Chol Majok is a Syracuse City Councilor and a candidate for the newly redistricted 22nd NY congressional district. WRFI's Fred Balfour interviewed him on April 26, 2022.
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Transcript of Interview:
Fred Balfour, WRFI 0:13
Hello, and welcome to WRFIs series of candidate interviews. I'm Fred Balfour. Our series invited all candidates for both the 22nd congressional district and New York's 53rd state district and the June primaries. Both are newly redistricted after the 2020 census. In the studio with us today is Chol Majok, a Syracuse resident and currently serving as an elected member of the Syracuse Common Council. He's a candidate in the Democratic primary for the 22nd congressional district. Coming up tomorrow at 6pm will interview 22nd District Democratic candidate Vanessa Fajans-Turner, an Ithaca resident and currently the executive director of the national nonprofit BankFWD. You can see our full interview schedule, and all the candidates and listen to archive interviews at our website, WRFI.org. Chol, welcome to WRFI. And thanks for joining us today in the studio.
Chol Majok 1:15
Thank you for having me.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 1:17
Chol, we'll start out with a two minute opening statement, which I assume you have done a few times. And then we'll move to the issues. At the end, we'll leave time for a two minute closing statement. The microphone is yours for an opening statement.
Chol Majok 1:33
Well, Fred, thank you for having me here. And hello to everyone that is listening. My name is Chol Majok. I came to Syracuse, New York 20 years ago as part of the Lost Boys of the Sudan. Being in Syracuse-- went to school there as well, went to Syracuse University, at undergraduate level, went to SUNY Albany and went to St. John Fisher College. Married to my wife of 12 years, I have six children together with her. My life has been a journey of fighting for people to help them access opportunities. With that, my line of work has been comprised of three industries: nonprofit -- I was able to help kids go to college. Second part of that I was able to help people as well to have access to home ownership, as well as help people with workforce development opportunities. On the other part, on the private part, I was in the manufacturing workforce. The last part is government. I served in the state senate for combined three years under two senators in New York State Senate. I also work under executive branch of government with Stephanie Miner for four years, and now serving on Syracuse common council, serving my second term. So my work experience has been a journey of serving people and creating opportunities for people. And I'm excited to be here to take this to the next level.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 3:31
Thanks Chol, and great opening statement. Let's move to the issues. Imagine that it's November 15. You've won the primary and the election and you arriving in Washington to start your congressional career. Earlier this year, you said your top priority would be workforce development. Help us understand your current position on this issue?
Chol Majok 3:55
Well, to me-- I, as somebody that has been in the business trying to help people with opportunities, I believe that when, as a community, when we prepare people to provide for themselves, it is the best tool we can give them. And when I talk about workforce development, I'm speaking about alternatives to things like traditional schools, which is trade, a line of business that seems to be leaving us and I strongly believe that that's an area where we should be investing in to help people with skills who would rather not go to traditional schools. As we know, traditional school is getting expensive, and helping people with that-- investing in those areas to help people do for themselves is great. The second part that I believe is a good direction to go to, is investing in soft skills. As somebody that came through poverty, one of the challenges that you get with people in poverty is soft skills. They do not have good level of soft skills. And investing in those areas to help them help themselves and to help their family is key. It's key. And as an American when more people work, and are able to provide for themselves, it stabilizes our economy.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 5:27
You mentioned soft skills. And can you tell us a little bit more specifically what you mean by that? A couple of examples? And maybe, how would you deal with soft skills, if you're in Congress working at the policy level?
Chol Majok 5:40
Well, soft skill in a way that it-- research has shown out there that 80% of all of a workforce, anybody in the workforce, 80% of their success is soft skills. Being able to know how to greet, being able to know how to maneuver your way around professional world, those skills are necessary, those are the base and when you talk about poverty and how to alleviate poverty, not having those basic soft skills, impedes the process of getting out of poverty. And when I talk about that is, you know, being at a federal level, you are not an island, you are elected to serve people, and serving those people for these people at the local level sent us to Congress. And if the local economy, local strength, which is our workforce, is crumbling, going to Congress is meaningless. So at that level, being able to say I'm working at a policy level, or Congress, it would mean that, let's invest in workforce so that we strengthen those people who want to work--poverty is eroding this community. And part of poverty being so high is lack of soft skills.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 7:04
You mentioned education a couple of minutes ago, and it sounded like you were talking about college education, do you include the high school education in workforce development as well?
