of candidates who receive fundraising and strategic support.

Her candidacy, however, has not come without controversy: Well before Perez Williams officially kicked off her campaign last month, another Democrat, Dana Balter, was already the established choice of four Democratic county committees.

The June 26 primary between Balter and Perez Williams illustrates the national Democrats’ sense of urgency in devoting attention and resources to races they deem winnable. But in the case of the 24th District, the party’s priorities do not always jibe with the interests of those closer to the scene.

Indeed, the leaders of the local Democratic committees issued a joint statement that accused the DCCC of failing to take “into account the work happening at the grass roots this year,” adding that they stood behind Balter and against the Washington “meddling that has hampered far too many races thus far.”

That sentiment, as well as Balter’s popularity, was on full display at a recent town-hall meeting that she held two weeks ago in the faded city of Auburn.

“I’m disgusted,” Laurel Ullyette, an attendee, said of the DCCC’s involvement in the race. She said that she had “never been so impressed so quickly by someone” as Balter, describing her as “knowledgeable, committed, passionate and articulate.” Balter deftly handled questions on topics ranging from gun control to the North American Free Trade Agreement to blue-green algae; at evening’s end, she received a standing ovation from the scores of voters who turned out.

The county committees believed that Balter’s energy — and her army of 800 volunteers — were just the thing to unseat Katko, a two-term Republican, in a swing district that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and where registered Democrats edge Republicans.

But now, rather than rally around Balter and fulminate over Katko’s record, local Democrats find themselves instead doing battle with their national party.

By any measure, Perez Williams, a Navy veteran and a lawyer, does have far more government and political experience than Balter, a Syracuse University professor and an activist. Last year, Perez Williams won a three-way Democratic primary in this city’s mayoral race, eventually losing by a yawning margin in the general election to an independent, Ben Walsh.

She served as Syracuse’s corporation counsel, and also served stints in the state’s education and labor departments, as well as in the attorney general’s office.

“As a veteran and prosecutor, Latina and mom — with deep roots in the Syracuse region — Juanita has spent her life fighting for working people,” the DCCC’s chair, Rep. Ben Ray Luján, said in a statement. “Juanita will run a competitive campaign based on creating jobs, investing in infrastructure and providing access to affordable health care.”

Making Perez Williams’ entry undeniably awkward is the small-town nature of politics in the district, which hugs the shore of Lake Ontario and includes dairy farms, wineries, university towns and fraying urban centers. Days before she first announced her candidacy in mid-April, Perez Williams attended a fundraising event for Balter, who is a visiting assistant teaching professor in Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

For now, Balter seems to be taking the high road. “I think it was not a great move,” she said, referring to the DCCC, “but we will make the most of the opportunities it presents.”

For her part, Perez Williams, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, asserts her right to run in the primary. Yet she acknowledges critics of her candidacy.

“I understand their concerns,” she said in an interview. “But it’s about the voters and who has the most experience — who has been battle-tested. Dana herself has said that primaries are healthy.”

Some political observers say that the national Democratic campaign committee’s involvement was unfortunate given its timing.

“I understand why the DCCC did what they did,” said Luke Perry, director of the Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research. “But if you are going to intervene in a primary, do so early — particularly before the county committees act. Sweeping in at the last minute is a slap in the face to the local Democratic volunteers.”

Whoever emerges victorious in the Democratic primary, Katko, 55, will be a difficult foe. He has positioned himself as a moderate in the House, where he voted down legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. And in an era of political standoffs, he is a relentless booster of bipartisanship.

In a phone interview, Katko, the father of three boys, said he was proud of his standing atop a bipartisan index put out by the Lugar Center and the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. He ranked No. 7 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives.

“I’ve had 26 bills pass the House and on every single bill, the first person is a Democrat,” he said, referring to legislation he has co-sponsored relating to anti-terrorism and the opioid crisis, among other things. “I don’t introduce a bill unless I have a Democratic co-sponsor. I think I’m showing how bipartisanship works.” Katko also is a co-leader of the Tuesday Group, a moderate caucus of House Republicans. Before the presidential election, he made no secret of his distaste for the Trump campaign, withdrawing his support after the release of the raunchy “Access Hollywood” tape. On the 2016 presidential ballot, Katko said he wrote in Nikki Haley, now President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Still, he appeared reluctant to criticize Trump’s tumultuous tenure in the White House. “He’s got a long way to go,” he said, adding that “it’s very hard to judge a president.”

In a contest that often turns on money, Katko has a war chest that dwarfs those of his Democratic challengers. Balter has raised only $193,000, compared to his $1.4 million. Perez Williams’ candidacy is too new for her fundraising to be reflected on the Federal Election Commission website.

The other critical number in the race here is voter registration, with unaffiliated voters, or independents, making up a sizable chunk of the electorate. There are 116,000 independents in the 24th District, compared to 159,000 registered Democrats and 148,000 registered Republicans.

“Someone like John Katko, who is a moderate Republican, can have crossover appeal, particularly with independents,” Perry observed.

Perry said that other Republicans in the House delegation from New York — Claudia Tenney came to mind — might rue their fervor for Trump in the midterm elections, when Democratic turnout is expected to surge. By contrast, Katko’s calculated distance could serve him well, he said.

Whether the Democrats can upend the electoral math that overwhelmingly favors incumbents remains to be seen. Balter, for one, seemed to put a positive spin on her relatively small bank account, calling money the root of all that is wrong with Washington.

“Until we get big money out of politics, we’re not going to be able to make progress on all the other issues,” she said, citing campaign finance reform as her top legislative goal. “We need to make sure that politicians are voting in the interests of their constituents, not their donors.”