LYONS, N.Y. ― A forum featuring the two Democratic candidates vying to represent New York’s 24th Congressional District last week began as a genteel affair. But when a voter brought up the elephant in the room ― the controversial role of the national party in the hotly contested race ― sparks flew.
Prefacing a question for Juanita Perez Williams, a late entrant to the race who is backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a man in the audience at the Ohmann Theater suggested that the DCCC “gave [her] money to get into this race.”
Perez Williams, 54, a Navy veteran and former state prosecutor competing against Dana Balter, 42, a progressive activist and Syracuse University professor, responded passionately.
“The decision to run was mine,” Perez Williams insisted. “This idea that I’m being handed money is untrue.”
The exchange highlighted a dynamic that has rankled progressive activists in many Democratic House primaries this cycle: a perception, real or imagined, that the national Democratic Party is imposing its will on local partisans ― usually in the service of more moderate, donor-friendly candidates.
The impact of party meddling in these races has occasionally been exaggerated. But in the case of New York’s 24th, a perennial swing district that includes metropolitan Syracuse and parts of the Finger Lakes region, the late-breaking intervention of the DCCC has been both substantial and genuinely divisive.
The DCCC, which had recruited Perez Williams to run, quickly added her and the district to its “Red to Blue” list ― a catalog of GOP-held districts it is prioritizing.
As a result, the primary between Perez Williams and Balter on Tuesday is likely the clearest test of the national party’s clout since the primary in Texas’ 7th, where the DCCC ultimately succeeded in defeating progressive Laura Moser.
“The DCCC better hope that they not only win the primary but win the general election, because strong-arming someone to run in the race in which they lacked the fire in the belly to run initially is a serious intervention,” said Jeff Hauser, a former AFL-CIO political strategist who now runs the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project. “The intervention was so unnecessary that it really raises the bar on how correct the DCCC must be proven to show the approach was valid.”
It was no surprise that the DCCC, a national body dedicated to electing Democrats to the House, would take a special interest in New York’s 24th.
Residents of the district voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by almost 4 percentage points in 2016. And the two parties have traded control of the district’s House seat twice in the past decade.
What’s more, two-term incumbent Rep. John Katko (R) has significant vulnerabilities in a district infected by the national wave of liberal enthusiasm. Although he was one of a handful of Republicans to vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act, he voted for the GOP tax cut legislation, which all but eliminated a state and local tax deduction on which New Yorkers disproportionately relied.
The problem for the DCCC is that it took so long to convince Perez Williams to jump into the race that the Democratic Party committee representing the four counties in the district had already gotten behind Balter. Perez Williams even contributed $250 to Balter’s bid before jumping in herself, according to a report in The Intercept.
“It’s unfortunate that [the DCCC] did not come and listen to what the local committees wanted,” said Katie Sojewicz, a Syracuse school board member active in regional Democratic politics.
“Central New York is not quite ready to go that far yet.”
Adding insult to injury for many local activists, social media posts from 2016 surfaced in which Perez Williams, among other things, touted her participation in the anti-choice March for Life and applauded an Irish court decision upholding the country’s abortion ban (which has since been overturned in a referendum). Perez Williams now insists that she is completely supportive of women’s abortion rights and merely participated in the March for Life to support her son.
The DCCC has justified backing Perez Williams so late in the race on the grounds that Balter had still not proven herself as a fundraiser or gained sufficient traction with voters.
And while the party denies that it saw Balter as unelectable because of her more ardently progressive views, some of Perez Williams’ supporters indeed feel that way.
Vicky Freyleue, a member of the multi-county Democratic Party committee that got behind Balter, was desperate for Perez Williams to get in the race and rallied to her side the moment she did.
While Freyleue identifies as a progressive and voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 presidential primary, she believes Balter’s left-leaning ideology would be toxic in the general election. “Central New York is not quite ready to go that far yet,” she said.
When it comes to policy, Perez Williams has sought to downplay her differences with Balter. While she has publicly identified as a “moderate Democrat” capable of working across the aisle, she has come out in support of Medicare for all ― a hallmark progressive policy.
Instead, Perez Williams’ and Balter’s differences are most apparent in their styles and the issues they choose to emphasize.
Balter is a wonky populist, equally at ease dispensing references to the ecology of the Finger Lakes region and denouncing the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy.
“We have to bring government and politics back to the hands of the people, where it belongs,” Balter said during the forum, explaining why campaign finance reform would be her first priority if elected.
Perez Williams, by contrast, is wont to invoke her biography when explaining why she would make a more compelling standard-bearer in the general election. Her military service would make it easier for her to advocate common-sense gun regulations without alienating rural gun owners, Perez Williams said in an interview.
And during the forum, she said that her experience as a child in Southern California watching Border Patrol agents harass her father, a Mexican-American Vietnam War veteran, gives her a personal understanding of the struggles facing immigrants under Donald Trump.
“These immigration issues that we’re fighting right now hit me so hard,” Perez Williams said.
Perez Williams has struggled, however, to realize the very thing for which she was recruited: her fundraising potential.
As of June 6, she had only raised about $107,000, which she attributes to her late entry in the race. A significant chunk of her total comes from a $30,000 personal loan she gave the campaign; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s campaign fund and PAC gave her a combined $14,000. Just 17 of her individual donors hail from the district.
Meanwhile, the DCCC and VoteVets, which supports Democratic candidates that have served in the military, have jointly spent nearly $269,000 on Perez Williams’ behalf.
Seizing on this information, Balter shot back at Perez Williams’ assertion during the forum that she was not “being handed money.”
“Her campaign is being propped up by D.C. PACs,” Balter said.
For now, it looks like Perez Williams’ name recognition in the district ― she was greeted like an old friend while canvassing in Syracuse’s low-income Southside ― and support from national groups will combine to push her over the finish line.
In a Spectrum News/Siena College poll conducted earlier this month, Perez Williams led Balter by 13 percentage points.
However, should Balter win, it will be at least partly due to the depth of local Democrats’ resentment toward the national party.
Leslie Shaw, a homemaker from Lyons, New York, who attended the candidate forum, said she had warmed to Perez Williams’ story as a mother. But she could not reconcile that with her irritation at the DCCC.
“I just feel so ticked off about the fact that the local people chose Dana Balter, and then a couple weeks after, the DCCC came in,” Shaw said.