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Dana Balter: The making of a Democratic contender for Congress
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ELECTION 2020

Dana Balter: The making of a Democratic contender for Congress

Since winning the Democratic nomination in the 24th Congressional District for a second time, Dana Balter has released nine television commercials. The campaign ads largely focus on policy issues, but a few of them help tell the candidate's personal story. 

One ad highlights Balter's experience as a bartender and server at a college bar near Northwestern University in Illinois. Another, which features her speaking to the camera, relays her story of nearly going bankrupt because of health care debt. 

These are among the most important moments of Balter's life. In two interviews with The Citizen, she detailed her upbringing, her college job, the decision to move to central New York, the debilitating head injury she suffered, her return to Syracuse and how those events led her to where she is today: A serious contender in one of the most competitive congressional races in the country. 

Childhood

Balter, 44, grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, as one of four children. Throughout her two runs for Congress in 2018 and this year, she has spoken about her younger brother, Jonathan, who has cognitive disabilities. 

"My brother, Jonathan, is less than two years younger than I am, so we really grew up as buddies," Balter said. "It was a huge part and a huge influence on my life. Moving through the world by his side, having early experiences with neighborhood bullies and seeing how cruel people could be.

"Watching him struggle to learn things that were really easy for me and for most people, and watching my parents advocate for him. They had to fight every year to make sure that he had the resources he needed and the best opportunities for education, and that, I think, is where my fight comes from, my sense of needing to fight to make sure that everybody has dignity and everybody has opportunity." 

Her passion for education began early in childhood. At 2 years old, she says she received her "best birthday present" — a chalkboard and chalk. It paired well with another gift, her first toolbelt. Her father, Marshall, built her a workbench in their basement that was positioned across from the chalkboard she received. 

On one side, she could use her small hammer to pound nails into a board. On the other, she could write on her chalkboard. 

"Those things are still things that I love," she said. "I am still a teacher. I will be 'til the day I die. And I still love to create and make things, which I've done in various ways throughout my life." 

At age 12, Balter had her first paid job as a Sunday school teacher. In high school, she built sets for theater productions. 

While she's no longer building sets, she still has a love for being creative. She enjoys cooking full meals from scratch and sewing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has sewn face coverings that have been donated to various local organizations. 

"I trace a lot of pieces of my life back to really early childhood experiences," Balter said. 

Northwestern

After graduating from high school, Balter attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. As a dual major, she focused her studies on theater and communication science and disorders. 

"I loved college," Balter said. "Obviously I'm very passionate about education and being in an environment where you get to explore so many different things and be opened up to whole new areas of knowledge and new ways of seeing the world, to me, was just constantly exciting." 

Her college experience wasn't limited to the classroom. While attending Northwestern, she worked three jobs. The job she held the longest was working as a bartender and server at Yesterday's, a now-shuttered college bar in Evanston. 

Balter mentioned her time at Yesterday's in a campaign commercial this year. She told The Citizen she waited tables, was a bartender and eventually became an assistant manager. 

"I actually really enjoyed being a waitress," she said. "I thought it was a tremendous amount of fun because of all the people that you got to meet and get to know. Yesterday's was the kind of place that was a regular hangout for a lot of people in town. We, certainly because it was a college town, would have customers who would come in once when they brought their kids to school or something. We also had people who would come every single week." 

She remembers an older couple that would come for lunch every Wednesday around the time Yesterday's opened. They sat in the same booth and would use paper towels to make a placemat and set out their silverware and coffee cups. They ordered the same meal every week. 

"I worked there for three years. I don't think that they missed a Wednesday the entire time I worked there." 

For Balter, the couple is an example of one of the perks of working at an establishment like Yesterday's. During her time there, she got to know people. The job also provided a life lesson. 

