May 23, 2008 Walt Shepperd Uncategorized
Dan Maffei has been running continually, if not officially right away, since the day after he lost a challenge two years ago for the seat in the House of Representatives held by Jim Walsh for two decades. A year prior to that he had come back to his hometown, after several years working as a staffer inside the Beltway for Senators and Congresspeople, to manage Matt Driscoll’s reelection bid for the city’s top spot. Even then, however, the word was out that he had come home to run against Walsh, and that he would be able to garner significant DC support for his effort. He helped strategize a squeaker victory for Matt, then made what many saw as a significant run against Walsh, losing by about 3,400 votes.
Having worked for Bill Bradley, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charlie Rangel, Maffei says he knows which buttons to push, where they are, and what it takes to get them pushed. He cites Moynihan, who started as a staffer for Averill Harriman, as a role model, adding that his time spent as a television journalist at Channel 9 gives him further advantage in knowing how to get the job done once elected. He traces his local years through Ed Smith, Levy and Nottingham, then on to Brown University, then reflects with a grin on his tenure as a reporter. “Looking at me now,” he quips, “all my former colleagues in the local media must be wondering, ‘Where did he go wrong?'”
Your campaign chest was compared recently with Dale Sweetland’s as $855,000 to $0. Is that a tremendous advantage to start out with?
No. It’s a head start. But is not the only factor in a campaign. I think the biggest difference is that I’ve been out there for three years, and I know the district very well from end to end. Obviously I know Syracuse and DeWitt, Camillus and Salina, the towns closest to where I grew up. But I know the whole district. And that makes a big difference. But also I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about these issues. And knocking on doors. And going to meetings. All that means we can really hit the ground running for this Congressional race.
After three years of knocking on doors, what do you find people are talking about?
The thing that concerns people the most is whether Central New York is going to be a place their grandchildren are going to settle. The children are here sometimes, sometimes not, and sometimes they can be attracted back. I love it here. I’ve been able to make a living here. But I’m not sure if my children or my grandchildren either will be able to do the same thing, or will want to. It doesn’t really fall into any of the convenient boxes: is it the economy, education, health care, but that’s the number one thing. When I talk about wanting to put the region back on the map, that’s really the thing that gets the nodding going on, even if it’s someone I’ve never talked to before.
This once was where history was happening, for hundreds of years, from the Haudenoshonee to the Erie Canal through the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, certainly the Women’s Movement, the Peace Movement, the Republican Party. And now it’s not. And do we get that again. Is it lost forever? That’s a question. I believe it’s not, of course.
After three years of sorting through the issues, do you have a message you can put into one sentence?
Our message is, we want to make Central New York proud of itself and prosperous so that young families know that their future is here.
A whole lot of people have been talking on that theme, almost like the weather, everybody talking about getting jobs here, but nobody doing anything about it. What can really be done, particularly from Congress?
The general question is, yes a lot of people have been talking about it. And by the way, a lot of them are doing something about it. It’s not true that nothing is going on. In fact a lot is going on. We have the dots. We just have failed to really connect them. It’s the concept of critical mass. We have new companies doing something. We have the University doing something. We have non-profits doing something. We’ve got arts going on. How do we then get other things to connect up so that we, Central New Yorkers, believe in ourselves again, and people on the outside see that and are attracted here. So I think it’s good a of people are talking about it. To get it done, we just need to build more connections. We have to think regionally, as an energy capital. We have to do some of the branding stuff we’ve seen with the creative core, but do it more, advertising ourselves in other places.
As a Congressman there are two things I can do. One is legislation. There are certain pieces of legislation that would help us a great deal. We have to continue some of the things that Walsh has done, like the Syracuse Neighborhood Initiative. To the extent that’s possible, we are going to be fighting for every dollar. But we also need to revitalize empowerment zones. It’s a federal fix that needs to be done. The other thing I can do is be a cheerleader for the region. In the Congress today, showing up to the hearings and voting is only part of it. A lot of it is the people you talk to all around the country, and all around the world.
