Interview: Congressional Candidate Josh Riley (2022-05-12)

Josh Riley is an attorney and a candidate for Congress. WRFI's George Christopher interviewed him on May 12, 2022. Transcription below.

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Transcription of Interview:

George Christopher, WRFI 0:21
Hello and welcome to WRFI's series of candidate interviews. I'm George Christopher. Our series invited all candidates for both the 22nd Congressional District and New York's 53rd State Senate District in the June primaries. Last week, the State Court of Appeals threw out both Congressional and State Senate maps, meaning the maps will now have to be redrawn, and the primaries delayed to August 23. WRFI has decided to continue our series with all the candidates we previously invited. In the studio with us today is Josh Riley, a lawyer and a former Senate staffer, and now a democratic congressional candidate. You can listen to our entire series of candidate interviews at our website, Josh, welcome to WRFI. And thanks for joining us.

Josh Riley 1:03
Hey, thanks for having me, George. It's so great to be with you and tell your listeners. Thanks so much for listening.

George C., WRFI 1:09
We'll start out with a two minute opening statement and then we'll move right into the issues at the end. We'll leave time for a two minute closing statement. Josh, the microphone is yours for an opening statement.

Josh Riley 1:18
Sure. Great. Thanks, George. I thought I'd just take this chance to introduce myself. You know, I grew up in Endicott, New York, which is short ride down Route 17. From here and, you know, I have a really typical upstate New York story. My folks have been here for over 100 years working in the local factories, my folks came here to work as tanners in the shoe factory for generations. And then they worked in the IBM manufacturing plants for generations after that. My dad was a maintenance worker in the waste treatment plant. And those were some really, really good blue collar jobs that could earn you a place in the middle class, even if you didn't have a college degree. So the only requirement was if you had a strong work ethic, then, you know, the deal was you'd have a fair shot to work hard and get ahead. And what we saw as my generation was coming up was that promise was broken. And in my generation alone, we lost about two thirds of our manufacturing jobs across the region. And we've seen a lot of working families, as a consequence, really living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to get by. Meanwhile, at the exact same time, you have the top 1% in this country now for the first time in American history, have more wealth than the entire middle class combined. And that's a huge inequality and a huge injustice. And I've spent a lot of my career trying to fight back against it. I actually got my start in public service working for Congressman Maurice Hinchey, who used to represent Ithaca. And my first job out of college, I worked at the US Department of Labor. I did work on unemployment programs and trade adjustment programs, so that workers and communities that lost their jobs would have a safety net. I went to law school where I had a fellowship with Ted Kennedy on the Labor and Pensions Committee staff where I worked on legislation to protect the Family Medical Leave Act. After law school, my first job was doing civil rights work for kids from low income families who were having trouble getting access to healthcare services. I later served as general counsel for a subcommittee on the US Senate Judiciary Committee, where I'm really proud of the bipartisan legislation that I got signed into law. And finally, more recently, I've been a lawyer in private legal practice, where I'm really proud of the work I did, particularly to hold the Trump administration accountable for various of its policies. And now I'm back home in upstate New York. And I'm really thrilled with the campaign that we're building, the momentum we're building. And we're offering a really bold and hopeful vision for the future of upstate New York. And we're doing it at a time where a lot of people are very cynical about our politics. And so seeing the momentum and the enthusiasm that's been built around this campaign has been incredibly humbling. And it's given me a lot of reason to be hopeful.

George C., WRFI 3:58
Well, let's start right there. Because you've talked about manufacturing jobs a lot in your campaign. That's been a pretty big part of it. How would you achieve that? How would you bring back jobs, manufacturing jobs to Central New York?

Josh Riley 4:10
Yeah, it's a great question. And I just want to be clear, you know, what I'm focused on is not trying to bring back the jobs of yesterday. Nobody's proposing to bring back the jobs of 100 years ago, what I'm talking about is creating the jobs of the future, the advanced manufacturing jobs of the future here in Upstate New York, and we are uniquely positioned to do that. Because throughout history, whenever the world has faced really big challenges, Upstate New Yorkers have risen to meet them by making the things the world needs to overcome those challenges. So, you know, one example of that was during the world wars. It was factories across Upstate New York that made the boots are soldiers were wearing. Smith Corona, just up the road on route 81 made the machines that help decipher enemy plots, right. So we have this history of making things the world needs. Right now the world's facing some huge challenges. And I see those as opportunities. So for example, climate change is going to wipe us off the planet, if we don't do something about it. Something I think about every day as a new dad, and I don't think I'm overstating the case. So one of the things I would love to see us do here in Upstate New York is implement, there's a new program, it's called Section 40207 in the infrastructure bill, that would provide funding for battery manufacturing and energy storage here in Upstate New York, helping us tackle the climate change problem, while creating new jobs here in upstate New York. There's examples. I mean, we could spend a whole half hour talking about examples of ways we can leverage policy in Washington to create jobs in Upstate New York, 5g manufacturing is a huge need and a huge opportunity. closing the digital divide is a huge need. And again, a big opportunity to create the jobs of the future. So I'm really optimistic that we can do it. And I think we're at an inflection point where we really need to seize those opportunities.

