NY-19 primary: Josh Riley touts policy experience, Southern Tier roots

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Josh Riley is running in the Democratic Primary for the new 19th Congressional District. (Josh Riley for Congress)

Josh Riley is one of two Democrats seeking the nomination to run in New York’s new 19th Congressional District, comprising Broome, Tompkins, Chenango, Cortland, Tioga, Delaware, Columbia and Sullivan counties and parts of Ulster County. His opponent in the primary is Jamie Cheney The winner of the primary will run against Republican Marc Molinaro in the general election.

Both candidates discussed their candidacy and some policy views with WSKG ahead of the Aug. 23 primary election.

Vaughn Golden: This is WSKG News. I’m Vaughn Golden. I’m here with Josh Riley, Democratic candidate for the new 19th Congressional District. Josh is a lawyer who grew up in Broome County, and has worked in several capacities on Capitol Hill, as well as in private practice. Thanks so much for coming on.

Josh Riley: Hey, thanks so much for having me, and for all your listeners, thanks for spending some time with us.

VG: So we’re offering these interviews to the both candidates running for the Democratic nomination in the 19th Congressional District. That’s you, Josh Riley, as well as Jamie Cheney. This is the new 19 Congressional District, which includes Tompkins and Broome counties, and stretches east to Greene and Columbia Counties as well along the Hudson, Hudson Valley area. So the date of the primary is August 23. And we’re also going to note this coincides with the date of the special election to fill out the term in the current 19 Congressional District, but neither of these candidates are running in that race. So for the structure of this interview, we’re going to take some time to discuss you and your candidacy, and then spend the remaining time discussing some policy areas. So to start off, just tell me a little bit about yourself and your history and public service.

JR: Yeah, thank you and thanks so much for doing this. There’s been a lot of, I appreciate it, the sort of the top of your comments there. There’s a lot of confusion across the district with new district lines and vacancies and special elections. So, to all your listeners just to reemphasize Aug. 23, make sure you get out and vote. That’s the date of the special elections, the primaries. I grew up in Endicott, New York, just outside of Binghamton, and I have a pretty typical background for the area. My folks came here about 100 years ago, to find economic opportunities. And they worked in the Endicott Johnson shoe factory for generations. My great grandpa was a tanner there, my grandma worked there, and then for generations, we worked in the IBM manufacturing plants. So my dad was a maintenance worker in the waste treatment plant. And growing up, I saw those were really, really good jobs that could allow you to get a place in the middle class, even if you didn’t have a college degree. The only requirement really was that you had a strong work ethic, and if you had one, you could share in the rewards of your work. So you know, folks had access to health insurance, and you’d have a roof over your head, you could retire with dignity. And as I was growing up, I saw us lose a lot of those jobs. During the last generation, we’ve lost about two thirds of our manufacturing jobs, we’ve seen the opioid epidemic take hold that poverty rates in some of our schools are really high. And so, the lesson for me and seeing that was that the economy and our political system is rigged against working folks, because at the same time that a lot of families were struggling to get by in upstate New York, corporate profits are soaring and Wall Street was doing really well. And so, there’s a huge disconnect in this economy between folks who are doing really, really well and folks who are struggling to get by. And so, I’ve spent a lot of my career fighting back and that’s my biggest objective in congress is to be a voice for working families and not the special interests.

VG: And what’s kind of behind your motivation for running here?

JR: Yeah, well, we’re facing really, really big challenges right now as a region and as a country. We have a planet that is on fire with climate change. We have seen an assault on constitutional freedoms including women’s reproductive health. We’ve seen income inequality out of control, we’re in a situation right now in this country where the top 1% have more wealth than the entire middle class combined. So many working families across this district are really struggling to make ends meet with high costs and everything from groceries to prescription drugs. And so, on the one hand, we have these huge, huge challenges that we’re facing, on the other hand, I have to tell you, I am so optimistic and so hopeful about what we can accomplish together to overcome those challenges. A lot of people I talked to across this district are really cynical about our politics, and rightfully so. It’s been divisive and dysfunctional. I’m running for congress, because I think we can do better than that and there’s a better way to approach our politics, a way to bring people together to solve a lot of these big challenges, create new jobs, and lower costs for families.

