In an exclusive interview, he discusses bipartisanship, leaving Congress, his relationship with former president Donald Trump — and what’s next for him
By Ken Sturtz
Its occupant was still representing his district in Congress. And he still slept on a pull-out couch in his office as he had done all along — part of his credo of not getting too comfortable in Washington. But with just a few weeks left in office nearly everything was packed up, save for some personal items.
John Katko and his staff needed to clear out of the Rayburn House Office Building by the end of November. His office would be going to someone new.
It’s a bittersweet moment for Katko, 60, of Camillus, even though he says he’s positive he made the right decision to retire.
“I’m a firm believer in leaving a little too early as opposed to a little too late,” he said. “But it’s still strange to have an empty office and know that the end of your career is coming.”
Since being elected in 2014 to represent the 24th Congressional District — which includes Onondaga, Cayuga and Wayne counties and a part of Oswego County — Katko has navigated a tumultuous partisan political climate to chart a course as a moderate, independent Republican committed to bipartisanship. That’s left him with an enviable list of legislative achievements, but also made him the target of relentless attacks by Democrats and Republicans.
Donald Trump and his supporters denounced Katko for being insufficiently loyal and voting to impeach the ex-president for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Conservatives accused him of betraying Republican values by siding with Democrats on legislation.
And liberals criticized him for being too conservative and too deferential to Trump.
And yet for all the attacks and criticism, Central New Yorkers in his left-leaning district have sent Katko back to Congress three times since his first term, proof, he said, that his way of governing can be successful.
Commitment to bipartisanship
The rewards of bipartisanship were on display in late October when President Joe Biden traveled to Central New York to highlight Micron Technology’s announcement that it will build a $100 billion semiconductor plant in Clay.
Katko flew on Air Force One with Biden for the trip.
During his speech Biden singled him out for going against the majority of the Republican Party and supporting the Chips and Science Act, which Biden signed into law earlier this year. The act uses billions in incentives to encourage chip makers to build manufacturing facilities in the United States.
“John is a Republican and I like him a lot,” Biden said. “I’m quite frankly a little sorry that you’re leaving.”
“The fact that he mentioned bipartisanship and working together is what I was most proud of because that’s really why I went to Congress is to prove bipartisanship can work and I’ve been very successful legislatively there,” Katko said.
From his earliest days campaigning for Congress Katko spoke often about his desire to return manufacturing jobs to Central New York. He’s quick to point out that people used to laugh when he’d talk about it and recall similar promises from other politicians that came to nothing.
He never gave up on manufacturing and said the best part about the Micron investment is the opportunities it will provide for future generations.
“I want my children and my children’s children to have limitless opportunities here so they’ll stay here and raise their families here as opposed to moving elsewhere to seek their fortune,” he said.
Unwavering support for manufacturing is an example of how Katko’s political views haven’t changed much since he first went to Washington.
He said he’s still a moderate, never let Congress steal his soul and is proud he never voted to save his job as many of his colleagues do. He does believe both the political left and right have hardened over the last eight years. But it’s still moderates like him that make government work.
“There’s a lot of people in Congress on both sides of the aisle that vote no, but hope yes,” he said. “They’re hoping that the moderates like me carry the water for them. And that’s just the way it is.”
He said that’s the case whether Republicans or Democrats are in the majority in Congress, though he’s hopeful more moderate legislators will take over seats in the future.
During his four terms Katko has repeatedly been ranked as one of the most bipartisan legislators in Congress.
He was named the third most bipartisan member of Congress this year, ranking behind one Democrat and one Republican, according to the non-partisan Lugar Center. No member of the House of Representatives who served in each of the last four congresses has had a higher bipartisan rating.
That bipartisanship has yielded many legislative achievements, though he said they have sometimes been overshadowed by the intense polarization in modern politics.
In addition to the Chips and Science Act, Katko is especially proud of legislation relating to COVID-19, infrastructure investment, jobs and the economy, and for making Fort Ontario and the Harriet Tubman Home part of the national parks system. He also worked to save jobs at FitzPatrick Nuclear Plant and address flooding along Lake Ontario. He championed efforts to address mental health, suicide and the shortage of pediatric inpatient and outpatient mental health services in Central New York.
While serving on the Homeland Security committee, he worked on border security, addressing cyberattacks, criminal justice reform and gun violence. He helped modernize the TSA through better oversight and issued a foreign fighter task force report to help snuff out ISIS’s impact in the U.S.
Overarching it all is that I was able to accomplish these things because of the bipartisan nature of the way I conducted myself,” Katko said. “That’s hopefully the lasting legacy that I’ll leave.”
A complicated history with Trump
Katko will also be tied for the foreseeable future to Trump, something he doesn’t particularly enjoy talking about.
“The public tends to be focusing on just the Trump issue, but my time was much more than that,” Katko said.
Although he’d never been a fervent Trump supporter, Katko voted against impeaching the president in 2019 and endorsed him in the 2020 presidential election. He later criticized Trump for making baseless claims about voter fraud and refused to join House Republicans who objected to certifying the Electoral College vote for Biden.
Katko was one of just 10 House Republicans who broke with their party and voted to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks. He said he approached the impeachment vote like any vote in Congress.
“I looked at what was the right thing to do — not the politically expedient thing to do — and I did it,” he said. “And I think in the end there’s some grudging admiration even from people who disagree with me wholeheartedly about it that I had the guts to do what I thought was right even though I knew it was going to be very difficult.”
Trump offered to support a primary challenger to Katko as payback and cheered his retirement announcement earlier this year.
“He’s the ex-president for a reason and I think Americans spoke very strongly in that regard that they didn’t like the partisanship,” Katko said, noting that Congress still managed to accomplish a lot on Trump’s watch.