George C., WRFI 6:04
Well, that's another thing is talking about making sure that these are good jobs as well. And you talked about these not just being, you know, poverty wages, and a lot of that is built on the back of unions.

Josh Riley 6:16

George C., WRFI 6:16
So how would you--and Ithaca's seen a big union surge recently with this unionization of local Starbucks locations--how would you make sure that these jobs are union jobs?

Josh Riley 6:26
Yeah, that's absolutely right. The the labor movement built the middle class in this country. And it's no coincidence that we've seen a massive erosion of the middle class at the same time, we've seen a massive erosion of workers rights and collective bargaining rights. And so to strengthen the middle class and provide opportunities, we need to strengthen the labor movement, that's where I start, you know, I was really proud to go down to some of the Starbucks locations here in Ithica, and stand with the workers and promote their their efforts to form a union. And we're seeing that across the country, I think, you know, workers taking back power. And I think that's a really great thing. So what do we do to promote that further? I support legislation like the ProAct, that's currently pending in Congress, that would make it easier to form a union and harder to bust a union, one of the provisions in there that I've been studying closely, both because of the legislative and legal angles to it, it's a provision that would prevent employers from doing what they do now, which is basically force all the workers into what's called a captive audience, which is a situation where they have to listen to anti-union propaganda and not get to hear the union's side of the argument. I think that's manifestly unfair. And it's something that I think is an unfair labor practice that should be prohibited. So these are the sorts of things we need to do to promote collective bargaining. The last thing I'll say on this is, you know, we have this huge once-in-a-generation infrastructure bill that we're going to start implementing here in Upstate New York. It's going to create tons of--if we do it right--it's going to create tons of good jobs. And one of the things we need to do is make sure the provisions in that law that require local labor on local projects, that those are followed to the letter. And once I'm elected, that's going to be a top priority of mine.

George C., WRFI 8:15
Well, then, that's another important question. We always want to bring up wishes, how do we achieve the goals? So my question is, if elected, what committees would you like to join to serve best of the district?

Josh Riley 8:27
Yeah, so that my overarching principle on this is where can I do the most good in Upstate New York. I think the places to do that are probably, number one, the Energy and Commerce Committee. I say that because having worked in the United States Senate and in the United States House, what I've seen is the expansive jurisdiction that the Energy and Commerce Committee has, and what that means is basically any meaningful legislation that's moving through Washington, if you're on the Energy and Commerce Committee, you have a pretty good argument that you should have a say in how that legislation is shaped. In particular, Energy and Commerce deals with the biggest all of the things that I'm talking about right here, all of this advanced manufacturing, and fighting climate change. All of those provisions come through the Energy and Commerce Committee, or the Energy and Commerce Committee has oversight jurisdiction over the agencies that implement that. So I think that's an important committee. And if I had my pick, that's where I'd go. The other one that I would definitely be interested in is Education and Labor. We are over the next couple of years going to reauthorize the nation's most important workforce training program. And it's going to create really great opportunities to provide workers in Upstate New York with the skills they need for the jobs of the future. And I want to be at the table when that legislation is being written to make sure we are leveraging the amazing educational systems here in Upstate New York, the entrepreneurial spirit in Upstate New York and the work ethic in Upstate New York, to make sure we're really at the forefront of the economy going forward.

George C., WRFI 10:04
Well, there's one other question that I that I had is that this campaign has not been without controversy. There was an executive committee member in Onondaga County who was a supporter of one of your opponents, who claimed that some of your staffers didn't physically witness some of the signatures. Now, that complaint has been rendered moot by the court of appeals decision to throw out the congressional map. However, did your campaign mishandle signatures? And have you made any changes to your campaign since those allegations were levied?