VG: So you spent time working on policy, worked on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a few other congressional offices. You also did spend some time in private practice. Can you explain a little bit about what you focused on in private practice? And understand you also represented as an attorney some some larger corporate firms like Apple and Uber during that time? And why should working families trust that you’ll fight for them when you’ve also represented some of these corporations?

JR: Sure, yeah, no, I really appreciate that question. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done in private practice fighting for working families. The very first case I took out of law school, I partnered with the American Academy of Pediatrics doing civil rights work for kids from low income families who are having trouble getting health care services. These were parents who had to choose between a day’s wages or driving hours to get their kids in to see the doctor. During the Trump administration, I filed briefs in the Supreme Court challenging the Muslim ban. That was, I think, an unconstitutional and illegal executive order. I also thought it was anti American and personally very offensive. My wife’s the daughter of immigrants from India and Ecuador and so that was a big fight that we wanted to take on. In private practice, I sued insurance companies that were raising their rates on small businesses, I brought one of the first defamation cases against conspiracy theorists who are peddling disinformation about our elections. So, my career is one of both public service I’ve worked in the U.S. Congress and as a clerk in the courts. My private sector experience I think, has also prepared me to take on these big fights.

VG: And so you grew up in Endicott down in Broome County, but you’ve spent a lot of a lot of your adult life not living up here in upstate New York. And I understand while the state was going through its redistricting process, you switched races to run first in the old 22nd, the current 22nd district to the the Ithaca, Syracuse district that first came out. Now you’re living in Ithaca and but running for the 19th Congressional District, which does include Ithaca. Why should people trust that you’re you’re running to serve and not just looking to get elected?

JR: Yeah, well, I have very, very deep roots in this community and I’m really proud of that. I am running for Congress to serve the community that raised me. My family has been in Broome County for over 100 years. I am living now in Ithaca and raising my family here. I am a part of this community and it’s the community that raised me. Neither of my opponents in this race on either side of the aisle, lives in this district. I’m the only candidate who was born in this district was raised in this district, went to our public high schools and lives in this district. So if that is the debate people want to have I’m very happy to have it. My career has taken me all over the country, doing work that I’m really proud of, from serving as a law clerk on the U.S. Court of Appeals in California, doing civil rights work in the south, the time that I spent in Washington on the Judiciary Committee, fighting to restore voting rights fighting to overturn Citizens United. Everything I’ve done throughout my career has been informed by the values and the work ethic that I learned growing up in a working class neighborhood in Broome County. So you know whether I was working on cases to fight insurance companies that were raising their rates, that was because I know that those are issues that working families across upstate New York and the community that raised me are focused on. With respect to redistricting, it’s a good question and I think I would remind you that the district lines have changed but when I launched this campaign, it was out of Broome County, to represent the community that raised me and when redistricting happened, Antonio Delgado’s district was drawn into Broome County, so, of course, I wasn’t going to run a primary against Antonio Delgado. I’m really excited about this new district and includes Binghamton where the area where I was born and raised, where my family has been, Ithaca where I live, and stretches out to some amazing communities across the Catskills in the upper Hudson Valley, where I’ve spent a huge amount of time over the last couple of months meeting with folks and I’m really, really excited about about this district.

VG: And what in your opinion sets you apart and makes you more qualified for this role than your primary opponent, Jamie Cheney.