Chol Majok 7:15
When I when I speak about education, specifically, I'm talking about K to 12. And then the other level is college education. K through 12 is so important. People like myself, who started school later, I understand and know what it means to-- the benefit of starting school early. So investing in our children early on K to 12 is critical. So critical. Second to that, it's so important for us to also invest in teachers, because as a product of a city school district, I have observed and seen then, and now, that our school districts continue to struggle retaining good talent. To be able to educate future educated, future engineers, futures doctors, and what have you, require that we have talented teachers to get them there. So investing in teachers, investing in K to 12 education, investing in college education, in which we afford people alternatives, if they don't do not want to pursue traditional school, they have option to go to trade school, and they can still make make a living.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 8:33
The at the federal level, schools have a different appearance, and the average district gets 45% of its funding from local taxpayers, 45% from the state and 10% from the federal. So in the Congress, you have don't have as many levers because you can't-- you're not so much the money provider. So you have to think about-- how would you think about getting soft skills, getting trades, into the school districts at a policy level?
Chol Majok 9:04
Well, look at what Biden just did with his infrastructure bill. Right. And, and for me, I look at education in so many ways, you know, being able to do that workforce development, investing in those. But Fred, there is something that we don't sometime look at the magnitude of it, which is relationship, being able to be a person that can work across aisles, you can connect mountains, right? And being able to have that, what you just said 10%, and having all of this, education is all levels. It's all levels.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 9:46
Let's switch over to another area that you had some background in on the common council, Syracuse, you're on the Public Safety Committee. And you mentioned at one point that you worked with the mayor's office on a citizen review board for the police department. Now that in this district, that's a fairly active topic, a fairly interesting topic. Will you work on this kind of issue if you get to the Congress? And how would you do that? I'm talking specifically about citizen review boards.
Chol Majok 10:17
When you look at citizen review boards, their work is to create accountability, and to make sure that our law enforcement and our community are bridged together. And when I get there, when you look at what brought in citizen review board, that's a sense that we need to look over what our citizens are saying. And try to reconcile it with what officers are doing. And in this community, we have, we have seen how the relation of police and citizens-- that relation is always going to be-- always going to push against each other. And this is where we have entities like citizen review board to be able to balance that out. Now, as a congressperson, that would be significant to be able to find resources to continue to enhance that work, to be able to make sure that we are holding police officers accountable, and making sure that our our citizen also are taken care of.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 11:27
It's time to do a station break here. If you're just joining us, we're talking to Chol Majok, a candidate in the democratic primary for New York's 22nd congressional district. We're just teasing around citizen review boards for police departments. And I wanted to say, so you think you can work at the policy level at the federal government, because police departments like other things, like school districts, are very locally controlled, right? So you would be really working on policies that influence that local control.
Chol Majok 12:07
Correct. And when I when I speak about police department, Fred, I also want to emphasize the importance of investing in our police department. And investing in your police department mean that, you know, as somebody that has, watched what police officers go through, especially in the city of Syracuse, the trauma they deal with, it's important that we we invest in their mental health. We sometimes forget that police officers are people just like us. And that at the end of the day, their shift, they gotta go back to their families. And and we have to be able to make sure that they come back tomorrow and that their families are safe. And it's important we invest in their wellness, and in their mental health so that they can continue to provide for us. So investing in those areas-- when I speak about relationship with the police department is not that I'm going to directly be involved, but it's important we invest in those areas. So that way we produce the best.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 13:08
Let's switch over to another thing I've heard you mentioned several times in previous events. You mentioned farming and agriculture. And you've mentioned accessible rural services. Can you take agriculture in general and what you mean by accessible rural services and talk about how you would approach these issues if you were a member of Congress?
Chol Majok 13:37
Well, today-- it is good to understand that today, the agriculture is not the same as agriculture of 40-50 years ago. It's a different agriculture. Agriculture today-- it's hard, it's getting to a point where it is unsustainable. People who are farming today are having a hard time accessing land and owning land, more corporate world is moving into agriculture and they are monopolizing the world. Farmers are renting more and it's becoming frustrating. And that in itself as it multiplies, jobs are leaving, more people are leaving rural area. I mean, we know that a quarter of our American population is rural community. And that's a huge number that should catch our attention. We-- as somebody that that came from the Sudan, I lived in a rural area. And I know how hard it is, from my experience from the Sudan, how hard it is to access health care facilities, even to have vehicle to get you to health facilities, having doctors-- my plan when I get to Congress, I want to incentivize doctors to live in rural areas so that seniors who have chronic illness and other people that are struggling, are able to access doctors closely, so that they have regular routine checkup where they don't have to travel two, three hours to see a doctor. See, these are the struggles that when I look at as somebody that lives rural-- in urban area, there's so many similarities between rural area and urban community. And that one of one of those, is poverty. And we don't talk about the poverty that is happening in rural area. And as a congressman, I'm going to I'm going to bring that to light.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 15:35
I want to tease again, the accessible rural services, health care is a clear one, and I hear your enthusiasm and your intensity there. Can you give us an example or two of what other kinds of accessible rural services you think about?
