Interview With Congressional Candidate Adam Schleifer

adam schleifer

Adam Schleifer is running in a Democratic primary for New York’s 17th Congressional District, covering all of Rockland and portions of Westchester County.

Schleifer, 38, is one of seven Democrats (and more than ten total candidates) angling for the seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey, 82, who will retire at the end of this year after serving in Congress for more than three decades.

This election is Schleifer’s first foray into politics.

A Westchester native, Schleifer graduated from Cornell University with a dual degree in philosophy and government. He later attended Columbia Law School, serving as senior editor of the law review.

Schleifer served two years as a federal law clerk, spent five years as a litigator at the Wachtell Lipton law firm, then served as Special Associate Counsel for the New York State Department of Financial Services.

He is from a well-known philanthropic family. His mother Harriet is president of the American Jewish Committee.

Primary Day is June 23, but in-person early voting has already begun at designated locations, until June 21.

As this is your first run for public office, please introduce yourself to our readers.

I’m Adam Schleifer, 38 years old. I grew up in the district in Chappaqua, New York, went to public schools earlier in my life in New York City and then graduated from the schools of Westchester County, before I went to Cornell and then Columbia Law School, where I was a member of the Columbia Law Review. I clerked for two federal judges thereafter. One is Alvin Hellerstein, who may be familiar to many of your readers, in the Southern District of New York. Then for a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California.

I spent my career in the private sector at the law firm Wachtell Lipton before becoming a consumer protection, banking and insurance regulator for Governor Cuomo, and then a federal prosecutor.

I am the proud grandchild of Holocaust survivors who came here in 1947 after their entire families had been murdered, and the proud brother of a young man with special needs.

Why are you running for Congress?

Because I’ve made a real difference in real people’s lives at the state and federal level, getting things done, being a cohesive leader, understanding that prosperity and justice are not opposed but in fact go together. And I’ve been fighting for justice and equality along with prosperity and creative and innovative economics and government for my entire career. And I think I have the skill set and the background to continue to do that on behalf of the residents of the 17th Congressional District.

As a member of Congress, what would be some of the most important issues for you?

One is repealing the entirety of the president’s tax plan, including the cap on the SALT (State and Local Tax) deduction so that hardworking New York homeowners are not penalized.

Another one is ensuring we have a stable and durable international relationship that doesn’t turn just on the personal relationships between two leaders, but it’s based on mutual interest and strategic interests, so that we ensure that our relationships with Western Europe and Israel remain strong, flexible and viable, no matter who’s in office.

Also, environmental protection: It’s important that we have a plan that we can give to our children and our children’s children and so on. And so I’m very focused on smart regulation for climate change, including a carbon tax, so that we don’t have to pick winners and losers in the private sector, but we just incentivize the right kinds of technology with a carbon tax.

Repealing the SALT deduction cap is something mentioned by just about every New York congressional candidate I interview. But the counterargument would be that all the SALT deduction did was have Washington subsidize high taxes by Albany. Shouldn’t the real fight be in Albany to lower the taxes in the first place, rather than trying to get Washington to subsidize them?

Part of the premise there that I would challenge is two things. The political context in which it was done was rightfully seen as an attack on blue states, which the President himself discussed was a tax to punish those who did not support him in the elections.

And the other thing I would say is that New York is a net contributor to the federal government. So now when we hear people like Mitch McConnell say let New York go bankrupt, you know, the federal government gives a lot more money to Kentucky than it gets back; New York gives a lot more money to the federal government than it gets back. So I think we need to point that out.

But doesn’t the SALT deduction somewhat disincentivize states from lowering their taxes, because they can say, “It’s okay that we have high taxes because you can get it deducted federally.” In other words, isn’t the better solution to just try to get the states to lower their taxes in the first place?

I would say it’s not either or.

But either way, I’d like to find ways to raise revenue that don’t hit every homeowner in the way that that cap did.

You have a special-needs brother. Families with a special-needs child can be crushed by, in addition to the emotional toll, the financial toll. In what way do you think the federal government might play a role here?

For example, we should be looking at Social Security Disability benefits. We should not be having some of the cliffs that exist now, where if people who are disabled earn a fairly small amount, they instantly get disqualified. We should have a more gradual relationship between the jobs that those in the special-needs community are able to do and the income they can earn and the savings they can accrue relative to a gradual offset of their benefits.

We also need to support those benefits. President Trump has recently put forward a plan to try to reduce those benefits by $1 billion. He expects he’ll have to spend $800 million just to do more disability-benefits examinations to test eligibility, and at best save $200 million. I don’t support that.

And I think we need more funding in schools at the state and federal levels to ensure that children who need more help get the help they need.

Speaking of funding in schools — and now I’m not referring specifically to special-needs, but to all students — what do you feel about the general concept of school choice?

First of all, education is mostly a state issue — just like Barack Obama said recently about criminal justice reform mostly being a state issue. There is a government role on the federal level, but in the same way, school issues are mostly state issues and local issues. To the extent the federal government has a role, I think it’s to ensure there’s enough funding to ensure that every student everywhere in America, no matter what family or place they’re born into, gets a good education that reflects their potential and their values. And so that means different things to different people.

Yes, generally, education is a state issue, but, for example, the federal government could decide to, say, give a tax deduction for tuition even for private schools. Is that something that you support the federal government doing?