JR: Yeah, well, I’m not going to speak negatively about about my opponent, but I’ll tell you what I some of the things that I’m offering. I have a career of both public service and private practice, taking on big fights in big places for working families. I have the experience needed to hit the ground running on day one at a time where we just don’t have time for on the job training given the pressing challenges we’re facing as a country. I’ve filed briefs in the Supreme Court, taken on the Trump administration. I’ve worked in Washington to bring Democrats and Republicans together to get legislation passed. One of the bills that I’m really proud of, that I worked on, provided protections for survivors of domestic violence protected them from homelessness. It was a situation where I was able to get conservative Republicans, progressive Democrats at the table, get a bill done got it passed through a divided Senate, a Republican controlled House and signed into law. That’s the type of experience and that type of work we need more of in congress. Right now, our politics are totally dysfunctional because they reward the people who can scream the loudest and say the most extreme things and get the most clicks on social media and it’s become sort of a celebrity project for a lot of people. True public service, what I’m in this for, is to bring people together, roll up our sleeves, find common ground, and get things done to benefit working families. I have a career of doing that and the experience needed to do that on day one in congress. The other thing I’ll say on this just briefly, is I think the fact that this community raised me and that I am a product of this community matters. People want to be represented by somebody who comes from the community, who went to our public schools, and it gives me a perspective that’s unique in this race, because I know what families in upstate New York have been struggling with, because I come from a family in upstate New York.

VG: Yeah. So we’re at about 11 minutes now. I want to jump into some some policy areas here. One of the ones that is at the front of a lot of people’s minds right now, of course, is abortion, post the Dobbs decision from the Supreme Court that overturned Roe vs. Wade. As a member of congress, do you think there are any legislative initiatives that could make it past a Senate filibuster number, whatever that number may be next term, and what would you like to see congress address that you think, has a feasible chance of making it through?

JR: Yeah, well, first of all, let’s be very, very clear about this. Women’s reproductive health choices, health choices, period are their decisions to make. They’re not decisions for the government. They’re not decisions for politicians. They’re not decisions, certainly for a bunch of Supreme Court justices, these are, we’re talking about women’s health care decisions. And there’s only, the Dobbs decision was really an assault on fundamental notions of liberty and equality and freedom. And so we really need to fight back and address it. So the question is a good one, because let’s be very clear-eyed to the fact that this is a divided congress, and it’s hard to get things done. I’ll support the Women’s Health Protection Act on day one. That’s a bill that would codify Roe v Wade, I’ll note that my Republican opponent refuses to say where he stands on that bill, and refuses to say where he stands on a national federal ban on abortions. I am very, very clear I support codifying Roe v. Wade. But the question is a really good one that if we can’t get that legislation passed in a divided congress, what are some of the other things that we should be focused on and this is where I think my experience having worked in the courts and worked in congress really matters because we have to think creatively of other things we can do in congress to protect women’s reproductive freedom. One of the things I’ve done, as an example, as a lawyer, I advocated in federal court for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. If that litigation is successful, it’ll codify women’s equality in the Constitution. That’s really important and that’s something that could be done, even if the legislative process is totally broken. One other quick example, after the draft of the Dobbs decision came out, I sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice and to the Attorney General, laying out a legal argument for litigation that the justice department could file against states that were banning access to FDA approved abortion medications. I believe that women still have a right to those medications, and that states can’t outlaw those. So those are the types of things that creative things if you know, the buttons to push and the levers to pull that you can do, even in a broken legislative environment.

VG: We’re just gonna jump around here to a lot of different policies.

JR: Well, there’s a lot going on.

VG: Right. So, congress passed a package of reforms related firearms earlier this year. Do you think that package went far enough and would you have supported that if you were in the House at the time?

JR: Yeah, it’s there’s a lot more that I think can be done to keep our communities safe from the gun violence epidemic while also, honoring the rights, the constitutional rights of law abiding gun owners.

VG: What are some of those specifics that you think Congress should address?

JR: Yeah, well, I was counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee after the Sandy Hook massacre and it was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my career, having families come to Washington and plead for lawmakers to enact some common sense reforms, both to keep our communities safe, but also to honor their kids. And we put a package together that had about 90% support in the public, and in any functioning democracy you would expect a proposal like that to pass with, if not 90% support, overwhelming support in congress.

VG: Was that the Toomey legislation?