Chol Majok 15:50
Internet, the world-- broadband, the world is heading into a an era where people are going to depend on internet--we are leaving our rural community behind. And that is just unacceptable. That is just unacceptable. I think, as a nation that believes in in supporting its people, a nation that believes in equality and prosperity, and dignity and respect to our people, it's just unacceptable to leave a quarter of our population behind. So broadband is a big issue. Infrastructure is another big issue. The roads, water pipeline sewage system. We deal with this in our urban in urban setting. It's worse, it's worse in rural areas. And it's just-- as somebody that came from a third world country, to come to this nation and see people in the first world countries struggle like that. It breaks my heart.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 16:45
As we know, in New York state, as many of our listeners in New York state know who are farming, and there are a lot of farmers in Tompkins County and then the Cayuga county: property tax. The county tax system gets a lot of its money from property tax and farmers of course, that's their main asset is their property. Do you see property tax relief for farmers as being something you would work on at a federal level?
Chol Majok 17:15
I would, I would. I strongly believe in alleviating or reducing issues that farmers are dealing with because they already dealing with a lot. Alleviating a level of-- a tax level break, it would be good for farmers. It is another thing why we-- why that is such a critical area to focus on Fred. We are heading into an era where global warming is becoming so so high, that more diseases are coming in the food, the foods that we produce are becoming scarce, we need to support our farmers. Second to that we need to support our farmers so they can produce foods that are healthy, because we know another part, healthcare is so expensive, and part of our healthcare being so expensive, is what we eat. And being able to alleviate farmers to worry about producing what is edible, things that we can consume and keep us healthy is the way to go. And if that's what we can do to sustain our farmers, I'll support that.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 18:26
I hear climate change coming through loud and clear here, can you-- and it fits in with agriculture and some other things that you've talked about-- can you talk about climate change, maybe with agriculture, or maybe a broader way?
Chol Majok 18:37
Well, with agriculture, Fred, I go back to making sure that we we promote a sustainable agriculture community. And part of that is we help them produce foods that do not add to the problem of our environment and our climate. So that's one when we speak about climate. Today, the world the drought, drought is becoming higher-- more trees, we need more trees. And as you see trees, trees are dying left and right. Right. And it's getting harder, it's getting harder to produce food, it's getting harder to to have right health, because with a climate being the way it is, health is at stake. So with that, investing in our agriculture community to produce foods that do not add to our climate is critical.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 18:37
So you're focusing on climate change from an agricultural standpoint, correct. The arguments that go on at the federal level now and at the international level on climate change: do you see adding a new twist to that or adding your voice as being something different or working with a set of people differently on climate change?
Chol Majok 19:53
Well, we know-- it is public knowledge out there that we got out here, part of how we got here has to do with our usage of fossil fuel. You know, that's part, and then the other part is production, the agriculture, what agriculture add the the nutrients that, that runoff adds into our, into our water system and evaporates into the, into into our atmosphere. That's that-- so being able to make sure that how our agriculture community is producing, being able to watch that and help them get to a sustainable state is critical. It's critical. At least we know when we take care of agriculture sector, we know at least we are getting close to more sustainable climate which is, you know, we will talk about fossil fuel later and the impact of fossil fuel and how we should move away from it. But from from a standpoint of agriculture, we know how we got here--part of it is agriculture. That's part of it. And being able to work with that sector to alleviate that sector and get them to a more sustainable stage is critical. It's critical.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 21:11
We're going to take another station break here just to tell people what we're doing. If you're just joining us, we are talking to Chol Majok, a candidate in the Democratic primary for New York State's 22nd congressional district. Climate change is exciting, and is a challenge. Let me let me cover something that our listeners might be thinking about. We've covered some of the issues today that are key, and we'll hit another one in a minute. The voters can reference our WRFI archives for your positions on these things. But how would you advise voters to get information on issues that we won't be having time to cover today?
Chol Majok 21:53
Well, on my part, I would encourage emailing us, one, calling us, going to our website-- we will be publishing more of our positions our website, adding more to that. But I am going to be canvassing. I'm going to be canvassing Fred, and I am going to be out there. So I'm going to be talking to more people. If you want to invite me over for coffee with a group of neighbors, I'm available. I'll come if I need to drive back here to Ithaca to do that, I'll do it.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 22:29
I think one thing people like is websites. So if you're adding to your website, I think that's an important part. Okay. Let's touch on affordable housing a bit. You had the position as the director of community engagement and homeownership at a Syracuse nonprofit. Help us understand how you would take what you learned there into the federal government at a policy level or at a working across the aisle level or that kind of thing?
