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Outgoing Rep. John Katko to reflects on his eight years serving CNY's 24th district

Two men sit in chairs facing each other on stage.
Scott Willis
/
WAER News
Rep. John Katko, left, speaks with SU Maxwell School Professor Grant Reeher Nov. 28, 2022 at the National Veterans Resource Center.

Outgoing Syracuse-area congressmember John Katko made what was likely one of his last public appearances Monday night at a forum hosted by Syracuse University. He told a crowd of about 100 people that he is at peace with what he and his team accomplished over the past eight years. Katko says he’s most proud of pushing through the infrastructure bill, despite opposition from his own party.

"I got my teeth kicked in because of infrastructure," Katko said. "They tried to remove me from republican leadership on the Homeland Security Committee because I pushed bipartisan infrastructure."

Katko says the bill will pay dividends for Central New York for years to come in the form of better roads, bridges, and water systems. He also took heat for being one of only ten republicans to vote to impeach former president Donald Trump. But Katko says that wasn’t a difficult vote.

"I attacked the decision-making process on that bill just like any other bill," Katko said. "The night before was a sense of calm, but also a sense of foreboding because I knew what was going to happen from a safety standpoint for myself and unfortunately for my family. That was difficult in that regard, but I also knew it was the right thing to do."

Katko says one of the darkest moments of his time in Congress and in 32 years of public service was the attack on the US Capitol.

"In the days leading up to January 6th, I had dozens of my republican colleagues come up to me, look around to make sure no one could hear them, and say, 'I want to vote to certify the election, too, but I don't want a primary, or I don't want problems at home.' That was very disturbing to me because they're in it for the wrong reasons," Katko said.

The former federal prosecutor has been named one of the most bipartisan members of Congress and one of the most productive, with more than 100 bills passed during his four terms. He credits his legislative success to always introducing bills with a democratic co-sponsor. Katko wishes people would get past political labels.

"I lost friends that I've known for a long time when I went to Congress," Katko said. "That's insane. That shouldn't be, just because I have a different political view. Who cares? People like different bands, people like different restaurants. People have different political views. People in this country have to go back to understanding that it's OK. It's not acceptable to have a scorched earth view of politics."

Katko says changing this narrative starts in the White House, which is why he says he’s disappointed in President Biden for not serving as more of a uniter. Katko will be succeeded by fellow republican Brandon Williams in a redrawn 22nd district. Katko also urged him to work with people from both parties.

"I hope he listens to his constituents just like I did, and does what he thinks is right for his country," Katko said. "Everyone's going to be different. I don't dare predict what he's going to do. But he'll be judged just like I was at the end of his term, and I wish him well."

Katko spoke at an event presented by Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and the Campbell Public Affairs Institute.

EARLIER COVERAGE

Congressmember John Katko will deliver farewell remarks Monday evening as his time representing the old 24th district comes to a close.  WAER News takes a look back at how the four-term republican navigated some of the bigger issues that arose in recent years.

Katko has always tried to position himself as a moderate, which often frustrated people on both sides of the political spectrum. He angered his own party and gained national attention for the narrow passage of his bill in May 2021 calling for the creation of a bi-partisan 9/11-style commission to investigate the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol earlier that year. Katko is a Ranking Member of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

“Sufficient scope and flexibility to investigate targeted violence and domestic terrorism relevant to the January 6th attack," Katko said. "It will be up to the commission to decide how far they want to go with that imprimatur.” 

Katko, a former federal prosecutor, told his fellow house members in that floor speech that criminal investigations alone wouldn’t provide the expertise and recommendations that a commission could. In the end, the bipartisan commission was scrapped in favor of the one led mainly by democrats.

Katko had an evolving view of then-President Trump. He expressed support for his first presidential bid, an opposed impeaching Trump in late 2019. A little over a year later, he voted for impeachment and then didn’t support Trump for a second term. After the 2020 election, Katko said Trump needed to “move on” from his claims of fraud in the absentee ballot count unless he can produce evidence to back up those claims.

“Rhetoric is not evidence," Katko said. "That doesn’t work in court and shouldn’t work now. What works is evidence of an issue. If there’s an issue, show us the cold facts. If not, it’s time to move on.”

Katko was proud of his membership in the bi-partisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which perhaps he saw as a way to steer clear of the harsh partisan climate and get things done with members of both parties. That likely led to one of the most significant pieces of legislation in generations for Central New York: The CHIPS and Science Act that ultimately helped convince Micron to invest $100 billion at White Pine in Clay. Here he is in August making the case for domestic production.

“Taiwan has about 90% of the high-end chip manufacturing in the world right now, and if China decides to go into Taiwan tomorrow, we won't be building missiles, we won't be building high-tech machinery, we won't be having our cars to drive around,” Katko said.

Katko convinced 24 of his House Republican colleagues to vote yes on the $52 billion legislation.

He had his share of criticism of the Biden administration. In the fall of 2021, said the botched, abrupt and sweeping pullout of troops from Afghanistan had already set us back.

"The terrorists are already there. We've already seen it because they've launched terror attacks on our forces and killed our people in the last week," Katko said. "They're going to metastasize again, just like they did the last time the Taliban had control for 20 years. Let's not forget: That's why we went over there because that was the root cause of 9/11."

Republicans in the new House majority have said the Afghanistan withdrawal will be one of their many investigations into the Biden administration.

Katko also championed recognition and preservation of Central New York’s rich legacy of abolition. He sponsored the bi-partisan, bi-cameral Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Commemorative Coin Act. The Department of Treasury will mint and issue five dollar gold coins, one dollar silver coins, and half dollar clad coins.

"Specifically, I am pleased that the coins issued under this legislation, bearing Harriet Tubman's likeness and symbolizing her legacy, will directly benefit preservation and education efforts at the Tubman home in Auburn for years to come," Katko said.

Katko told his colleagues on the house floor this summer that the vote represents one of the most significant steps forward in strengthening federal recognition of the Harriet Tubman home in Auburn since its designation as a national park in 2017.

Katko announced he would not seek a fifth term in office back in January. He’ll be succeeded by republican Brandon Williams in a redrawn 22nd congressional district.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at srwillis@syr.edu.