JR: It was yes, Manchin-Toomey yep, and we ended up not getting the votes to break a filibuster and for me, one of the lessons from that is how broken our democracy is because you have dark money and special interests, flooding the political process, where 90% of people want something, but congress can’t get it done because the special interests have outsized influence. One of the provisions from that bill that I would really like to see done is improvements to the federal background check system. It’s, there’s several elements of this, but one of the things is making sure we’re conducting background checks for all of the things that are needed, but one thing people don’t necessarily realize is that the National Instant Criminal Check System, NICS, it’s run by the FBI. It doesn’t have the resources it needs to make those checks accurate all the time and so there’s there’s a lot of updating that needs to be done on that and there’s other areas as well, that but but that’s one

VG: Would you support a ban on assault weapons?

JR: I’ve reviewed HR-1808 and I would vote for that,  yes.

VG: So the shooter who killed 10 people in Buffalo was from Conklin in Broome County, and he penned a long document of his very flatly racist beliefs. How do we combat that kind of hate and racism in our communities, and what role does the federal government play in that do you think?

JR: Yeah, it’s a good question and I think part of it goes to the rise of social media and disinformation and hate speech being spread on social media. We haven’t updated our fundamental internet regulations since the 1990’s and you remember, you didn’t have a smart phone in the 1990’s and you barely had dial up if you had anything at all. So the world has progressed and moved forward by light years at the same time, where our, the laws governing the responsibilities of social media companies haven’t kept up. So I think that’s a conversation that definitely needs to happen in congress to make sure that kind of hate speech. And we also saw this with respect to disinformation around COVID, we’ve seen it with respect to disinformation, about our elections, and so I think those rules and regulations need to be updated. The shooting in Buffalo and the spate of gun violence we’ve seen across this country in recent months is just absolutely heartbreaking and it’s especially difficult given the, as you mentioned, that the shooter in Buffalo came from this area. So that’s it’s really heartbreaking and I know from my time working in the Senate after Sandy Hook, I just can’t imagine the grief that those families are experiencing right now.

VG: Included in the reconciliation package is a phased in approach to Medicare negotiating the price of some prescription drugs. This is going to be phased in over a few years from from what I understand, do you think that goes far enough, and what else can be done to address the rising cost of prescription drugs?

JR: So two things I don’t think it goes far enough, but I would support it because I don’t think compromise is a bad word in our politics. Too many, one of the reasons our politics are breaking down is because we see our political opponents as the enemy when they’re not. If we start giving each other the benefit of the doubt, and treating each other with some decency and respect, and have a willingness to compromise, we can get a lot of things done and this is an example of it. Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices is one of the single most effective things we can do to provide relief to working families who are struggling to get by. The only reason this hasn’t gotten done in recent years is because the pharmaceutical industry spent about $14 million on corporate PAC money for candidates in 2020, and then spent about $300 million lobbying them in 2021. So you’ve got a whole bunch of lawmakers who are in the pocket of special interests, instead of looking out for what’s best for seniors on a fixed income. I’m the only candidate in this race who has never taken a penny of corporate PAC money and I never will, because I’m going to Washington to fight for the community that raised me and not for the special interests who were trying to profit off of them.

VG: And as a member of the House, what do you you believe the role for lawmakers is to fight inflation? It’s obviously, it’s a largely an issue of monetary policy, of course, but does fiscal decisions do have an impact? So what is the role of a lawmaker in the House and in terms of fighting inflation?

JR: Yeah, it’s a really important role. I actually just, if your listeners are interested, I published an op-ed, I think the headline of it is “you’re getting ripped off, and here’s that here’s my plan to stop it” where I lay out a lot of details on this. So I think about this in two ways. Number one, we need to provide immediate relief to working families who are struggling to get by. That includes what we just talked about lowering the cost of prescription drugs. I want to reinstate the child tax credit. That’s 300 bucks a month into the pockets of families who are struggling to get by.

VG: And that would be permanent?

