Interviews & Profiles

Dana Balter: I’m the real mainstream candidate

Rep. John Katko’s challenger says he’s been “masquerading as a moderate.”

Rep. John Katko’s challenger in New York’s 24th District Dana Balter.

Rep. John Katko’s challenger in New York’s 24th District Dana Balter. Dana Balter for Congress

A self-described middle-of-the-road Democrat, Dana Balter made headlines two years ago as a formidable opponent to Republican Rep. John Katko, the three-term member of Congress in New York’s 24th District. In 2018, Balter ran and lost, but was able to garner strong support and record-breaking fundraising. Katko led Balter in the polls then, but 2020 is a different story. 

The election is now regarded as one of the most serious in the state. An Oct. 25 poll by Siena College and an analysis by Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics both called the race a toss-up. This year, Balter has turned the race into a referendum on President Donald Trump, his policies, and Katko’s support for him. Balter spoke to City & State about her platform, how the coronavirus has shaped the race, and why she says Katko is out of touch with his constituents. 

What are the issues most important to you and your district?

Well, right now, the dominant issue, of course, is COVID-19, and recovering from the dual crisis that we're facing. The top priority is getting the spread of the virus under control, to save people's lives and keep people healthy, which is something that Donald Trump has refused to do by not setting up a national testing and tracing program, by not encouraging people to wear masks, but instead, making fun of people who do. And that has to be our top priority – helping people through the economic crisis that we're facing by providing extended unemployment insurance hazard pay for front-line workers, direct aid for city and state governments, county governments, making sure that we're providing protective equipment for our front-line workers and in our schools to keep kids and educators safe. All the things that Congress passed in the HEROES Act – that is critically important. And more broadly speaking, fair economic policy and health care affordability are the top two issues in the district, and things that we have to address not only to help people get through the crisis, but in terms of getting families, and the entire economy, back on its feet once the spread of the virus is under control.

You’ve attacked Katko for backing Trump, so of course you’re not a fan, but where do you stand within the Democratic Party? Do you find yourself to be an emerging progressive or a more centrist Democrat? 

Well, first, I wouldn't say I have attacked him. I'm holding him accountable for the votes that he cast, the positions that he takes and the decisions that he makes as an elected representative, which is what we should be doing with our elected representatives. I am sort of a middle-of-the-road person. I believe in progressive values, as do a vast majority of people in our district and across the country. The things that I'm fighting for are our majority positions – in fact, supermajority positions. For example, I support a $15 minimum wage, so do 68% of Americans. (Editor’s note: Pew Research Center says 67% of Americans do.) I support universal health care, so do 63% of Americans. I support getting big money out of politics, so do 77% of Americans. I support Roe v. Wade, maintaining access to safe legal abortion for women, so do 76% of Americans. (Editor’s note: An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 76% of independents, but 71% of all Americans support Roe v. Wade.) And I support universal background checks for (purchasing) guns, so do 97% of Americans. These are mainstream policies. They're things that the voters have been asking for for years upon years upon years and it's because we have representatives like John Katko in Congress who support an extreme partisan agenda that we have not made progress on these issues.

Steve Williams was put on the Working Families Party line as a placeholder, but his name is there even though you were endorsed by the WFP, after a judge has ruled his name will stay. Could you walk me through the situation and why his name being there may threaten your candidacy? 

I can't really walk you through the legal side of the situation. It’s outside my expertise. What I can tell you is that the Working Families Party has endorsed me, Steve Williams has endorsed me, both because they know that I will be a champion for working families in Congress. And I think that the fact that Steve Williams' name is still on the ballot will not affect the outcome of the race. I think the voters of this district know who the two candidates are who are running for this seat and they understand the very, very clear differences between us and what the choice that faces them in this election is. 

Your district has more registered Democrats than Republicans, and it went for Hilary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, so how is it that Katko has managed to hold his seat since 2015? 

I think Katko has been masquerading as a moderate for years and what the people of this district are really looking for – I don't think people here care so much about party affiliation – what they're really looking for is someone who's going to be on their side. Someone who is always going to stand with the people and fight for the people, regardless of who is in the White House, or what party controls the House of Representatives or the Senate. And John Katko talks a good game. I think he had a lot of us believing that he was a moderate and independent thinker. But now we have six years of a voting record to hold him to, and we see that in fact over and over again, when we really need him on health care, on women's rights, on the environment, on taxes, he is with Donald Trump and his party and his corporate donors, and he's not with us. I think voters understand that now. They are tired of being taken for a ride and they are tired of being, theoretically, represented by somebody in Congress who doesn't actually represent our interests. So, I think we're seeing that in the poll. I think we're going to see it on Election Day and hopefully we're finally going to get some good representation here.

Some Democrats are expecting a blowout across the nation, but many polls have your race as a toss-up right now. If Katko does win, will you run again in 2022?

Oh God, I haven’t thought about that. We’re days out from Election Day. My only focus is on making sure that we get our voters to the polls, or to the absentee ballot, whichever they prefer, and that we get over the finish line next week, because this is the most important election of our lifetime. As I said, everything is on the line here. So that's what we're thinking about right now.

New York has had long early-voting lines across the state. How has voting been in your district? 

Yeah, we've had very long lines here and I think it's exciting. It shows the level of enthusiasm of voters to make sure that their voices are heard, to send a strong message to Donald Trump and his administration and people like John Katko who have been supporting the agenda that is so dangerous for all of us. It is inspiring to see so many voters engaged, so early, so loudly, so insistently. And it's really what gives me great hope for the change that we can bring starting in January.