Republican Ameer Benno is running for the 4th congressional district of New York, which covers parts of Long Island including the Five Towns. He is seeking to unseat incumbent Democrat Kathleen Rice.
Please introduce yourself to our readers, tell us your background, and why you’re running for Congress?
I’m Ameer Benno. I’ve never run for political office before. I’m a political outsider, I suppose you’d say. I’m a former prosecutor who then became a civil rights attorney, constitutional law attorney. And I’m running for office because, like they say, no taxation with representation.
I feel that we are very underrepresented in my district. Our congressperson is absent, she is not a visible presence in the district at all.
My platform has three parts. The first is to make the district more affordable. And that includes everything from taxes to health care to student-loan debt to mass transit. We need infrastructure modernization, and our congressperson has not achieved any of that.
The second is that I want to make the district safer. Public safety is a big issue. In our schools we have to deal with the violent gang issue out here. We have MS-13, among others. We have an opioid epidemic that’s decimating our community, and we need to be able to take steps at the federal level, in conjunction with our state and local officials, to aggressively combat that. Again, she hasn’t done any of it.
And the third reason I’m in the race is because I want to restore respect for our Constitution and our American culture, based on constitutional government. That has been ignored, and the rule of law has been cast aside, and it’s high time that we bring it back. Those are the three platforms.
In what way has the rule of law been cast aside?
Well, I can tell you that we talk about, for instance, border security, completely ignoring our immigration laws, which has let in these opioids—specifically fentanyl—across our southern border, which has been trafficked in our district. Over 600 opioid-related overdoses and deaths within the last year, which is a staggeringly high number.
Over 600 opioid-related deaths in your district last year?
Yes. And part of the problem with this is the current Representative, who supports what is known as sanctuary cities, which will not permit local law enforcement to share information with federal authorities, and that undercuts the rule of law and safety in our communities. She has opposed deporting aliens who are members of MS-13 or any other violent gang. She has come out against it. She has come out against enhanced sentencing for people who have been deported and who return back here illegally and commit a crime.
I believe that we need to have a strong and robust adherence to both our constitutional rights and the separation of powers. We’ve seen Congress allow judges to legislate from the bench. We’ve seen Congress give its legislative powers over to the executive. This happened through Obama’s tenure more times than I care to say.
Getting back to public safety, it’s not just at the local level; it’s nationally. And one of the things we absolutely need is to have a very strong alliance with Israel.
You asked me about myself. My family is from Israel. My father was born in Israel before it was Israel, grew up there, and fought in ’67 in the Six-Day War. Hec ame to the United States in the early ’70s with no money, didn’t speak the language, he came here for school. He put himself through school by working hard, and those are the values that they instilled in me: hard work, self-reliance, putting your priorities on education, giving back to the community.
After I graduated high school I went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and after that I worked for a year for Hillel. I was doing Israel advocacy and working to engage Jewish students in Philadelphia at many college campuses, and to connect them to their Jewish heritage and their faith.
After that I went to Cornell Law School. After graduating, I began work at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor, and I handed every kind of case there—street violence, violent crime, white-collar crime, identity theft, and cybercrime.
I want to go back to the immigration issue. You are tying the immigration issue to the issue of drugs and other crime. Do you not believe that the vast majority of people who are coming here are peaceful people who just want to make a better life for themselves, and other than the crime of entering illegally, are not intending to commit any other crimes, but just make a better life for themselves, and flee countries where there’s oppression, poverty, gangs, etc.?
Yeah, I think that’s a fair statement. Look, I love immigration. Like I said, I’m the son of an immigrant, but I want legal immigration. We have the Immigration and Naturalization Act, we’ve got a system of laws in place, that allow for people who are fleeing for a whole variety of circumstances, to be able to legally seek sanctuary in our country.
There’s a legal mechanism for doing it. I think some people tend to blur it all together, but I think it’s very important that we tease it apart. There are, for instance, people who can apply for a visa to come here legally if they don’t like the conditions in their home country. In situations where the home-country conditions are—for instance, say there’s a coup or there’s a natural disaster and their government couldn’t possibly process the visa, we have the ability to grant countries temporary protected status in our country.
But even people who aren’t fleeing, say, a recent disaster or facing massive oppression, but let’s say there’s just poverty and hopelessness in their country. Is there reason America should not allow them in? The AP just reported that people are waiting in Tijuana; it’s two years just to process it. You have said that you support immigration, but legal immigration; “there can be no jumping in line.” But there really isn’t much of a [moving] line, though, right? I mean, the line is very, very, very long.