Chol Majok 22:55
Well, one of the things that I have learned, Fred, is that to give-- to help people with dignity and respect, part of it is how they live. And one of the things that I have learned working through housing is that people want to achieve American dream. And part of achieving that American Dream is owning your own home. And as a representative, I'm going to be pushing for home ownership, because I strongly believe that when we can help people own their own home, it does a couple of things. It does couple of things. One thing that it does that it brings stability to neighborhoods. And for those of us like myself, who have children, it brings stability to children so that they they don't have to worry about moving. If you have been in a position like me, where where you move from one place, or you've been in urban community or rural community, where you have to move because the place is no longer sustainable, you would appreciate stability in housing, right? And I'm an example of that--I appreciate stability in housing, because I own my house now. And getting to this point was emotional for me. And there's so many rural Americans, urban Americans who are looking for their pathway and they want to get help, right? And not only that, when there's stability, it helps graduation rate, helps kids get out of high school and go to college. There's a lot of statistics out there and a lot of empirical work out there that shows that--stability in housing increases chances of graduating out of high school and going to college. Second thing it does is to municipalities--stability and housing and people owning their home supports local tax base, where they don't have to rely on federal government to create programs in city parks, to continue to give opportunity to kids that are struggling and families that are struggling.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 24:53
Let's think about-- I think about my grandchildren, and in a few years they'll be out of college or out of trade school or out of high school. What kind of things would you see in affordable housing that they might be looking to see? Things that are not there now-- which is what you're talking about, you want to make change in how federal government supports affordable housing. Well, what do you think one of my grandkids would see, based on the work that you want to do?
Chol Majok 25:19
Well, one of the things as some as somebody that believes in seeing people with lived experience in front of you doing things, you know, is that, as we push college graduation, as we push folks to aspire to do more, we have to create pathways that allow them to access those stuff. As somebody that came from an impoverished background, I want my children one day to say, "You know what, my dad owned a home, I want to own a home, I want to know how my dad, as a refugee, as an immigrant came and own a house, I want to know that I want to have that I want to fight to make sure that anybody that came like my father or somebody who's a first generation immigrant, is able to access home." Now, there's a couple of ways we do that--making sure that financial industry is not-- eliminate discrimination, from people accessing those houses, that they are able-- that they are comprehensive and inviting and welcoming to people wanting to pursue American dream. So [unintelligible] financial rules have to be worked with. And those regulation have to be scrutinized and looked after very carefully, so that in itself attract young people to want to own homes, and make home ownership attractive.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 26:44
So we're at our wrap point for our time today, there's a number of things I'd love to talk to you about if we had another half an hour. But we're at a point where we have two minutes left for you for your closing statement.
Chol Majok 26:56
Well as a candidate, I like to see myself as a walking reflection of our diverse 22nd district. And as a candidate-- as a candidate with rural experience, with immigrant experience, with urban experience, as a refugee, as a working American, somebody who has been through foster care, as a byproduct of foster care, somebody that is a husband, to my wife of 12 years, a father to six children, and a black man, a millennial, a first generation college graduate, I see myself as somebody that many of our rural Americans, and many of our urban American can associate with. America has always been built by an example. That's where we are as people. I'm bringing that example. I'm restoring their faith. I got into this process because I believe in a politic of addition, I don't believe in politics of subtraction. I believe that I'm going to pull a lot of our American people in the process, people who have lost faith for so many years. And this is what is what America about: faith, hope. It needs to be restored and needs to be fed consistently. So with the choice that the voters are going to make, I hope I earned a vote. I hope I earned that trust, because I am a typical American story. And I hope I get that vote.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 28:27
Well done. You've been listening to an interview with Chol Majok, a candidate in the Democratic primary for New York's newly redistricted 22nd congressional district. The primary election is on June 28. Let me repeat that--June 28. Chol, thanks for joining us in the studio to discuss your campaign and your positions on key issues.
Chol Majok 28:49
Thank you, Fred, for having me. Appreciate the time.
Fred Balfour, WRFI 28:54
You can tune in to WRFI's entire series of candidate interviews. We'll be airing interviews with candidates for both the 22nd congressional district and New York's 53rd State Senate District. Tomorrow at 6pm, we'll interview Vanessa Fajans-Turner. On Thursday you can hear our interview with Josh Riley, another Democratic candidate for the 22nd district. You can see the full interview schedule and listen to archived interviews at our website, WRFI.org. Our producer today is Corinne Shanahan. For WRFI community radio news, this is Fred Balfour.