(Syracuse, NY) Juanita Perez Williams is vying for the Democratic nomination in the 24th Congressional District race. She is aiming to unseat U.S. Rep. John Katko, a Republican seeking a third term in Congress.
By: Robert Harding
Juanita Perez Williams wants to be the Democratic nominee in the 24th Congressional District race. She wants to defeat Republican U.S. Rep. John Katko in November.
However, she has a hurdle to clear in a short period of time. She must collect at least 1,250 valid signatures to qualify for the June 26 primary ballot. She has until Thursday to do it.
Perez Williams' decision to run for Congress race caused a stir among local Democrats. Dana Balter, a professor at Syracuse University and a leading activist, won the Democratic designation in February. Until this week, it appeared Balter would be a lock to face Katko, R-Camillus, in the general election.
Enter Perez Williams, the 2017 Democratic nominee for Syracuse mayor, a mother of four adult children, an ex-Naval officer and former regional representative for the state Department of Labor.
"This is such an important vote for people in central New York and I just couldn't sit on the sidelines anymore," Perez Williams said in an interview with The Citizen Thursday evening. "Watching this race unfold, I felt like if I want to change this region, I want to change this country, then I had to have the courage to get into this race."
Perez Williams offered a blunt assessment of Katko's performance as central New York's congressional representative. She considers him a "nice guy," but doesn't believe he has stood up to President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders.
Central New York, she continued, needs someone who will fight the "unreasonable policies" coming out of Washington. She also accused Katko of being unwilling to meet or communicate with those he represents.
"He tries to act like he's there for us, but he doesn't do any town halls. He doesn't respond to his constituents," Perez Williams said. "I've been involved with a number of groups that just try and get in his office. He doesn't want to talk to anyone and the reason is he can't. He can't be a voice for us if he wants to keep his job."
Katko's voting record also bothers Perez Williams. She singled out his vote in favor of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a law signed in December that temporarily reduces income taxes for most Americans and permanently slashes the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent.
When Katko explained his vote, he said the tax measure would help a vast majority of his constituents. But critics claimed it would largely benefit wealthy individuals and corporations.
"For him to come out and say that this benefits his constituents is just so untrue," Perez Williams said. "We look at how it's going to impact the individual taxpayer as opposed to corporations. We look at how it's disingenuous with regard to health care. John is attempting to really tell his voters one thing but on the other hand, he's doing another."
But before Perez Williams can take on Katko, a primary awaits. If she can qualify for the June 26 ballot, she will face Balter.
Balter has been in the race for seven months — she formally declared her candidacy in September — and won the support of Democratic committees in Cayuga, Onondaga, Oswego and Wayne counties. She has been endorsed by grassroots groups in central New York, including local Indivisible chapters. The national Indivisible organization, which was created to oppose the Trump agenda, endorsed Balter this week.
Balter's campaign released a statement after it was revealed that Perez Williams would run for Congress. The comments highlighted the support for Balter and her focus on defeating Katko in the general election.
Perez Williams praised Balter and called her a "great candidate." But, she added, her decision to enter the race is "about winning."
"This is about being able to get out there and mount a serious campaign that beats John Katko," she said. "In order to do that, we need national attention. We need a focus on us that brings in not only funding but endorsements and the ability to flip this seat.
"I waited on the sidelines. I was part of that designation process. I supported Dana and was there for her. But at the end of the day, it's about winning. I jumped into this because we need to win. It's not just about sticking to our principles with a designated candidate that is not getting any traction."
Local Democratic leaders were surprised by Perez Williams' decision to enter the race. Earlier this week, she contacted Mark English, chairman of the Onondaga County Democratic Committee, to notify him that she would be a candidate for Congress.
There was a new development Wednesday. English and the three other Democratic chairs in the district issued a joint statement criticizing the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for "meddling" in the 24th district race.
The statement didn't mention Perez Williams by name, nor did it detail the DCCC's activities in the district. A source with knowledge of the situation told The Citizen that the DCCC was supporting Perez Williams' effort to gather petitions.
Perez Williams asserted it was her decision to run for Congress.
"I know there are people out there talking about who's involved, who's supporting me, who's behind this and that gets to the point," she said. "When you're an experienced candidate and people know you can raise money and people know you can get national attention, they're going to come after you. That's what we need! We need that type of support."
With the deadline approaching, Perez Williams is confident she will collect the signatures needed to qualify for the primary ballot. She said hundreds of people who supported her mayoral campaign last year are circulating petitions.
She is familiar with playing the role of the outsider in a Democratic primary fight. In the Syracuse mayoral race last year, she did not win the party's designation. She ran in the primary and won.
As the Democratic nominee, she received support from prominent officials and organizations. Former Vice President Joe Biden and EMILY's List, a group that works to elect Democratic women, endorsed her campaign.
Perez Williams lost the general election to independent candidate Ben Walsh. But she believes that experience will help her as she prepares for a grueling congressional campaign.
"We learned that when you fall and when you lose you get right back up because it's not about you. It's not about your agenda. It's not about worrying about the naysayers," she said. "It's about getting up, knowing people are relying on you. They have an expectation and really that's what led me to get in this congressional race."