An obstacle to attracting people would seem to be a school system with a 50 percent dropout rate. Can you impact that from Congress?
I’m a graduate of city public schools. At Nottingham they had challenges then as well. So this is not a new thing, nor a unique thing. Every city in Upstate New York, every city in the Northeast, faces similar challenges. So we’ve not got to fee like we’re worse off. But there are things that have to be done right away. We have to look at how “No Child Left Behind” (Bush’s plan) has not worked, and fix it. Primarily it has been the opposite of the right answer. It’ been control from above. The feds have been saying you have to have so many people passing a certain test, and yet the money comes from the local level.
Why not have more local control. I believe the city knows what it needs. I believe the Town of Webster knows what it needs. I believe the Savannah Central School System knows what it needs. Clearly you have to have standards and ways of measuring those standards. I believe this is an economic issue. For our future in the 21 Century it is absolutely essential that we educate our population better than we do now. Yet seven out of every ten pennies for public education come from the federal government. We can do better than that.
Financing of public schools comes from the property tax, and half of the city’s property is off the tax rolls. Is the property tax obsolete?
I don’t think it’s obsolete as one potential source, but you have to have several sources. If you’re going to call education a national priority, as everybody does, only financed by local property taxes, and by the way we’re going to raise those taxes to a level where people will start moving out to avoid them, then that’s a big problem. We are one of the top ten counties in the country in terms of property taxes, and the three other counties in the 25th District are also in that top ten.
Since you ran last the Democrats got a majority in the House, but seem to have raided some frustration from not having met the expectation that they would do something about the war. Is that frustration well founded?
I think the frustration is fair. I’ve been very frustrated myself because I wanted to see the Democrats stand for getting our troops out of Iraq, put together a reasonable and prudent plan to do so, and then pursue it. If the Senate won’t pass it, then the Senate won’t pass it. If the president vetoes it, the president vetoes it. But at least they would stand for something. We’re now finally seeing that, with the latest legislation announced last week. It supports the troops on the ground, but sets clear markers that we need to start getting out and how we would do that, leaving the details to the generals.
Does it set a date?
It doesn’t set a firm date, but it sets an expectation. It sets a starting date. Let’s start getting them out now. You can’t get them all out until you start getting them all out. It also requires that the Iraqis pay part of the bill. It’s decent legislation, and not a partisan issue in my view.
Does this mean the war is not the same issue for this election that it was for the last election?
I never thought the war was the biggest issue. The war is always going to be a crucial issue, because the Congress is the one institution that really decides if we’re at war or not according to the Constitution. The economy has always been a big issue too. But each voter goes into the booth and votes on a bunch of issues. I don’t know if it’s necessarily changed. It has changed in the eyes of the national media, which covers it a lot less. People don’t prioritize issues the way pollsters do.
Voter registration in the District has a Republican edge, but in your travels, do you get the feeling that it’s a Republican district?
You asked me a question two years ago, and I’m not trying to avoid this question, but I think the answer is the same. You said, “You’re running against Jim Walsh. Obviously you think you have a chance. Do you think the district has shifted toward the Democrats? And I really don’t. I think the district has always been a moderate district, and continues to be a moderate district. But the national Republican Party has gone way to the right. Whether you’re a registered Republican, Democrat, or non-enrolled, it’s very difficult to see where Central New York values fit in now with the right-wing national Republican Party. There’s plenty of local Republicans that agree with me, Republican office holders that agree with me.
So, what’s going to win the 25th District this year?
The energy I show. The kind of ideas I have, combined with that energy to move them forward. And the ability to get that message out to every corner of the District, the one thing we just could not do last time, when we were at the big financial disadvantage. Don’t forget, Jim Walsh outspent $1.75 million to $900,000. It’s helpful to have a bigger capacity to do that because of financial resources. But we also now have so many more supporters on the ground.