Democratic congressional candidate Dana Balter has long criticized U.S. Rep. John Katko for refusing to hold town hall meetings. She has questioned his constituent service record and his accessibility to residents of the 24th Congressional District.
In remarks on the campaign trail ahead of the Democratic primary and following her win on Tuesday, Balter took her criticism a step further. The Syracuse Democrat said Katko, R-Camillus, did not meet with her. She cited that refusal as a reason why she decided to run for Congress.
Is Balter correct? Did Katko not meet with her? The Citizen examines the facts of the claim.
At a forum June 19 in Lyons, Balter delivered an opening statement to explain why she is running for Congress. She explained that she wanted to meet with Katko to discuss education, health care and other issues.
"John Katko wouldn't meet with me or my neighbors or my community," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, that's unacceptable."
Balter repeated the charge on the campaign trail leading up to the June 26 primary.
During a debate on the "Campbell Conversations" hosted by Grant Reeher, Balter said she and others "were trying very, very hard just to sit down with our congressman and have a conversation."
She continued, "I wanted to talk to him about health care. I wanted to ask him to stand up and fight for me and my friends and my family and my neighbors, and he wouldn't meet with us. And, to me, that's unacceptable, so I decided it was time to replace him. That's why I'm running."
The latest example of Balter's claim came on primary election night. As she delivered her victory speech, she again said that Katko "wouldn't meet with us."
Erin O'Connor, Katko's spokesperson, confirmed that Balter had a phone conversation with the congressman in January 2017 and met with his staff on two occasions last year — once in the Syracuse office and a separate meeting in Washington.
On March 10, records show Balter met with Katko and three of his staffers at his district office in Syracuse.
In addition to the meetings and phone conversation, Katko's office responded to six letters submitted by Balter.
The meetings were held before Balter became a candidate for Congress. At the time, she was an activist with the CNY Solidarity Coalition, a group that formed after the 2016 election.
Balter's interactions with Katko came as the CNY Solidarity Coalition urged the congressman to hold public town hall meetings in the district.
On Tuesday, Balter released a statement following a syracuse.com story about the meetings and a National Republican Congressional Committee press release labeling her "a liar."
"Before I ever thought of running, I joined many people who were asking Rep. Katko to hold open meetings with his constituents. We never got that public meeting," she said. "Instead, a handful of us got private meetings in groups of six where John Katko couldn't — or wouldn't — answer our questions about the details of pending legislation and the potential effects on central New York."
She continued, "A representative needs to show up, listen, and stand up for the people they represent. The record is clear: Congressman Katko won't hold a public meeting and only takes question when they're pre-screened or from friendly audiences."
Balter's explanation is in line with her previous criticisms of Katko. She has been a leading voice calling on the congressman to hold public meetings. That hasn't changed since she has been a candidate for Congress.
Balter has expressed frustration with Katko for not holding town hall meetings or open forums that would allow constituents to share their views with him and ask questions in a free-flowing environment. She has a case to make: Katko has held issue-specific forums since joining Congress in 2015, but not a general forum where any topic may be discussed. He participated in a televised town hall meeting in May 2017. However, it wasn't open to the public. Those who were interested in attending the town hall meeting needed to enter a ticket lottery for a chance to gain access to the event.
While Balter's past criticisms may be valid, words matter. Candidates often trim their statements to make it more friendly for audiences and debates that often impose time limits.
Leading up to the primary, Balter's speeches and comments during debates made it seem as if Katko refused to meet with her at all. That's not true. As Katko's office confirmed, she had an in-person meeting with the congressman and a phone conversation with him last year.