And that should tell you something: People want to come to our country. And there are plenty of people who have gone the lawful route and who are waiting in line. And, so, to allow people to cut in line in front of them is unfair to them, to people who have demonstrated that they’re willing to be law-abiding.
Now, there are people who come and get visas legally, and then there are people who don’t want to wait and who will come across our border illegally. For them, Congress has already enacted a regimen of laws declaring that it’s illegal. You can’t make your first step in our country one of illegality. We are a country that, if nothing else, is marked by a recognition that we adhere to the rule of law. The rule of law is what sets us apart from other countries.
What you asked is if somebody comes into our country illegally and then they seek what’s known as asylum status—which is what happens, and I think we need to address this because asylum has been abused. Under the law—and this is not me talking; this is Congress’s law. This is a law that was voted on by the House of Representatives, the Senate, and signed into law by the President. So, this is what we have chosen to be the law of our country. Asylum applies to people who are fleeing religious, ideological, political, and ethnic persecution. It does not apply to people who just want a better life because the economic condition in their country is poor. Those people whose economic condition is poor can apply to come here legally through a visa or perhaps, depending on the conditions, to a temporary protected status, but they can’t seek asylum, because the law doesn’t recognize that poor economic conditions in a country, standing alone, is a basis for asylum.
Unfortunately, there are judges have expanded the definition of “asylum” to encompass pretty much anybody, and that’s been a magnet to attract people to come to our country illegally, to cut in line. And that does a disservice not only to our rule of law, but that puts huge strains on our communities and is unfair to those who are trying to abide by the law.
You seem to be supportive of President Trump’s policies on immigration and trade. So, I want to ask now about trade. Republicans generally were known as free traders. But after the election of President Trump some Republicans seem to be taking a more protectionist policy. Why do you not support free trade? Why do you support tariffs?
Those are two different questions, tariffs and free trade. I don’t believe in unfettered free trade. You’re right. That used to be what the Republican Party stood for. And it used to be that the Democrats were the ones who were supporting the working Americans. And there’s been a shift. And people, I think, are reevaluating their political loyalties now because under Donald Trump, he has recognized that unfettered free trade has decimated the American worker, their industry. It’s done it because it made it so cheap for people to manufacture in other parts of the world and to hire labor in other parts of the world, that they’ve pulled the manufacturing and all of these jobs out of America and put them elsewhere. And that’s wrecked entire communities.
And, so, what Donald Trump has done is say we’re going to renegotiate these trade deals, such as NAFTA, that are unfair fundamentally to our American workers, and we are going to give them a fairer shake so that companies will establish again in the U.S. and American workers will be hired.
And this is great on many levels, because not only is it recognizing that we need to give our own American workers a shot, but some of these new trade negotiations, these trade deals, are providing for workplace-safety conditions, a minimum wage for them, things that the unions had worked for decades to achieve, but these trade agreements like NAFTA had completely eliminated. But he’s bringing that back.
And, so, this is why people, I think, are reevaluating their political loyalties, because by allowing people to come into this country illegally—which both parties have done; the Democrats have done it for political reasons, and the Republicans have done it to give cheap labor to businesses – the fact of the matter is, with people coming in illegally who get paid off the books, they are taking jobs away from Americans who would be willing to work, and they’re encouraging Americans to be dependent on government.
So you are willing to make the consumer pay higher prices in order that the American factory workers should keep the jobs they’ve had for years?
That’s not an apt way to say it, “to pay higher prices.” I’m saying that we have laws that exist that are workplace protections that make sure that people aren’t being exploited, and we are putting Americans back to work before putting people who are not Americans to work in those jobs. So, we’re giving Americans jobs. We’re pumping money into the economy. We’re encouraging business to come back here. All of that drives down costs; it doesn’t drive up costs.
Like I said, unions worked for ages to achieve certain accomplishments in the workplace. The Democrats, by importing illegal immigrants and willingly letting them come in, have really undercut all of those advances that the unions have made. So, now people don’t need to pay the wages that the unions have worked so hard to achieve, because they can pay people off the books. And that hurts. That hurts our economy.
The other thing you asked is about tariffs. I am not a proponent of tariffs, generally, but what I will say is that the way that President Trump has used them in a targeted way, for short-term pain for long-term gain, has shown to be working out. He’s been able to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. He was able to renegotiate the trade agreements with the European Union, and much more beneficial agreements than were previously there. So, that benefits us and will help eliminate the trade imbalance.
