State Assemblyman David Buchwald is running in a Democratic primary for New York’s 17th Congressional District, covering all of Rockland and portions of Westchester County.
Buchwald, 42, 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.
Buchwald, who once interned in Lowey’s office, first won election to the state assembly in 2012; he is vacating the seat to run for Congress.
He grew up in Larchmont and Mamaroneck in Westchester County. Today, he, his parents, and siblings all live in White Plains.
Buchwald has a B.S. in physics from Yale University. He later received a Master of Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and a law degree from Harvard.
Prior to entering politics, he worked at the law firm Paul, Weiss.
The assemblyman is a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov. The birth last name of his father – who took the last name Buchwald from his own stepfather – was Rabinowitz, “true to the name of the line of rabbis going back,” says the candidate.
Primary Day is June 23, but in-person early voting has already begun at designated locations, until June 21.
After four terms in the state Assembly, why are you running for Congress?
I’m running because this is a crucial time for our country, and I believe my unique skill set and record of actually solving problems is something that we need right now in Washington. When I was elected to the state assembly, it was Albany that was the most dysfunctional government in the country. Now, in many respects, it is our federal government, and we are losing an accomplished legislator in Nita Lowey — whom I interned for 23 years ago. And if we are to have a freshman member of Congress, I think having someone like me who can hit the ground running from Day One, and has the demonstrated ability to get the job done, is exactly what the Lower Hudson Valley is looking for.
What are some of the accomplishments you’re proudest of during your time in the Assembly?
I’ve been lead sponsor of 70 bills that have become law in New York State.
One of the most prominent was a bill to amend our state constitution to remove taxpayer-funded pensions from corrupt public officials. So when I took on corruption in Albany, of all places, folks said, “There’s no way this is going to get done.” But I was determined. And in 2017, the people of New York adopted a state constitutional amendment to make sure that folks sitting in jail for corruption do not continue to receive their state pension checks.
I was also the lead sponsor of legislation to provide transparency of tax returns, in particular for top government officials. That is a law that Donald Trump himself is now suing to stop.
And then, on a very practical level, I passed legislation to enable children with food allergies to ride the school bus by enabling the bus drivers to carry epinephrine auto injectors – EpiPens. There are children in my Assembly district who, for the first time, have been able to take the bus to school because they know there’s now a responsible adult who can administer the EpiPen. Before that, if someone else had opened up a peanut butter sandwich or something like that, they could have gone into anaphylactic shock.
What are some of the issues that you worked on with the Orthodox Jewish community during your time in the Assembly?
I have been proud to assist with everything from helping power come on after storms have knocked out electricity to yeshivahs and others in the district, to helping individuals.
For example, I learned of a situation where the Claims Conference, which is funded by the German government and helps Holocaust survivors, was limiting the number of hours of home care for the elderly people who are relying on it. So I reached out to the German consulate and expressed my frustration with the situation — I was doing that on behalf of one individual, and the German government and the Claims Conference shortly thereafter announced that they would be revising the policy for all affected Holocaust survivors, increasing the number of home-care hours. And that’s to me a crucial part of being a legislator — going to bat for your constituents. And when you try to solve a problem for one constituent, you thankfully can help many others at the same time and that’s a very rewarding part of a job like this.
Two of the important state issues for the Orthodox community are school choice and the Board of Regents’ attempt to dictate the private school curriculum. Can you discuss your work on those issues?
I’d like to think that one of the things I’ve done is facilitate dialogue and a recognition that a one-size-fits-all approach to education, or any issue, isn’t necessarily appropriate, and facilitating conversations is one thing that a legislator has the privilege of being able to do. And I think that’s been quite helpful on those issues.
Do you want to specifically mention your stances on those issues, whether you support school choice and whether you support the government dictating private-school curriculum?
I’ll simply say that I’m a believer in our Board of Regents having a greater understanding of the import of some of the rules they propose, which is why when they got 140,000 comments on the proposed regulations, they took note of that and made sure that it was a not a rushed process, and I think that that’s appropriate to make sure that the Board of Regents gets things right.