JR: I would make it permanent. Of course, if there was some time where a vote was had on whether to repeal it, you could have that vote, but I would I would, I would make that permanent. The question is, how do you pay for it? Well you pay for it by having hedge fund managers and investment bankers and Wall Street tycoons paying their fair share of taxes. We should close the carried interest loophole. There’s zero reason that hedge fund managers on Wall Street are paying lower tax rates than public school teachers like my sister or law enforcement like my mom, school bus drivers like my great grandpa was after he left EJ’s [Endicott Johnson’s]. So we got to start investing in working families instead of special interests and that’s going to provide some immediate relief to families. But I think there’s something bigger that’s going on here, too. One piece of it is the price gouging we’re seeing in this country. We just had in the last quarter, the top four or five oil companies posted $40 to $60 billion in profits at a time when working families are canceling summer vacations. So the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission really need to crack down on that. And then finally, what we’re seeing with inflation right now is a consequence of really, really, really bad trade policies over the last generation where both Democrats and Republicans are to blame for shipping a whole bunch of jobs overseas, and ceding our supply chains, to China and to far flung places around the world. It’s no wonder prices are skyrocketing when we can’t get semiconductors in this country, something we used to make half of the world’s supply and now we hardly make any. So we’ve got to start making stuff in upstate New York again, so that we’re not in this situation, again, down the road.

VG: There’s been a lot of discussion in Congress about limiting stock trading amongst members of Congress. Do you feel as though Congress needs to additional rules about this and what specifics in those rules do you think would be productive if so?

JR: Yeah, absolutely. Public service is about serving the public. It is not about serving yourself and profiting yourself. And we’ve seen stories where, you know, there are questions raised about stock trades happening around the same time as for example, briefings about COVID, right. So people need to be able to trust that their lawmakers and their public servants are in it for them and not in it for themselves, that their lawmakers are in it for the constituents and not in it selfishly for themselves. So yes, I support a number of reforms on this, I support the STOCK Act, which is already on the books but isn’t necessarily being enforced as strenuously as it should be. So there should be more resources for STOCK Act enforcement. I support additional rules that would prohibit trading of stocks by lawmakers. I support to the extent it can be done constitutionally, a ban on corporate PACs, and to the extent it can’t be done, constitutionally, let’s amend the constitution and overturn Citizens United, one of the worst decisions in the history of this country. Get the dark money, get the corporate PAC money, get the special interest money out of our politics and return power to the people.

VG: What do you think is the federal government’s role in addressing climate change and where do you think federal investments are best spent, and how should they be allocated? Kind of the nuts and bolts here, when it comes to addressing climate change.

JR: I so I love this question. The answer is how should federal investments be spent, they should be spent here in upstate New York in this congressional district. Look, I am so so proud to have grown up in upstate New York, to have deep roots here and one of the things I’m really proud of is that throughout our history, whenever the world’s faced really big challenges, upstate New Yorkers have always risen to the occasion by making the things the world needs to overcome those. When we went into World War II to trample fascism, we made the boots that the soldiers wore here in upstate New York. We have a long history, Smith-Corona made things that kept the world safe. We have a long history of that throughout this region. Right now, the world is facing an existential threat from climate change. If we don’t get our act together, and address it in a bold and meaningful way, my son is not going to have a planet to grow up on. It is that serious of an issue. I see that huge challenge as, one, terrifying. I also see it as an incredibly exciting opportunity for us in upstate New York, to create the jobs of the future, to innovate, and to do that here. There are so many exciting technologies around clean energy, and technologies to fight climate change that we are perfectly well-equipped to do here in upstate New York. If we had more time I could give you a bunch of examples and maybe we can have another show just on this. We need to invest taking these technologies out of the labs and putting them onto the flat factory floors. We need to invest in the apprenticeship programs for our unions and our community colleges to equip workers to do that work, and I have a crystal clear vision in my head of what this region looks like and five, eight, 10 years down the road, where we have thousands and thousands of really, really good jobs on the forefront of innovation and industry, saving the planet from climate change. I really believe we can do it.

VG: One of those initiatives down in Binghamton right now, Senator Schumer and a number of local lawmakers are really pushing to try to make the tri-cities a lithium ion battery manufacturing hub. What would some of that investment look like in your opinion, and what is needed most to make that happen down in Binghamton.