I’m not sure I’m opposed to that. I think that could be something we can look at as long as we also ensure that we’re getting an adequate level of federal funding for public education. But I also understand what you’re saying. And there’s something to the fact that there are lots of communities, and religious communities, that often find that public school is not an option for them. And as Governor Cuomo has pointed out, it’s important to consider that, too.

Police reform is very much in the news now, on the city, state and federal levels. Where do you stand on that, particularly as far as the federal government’s concerned, because you are running for a federal office.

I have experience in this as someone who’s worked with law enforcement officers as a federal prosecutor.

One thing I can tell you that the federal government does and must do more of is use the Justice Department and FBI to prosecute those who overstep their authority and violate people’s civil rights. I’m very proud that I worked for Lawrence Middleton — he was my mentor — the man in the U.S. Attorney’s office who won convictions against the police officers who violated Mr. Rodney King’s civil rights. So I understand that there’s a role for the federal government to play to protect people from overstepping and abuses and racial violence and police brutality.

Also, we need to have federal funding conditioned on and requiring local police departments to have de-escalation training and bias training so that we can have officers who are best-trained and best-positioned to do the right thing and pursue justice without devolving into the kind of horrible things we saw with George Floyd.

And then the third thing is, we need a federal database potentially, so that we can track these kinds of problems, and we have the data to understand what’s going on and not let anyone who has problems in prior law enforcement positions resurface elsewhere.

In recent years, as Bernie Sanders has gained popularity, and then the rise of some young freshmen House Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there’s been this ascendancy of the democratic-socialist wing of the party. Where do you stand on that? Do you associate yourself with that wing or do you consider yourself more of a traditional Democrat?

I would certainly say I do not associate myself with that wing, mostly because stylistically I believe we need to bring people together to get things done. And I think it’s easy to yell and resort to sort of saccharin — things that give us a political sugar high — things that seem popular and effective on Twitter. But that’s not real life. Real life is working together with people, focusing on real solutions for real needs of real people. And I think that a lot of my role models have done that, whether it’s Congresswoman Lowey, or it’s someone like Congressman Adam Schiff, who, like me as a federal prosecutor, stood up for our government this past year, and others, and that’s more of the lane I think I find myself in.

What do you think of the democratic-socialist wing’s policy regarding Israel?

I’m not going to characterize any large group of people; everybody’s entitled to their own policies, but I’ll tell you what mine are, and I’ll tell you about what I do and don’t like about what I see.

As I said, Israel and the United States have a strategically mutually beneficial relationship. We must recognize that, and we must recognize the special place that Israel plays in the world, as the international haven of last resort for a people that have historically been forced out of and abused in every country they’ve been to at some point in time. And so Israel’s a tremendously important ally. It plays an important role in the world. They’re the only democracy in the Middle East, and we need to make sure that they remain strong and viable in the face of a tremendously difficult neighborhood in which they live.

My concern lately about the American policy toward Israel is we’ve seen a hyper-partisanship, where it’s almost becoming as though support for Israel is a Republican position and criticism of Israel is a Democratic one. I reject that false dichotomy. My mother is the president of the American Jewish Committee. She’s done tremendous work to try to push back against that impulse and to promote a more thoughtful approach to American-Israeli relations, and I’m proud of the work she’s done. And I would say that I am deeply committed to ensuring that that important, mutually beneficial relationship continues forever and that Israel gets the support it needs in its very tough neighborhood.

You mentioned Israel getting “support.” There are certain policies, particularly of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that many Democrats may disagree with, for example, annexation of parts of the West Bank. And some Democrats are saying that financial support for Israel should be conditioned on this issue. Do you believe that financial assistance to Israel should in any way be conditioned on Israeli policies such as annexation?

I’m not supportive of the Bernie Sanders approach of conditioning the aid. I’m also an opponent of BDS. I do think there’s a role for the United States to be a strong partner. And sometimes a strong partner has to have strong conversations. So we need to do that from time to time as the United States so that we can be an effective broker of a sustainable peace in the Middle East, and so that we can have credibility with all relevant parties, and there are many of them that we would need to engage to get a sustainable, peaceful Middle East. But I don’t support the calls by Sanders and others for the conditioning that you mentioned.

You reject Medicare for All, but you support a public health-insurance option that competes with the private insurance market. Can you talk a bit about health care?

I think we should have a public option for Medicare for those who want it, that can compete, as you said. We need to expand Obamacare. We also need to ensure that the 8.5 percent of uncovered people in this country get covered. It’s a fundamental requirement we do that.

That said, I don’t support Medicare for All because I think that we need to allow the people who have made tough collective-bargaining decisions with their unions, and teachers and others who have made economic choices for decades that rely on the private plan they want, to have their choice.

My hope is the public option outcompetes the private one. I don’t think any of us would design the system we have with all the billing codes and confusion and tzuris, so to speak, if we could design a new system. But I think we need to have a competing system. And let’s see if it does the job. I hope it will compete better. But if it doesn’t, we can’t destroy the first system until we know the second one really works for us.

I’m going ask you an open-ended question that you can take in any direction you want to: What do you have to say about President Donald Trump?

We are more angry and more scared and more divided than we’ve ever been. And I think that, unfortunately, is largely, but not exclusively, generated by the fear and the anger and the paranoia and the narcissism that we see from the White House.

And so I’m proud of Adam Schiff, and others who stood up and said, We shouldn’t be trying to barter and exchange and sell favors with foreign governments in order to investigate political rivals. And I’m proud of the people that are trying to inject decency. I’m proud of Mitt Romney for standing up and saying, you know, be a mentch. And I would say to people that we need more mentches in politics.