The example is, if you break your arm and you go to a doctor, before he puts the cast on your arm, the doctor has to reset the bone. And that’s a very painful process. But if you don’t have the doctor realign the bone, you’ll grow deformed.
So, that’s what he did, and the proof is in the pudding. It is working out.
So he was using it as a sort of strategic way to put pressure on these other countries to renegotiate the trade agreements in a way that would give Americans a fair shake. If you’re just going to slap tax on things because you believe in protectionism and you’re not trying to renegotiate a trade deal, I don’t support that at all because that is a tax on the consumer, and I don’t think we should be putting those taxes on the consumer. But his point was we’re going to give everybody a fair shake, prices are going to be cheaper, the workplace conditions are going to be better, and, ultimately, our communities will be better off.
Let’s discuss taxes. The tax law that the Republican Congress passed and President Trump signed into law, capped the state and local tax (SALT) deduction at $10,000, a cap that you and many other New Yorkers oppose. You have said, “Long Island families should not be penalized for wanting to live and work here.”
My question to you is, who is really making the penalty? Is it the federal government making the penalty, or is it the New York state and local governments making the penalty by enacting the high taxes in the first place? Should people in low-tax states be forced to subsidize high tax rates in New York by allowing New Yorkers to take SALT deductions? In other words, maybe the ire shouldn’t be directed at the federal government for eliminating the deduction, but at the state and local governments for enacting the high taxes in the first place?
I think you touch on something which is accurate – I think there should be a lot of ire directed at the state governments, especially Governor Cuomo, for levying such high taxes on us. And the cap on SALT deductions was most likely directed to put pressure on the state and to hopefully get the population here to put pressure on their state elected officials to finally reform their dependence on federal government and their high tax-and-spend ways. So, I agree with that. I can’t get into President Trump’s head, but that’s probably at least one of the motivating factors for it.
That having been said, however, I’m running to represent this district in Congress, and this district is suffering as a result of this. Governor Cuomo is weak, and he’s not going to respond in the way that perhaps the policymakers in Washington would wish him to. He’s going to just continue to tax and spend.
So, we need relief. At the end of the day, the people who are really going to suffer as a result of this are the working-class men and women of Long Island, because Cuomo’s not going to change his ways. He’s not going to help the working-class people.
They’re the ones who my allegiance is to, and we need to get them tax relief.
Now, for here, it’s devaluing properties. We have a problem already with affordability. We have people who are fleeing this area because it’s so high taxed. It’s a disincentive for people to move here, and it’s a disincentive for people to remain here – especially people who are on fixed incomes who are now going to be paying taxes on their taxes. It’s just going to compound a problem that already exists and make it worse. So, in practical terms, it’s a disaster for us.
Now, maybe we need to find more creative ways to put pressure on the state to alleviate this enormous tax burden, because this has got to be a solution that’s dealt with not just at the federal level, but at the state level as well, and at the local level. But right now, we need to keep people here. We need to stop reaching into their pockets. They’re not government’s ATM.
I do think that there are other things that need to be done that could result in reforms to the tax that I’d like to see in a 2.0. That’s one of them.
Let’s talk about health care. The cost of health care is extremely high in New York and elsewhere. What do you believe is the cause of it? What, if anything, can Congress do to lower the cost of health care?
When you talk about health care, we’re talking about many different things. One is the cost of health insurance. One is the cost of actually the care itself, what doctors are charging you. One is the cost of prescription medications. So, those are really three main topics to address with health care. I’m committed to driving down those costs across the board.
To drive down the cost of health insurance, we need competition. We also need to deregulate it at the federal level, return the regulation to the states, allow people to purchase their health insurance across state lines, a 50-statewide, open ability to purchase their health insurance will increase competition and drive down costs.
We should allow people to purchase insurance policies that suit their needs, so setting a sort of top-down policy from the federal government saying that all health insurance policies across the nation must cover ten or more different diagnostic tests is unworkable and unsustainable, and that’s why we’re seeing so many insurers dropping out of the exchanges. And when they drop out of the exchanges you have many places across the country that have maybe just one, if that, insurer on an exchange. So, what you’re ultimately creating is a monopoly, and a monopoly is the wrong way to drive down costs. That’s the way to drive up costs! We have to encourage competition.
I am committed to finding a solution to make sure that insurance companies can still cover preexisting conditions. I think that not everything in the Affordable Care Act is bad. I’m not saying that it’s bad; I’m saying that it’s unsustainable financially for our country, and for the health care industry it has resulted in fewer options. It’s resulted in rationing. It’s resulted in exponentially high cost of insurance.
