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Analysis: Katko’s retirement to leave big hole in Central NY politics

John Katko, wearing a gray suit, white shirt and red-striped tie, stands at a brown podium with a "John Katko U.S. Congress" sign on it.
Ellen Abbott

The decision by Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus) to not run for reelection this year leaves a huge hole in central New York’s political landscape. The four-term Republican’s announcement last week that he is retiring ultimately helps Democrats, according to Syracuse University political science professor Grant Reeher.

"He was going to be almost impossible to beat,” said Reeher. “Now of course with an open seat, it changes the game entirely."

How that all plays out has a lot to do with how state lawmakers redraw congressional maps in New York. A declining population means New York will lose one congressional seat this year. Reeher said it will be easier to carve up what will be the former 24th District without an incumbent lobbying for it. But that decision is still weeks away.

“The potential a-list of candidates who are going to come forward if this district stays somewhat intact are waiting to see what that process yields,” he said. “Because they want to know what district they’re running in and how that fits their political stripes and prospects."

An independent commission has been unable to agree on a single set of new district maps. Republicans and Democrats on the commission each submitted maps to the state legislature, which rejected all of them. The commission has one more chance to submit new maps to lawmakers. If those are also rejected, the legislature, dominated by Democrats, will draw the district lines themselves.

Katko had entrenched himself as a moderate, ready to work across party lines. And some of his votes, including voting for the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump, prompted the state Conservative Party to break ranks with Katko. Already, conservatives including Trump are applauding the news. Trump released a statement Friday saying “Great News, another one bites the dust. Katko, from upstate New York, is gone!"

But Reeher isn’t so quick to think that Katko couldn’t take the heat from the right wing of the party.

"I think it would be a mistake to think that he was drummed out of Congress by Donald Trump and his followers. Because he’s already faced that,” Reeher said. “He had the courage to vote to impeach him the second time, and this isn’t something that would drum him out or he would shy away from."

But Reeher admitted that in these divided times, it’s hard to be a moderate politician.

“Being a moderate in both parties is difficult right now, just ask Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W Va),” he said. For a lack of a better word, the hassle of that over the years has to be wearing.”

Overall, Reeher said Katko successfully represented the more moderate leanings of this part of the state, and was able to get things done.

“Politically, by far and away the most important legacy is moderates can succeed and stand up to the extremes in their party,” said Reeher. “Did he always do this in all ways that people would like to see? No. But he did it in some important ways, and that’s undeniable."

Katko was facing at least three potential primary challengers this year. Three Democrats have also declared their intention to run for the seat. But with Katko’s departure, more candidates from each party are expected to join the race this year.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.