"I also, by the way, think that every person should work in some kind of customer service job at some point in their lives to get a better understanding of people, to understand what it means to serve somebody else and to get an insight into the kind of treatment that people who are serving you deserve, how hard that work is," she said. "I enjoyed the job very much. It is incredibly hard work." 

Taking on a few jobs at Northwestern wasn't unusual for Balter. She worked three jobs while she was in high school. She says she was comfortable working — that feeling of independence and the ability to support herself. 

It also helped her realize the hurdles others face while working multiple jobs. 

"I learned at a fairly young age what it's like to struggle to be able to pay the bills and to not be able to take that for granted but to really have to work at it," she said.

"I think that is incredibly valuable not only preparation for life but it makes it easy for me to understand when I'm out on the trail talking to voters who are talking to me about the challenges that they face. I get it. I don't have to imagine what it feels like to wonder am I going to make the rent this week? I know from firsthand experience what that is and how important being able to have a good job is." 

Chapel Haven

Balter earned her bachelor's degree at Northwestern and returned to Connecticut. Her passion for education led her to Chapel Haven, a nonprofit organization for adults with cognitive disabilities. She was employed as a teacher and taught several classes, including chorus, cooking, drama, math, science and how to use public transportation. 

After teaching for a while, she became the organization's director of education. In that role, she led the expansion of educational programming — they more than doubled the number of classes offered, she said — and hired new teachers. She was also instrumental in the process of getting Chapel Haven accredited and certified by the state. 

The experience marked a turning point for Balter. 

"When I started there, I was really thinking about service on a one-on-one level — a teacher working with a student," she said. "That, I think, is incredibly important and incredibly powerful. What I learned while I was there is how important it is to also simultaneously address the challenges from a global, systemic perspective.

"Working with hundreds of clients who come from all across the country and helping our clients and their families navigate the world and the public systems of support and programs, I became intimately familiar with all of the barriers that stood in the way. This is something I've experienced from a personal perspective with Jonathan, but now was looking at it professionally for a much larger number of people and a greater set of challenges." 

A desire to make systemic changes is what led Balter back to school. She earned her master's degree in public administration at the University of Connecticut. While at UConn, many of her professors were graduates of Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. 

Being exposed to Maxwell School alumni is why she decided to move to Syracuse. 

The concussion

Balter's plan was to complete her master's program and move to Washington, D.C., to work at a government agency. But during her studies, she realized there was more to learn in the field of public administration. 

Instead of heading to the nation's capital, she wanted to pursue her doctorate. And, based on her conversations with professors, there was only one destination in mind: Syracuse University's Maxwell School. 

Balter moved to central New York in 2003 and enrolled at Syracuse. She called the Maxwell School "an extraordinary place."

"There is a real ethos at the Maxwell School about this is not just learning for learning's sake, but the discipline of public administration is about having an impact in government and governance and in the nonprofit sector," she said. "It's about applying knowledge to make our world and our society better. There is a real sense of connection to the real world and an obligation to use what you know and what you have at your disposal in a practical way that makes a difference." 

However, Balter's pursuit of a doctoral degree was put on hold after she suffered a serious concussion. She donated blood at an on-campus blood drive. After leaving the blood drive, she fainted. As she fell to the ground, she hit her head on a counter. 

She was hospitalized for a few days with the concussion. 

It was an interesting time to sustain a serious head injury, Balter says, because it was in the early stages of the Iraq War and more was being learned about traumatic brain injuries and concussions. There was some benefit to Balter because there was more information available about the lasting effects of concussions. But, she says, she was also unlucky because not a lot was known at the time about those lingering symptoms. 

"When I left the hospital, they told me I would be fine in a couple of weeks," she recalls. "And that, of course, was not actually the case." 

For several years, Balter dealt with the effects of the concussion. At one point, the symptoms were so bad she couldn't leave her house. She moved to Pennsylvania to live with her sister, then moved to Florida and lived with her brother. She lived with family members, she says, because "I couldn't work, I couldn't support myself and I couldn't take care of myself." 