Josh Riley 10:35
So I want to be 100% crystal clear about this. Those allegations are entirely without merit, completely and utterly frivolous. And I really appreciate the chance to set the record straight here and talk about it. I am incredibly proud of the 120 volunteers across all eight counties, and my hard working campaign team that went out and collected nearly 4000 signatures in March, you need 1200, we got close to 4000. And they did it through grit and determination and hard work. And I am incredibly proud of them. And they deserve to be commended, not smeared in the press with frivolous political hit jobs. So the allegation against us was that that some of our signatures weren't appropriately witnessed. Here's the evidence that was presented against us. They submitted seven affidavits from voters, three of those witnesses, three of those folks were from one household. So we're talking about five households here, out of 4000 signatures. That's what we're talking about. What did those witnesses say in their affidavits? Number one, they admitted that they signed our signatures, or our petitions, they admitted that they signed our petitions. Number two, they admitted that the signatures on the petitions were theirs, so there's no allegation of fraud or forgery. What they said is they don't remember the person giving them the page to sign. Fortunately, we do because we kept very detailed contemporaneous records of every door that we knocked on. So we have essentially a receipt for every signature. So this is not about the merits. This is a completely frivolous lawsuit. And there's one reason why it was filed against us. And it's because our campaign has built a huge amount of momentum. And some folks in the political establishment don't like that. And they thought that throwing this frivolous lawsuit against us would slow us down. And in fact, it's had the opposite effect. I have been so humbled by the outpouring of support we've received from the grassroots who are really offended by the idea that people in the political establishment would try to take a choice away from voters. So you know, this will all play out and resolve itself. But I want to be crystal clear that these allegations are completely frivolous.

George C., WRFI 12:55
If you're just joining us, we're talking with Josh Riley, a congressional candidate in the Democratic primary. Now, your previous job was, well, you've been an attorney, but you also were a Senate staffer. What about that do you think would help you as a representative?

Josh Riley 13:11
Yeah, thanks for asking that. You know, I, when I was working as general counsel for a subcommittee in the United States Senate, I saw both the worst of Washington dysfunction but also the best of what we can accomplish when we come together and work together and focus on the issues that matter to people. So you know, I worked in the Senate at a time where the Senate was very closely divided, the house was held by Republicans, President Obama was in the White House, the government had actually shut down at one point. And in that very divided climate, I was able to get two bills passed through Congress, one of them that provided protections for survivors of domestic violence to make sure that they didn't lose their homes, and another that provided mental health resources in communities, something that's depth desperately needed. And I was able to do that by bringing conservative Republicans together with progressive Democrats to negotiate deals, set aside our differences, find the places where we had common ground. And I think having done that before, is going to allow me to do it again, and really hit the ground running on day one, because in a lot of ways I've already done the work.

George C., WRFI 14:28
Well, then that brings me to another question, which is about healthcare. Your campaign has said health care should be a civil right. How would you propose securing that right?

Josh Riley 14:37
Yeah, this is so-- our campaign says that healthcare should be a civil right. And we say that because I've been saying healthcare should be a civil right for a long time. This isn't this doesn't come new to me. My first job out of law school, you know, I had offers to go do legal work for the banks on Wall Street and do various other things. And what I chose to do instead was I represented the American Academy of Pediatrics in a civil rights lawsuit that they brought on behalf of children from low income families who are having trouble getting access to health care services. And the argue that I made the argument that I made in federal court at that time, and it's an argument that I've been making ever since is that access to healthcare services in this country should be a civil right. It's, I think, morally offensive, that we live in one of the wealthiest countries in the history of the world, and you still have people going bankrupt because of their medical bills. So it's a principle that, that, you know, I've been unwavering on for a long time. How do we get there? There's a few things. You know, the first steps I would take are, number one, making sure there's a public option available, so that anybody who wants to get into a Medicare type system can do it right away, I would lower the Medicare eligibility age to 55, so that folks can get into that system sooner. Studies show that doing that actually brings down healthcare costs for everybody else. And the last, the the other sort of first step I would take is, there's a provision of Obamacare called the medical loss ratio. And what that does is it, it requires the health insurance companies to spend a certain amount of your premiums on healthcare, instead of things like executive compensation, and lobbying, and I would strengthen the medical loss ratio to make sure more money is going toward healthcare, instead of, you know, marketing and lobbying.

George C., WRFI 16:26
If a Medicare for All proposal came to the floor, would you vote for it or against it?

Josh Riley 16:30
Yeah, I would have to see, the devil is always in the details on this. My vision is-- I have sort of a pragmatic approach to getting us to a place where everybody has access to Medicare. And it begins with those initial steps of a public option and bringing down the Medicare eligibility age, there's a lot of different proposals out there, I'd want to see precisely the details of which one, but I do support the principle that everybody should have access to Medicare. And the way I envision doing it pragmatically is bringing the Medicare eligibility age down in increments over time. The one thing we need to be really, really careful about here is a lot of labor unions have negotiated very hard to get really good health policies, they've used a lot of their bargaining capital and political capital to get those. And the last thing we want to do is disrupt that overnight. So we need to be really pragmatic about this. And my plan would do it in the right phases.

George C., WRFI 17:37
Now, moving on, we have issues with inflation. Recently, we've had a baby formula shortage, which I know you mentioned, you're a new father. So I'd assume you'd at least be somewhat aware of that. How do you think the federal government, and what would you do in Congress, to alleviate these issues with inflation and supply chain shortages?