JR: So Shailesh Upreti, who’s running a lot of that operation, I gotta tell you, he is working around the clock, there is nobody who’s as committed to bringing those jobs and bringing those technologies to fruition than him. I met with him very early in the campaign. I’ve been talking with him for years about what he’s doing there and I am so excited for what IM3 is about to do on the Huron Campus. So there’s a handful of things that need to be done from the federal level things I’m already starting to work on and will hit the ground running on number one. In the recently enacted bipartisan infrastructure law, there’s a fund called the battery material processing program that was designed exactly for these types of initiatives, we have to get that money, and bring it home and put it to use and leverage those federal investments here at home. Number two, the Workforce Opportunity and Innovation Act is up for reauthorization in the next ongress, that’s something that I’m gonna want to work on because there’s a really unique once in a generation opportunity there to provide job training programs, so that our workforce has the skills that are specifically needed for those factories. There’s a host of other things we should be doing, we need to revisit our trade policies, revisit some of our international policies with respect to global competition here to make sure American workers are competing in this technology, like all others on a level playing field, and not being undersold by competition from China and other places. So there’s a lot of work to do, but I gotta tell you, we should be really, really, really excited about the promise of it.

VG: And locally and around the Finger Lakes, there’s been a lot of push to address the environmental impacts of proof of work cryptocurrency mining. This is a state measure to implement a two-year moratorium that’s sponsored by local Assemblywoman Anna Kelles. Would you support measures on the federal level? I understand there are some initiatives currently to address cryptocurrency through legislation, do you think environmental parameters should be considered and included in a federal federal legislative initiative to address cryptocurrency?

JR: Yeah, I think environmental concerns absolutely must be considered with respect to any regulations governing any new industry, including this one. I’m really proud to have earned Assemblymember Kelles’ endorsement in this race. I know she’s working incredibly hard to protect the environment. She’s one of the leading environmental advocates in all of upstate New York, not just in this community. And I think the goal here should be to foster innovation, while protecting our most valuable resource, which is our environment.

VG: Do you think the governor should enact and sign the legislation for that moratorium here in New York?

JR: Yeah, I think she should. I, I know that there’s some discussions are underway about some issues on the margins, but I think that there should be really meaningful environmental protections with respect to any industry activities, particularly new industries that, where it’s not entirely clear what the impacts could potentially be.

VG: And this is going to be our last one here, would you support federal legalization of recreational cannabis? And if so, what, what specifically do you think you need to do to convince a number of your colleagues in in congress to get on board with that?

JR: Yeah, well, what we’ve seen over a generation or so is that the enforcement of our drug laws has had a hugely disproportionate impact on communities of color and that is a huge problem. We have a lot of folks who are convicted for nonviolent possession offenses and end up serving time and having their lives derailed about it. So one of the things I would want to look at is the experience from states that have legalized marijuana. I would want to look at what that meant in those communities both with respect to racial and social justice. It’s also really important to talk with our law enforcement community about this. My mom was in law enforcement and so I, it would be really important to have those conversations. So it’s something I think we should definitely be looking at and I would, I would need to be informed with all of that data. One thing that I do support is the Clean Slate Act, which would, for folks who have served their time, for a crime, particularly certain crimes that are eligible, at least, once they’ve served their time and pay their dues to society. It would allow them to get their record sealed so that they could get back on their feet, find a job, find housing. The data show that that reduces recidivism. It’s good for people who are trying to get back into productive life. It helps taxpayers who don’t have to pay for the issues with the criminal justice system. So there’s a lot of things we need to do around criminal justice system, both to keep our community safe and also make sure we’re addressing a lot of the inequalities we’ve seen over the years.

VG: All right, well, we’re about at time here. I’ve been speaking with Josh Riley, Democratic candidate for the new 19th Congressional District. Thanks for coming on.

JR: Thanks so much for having me. I’m looking forward to to doing it again.