Blue Wave: Meet Dana Balter, the insurgent progressive taking on the Republicans in upstate New York

The Medicare-for-all candidate has built a powerful grassroots campaign in one of the Democratic party’s highest priority seats.

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This is the sixth in the series of New Statesman America profiles of the “Blue Wave” of new, young, progressive candidates in this year’s midterm elections. You can find the others here.

After Donald Trump’s election, Dana Balter, a public policy professor at New York’s Syracuse University, began volunteering with the CNY Solidarity Coalition, a collection of grassroots groups in Central New York that opposes the president’s agenda. She said she pressed her congressman, John Katko, to host a town hall meeting to discuss their concerns over how the Trump administration’s policies and rhetoric could affect the district, but he declined.

“I knew it was going to be an uphill battle, but when it became clear that he wouldn’t even engage in the most basic democratic process, like a town hall meeting, that’s when I realised he had to be replaced,” she tells me, when we speak on the phone. Balter stayed up late one night trying to compose a list of potential candidates who could run against Katko, and that’s when it occurred to her – why couldn’t she run herself?

Balter is a former special education teacher who says that growing up with a brother who has a cognitive disability has shaped her political outlook. She helped to teach her brother things like how to tell the time or tie his shoelaces, she defended him from bullies and she watched her parents advocate tirelessly for his needs.

“The takeaway for me was that it’s important to stand up for the underdog, and it’s incumbent on each of us to make sure that every single person in our society has dignity and access,” she says.

Like many of the candidates New Statesman America is profiling ahead of the midterms, she is running on a progressive agenda: she is in favour of Medicare-for-all and a $15 minimum wage indexed to inflation, and she wants to change campaign finance laws to reduce the influence of big corporations on government.

And, like a number of progressives running for the first time this year – including New York City’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nebraska’s Kara Eastman – she won her local primary without the support of the Democratic party leadership.

While Balter had the backing of local Democrats, the Democratic Congressional Campaign initially supported the candidacy of Juanita Perez Williams, a lawyer, naval veteran and late entrant to the New York 24th district race. Perez Williams was placed on the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” list, which gives financial support to promising Democrats running in target Republican seats.

Balter comfortably defeated Perez Williams in the primary, securing over 60 per cent of the vote. Notably, turnout for the primary was twice as high as during 2016, even though turnout is usually higher during presidential elections, suggesting a higher level of Democratic engagement in politics. It’s a pattern that was witnessed across the country, and especially in Democratic races, something that ought to trouble Republicans.

Balter says her victory should offer an example to the Democratic party of the importance of listening to its grassroots. “It’s a reinforcement of a lesson we should have learned from the 2016 election and that is that politics should be a bottom-up process instead of a bottom-down process,” she says. “I’ve premised my campaign on the idea that it’s time to return politics and government to the people – where they belong. And I think our victory in the primary was an exclamation point on that idea,” she says.

Following her victory, Balter was herself added to the DCCC’s Red to Blue list and praised by the congressional campaign committee for her “impressive grassroots campaign”. She is one of four women Democrats running against Republican incumbents in New York, and has been one of the state’s most formidable fundraisers, raising $1.5 million in the past three months alone – even though she refuses to accept funding from corporate PACs.

Katko has represented New York’s 24th congressional district since 2015. It is one of 25 Republican-held U.S. House districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and was recognised early by the DCCC as one of the most competitive districts to target this election. The Cook Political Report nevertheless classifies it as leaning Republican, and recent polls have placed Katko ahead of Balter.

Katko has fought a nasty campaign. He has broadcast a video and created a website denouncing Balter as “extreme”, both of which have a distinctly sexist tone.

“There is no question that there is sexism on the campaign trail. I experience it every day. I get advice from people about how to dress and how to cut my hair and how to do my makeup. I get called really nasty names on social media that are absolutely gendered and sexist. And those ads are absolutely sexist. The whole point of what is he doing in those ads is he’s trying to minimise me, to discount my experience and minimise my accomplishments. And that’s something we see done to women candidates all the time,” Balter says.

She says she feels heartened, however, by how alert voters are to sexism on the campaign trail. “A lot of people in the public who are consuming these ads catch the sexism. I hear about it from a lot of people. I think ten or 20 years ago, maybe even three years ago, people wouldn’t necessarily recognise that that’s what it is,” she says. (Interestingly Lauren Underwood, who is running for Congress in Illinois, made this same point to New Statesman America, suggesting that politicians, and especially those on the right, are lagging behind the public mood in the Me Too era.)

An unprecedented number of women are running for Congress this year, most of them Democrats and many of them first-time candidates running in reaction to Trump. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, 237 women are running for Congress this year – only 52 of whom are Republicans.

“One of the things that makes it so wonderful to be running for office right now is… it’s not about individual races. This really is a movement for change that we feel every day on the ground here in our district… and that’s an extraordinary thing to be a part of,” Balter says. “To have so much of that powered by women is incredible.”

Although she is running on a progressive platform, Balter says that unlike, say, Ocasio-Cortez, she is not a Democratic Socialist. She says she tries to avoid political labels which she thinks are unhelpful. Instead she prefers to characterise her approach to politics as part of a broader reaction to the Trump administration and a bottom-up call for representative, responsive and inclusive government.

She likes to emphasise central New York’s history of social activism – including its involvement in the abolition movement and the campaign for women’s suffrage – and she says feels excited by the extent New Yorkers have become more active in local politics and in the resistance to Trump’s attacks on the press, the judiciary and American democratic values.

The damage inflicted by the Trump administration might be long-lasting, but “that’s why it matters so much that our country’s response to this hasn't been to sit back and let it happen. Instead it has activated people. The hundreds of women across the country who are standing up to run for office and the many, many men who are also, but also all of the people who are stepping up in communities all over the place, to march in the streets and write letters and make phone calls and get their neighbours out to vote.”

“It’s unfortunate that feeling threatened is what it takes to motivate that, but I think now people have an appreciation for the fragility of democracy and the need to be an active participant in order to keep it strong and healthy. I think the way back from [the Trump era] is making sure that none of us forgets that, that once we feel safe and we feel like the crisis is passed, that it’s still incumbent on us to wake up every day in this country and be part of the process,” she says.

“That’s how we make sure that we are able to repair the damage that was done and how we make sure we are continually striving to be a more perfect union.”

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.