For ten years, the City of Syracuse sent a different representative to Congress every time it had the chance. Until Congressman John Katko beat Colleen Deacon in 2016, the City hadn’t elected an incumbent since Jim Walsh–the current Mayor’s father. It’s a difficult seat to hold onto, and Katko managed to do it by positioning himself as a moderate who could appeal across party lines. This last year, though, has made that a difficult position to maintain–Katko refused to say who he intended to vote for in the 2016 presidential election, and he has hemmed and hawed every time someone has asked about national politics since then.
If only the Congressman would be so boring when it came to local politics. In June, when then-Mayor Stephanie Miner thought about running for his seat, Katko responded by saying that Syracuse suffers from a “plague” of “systematic poverty, record murder rates, crumbling infrastructure, failed schools.” In November when Mayor Miner called out his vote on the tax bill, he talked about Syracuse’s “economic malaise” and it’s “stunning rate of local poverty.” Just this past week, in response to a question about I-81 during a Facebook event with Tim Knauss, the Congressman said, “It’s not just a decision for the City of Syracuse. It’s a decision for the region” and then went on to talk about all of the problems that Dewitt and Skaneateles might have without ever mentioning what the project might mean in the City.
All of this talk has one thing in common–it divides the people that Katko represents between those who live in the City and those who live outside of it. Take his sparing with Miner. She won both her terms with huge majorities and remains popular among city residents, so he can’t actually be appealing to those people when he says she turned the City into a hell hole. He’s playing on the fears of suburban people who are afraid of the City, who believe that it’s a hell hole, and who wouldn’t want anything to do with anyone from there.
He’s doing the same thing with I-81. It’s not a city-suburb issue. Suburban legislators like Al Stirpe and Karin Rigney want the highway out of the City, while some City politicians like Bill Magnarelli and John DeFrancisco want to keep it as a tunnel. Katko ignored all that, though, and talked like everyone’s real concern should be that the City not be allowed to impose any kind of decision on the suburbs.
The Congressman is in a tough spot. He can’t say anything substantive about national politics without appearing partisan and alienating half the district. His solution has been to turn partisan on local issues, betting that he can appeal to the 80% of the district that lives outside the City by making them fear the 20% that live in it. That’s a small thing to do, and we all have to call him out on it and say so.