John Katko worked for nearly 20 years in the Department of Justice, including the last 15 years as an assistant U.S. attorney at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Syracuse. Now, he has his sights set on a new goal: representing central New York in Congress.
Katko, 51, retired from his post in January to run for the Republican nomination in the 24th Congressional District race. He is one of eight candidates vying for the party's nod to challenge U.S. Rep. Dan Maffei, D-Syracuse.
Katko, who was born and raised in Syracuse, comes from a large Irish family. He is one of seven children — he has five sisters and a brother — and has a large extended family. Some of his family members have been involved in local politics, including cousins who worked for former U.S. Rep. Jim Walsh, who represented the Syracuse area in Congress from 1989 to 2009.
A Camillus resident, Katko and his wife Robin have three sons. His oldest son, who joined him on the campaign trail in December, is a student at the University at Buffalo and was elected vice president of the school's Conservative Club.
"He's following in his old man's footsteps to some extent," Katko said in an interview.
Prior to running for Congress, Katko enjoyed a long, successful career as an attorney and prosecutor. A Syracuse University law school graduate, he started his career at Howrey & Simon, a firm in Washington D.C. After three years at the firm, he joined the Securities and Exchange Commission's enforcement division, where he was tasked with investigating and pursuing cases against individuals and corporations that violated federal securities laws.
While at the SEC, Katko had a six-month detail with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Alexandria, Va. Less than a year after he wrapped up his detail and finished up his tenure with the SEC, Katko joined the U.S. Department of Justice, where he investigated and prosecuted narcotics cases across the country.
Katko's career brought him home in 1998 when he joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in Syracuse, where he supervised narcotics and organized crime investigations and prosecutions throughout the Northern District of New York, which includes several counties in central, eastern and northern New York.
One notable case Katko was asked to investigate and prosecute was a police corruption case involving officers from the Schenectady Police Department. A lieutenant and three other officers were convicted on drug, extortion and racketeering charges.
Katko also touted his role in establishing the Syracuse Gang Violence Task Force, which he led until his retirement. Local officials approached him in 2002 when it was clear the city had a major gang problem.
"We put together a task force of federal, state and local law enforcement," Katko said. "We devised a plan on how to go after these gang members. The plan was to use the federal racketeering laws like what you would use to dismantle organized crime — cases like the Mafia, for example — and try and use that to go after these gangs. These gangs were nowhere near as organized, but they were still very violent and they had a cohesiveness to them that would allow us to prosecute them. So, we did that."
Katko said over the next decade, they prosecuted seven gangs and sent more than 150 gang members to prison. Once gangs were removed from an area, Katko said it helped improve conditions in that neighborhood.
"When you took out the gang for that area, the quality of life for the people in those areas really increased. It was a noticeable change," he said. "I was very proud of that. It really is an example of teamwork. You take these law enforcement agencies. They all have different priorities. They all have different concerns. And when you put them together to go after a goal, good things can happen."
Katko received several awards and honors for his work with the Syracuse Gang Violence Task Force, including a director's award in 2005 for "superior performance as an assistant U.S. attorney" which was awarded by then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez.
Since retiring in January, Katko's focus has shifted to the campaign trail. He has met with Republican committees in the 24th District and hopes to be named the party's endorsed candidate later this month.
On the issues, Katko has made the economy and jobs a priority. He is also critical of the Affordable Care Act, which will be a major issue in congressional campaigns across the country.
Here is a Q&A with Katko on why he decided to run for Congress, what makes him the best Republican in the field and whether he will bow out if he's not endorsed by local Republicans:
QUESTION: Why did you decide to run for Congress?
KATKO: I think at some point in your life, you can no longer stand on the sidelines while you see things happening to your country that upsets you. I think that's basically where I'm at. You want to teach your children if you're going to talk the talk, to walk the walk.
I looked at what wasn't going on with our federal budget. No one is addressing the budget deficit. They just keep passing budget after budget with huge debts and huge deficits that if we don't do something about it, are going to ensure only one thing: That our children's future is gonig to much worse than ours and we've got to do something about that. I think getting our spending under control and our deficit spending and our borrowing from China under control, unless we do that, we're going to have a future much worse for our children. I'm concerned about the future for my children.
