Beating Big Blue – Interview With Mike Lawler

By Matis Glenn

Running against a candidate with five congressional terms under his belt and an official post in the upper echelons of the Democratic party, in a district carried by Biden by 10 points, Assemblyman Mike Lawler beat the odds and turned Rockland and parts of Westchester County red on Election Day.

Lawler, a 36-year-old Rockland County native, campaigned on a platform of moderate conservatism — reducing spending, curbing inflation, improving public safety, and expanding school choice.

Lawler narrowly defeated Sean Patrick Maloney by less than one percent, in one of the most
high-profile congressional races in the country.

Hamodia spoke with Lawler about his underdog win, his plans for Washington, and his relationship with the Orthodox community.

Mike Lawler greets supporters before a news conference, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in New City, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

First and foremost, congratulations on winning the election; it was an all-out battle. How does it feel to be headed to Washington?

Good. We’re looking forward to getting to work come January 3, and we’re already starting the transition process and orientation. We’re looking forward to hitting the ground running and tackling the issues that are impacting folks all across the country.

That brings me to my next question. Do you see your campaign as focused more on national or district-specific issues?

Well, the issues that I ran on were the issues that were impacting my district. Obviously, there’s some overlap between federal and state issues. But primarily, the focus was on the cost of living, inclusive of inflation, crime, and education. And I think those issues certainly were on the top of voters’ minds. 

What’s going to be the first thing you’re going to tackle?

We have to get the cost of living under control, obviously, tackle inflation. So that needs to be priority number one. And inclusive of that, I want to also focus in on lifting the cap on SALT (State and Local Tax), and making sure that our residents are able to fully deduct their state and local taxes again, which I think is certainly important for New Yorkers.

Mr. Maloney had been in office for five terms, he was the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; to borrow a term from IBM, you could call him Big Blue. You also won in a district that Biden carried in 2020 by 10 points. Most people thought it was a safe bet for Democrats. What do you think may have turned the tide?

Well, I think it was a number of factors, including the redistricting process. The fact that he was chair of the DCCC … I think his focus was not on the district. People were very upset with the cost of living and the skyrocketing energy prices and grocery prices and crime. We’ve seen a major uptick in crime in New York City and New York State. And I think people were frustrated with what was going on. And this is the first time in our nation’s history that Democrats control everything in Washington, Albany, and New York City all at once. And so, I think that played a major role in people wanting change and more of a balanced approach.

The race for District 17 was extremely high profile; you had the top House Republicans — Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Steve Scalise — stumping for you. On the other hand, your opponent had President Biden and former President Bill Clinton campaigning on his behalf. How do you see yourself relating to the establishment leadership right now? You ran as a moderate Republican in a politically moderate district. Are you worried about becoming an outlier among Republicans, similar to Senator Joe Manchin?

I have always focused on representing my district in the Assembly, and I’m going to do the same in the House. That is, first and foremost, the priority. In terms of party leadership, I’m going to have a very good working relationship with them, as we did during the campaign. And as these issues come up, you work through them; it’s not a function of being for or against; or looking to be a thorn in the side. You have to do what is best for your district. And I will always keep that in mind when dealing with these issues and working with leadership to address them.

Let me be a bit more specific: You’re on the record supporting the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Davis-Bacon Act, issues which most Republicans were opposed to. How would you relate to them and have a dialogue with members of your party with whom you disagree?

You always have to work through legislation as a conference.

The Democrats controlled everything. They had control over the legislative agenda. If we’re in the majority, we’re going to have control over the agenda. And obviously those will be negotiations that you work through from that perspective. But when bills come from the floor, you’ve got to vote yea or nay. Those two examples that you talked about, the bipartisan infrastructure act … that’s how I would have voted on it had it to come to the floor had I been a member. With respect to the Davis-Bacon Act, that’s what my position is. And certainly, as proposed legislation comes forward, I will state to the conference what my position is, and work with leadership on it.

How do you feel about Republicans falling short of the predicted red wave?

At the end of the day, the objective was to win a majority in the House. And I think we were very successful in doing that. I think we will have the majority when all the votes are counted. And we increased diversity among the conference, which I think is important. We won in some of these blue areas, including New York State, where we’re sending four new members. So, I think, in the grand scheme of what the objective was, which was to win back the House and break one-party rule — we succeeded in that.

Speaking of diversity, District 17 itself includes a large Orthodox Jewish population, many of whom supported you. How do you intend to represent such diverse populations?

The same way that I’ve done it in the Assembly, I mean, I go to events in every community, I show up, I speak with voters in every community, talk with community leaders, work to address constituent service issues within every community. And I think a big part of being in elected office is to represent everybody, and to try and address the challenges and concerns of each community that falls within your district. That’s what I’ve done as an assemblyman. That’s what I’ll do as a congressman.

What do you think of the current efforts to curb inflation, including the Federal Reserve’s continual raising of interest rates?

From a congressional level, and from an administration level, we need to focus on reining in out-of-control spending. I think that has contributed greatly to the rise in inflation. … Printing billions and trillions of new money. So, you need to  get spending under control. I think the Fed is implementing policy to try and curb it, but it requires a comprehensive approach. You also need to increase domestic production of energy if you want to help bring down the cost of gas, the cost of groceries. … So there’s a multipronged approach here that has to be employed that, frankly, is the opposite of what has been employed under the Biden administration.

Lawler (seated R) with Jewish supporters at Leil Shishi Diner in Monsey, last Thursday.

What sort of things do you think would make energy more affordable?

You have to increase domestic production of energy. That, to me, is critical; we should not be relying on foreign governments for our energy production. Natural gas is part of the solution here. So, we should be doing everything we can to increase our supply here in the United States.