School choice hasn’t come up as much directly in the state legislature. At the federal level, there’s been a push to expand the use of 529 Savings Programs, and I’m very supportive of 529 programs, as a former tax attorney who understands their value more broadly and in education.
529 started out as a college savings program. And a few years ago, the federal government, at least, permitted them to be used so people could save for primary and secondary education as well.
What do you believe are the most important issues you would face as a congressman?
First and foremost, I think the entire Congress will be faced with the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, both health-wise and economically. And that only reaffirms my belief that we have to have a robust health system, and that we spur the economy forward by doing things like repealing the SALT- (State and Local Tax) deduction limit that has harmed in particular residents of Rockland and Westchester counties, where we have the highest property taxes in the entire country.
The flip-side argument to that is, why should the federal government, or really, you know, taxpayers in Kentucky or Alabama, subsidize high tax rates in New York?
Well, I would start with pointing out that the reality is that in most years it’s New Yorkers subsidizing low tax rates in places like Kentucky – that New York and New Yorkers provide far more in tax funds to the federal government than we get back. On the flip side, a place like Kentucky takes out more from the federal pot than it puts in. And that was true before the SALT deduction limit, and it’s even more true now. So some of this is recognizing that.
And then, in a pandemic situation, I think it’s even more inappropriate for Republicans, frankly, to treat New York and other blue states, as though we wouldn’t have been there for others. I’m a believer that New York should be there for New Orleans when it is hit by a hurricane, and the entire country should be there for New York in circumstances like what we’ve been going through.
But doesn’t the SALT deduction in some ways disincentivize states from lowering taxes? Perhaps the real battle shouldn’t be fighting Washington to restore the SALT deduction but fighting Albany to lower taxes in the first place?
I very much believe in trying to keep taxes under control. But this is effectively a form of double taxation. I think there were a number of problems in the Trump-Republican tax bill of 2017, and this is among the top ones, because of its effect on our state and our region. Changing federal tax policy does not change the underlying expenses of the New York metropolitan region.
From 2010-2017, we had a conservative Republican county executive here in Westchester County, Rob Astorino. He ran on keeping a zero-percent tax increase pledge in all eight years. The entire benefit of doing that was wiped out by the Trump-Republican tax bill of 2017.
You mean because of capping the SALT deduction.
Right, exactly. In and of itself, that costs folks more than eight straight years of keeping taxes at a zero percent level – which involved a lot of financial gimmickry.
It’s not as though the two are mutually exclusive – trying to keep taxes under control and trying to lower taxes for New Yorkers federally. If anything it undermines efforts that were made to keep taxes under control, because when taxes were kept under control, nonetheless, effectively, area residents are being double taxed in a way they weren’t before, and I just don’t think that’s appropriate.
You call yourself a progressive. One of your six opponents, Mondaire Jones, got the endorsement of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which is typically seen as the sign of the most progressive possible.
I was progressive before “progressive” was in vogue as a term. I believe that “progressive” means you actually believe in progress, and progress means helping people and solving problems. It does not mean shouting the loudest on top of a soapbox. In and of itself, that doesn’t produce progress.
I am a pro-growth progressive, for example. I don’t begrudge the opportunities for businesses to expand and produce jobs, and I don’t think that there is any contradiction between being progressive but also believing in common-sense solutions to actually getting things done.
I understand that there is a wing of the Democratic party that is perhaps more focused on headlines than fundamentally solving problems. But I stand by my record of having helped move New York State forward.
Policy-wise, do you agree with that democratic-socialist wing?
No, not at all.
I flatly reject socialism as a governing philosophy. I’m much more in line with folks like our current Congresswoman Nita Lowey. I’m a supporter of Vice President Biden in his run to hopefully defeat Donald Trump. And I also have had the honor these last seven and a half years of representing the Clintons in the state Assembly, and hope to have the honor of representing them in Congress.
So that’s the — I wouldn’t call it “wing” of the Democratic Party, because I think it’s the vast majority of the Democratic Party — that I affiliate with, rather than the Bernie Sanders/AOC wing of the party.