I'm also concerned about the lack of good governance. No one is doing anything about the deficit, but our leaders are making terrible decisions again and again. Look no further than the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — to see what bad governance is. It's clear that no one had any idea what was in that bill and yet they passed it. It's clear that Maffei championed that bill. And then it's also clear now that Maffei realizes after seeing what happened to Welch Allyn losing 200 jobs because of the medical device tax, that he's running from it now. He votes for it, he touts a bill and then wants to repeal very portions of the bill that he passed.
To me, that is a prime example of terrible leadership. It's not just with him. It's with others in Washington. But he's the one in our district and I felt compelled enough about it to give up a very good and strong and lucrative career for this and I don't know if anybody else has done that. It's not like I was at retirement age because I'm not. I'm doing this on my own. I don't regret it for a second because I think it's very important to stand up for things when you're very concerned. That's what our system is about and hundreds of thousands, if not millions of soldiers have died for our right to do this. We owe it to them and we owe it to this country to stand up and say something when we're concerned about the direction our country is going in. That's basically why I got into this.
Q: What are some of the top issues you will focus on in this race?
KATKO: I think the top issues for me are the budget and the deficit. What's really important about that for the budget and deficit is if we can get it under control, I think the economy will boom again. Unless we get it under control, we're going to have this continuation of this general malaise that we have in this country. Let's face it, not many people feel good about the economic situation in our country right now and that should change. We want it to change and I want it to change and that's a big thing.
I'm very concerned about poor leadership on both sides of the aisle. Gridlock and getting nothing done and the Affordable Care Act is a perfect example of that. In its current state, it's a job killer. It's not a job creator. The very middle class they say they are trying to help are the ones that are getting screwed on this the most. You've got President (Barack) Obama, who is on his own repealing or delaying implementation of major portions of this bill. This was legislation that was passed by Congress. And he, on his own, is delaying certain portions of that bill without congressional approval. That's a separation of powers argument. It's a constitutional argument.
There's poor leadership by him, there's poor leadership in passing the bill and there's poor leadership by our local congressman who after passing the bill now wants to repeal portions of it. That to me is the ultimate in poor leadership all across the board. The fact that we can't get anything done in Washington on both sides, shame on us on both sides. Going to Washington and trying to get something done is important and not going there being naive enough to think that everyone is going to get along fine. But Ronald Reagan was able to get a lot accomplished when he had a Democratic-controlled House and he had a titan of the Democratic Party in Tip O'Neill (as Speaker of the House). Ronald Reagan got a lot done and he got it done because he was a good negotiator and he treated his adversary with respect and he sat down and they just said, 'Let's get things done.' And they got things done. That, to me, is a principle that's been lost in politics and it's gotta change. I'm giving up more than anybody to do this, but I feel that strongly about it.
One other issue I wanted to mention: The SAFE Act at the state level is a huge issue. People are upset about it. One of the things that I want to make sure to get out is that I want to make sure that I do everything I can to ensure that the SAFE Act and the principles of the SAFE Act don't creep their way into federal legislation. I fear that if it's a Democratic-controlled House, that's exactly what's going to happen. I'm going to do everything I can to fight against that.
Q: The Affordable Care Act is going to be a major issue in this race and in races all across the country. What would you want Congress to do with this law? Would you repeal it? Would you repeal it and replace it? What's the best way to address it in your view?
KATKO: First, I think you've got to look at the conceptual underpinnings of the legislation. Number one, it's premised on the fact that seven million people are going to sign up by March 31. That's not going to happen. What happens then? That's one thing. Another thing is the Congressional Budget Office came out and estimated that it's going to lead to the loss of 2.3 million jobs. Did anybody anticipate that? I don't know. I'm going to go through and try and identify the issues and then try and figure out whether or not they can be fixed or not. My conclusion is that they probably aren't going to be able to be fixed in its current state.
The conceptual underpinnings — having seven million people, especially a vast majority of them being young kids, who are going to sign up for it and be healthy young adults who help fund the older people — that's not happening at the levels they think. Then you have the 2.3 million figure from the Congressional Budget Office. You also have the fact that the botched rollout alone costs about a million people that otherwise would've signed up. Then you have the medical device tax, which is killing companies like Welch Allyn. Then you have the president, on his own, delaying implementation of wholesale portions of the bill. So, I don't know how the program could be financially viable if that's the case.