And while it may seem to the public that Trump defined Katko’s time in office, he doesn’t see it that way. If that were the case, he pointed out; he wouldn’t still be in senior leadership positions and generally respected and appreciated within the Republican Party.
He said he was able to successfully “thread that needle.”
Katko’s electoral secret sauce
So, how exactly did Katko manage to thread the needle back home, repeatedly winning in a left-leaning district that voted for Biden in 2020, Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012?
“It’s no accident that this district is loaded with independents as well as moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats, the quintessential swing voters,” he explained. “Swing voters will reward you if you act pragmatically and act in a bipartisan manner and they will punish you when you don’t.”
You also have to recognize that being truly bipartisan and moderate as well as politically successful means that the far left and the far right are going to be mad at you a lot. You have to accept that fact; put your head down and plow on, he said.
Katko admits he took some joy out of the fact that the Democratic Party, determined to flip the district, repeatedly ran well-funded candidates against him in hopes of picking him off and each time he won by a healthy margin. The district flip-flopped between Democrats and Republicans three times before Katko was elected in 2014.
If Kato has a political secret sauce, he said it’s that the electorate in Central New York is a lot smarter and more pragmatic than they get credit for.
“There’s an awful lot of people who just want to see people in Washington get along and do good things working across the aisle,” he said.
Plans for the future
Given his electoral success Katko’s decision not to seek a fifth term might seem puzzling. He said Trump didn’t affect his decision and he’s confident he could have won reelection.
His explanation that he wants to spend more time with his family is buoyed by the fact that over the last few years he and his wife have buried all four of their parents.
Despite the perks and prestige, serving in Congress is also a grind. For starters you have to have exceptionally thick skin and when people say nasty things about you, be ready to let them roll off your back.
Politics isn’t for the faint-hearted, Katko said.
In Washington work days often last 12 to 16 hours. Even back home constituents are always stopping Katko with questions and concerns.
A trip to Wegmans takes twice as long as normal.
“You’re really never off the clock no matter where you go,” Katko said. “And that’s one of the things that’s going to be a wonderful readjustment for me not to have to worry about that.”
Katko hopes to have one more career, though he isn’t sure what that will be. The former federal prosecutor said he’d like to do something that would involve “helping keep the country safe,” which has been the general thrust of his career path since his youth.
As for his immediate plans after leaving office, he’s got that figured out.
“I think I’ll be firmly ensconced in the back room at The Dubliner having a pint with my friends and staff and saying goodbye to everybody,” he said.
A Capitol Hill pub, The Dubliner is owned by Danny Coleman, whose father opened Coleman’s on Tipperary Hill in Syracuse in 1933. The pub is a popular respite for Central New Yorkers working in Washington.
Afterward Katko plans to come home, pack and head to Florida for a while with his wife where they have a second home.
“She’s looking forward to long periods in Florida, nice long rides on our Harley motorcycle, enjoying life and slowing down a bit,” Katko said. “That’s hopefully what we’re going to do.”
Three Things You Probably Didn’t Know About John Katko
Farmer John Katko? He’s considered it.
His wife Robin’s parents were potato farmers for FritoLay. Their property had a spring-fed pond on it. So they jokingly called it Spud Lake. When her parents passed away Katko and his wife kept 110 acres of the family farm for themselves.
The farm is located in Springwater in Livingston County and is a special place for the family for many reasons. It’s where Katko and his wife got engaged 36 years ago.
He and his kids like to go hunting on the forested part of the farm. His father-in-law was interested in forest management, something Katko has continued. Thin the forest out every 10 years allowing the smaller trees room to grow and you’ll eventually end up giant trees. It’s a good way to perpetuate a healthy forest, he said.
Katko leases out some of the farmland to area farmers, but he admits he thought about what an idyllic life he could have living and working on the farm.
“I’m very tempted to get a very big tractor and just do something out there, learn how to farm, but I know better than that,” he said. “I’d screw it up. It’s a lot more complicated than people realize.”
He and his wife adopted two foster children.
Katko and his wife were heavily involved in the foster care system and adopted two children years ago. He said people encouraged them to talk about it for political reasons but he never did.
During his time as a prosecutor Katko said defendants would sometimes bring their kids to court as pawns when they were in trouble. They’d plead with the judge for leniency or considerations, arguing that their child needed them.
“Then they’d walk into the hallway and treat the kids like crap,” Katko said.
He also dealt with many cases over the years where the children were living in dire conditions because of the actions of their irresponsible, criminal parents.
“It deeply affected me and that’s the reason Robin and I decided to get into it,” he said.
All three of their sons are now in their 20s and in various stages of living independently. He said he and his wife aren’t quite empty nesters yet, but expect to be in the near future.
That motorcycle isn’t just a political prop.
Politicians have a long tradition of finding creative ways to pander to voters, from donning cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat to choking down the local cuisine at state fairs.
When Trump was campaigning, the billionaire made a point to pay special attention to bikers, often praising them and remarking that they were his kind of people. Other Republicans have followed Trump’s lead, appearing on motorcycles — whether they ride or not — and using the imagery in campaign ads and signage.
Although Katko has occasionally been seen riding his 2017 HarleyDavidson Road King in public, it’s not a mere political prop. He rides as often as he can and during his time in Congress he used his motorcycle rides as therapy from the stress of the job.
“I’d get home from Washington after a long week and I would just hop on the bike and go ride around Skaneateles Lake and all would be well with the world,” he said.
He said he hasn’t had the opportunity to go on longer trips since he went to Congress. Once he’s out, he and his wife plan to take some longer rides. They’d like to explore the Adirondacks a bit more during summer and visit the Florida Keys by motorcycle.