And, by the way, people who are supportive of it like to trumpet the fact that, look how many more people are insured. And that’s true. More people are insured. But again, it’s about results in what you’re actually able to use, not just what you’re able to put down on paper. By the time that people have paid their premiums, deductibles and co-pays, they’re spending nearly $20,000 before they can get the first dime from a health insurer, – and that’s if they’re in-network. Forget it if you’re out of network. Yeah, on paper you’re covered, but you’re not really covered.
So, I know people who are proponents of the ACA like to say that it expanded coverage, but it doesn’t matter what people say. What matters is what people can use at the end of the day. And, so, for me it’s all about achieving the end result and making things more affordable for people.
So, I bring that up because preexisting conditions and the coverage for that is very important. And I think that’s one of the good things. I think that has support broadly on all different parts of the political spectrum. I think there ways to be able to maintain that coverage for preexisting conditions without having to subscribe to Obamacare as it currently is.
We can get that protection while still giving over regulatory control to the states. For instance, we can make that a requirement, but everything else could be left to the states. We can also—there’s something called “health status insurance” which allows people to purchase, for pennies, a rider on their policy which would allow that if they develop a condition and thereafter lose their coverage, this rider policy would provide the difference in costs between what you would’ve paid were you healthy and what you now have to pay because you have a condition.
Then there are states such as Maine that have come up with really innovative ideas on how to cover preexisting conditions without bankrupting themselves, and they’ve done a good job of it. They developed something called invisible high-risk pools, which is a great solution for them.
So there are many ideas out there so we can protect those parts of the ACA that most people want without all of those parts that are driving up the cost, and driving up the cost to a point where businesses are paying people less. We saw a lot of state wage stagnation because businesses have to pay so much in benefits, there’s not much left over to give people wage increases. But if you give businesses more flexibility they’ll create more jobs, they’ll have more wage growth, and we’ll see the economy take off. So, I think we definitely have a lot of work to do on the ACA, but that’s on health insurance.
The ultimate objective is to drive down the cost and to do that by encouraging competition.
The second thing on health care costs is the cost of care, and one of the things that’s keeping the cost of care going up and up and up is that these hospital-based conglomerates are sort of gobbling up all of these primary-care practices and monopolizing the delivery of health care. We need to encourage people to work outside of the hospital-based setting.
At the federal level, we need to provide incentives for physicians, whether it’s tax incentives or otherwise, to work outside of that setting. Again, it comes down to increasing competition. You increase providers, the care will be cheaper. And, by the way, one of the reasons why there’s been such a monopolization by hospitals is because after the ACA came out, in order to pay for it, government slashed Medicare reimbursement rates, so doctors now are getting a razor-thin margin, if any profit, on services they provide.
And, so, of course what happens when they can’t make a profit doing it and it’s gobbling up their time and their resources, they say forget it, I’m not going to take Medicare. And, so, what we saw is a number of physicians drop out of accepting Medicare. And, so, that led to a scarcity in doctors and a scarcity for the community, the population that needs them the most—seniors, our veterans. So, the ACA actually undercut the provision of health care and hurt it. And what we want to do is create more doctors who are willing to provide more care at a cheaper cost.
The third thing we’ve got to deal with is prescriptions drugs. We have to allow the federal government to negotiate prescription drug prices. They don’t do that right now. And they’re required to purchase all drugs. So, if there’s a generic that does the job, as opposed to a name brand, government’s got to buy the name brand. That’s a huge driver of the cost of health care. We need to allow the federal government to be able to encourage competition also. If there’s one generic out there, we should be allowed to purchase generics internationally, as long as it’s been approved by something akin to the FDA in our country so that we have some guarantee of safety, but we can increase competition to drive down these prices.
There are regulatory loopholes that the pharmaceutical companies exploit to keep generics from competing with them. We need to police those. We have to use our antitrust laws and make sure that they’re not abusing these regulatory loopholes to stifle competition.
Any final thoughts?
There’s something I really think is important. I said it before, but when talking about safety, I want to drive home how important is our alliance with Israel.
The events of this past weekend demonstrate that there are people out there who harbor strong anti-Semitic beliefs, and the tolerance for that in public discourse has gone up and up. Colleges are some of the most intolerant places in the world for people who are espousing Zionistic views or who are Jewish and proud of it. And we need to combat that. We need to stand with Israel. I’m committed to it. It’s something that is in my DNA because of my family. And I think that Israel is our greatest ally in the world. And what is good for Israel is good for us, and vice versa. And I can tell you that there will never be a member of Congress who is as strong and as supportive of Israel as I would be.