The democratic-socialists are also sharply anti-Israel. How do your views compare with theirs on that issue?
I believe in a robust Israeli-U.S. relationship. That’s part of why, not only have I voted for a resolution in the state Assembly condemning BDS, but I am a co-sponsor of legislation that would effectively establish New York state policy as being opposed to BDS.
And I have stood against anti-Semitism in all its forms. I was a member of the Westchester Advisory Committee of the Anti-Defamation League. The day Nita Lowey announced that she was not running for reelection was the same day that I and many other Westchester community leaders came together to denounce the anti-Semitic defacing of Westchester’s Holocaust Memorial. So I am keenly aware that combating anti-Semitism is a very important challenge that our next Congress Members should lead on.
While most Democrats oppose Israel annexing portions of the West Bank, there is also some debate about whether that should have any relation to America withholding funding.
I do not believe that the United States’ funding of Israel should be conditioned. I think it should be a firm commitment.
Are more stimulus and unemployment benefits appropriate right now due to COVID-19?
Yes, I support the House Democrats’ “HEROES” (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act, which recognizes that there needs to be more support of Americans, including state and local governments that provide essential services and that for the most part, have not received sufficient funding, especially here in the state of New York.
On your website, you talk about the Trump administration’s “misinformation, inaction and coverups in response to COVID-19.” Can you elaborate on that?
I was a physics major in college, so I have a very firm belief in policymaking being based on science and facts. And the Trump administration, both before COVID-19 and during this crisis, has minimized the role of scientists and experts, has tried to downplay the significance of this pandemic and has failed to prepare us as a country for the reality we face, whether it comes to not ensuring that there is sufficient personal protective equipment, not helping to coordinate the purchase of supplies like ventilators, and instead leaving it to states and local governments to compete against each other, or sending a message that it there is a tradeoff between reopening the economy and public health.
What we’re seeing right now in other states is that, unfortunately, their economies might well suffer because of premature confidence in reopening public interactions, and I think that it is important for our federal leaders to work to provide as much accurate information as possible instead of prioritizing the personal political goals of the president.
It feels like this is a very partisan time in our country’s history, when some people feel like Washington just can’t get anything done. I’m wondering if you can point out any specific areas that you think may be possible to actually achieve a bipartisan consensus on.
As someone who, in the state Assembly, worked to pass legislation with a then-Republican-dominated state Senate, I know that it is possible to be both a true Democrat, and to work on a bipartisan basis to solve problems.
I say at the federal level we should get to bipartisan consensus on investing in infrastructure and supporting our country’s veterans. These are both areas where there need not be as much partisan rancor as we’ve seen on other issues.
My final question is about a state issue, and one that’s very much affecting the Orthodox Jewish community right now: The Cuomo administration announced it would ban sleepaway camps this summer. What is your position on that?
It has been confusing to me why a confined sleepaway summer camp with presumably individual groups that can be kept relatively separate from each other for at least the first 14 days of summer camp, with significant testing, is more problematic than, say, day camps where people are coming and going each day. I’ve been a part of daily calls with the governor’s office for the Westchester and Rockland region, but since this announcement came out on Friday, none of those calls have occurred, so I haven’t been able to yet get clarity on what the Department of Health is proposing.
Do you plan to push them to reverse this decision?
I plan to make sure that there is a clear explanation for why it isn’t possible to open these camps in New York, when neighboring states are providing this opportunity for youngsters.
It doesn’t inherently help anyone if children simply go to camps in other states — that doesn’t inherently reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection, but it does potentially devastate the summer camps that are housed here in New York.
Any final comments?
Many voters are looking to endorsements to help decide how to cast their ballots in a very crowded race. Westchester County Executive George Latimer heads over 80 elected officials in support of my candidacy.
This is an exceedingly important election, for voters who either can vote early through Sunday the 21st or vote on Primary Day, the 23rd.
If voters fail to turn out, then we could end up with a Congressmember who is not as interested in continuing Nita Lowey’s legacy on a host of issues that are crucial to the Lower Hudson Valley.