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Eye on NY: Dana Balter reflects on 'phenomenal' campaign for Congress

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Election Day 31.JPG

Democratic congressional candidate Dana Balter, left, consoles heartbroken campaign volunteer Mickey Belosi, of Auburn, after conceding defeat to Republican incumbent John Katko.

It wasn't the outcome she wanted, but Dana Balter is pleased with the movement her campaign built and the conversation she helped start in the 24th Congressional District. 

Balter, a Democrat, lost to Republican U.S. Rep. John Katko by six percentage points, 52 to 46 percent. For Katko, it was his closest race in three elections. 

In an interview with The Citizen, Balter shared her initial thoughts about her campaign, its successes and whether she might try again in 2020. 

Balter launched her campaign in September 2017. She won the Democratic Party's designation in February. With the rest of the Democratic field exiting the race, she could shift her focus to the general election. 

That changed, however, in early April. Juanita Perez Williams, who declined to run for Congress, reconsidered. At the urging of national Democrats, she entered the 24th district race and forced a Democratic primary. 

It was a test for Balter, who was supported by the local Democratic Party and progressives in central New York. While Perez Williams had significant financial backing from top Democrats in Washington, Balter had grassroots support. With her volunteer base, she was able to win the primary by 25 points. 

Even though it was clear Balter had the campaign infrastructure to compete in the general election, the view from national Democrats was that she lacked the funding to mount a serious challenge. 

In October, Balter altered that perception. She announced her campaign raised more than $1.5 million in the third quarter — the most raised in a single quarter by any Syracuse-area congressional candidate. The final numbers won't be known for a few months, but she is on track to be the best funded congressional challenger in this region's history. 

Looking back on her campaign, Balter described it as a "phenomenal experience." She is grateful for the thousands of people she met during her 14-month run. Those meetings, she said, reaffirmed that we are more alike than not. 

"We are full of really amazing, good people who are passionate and committed to their communities and to each other," she said. 

While she was defeated, she said the most exciting election night result was the turnout. Absentee ballot results aren't in from all four counties, but turnout was high on election night. 

To put the turnout figures in perspective: In 2014, there were 203,417 votes cast in the 24th district race. This year, there were 247,632. 

The turnout numbers encouraged Balter, but she was also energized by the scores of individuals who volunteered during the campaign. Her campaign had more than 1,900 volunteers by the end of the election. 

"The number of people engaged in the election process itself is like nothing I've ever seen before," she said.

A consolation prize for Balter was winning Onondaga County. The election night tally found she narrowly won the 24th district's largest county by one percentage point. It was the first time Katko has lost a county in three congressional elections. 

But Katko had a strong showing in the district's three more rural counties. In Cayuga, Oswego and Wayne counties, he won each by 22 percentage points. 

Balter, who campaigned often in Cayuga, Oswego and Wayne counties, had a different view of the results. In Wayne County, for example, she said she outperformed the Democrats' performance there in 2016 by nearly 10 points. 

In Cayuga and Wayne counties, Balter nearly equaled Colleen Deacon's vote totals. That's impressive when you consider Deacon ran in a presidential election year. 

"I think what it shows is all the things that I've been saying all along is that you have to show up and listen to people," Balter said. "It's not OK to write anybody off in our community. It just isn't, especially if you want to represent or you want to be a leader. You have got to show up. You have got to listen. It's not enough to tell people that you care about them or what they have to say or what they need. You have to demonstrate it."

She added later, "I think on every measure we made a lot of progress. There were a lot of successes there." 

With those successes, there is an obvious question: Will Balter run again in 2020? 

There is a precedent for a second try. In 2006, then-Democratic challenger Dan Maffei narrowly lost to longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Walsh. When Maffei decided to run again in 2008, Walsh opted to retire. Maffei won the election and served one term in Congress. 

For Balter, it's too early for a decision on 2020. She wants to reflect on the 2018 campaign before looking ahead to the future. But she pledged to remain engaged in local politics. 

"Obviously that's something that's incredibly important to me," she said. "I think we have built a really powerful movement here and I have no intention of walking away from that." 


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