If Assemblyman David Buchwald is going to make it to Washington, D.C., then he has to convince voters in Westchester and Rockland counties that a little bit of boring is what they want in a member of Congress.
By his own admission, the former tax attorney and four-term state legislator is not a “glitzy” guy. But he’s trying to turn that into a political advantage in his campaign for the Democratic nomination to replace retiring longtime Rep. Nita Lowey. His background in physics, economics and tax law has helped him sponsor and pass 60 bills into law since he first won election to the state Legislature in 2012, including ethics reforms and a bill that allows the state to turn over President Donald Trump’s state tax returns to key congressional committees.
Recent endorsements from local officials show that there is also substantial support for his campaign. However, Buchwald is going to have to put a lot of miles on his 2008 Toyota Prius throughout the 17th Congressional District in order to beat his opponents for the Democratic nomination, including state Sen. David Carlucci and insurgent lefty Mondaire Jones.
Buchwald discusses his nerdy credentials in an interview with City & State, sharing his thoughts on the campaign, how he would battle corruption in the Trump administration as a Harvard Law School grad and what he learned from an internship in Lowey’s office 20 years ago. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you want to get done in this campaign, and how are you presenting yourself to voters?
I’m not a glitzy guy. I’m not a social media phenomenon. But I am someone who believes strongly in my progressive values. And more importantly, I’m someone who knows that there’s hard work ahead to turn those values into reality. I’ve dealt with tough policy issues and delivered on everything from a law that allows the release of tax returns of politicians like Donald Trump, to co-sponsoring the Reproductive Health Act, to taking pensions away from corrupt government officials, to successfully pushing for tougher gun laws. So, I’m running because right now, with Donald Trump in the White House, we need to elect Congress members who can hit the ground running on ending the corruption that defines this presidency, and undoing the damage that he’s already done while in office.
What do you mean when you call yourself a progressive?
There are core progressive values that unite most Democrats and most Americans, like pushing for commonsense gun safety measures, women’s rights and equality in general, for a clean environment, for supportive education, those are all things I stood on and for consistently. I also think it is important for a governmental leader to recognize that we make progress as a country by also promoting things that allow our communities, families and country as a whole to grow. So, I feel I’m a pro-growth progressive. I don’t think there’s any contradiction in that term, but we make sure that government works well, so that we can uphold the strong progressive values that we need government to defend.
A recent court ruling ordered that a grand jury have access to Trump’s tax returns. How did you approach writing the New York Truth Act, which would allow the release of his state tax returns to key congressional committees, in a way that you felt it would withstand judicial scrutiny?
On April 15, 2017, a tax march was held in northern Westchester County calling on Donald Trump to release his tax returns, as it (had) happened for four decades prior by presidents and presidential candidates. And I knew that my role as a previously practicing tax attorney, now serving in the state Assembly, was to do more than just make a public statement. It was to also roll up my sleeves and figure out how, more broadly, I could push for a law that would promote transparency of tax returns, and what we’ve enacted is something that I feel firmly will be upheld in court. Donald Trump, in his individual capacity, is now suing the state of New York to prevent the implementation of the TRUST Act. But I firmly believe that it will be an important tool toward holding top government officials to account.
How did you make sure the bill was, in your mind, impervious to legal challenges? Did you call experts across the country?
So I read a paper authored by some tax professors and practitioners that talked about how New York state has a unique role with regard to our current president’s tax returns. Since he was a New York state resident, every year he had to file New York state income tax returns, covering his entire worldwide income. And with his administration stonewalling the public, and later Congress, I knew that there was a copy of his tax returns at the Department of Taxation and Finance in New York and we didn’t need him or any other government official or candidate to lift a finger if we, in New York, could take a stand for openness and transparency. That’s exactly what we did. I should say it was not an easy task to get the TRUST Act passed in Albany, but I never shy away from doing what my constituents and I feel is right just because it’s difficult. I do it as my responsibility to do the work that’s needed to improve government.
As a tax attorney, you were able to use your expertise on a high-profile bill. What’s that like to get an opportunity to show off your tax attorney knowledge?
My Assembly constituents, seven years ago, had the foresight to send a tax attorney who had served in local government to be their voice in Albany – maybe not because they knew a president would one day be hiding his tax returns – but they knew how important it was to have a command of issues, especially when it relates to taxes, which affect every family and business in the Lower Hudson Valley. And so whether it was the TRUST Act, or combating the federal changes to the SALT deduction, I have stood with New Yorkers and have applied my background in law, a degree in public policy and local government and economics, and even occasionally as a physics major in college, to take all those skills to solve problems on behalf of my constituents and New York state more broadly.
You have a degree in physics. How would that apply to your work in Congress if you get elected?
The unifying theme of my career has been problem-solving. And whether the problem to be solved is a physics equation or an issue a constituent is having with a utility company or an insurance company, my job, as their representative, is to solve problems.
Most of your Assembly district is to the east of the 17th Congressional District in Westchester County. How are you making the pitch to voters who haven’t been your constituents?
I’m driving myself in a 2008 Toyota Prius that has about 150,000 miles on it. Whether it’s an area not-for-profit that deserves support, a local Democratic committee or campaigning on behalf of other Democratic candidates, I am very much someone who enjoys getting to meet people. Some of the best ideas you get in government are from interacting with your neighbors.
You are a former intern in Lowey’s office. What’s a lesson from that time that will help you if you’re elected to Congress?
I interned for Rep. Lowey in 1997. One of the reasons she’s an inspiration for me is that I got to see a dedication to her district and to important public policy. In a very small way, I got to help with her push to reduce to 0.08 the blood alcohol content to qualify for a drunk driving infraction and that initiative eventually became law. And I have every confidence that as a result Congresswoman Lowey saved lives in our country, and that’s something that is extremely special to have been a small part of.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of bills Buchwald has passed in the state Legislature.
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