I'm also concerned about the fact that we were lied to when they said that if you have private health insurance, you will not be affected by this. We all know that's crap. We all know that's bull.
You have all these things going out there that I think work against it. I think, in the end, it makes it so I'm not sure it can be fixed. Should we try and fix it? Sure. I don't think it can be fixed. After that, sit down and have a lucid, frank discussion, instead of ramming the bill through Congress, sit down and discuss what are the portions of this that are good. For example, I think it's good that you can keep your kids on the insurance rolls until they're 26 so they can get out of school. That's a good thing. There's other good aspects of it. So let's find out what some of the good aspects, take some of those principles and let's find some legislation that is actually viable. Because this was built on a house of cards and that's the concern I have.
Q: If you secure the party's nomination, you will face Congressman Maffei in the general election. What your's assessment of Maffei?
KATKO: The honest assessment of the job he's done is I'm not sure what he's done. The only thing I know he's done is trumpeted and supported supposed landmark legislation on health care and then turning around and trying to repeal the very portions of the bill he passed. To me, that is a perfect snapshot of failed leadership on his part.
We'll be able to draw distinctions, too, between government responsibility and government irresponsibility and not in broad strokes. He tends to paint things in broad strokes, such as he's for the middle class. If he's for the middle class, he would've realized that the Affordable Care Act is a train wreck for a large chunk of the middle class and there's people losing their jobs because of the Affordable Care Act. That's not helping the middle class.
He takes these broad brush statements, but what do they really mean? If he's for the middle class, he would work hard to make sure that the entitlement programs are going to be solvent long term because the middle class are the beneficiaries of those as they age and no one's doing that. He has the right sound bites, but when you really look back and see what he's saying, there's not a lot of substance there. And I don't think he's brought much back for our district. He just hasn't.
The reality part of it is the fact that he's in the Democratic minority in the House and that's not going to change. Having a minority member in the House is not good for your district. It's not good to try and get programs and services for your district when you're in the minority. He hasn't really done a good job reaching across the aisle to the other side. He's been more divisive than he has been productive in my mind.
Q: There are seven other Republicans running for the party's nomination in the 24th Congressional District race. How do you stand out in a crowded field?
KATKO: I think my training as a prosecutor has prepared me very well for this endeavor. As a prosecutor, you're an advocate by nature. You have to learn to think on your feet. You have to learn to articulate your views. You have to learn how to stand tall and not flinch under fire when getting it from a judge or jury or whomever. You have to be able to convince people professionally, such as putting 12 people in a jury box and then convincing them not only are you right, but I'm right to such an extent that you need to send this guy away for 40, 50 years, maybe even life. All those skills prepare you very well for this. You're battle tested, you have thick skin and you can articulate your positions on your feet easily. I think that really is helpful.
I think all of our candidates, to some extent or another, are pretty good on the issues. I think what's hopefully going to separate me is my ability to articulate those issues in a way that others maybe are not able to. My training has prepared me well for this. There's no question about it. And I think my ability to work with others, my ability to get things done and ability to get a huge number of my (gang violence task force) members to cooperate is a good indication that I can work with people on the other side of the aisle, which I think is going to be critical. I think we need to send people to Washington that will work on the other side of the aisle and work with others for the common good. I think that's a very important point to make.
Q: Do you consider yourself a conservative or are you more of a moderate Republican?
KATKO: I'm a conservative, but a moderate at the same time. I have conservative values, but moderate in that I recognize the need that you have to work with your counterparts. I recognize that fact. Members of Congress have failed miserably with that lately. It's so divisive that Democrats and Republicans rarely work together. They need to. They need to address the major issues. They need to address the deficit together. They need to address the entitlement programs without using scare tactics like saying we're out to destroy Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. We're not. We're here to fix it to make sure that not only we have it, that our kids have it and our children's children have it. In the current state, it's not going to happen. We've got to be fiscally responsible and I think everyone can agree that we have to be fiscally responsible.
Q: Will you attempt to get on the ballot for the Republican primary in June if you aren't endorsed by the party?
KATKO: No, and I think that's critical for our party to unite behind whomever the candidate is that's selected. While I've made a personal sacrifice to get into this campaign, I will still honor the committee's decision and I will rally behind whoever it is if it's not me. I'm hoping it's me, but if it's not me, I will rally behind whoever it is because I think the issues are that important we need to be a united team on the Republican and Conservative side.