The lasting effects of the concussion not only threatened her physical well-being, but also her finances. She faced significant medical costs due to bills for appointments with specialists, her medications and treatments. When she moved to live with her family, she had difficulty obtaining health insurance coverage. This was before the Affordable Care Act, which prevents insurance companies from denying coverage due to a preexisting condition. Balter has a preexisting condition and insurers denied coverage. 

"I had been lucky enough to have good insurance my whole life and suddenly, I couldn't find insurance," she said. "That was a horrible feeling. The fear that comes with that I can't even describe because I knew that these medical bills were going to continue coming in and without insurance, I had no idea how I was going to pay for any of it." 

Balter was able to find an insurance plan that would accept her and provide coverage, but she says it was "very expensive." Between the cost of insurance and mounting health care bills, her debt grew. She was unable to work, so there was no income to cover those expenses. 

In a recent TV ad, Balter told a shortened version of her story. She said she knows "what it's like to go without health insurance, to almost go bankrupt from health care bills, to be labeled with a preexisting condition the rest of my life." 

Balter declined to say how much she owes to pay for medical bills, although she did note she's still paying off the debt she accumulated when she was unable to work. 

"I understand the feeling of not being able to get on top of that and how devastating it can be," she said. "It's the leading contributor to bankruptcy in our country and that's a truly stressful and terrifying feeling of being trapped in that cycle. Once I recovered and once I was able to get back to a normal life, I took from that experience the conviction that we had to change that. It just was not acceptable for our system to work that way.

"You're talking about things that are completely out of your individual control. Nobody decides when to get injured or sick. We have to have a system that supports people and helps them make it through rather than a system that drives them down further and further into this hole." 

As a candidate for Congress, Balter supports transitioning to a Medicare for All system. Her proposal would preserve private insurance's role while allowing all Americans to enroll in Medicare. That would be done by gradually lowering the age of eligibility and allowing all Americans to buy into the program. Newborns would be automatically enrolled. 

Balter praised the progress made with the Affordable Care Act, including the protections for people with preexisting conditions. But, she added, it doesn't go far enough. 

"We know that there are still millions and millions of people who don't have insurance at all," she said. "And there are also many more millions who do have insurance but are still facing the issue of insurmountable costs and debt and bankruptcy, or who make the decision to forgo care altogether because of the threat of those costs. 

"Our system is better off than it was when I had this experience, but we still have a lot of progress to go. That's where the motivation for me comes from to fight for it because I intimately understand it from personal experience."

Congress

When Balter recovered from the head injury, she returned to Syracuse. She resumed her studies at the Maxwell School and became a visiting assistant teaching professor in 2017. She held that position until summer 2018. 

She also became politically active in central New York. After the 2016 election, she was an organizer with the CNY Solidarity Coalition that led protests and rallies against President Donald Trump's administration. U.S. Rep. John Katko, a Republican representing the 24th district, was often a target of the group's actions. 

Balter announced in September 2017 that she would seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Katko. She won the Democratic primary and made it a competitive race against Katko, who won his two previous elections by at least 20 points. Katko defeated Balter by five percentage points to win a third term. 

In April 2019, Balter announced she would seek a rematch against Katko to "finish the job." She won the Democratic primary in June and polls show that it's a close race in the 24th district. Some polls released by Democratic groups found that Balter is either tied or leading by a few points. Several outside groups are investing in the race — an indication that it's competitive. 

What motivates Balter can be traced back to her childhood growing up with a brother who has cognitive disabilities, to her academic studies and working at a bar, to dealing with the effects of a severe concussion and the medical debt that followed. 

"I want to take the sum total of experiences that I've had — personal and professional and academic — and put them to work to address those systemic barriers in a range of policy areas — in economics and in health care and in environmental policy and in education," she said. "I want to take all of that knowledge and those skills and that understanding to Congress to make a difference for our whole community." 

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

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.

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