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Democratic congressional candidate Dana Balter speaks during a town hall meeting in Auburn.

As a first-time candidate, Dana Balter doesn't have the same experience as Juanita Perez Williams, her Democratic primary opponent. But what she hopes will set her apart is the movement she has created over the last several months. 

Balter, D-Syracuse, is vying for the Democratic nomination in the 24th Congressional District. The primary is Tuesday. The winner will face U.S. Rep. John Katko in the general election. 

Defeating Katko, R-Camillus, has been Balter's goal since she entered the congressional race in September. She won the support of the Cayuga, Onondaga, Oswego and Wayne county Democratic committees. And she has been endorsed by local and national progressive organizations, such as the Indivisible movement, Bernie Sanders' Our Revolution and Democracy for America. 

However, her path to the general election was disrupted by Perez Williams, who launched her campaign in early April just as the petitioning process was winding down. Perez Williams, a Syracuse Democrat, has received support — endorsements and funding — from national Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

While Perez Williams receives financial assistance from outside of the district, Balter hasn't been shy about revealing that a vast majority of the donations to her campaign have come from individuals. 

"I will never be beholden to corporate donors," she said in an interview. "I don't take corporate money. I will never be beholden to party leadership because I don't represent party leadership. The job I'm asking for is representing the people here. That's what voters are looking for." 

Balter grew up in Connecticut and attended Northwestern University in Illinois. Early in her career, she was a special education teacher and held other titles at Chapel Haven, a nonprofit organization supporting adults with cognitive disabilities. (Balter has a brother with cognitive disabilities.) 

She chose to seek a doctoral degree at Syracuse University's Maxwell School. An injury derailed her studies for several years before she resumed her work in 2012. 

Now a visiting assistant teaching professor at Syracuse University, Balter has delayed her studies once again to focus on her campaign for Congress. 

Before running for Congress, Balter was a leading figure with the CNY Solidarity Coalition. The group formed after the 2016 election to oppose President Donald Trump's agenda. 

That activist base is a big part of Balter's campaign. It has helped her secure the support of local Democrats and progressives. And it has helped to ensure she qualified for the ballot. 

When Balter circulated petitions to secure spots on the Democratic, Women's Equality and Working Families party lines, her campaign collected more than 8,000 signatures. She received help from more than 800 volunteers in the effort. 

"The way that you win an election is by building a coalition and galvanizing support," she said. "You have to turn people out to vote. My campaign has demonstrated that I can do that." 

ON THE ISSUES

Jobs

Balter's major jobs proposal is to build a thriving green economy in central New York. Green industry, she says, is "the next wave of the economy."

"In central New York, we are especially well-positioned," she said. She highlighted the region's manufacturing history and the potential to produce LED light bulbs, solar panels and wind turbines that are currently being manufactured elsewhere. 

She contends that building a green economy would not only benefit the region, it would provide good-paying jobs to its residents. 

"Green industry is a field where people can earn enough money to live on," she said. "They can have good careers that they can depend on long-term. That's what we have to be thinking about." 

If elected to Congress, she would launch a green economy task force to focus on what resources are needed to boost industries in central New York. 

Taxes

She has criticized the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a signature achievement for Republicans under President Trump. The legislation was supported by U.S. Rep. John Katko, one of four New York Republicans who voted for the measure. 

"The tax bill that passed is only the latest example of John Katko abandoning all of us," she said. 

If elected to Congress, she would support closing tax loopholes available to wealthy individuals and corporations. She would also push for the collection of taxes owed on corporations' offshore profits.

Health care

Balter supports implementing a Medicare-for-all system and shift away from private insurance. But it's not a process she takes lightly. 

The best approach, in her view, would be to have experts and ordinary people provide feedback on what that single-payer system should look like. She doesn't want lawmakers alone to dictate how the program would function. 

"We have to be really thoughtful and really careful because we need it to work," she said. "I don't want to see us to rush into anything." 

While she advocates for Medicare for all, she wants to preserve the Affordable Care Act, a 2010 health care law that many Democrats support and Republicans in Congress have been working to repeal over the last several years. 

Balter expressed concern about premium spikes and the potential elimination of protections for those with preexisting conditions if a Texas lawsuit is successful. 

There are 296,000 adults under the age of 65 in the 24th district who have preexisting conditions, Balter noted. The Affordable Care Act prevents insurance companies from denying coverage to those with preexisting health conditions. 

"We have to protect those gains and strengthen the program at the same time that we are working towards and transitioning to Medicare for all," she said. 

Immigration

She wants to see comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the visa system, which she believes needs improvement to work for employers and employees. She also supports a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. 

One issue she thinks Congress can tackle immediately is the ongoing stalemate over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was established under former President Barack Obama. President Trump issued an executive order last year that would end DACA if Congress was unable to reach an agreement. So far, Congress hasn't finalized a deal to protect DACA recipients. 

While Balter wants to see a long-term DACA solution and legal status for individuals who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, she wants it addressed separate from comprehensive immigration reform. 

"We can't allow them to continue to be used as a bargaining chip," she said. 

Education

Balter has a few education-related priorities. One area she sees a federal role in is revitalizing civics education in schools. 

"We need to be teaching our kids about what it means to be part of a democratic society," she said. 

She also wants to ensure there is equity in federal funding and resources for schools. And she believes the federal government should be protecting students' civil rights in schools. 

Under President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the federal government has rolled back protections for students with disabilities, students who are victims of sexual assault, students of color and transgender students. 

"If there is one thing we should be able to count on the federal government for, it's protecting our civil rights," she said. "And when our kids are in school, they are young, they are minors, they are vulnerable. It's all that more important." 

Gun violence

One of the main proposals Balter supports is the repeal of the Dickey Amendment. The amendment is named for Jay Dickey, a former congressman from Arkansas, who crafted the language to block the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting gun violence research. 

There was a provision in a spending bill signed by President Trump earlier this year that aimed to clarify whether the CDC could research the effects of gun violence. 

However, Balter still wants the Dickey Amendment's repeal and for the federal government to fund the research. 

"Public health agencies should be able to study (gun violence)," she said. 

There are other proposals Balter supports to address gun violence, including universal background checks. 

Climate change

Balter reiterated her support of investing in green industry. 

"When we make smart investments in renewable energy, it helps us get off of fossil fuels," she said. 

She also supports rejoining the Paris climate accord. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the historic agreement last year. 

Balter views the Paris climate pact, which sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit increases in the global average temperature, as an important move to "reaffirm our connections to our allies around the world."

She would push for Congress to address the controversies involving Scott Pruitt, who is the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Pruitt, she said, is working to damage the environment and removing certain protections that were in place. 

"It's time for Congress to take some action," she said. "We need people in charge of agencies like the EPA who believe in their mission and are committed to carrying them out." 

Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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