Does that include fracking?

Yes, of course. It’s a reality. You can’t eliminate natural gas; 60% of New Yorkers rely on it. So, the idea that, somehow, you’re going to eliminate natural gas and still have enough power to supply the region is laughable.

What other types of spending are you saying that we should cut, that the government should cut back on; are you referring to entitlements or new programs?

Any budget process requires a real thorough review of every department, every agency, every line item. Obviously, when you’re talking about the social safety net, when you’re talking about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid … these are programs that have long been established that people rely on. We need to ensure that they are fully funded, and that they are protected. But you have to go through every line item within the budget and prioritize what is most important.

To have 87,000 new IRS agents, for instance, is ridiculous. So we can start there with something to immediately cut. But it’s a process. And it’s not just about saying, “Oh, I’m going to cut this, or I’m going to cut that”  — you have to go through and have a real budgetary process.

How do you feel about the Trump administration’s tax cuts? Do you think that’s going to help put more money in people’s pockets?

I think overall, the Trump tax cuts were positive for the economy. You can look at the economic growth that we experienced as a result, but the cap on SALT certainly was harmful to New Yorkers, and that’s something that I did not agree with. But I think, over the long haul, we need to have a policy, and this is where getting spending under control is critical. Obviously, if you’re reducing taxes, you’re, to a degree, reducing revenue. But if the economy is growing, and you’re spending within your means, then you’ll be covered. So, we need to get back to a balanced budget, we need to get back to a balanced approach with respect to taxes and spending. And that’s where my focus will be as we move forward.

Do you support the U.S.’s continuing assistance to Ukraine, and if so, to what degree?

I’m in favor of continuing to support the effort with respect to Ukraine. I think we have an obligation, both from a national security standpoint, with respect to Vladimir Putin, but also from a standpoint of our previous commitments to Ukraine when they gave up their nuclear power. We cannot allow Ukraine to fall and allow Putin to seize control of Ukraine, because his objective is certainly very clear that he wants to bring back the old Soviet Union. If he’s able to basically steamroll over Ukraine, the other former Soviet satellite countries or states are going to be in danger. And we have to be cognizant of that as we move forward.

Would you want to increase the amount of money that we’re spending on Ukraine right now?

I think the objective is to make sure they have the support that they need; we should certainly be working with our allies to ensure that as well. It should not just be on the United States to do this. We have a responsibility, I believe, to ensure they have the support that they need.

What do you think of the waves of migrants coming to the U.S.?

We need to secure our border. Number one, I mean, you can’t continue to have tens of thousands of migrants crossing into the country illegally. Obviously, we have both a national security crisis at the border and a humanitarian one as well. You have human trafficking at the border. You also have drug trafficking at the border. And I think getting that under control and addressing that is important. In addition to dealing with the legal immigration system and reforming it, as well as getting the illegal immigration system under control. We have over 20 million people here illegally; we need to address that in a sensible way.

Some say that granting illegal immigrants citizenship will boost the economy, and add to tax revenue. How do you feel about that?

I think over the long haul, you have to have a pathway toward legalization. Whether or not that includes citizenship down the road is something that needs to be determined. But I think the reality of the immigrant community is that many people are working here. Many of them are paying taxes, because some of them have come on visas which they’ve overstayed.

You have people who had social security numbers or [tax IDs] and they’re paying into the system. So, there’s a complex situation that requires a comprehensive solution. But it is multipronged and not every aspect of it is going to be treated the same. You have to look at what makes sense. … When you’re talking about, for instance, children who came here at a young age, and how that could be addressed, versus somebody who crossed the border illegally and may have committed offenses while here … there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to every scenario.

What do you think can be done immediately?

I think we have a serious crisis. And you can’t continue to have these border communities overrun with illegal entry. I think we have to secure as quickly as possible our borders and implement a policy that allows, certainly, for asylum-seekers to have an expedited process, but you can’t continue to have tens of thousands of people cross the border daily; that does not work. And I think it is extremely troubling that the Biden administration’s approach to this has just been to let folks into the country without any real plan to deal with it. And it’s just something that’s unsustainable.

Lawler is presented with a cake in celebration of his electoral victory at Leil Shishi Diner in Monsey, last Thursday.

You spoke a lot about crime throughout your campaign. One concern that the Jewish community has is that we are heavily targeted for hate crimes, at a rate higher than any other group in New York. What would you do to address that?

First of all, hate crimes should be prosecuted. Ninety-nine percent of antisemitic hate crimes are not prosecuted. So, I think prosecutors, at a state, local, and potentially even federal level, depending on the charges and the crime, need to be serious about cracking down on hate crimes. If somebody is targeted purely because of their religion or their race, that’s something that needs to be taken seriously. And I think prosecutors need to do that. I think from a legislative standpoint, certainly more could be done to ensure that the definitions of hate crimes and the penalties for those offenses, are strengthened. And I think that’s something that certainly we should look to do.

Many in the Orthodox community voted for you, even though Maloney had a relationship with the community; what do you think motivated them to do so?

Well, the folks that he previously represented are not living in this district. I represent most of the Orthodox Jews that were in this congressional district in my assembly district. So, I built a positive relationship within the community. And over the last two years, I spoke directly to the voters and the people that live in the community, to address a lot of constituent service issues. I showed up in public to many events within the Orthodox Jewish community. And I think that translated to a lot of organic support among the voters.

What’s your message to Orthodox Jews in your district?

The message that I ran on, with respect to tackling the issues of affordability, of public safety, of education and of school choice…those are issues that I think are important to the people living in my district. And that’s going to be my focus as a member of Congress … to represent our community and make sure that our voices are heard in the legislative process down in Washington.

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