Josh Riley 17:55
Yeah, so this, this is probably the number one issue or one of the top issues that I'm hearing about on the campaign trail. So many families are really struggling to make ends meet, they're sitting down at the kitchen table and trying to figure out how to balance the budget. And it's becoming harder and harder and harder as prices are going up. There's a lot to say about this. But here's what I think is the number one lesson in it is. We have got to start making stuff in the United States. Again, we have got to bring our supply chains home, one of the things we're seeing is inflation is being caused because we shipped all of our jobs overseas, where we basically ceded manufacturing to other countries where labor was cheap, and corporate profits were high. And we are now seeing the consequences of that, when you have a global pandemic or you have other shocks to the global economy. We don't have control over our supply chains, because we sent them away. And so you know, the thing we absolutely have to do, and we've got to do it now, is start making things in America again, so that we don't have to deal with inflation caused by you know, shipping goods halfway across the world. We shouldn't be shipping, we shouldn't be importing things from halfway across the world when we can make them here in Upstate New York. So I think the the current crisis, the current situation with inflation is is really a proof point that we've got to start making stuff here again.

George C., WRFI 19:18
Now, earlier, when we were talking, you mentioned your time as-- your previous career path, but you also have spent time in the private sector as well. You worked at a firm called Boies, Schiller, and Flexner. I'm pronouncing this correctly right? Okay. They were concerned I wasn't going to. What was your role there? And how has the time in the private sector influenced your beliefs, your motives as a potential representative?

Josh Riley 19:44
Yeah, you know, so I'm really proud of the work I did as a lawyer in the private sector. It gave me an opportunity-- for example, the case I told you about representing kids from low income families. You know, I did that as a pro bono case. at a law firm where I was able to go up against the government on behalf of kids and had a platform in the private sector to do that. More recently, I've done things like, you know, I've sued health insurance companies that raised their rates on small businesses unfairly, to hold them accountable. I have been adverse in litigation with companies that violated the Family Medical Leave Act rights of new mothers, another situation holding corporations accountable. During the Trump administration, I filed briefs in the United States Supreme Court, challenging some of the Trump administration's policies. Again, it gave me an opportunity to hold powerful interests accountable. I was involved in litigation against folks who were peddling disinformation about prior elections. And so the opportunity to work in the private sector actually gave me a really good platform to do a lot of public service work and public interest work. And I'm really grateful for that.

George C., WRFI 20:59
What about some of the, you know, more controversial candidates that that firm has had. You know, there's been companies accused of fraud even, and of course, everyone's entitled to a defense.

Josh Riley 21:09

George C., WRFI 21:09
But Harvey Weinstein as well. Do you think that reputation at all tarnishes that firm?

Josh Riley 21:17
You know, I would have to let others speak to that I had no role whatsoever in that representation, I actually learned about it in the press, as many others did. So I'm not-- because I had nothing to do with it, I don't know that I'm in the best position to speak to it. What I can talk to is my own work, which I'm, you know, which I'm really proud of, and I think has, you know, given me an opportunity to hold powerful interests accountable.

George C., WRFI 21:45
Now, what would you call and maybe we've already gone over this, and you can just reiterate it, but what would you call your number one policy priority?

Josh Riley 21:53
Yeah, I mean, there's there's a few things. I think my top priority is putting Upstate New York's economy on a path toward revitalization, and making sure we are on the forefront of innovation. We've talked about that quite a bit. So maybe I'll just list a couple other things. You know, one, I just released a very detailed policy platform dealing with the child poverty crisis that we're seeing across all of Upstate New York, seeing it acutely in Syracuse, and I think it's time for us to have some real solutions and some real accountability around that. One thing I often say is the number one issue, and I consider this a first order priority, is making sure we have a functioning democracy, because we can't deal with these big challenges, whether it's climate change, or creating new jobs or healthcare, we can't deal with those if we can't even have a peaceful transition of power in this country. My son was five months old when January 6 happened. And it really made me question whether he's gonna grow up in a functioning democracy. And so I think we really need to make sure we're doing things that that strengthen our democracy instead of weaken it. That includes things like campaign finance reform, it includes things like making sure it's easier to vote, not harder. Things that I actually worked on quite a bit when I was counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

George C., WRFI 23:15
If you're just joining us, we are talking with Josh Riley, a congressional candidate in the Democratic primary on August 23. Now, you talked at the end about voting rights and protecting democracy. Now, the state's congressional maps were thrown out, and the judge basically said that it was a democratic gerrymander. Do you think there needs to be an anti gerrymandering legislation at the federal level?

Josh Riley 23:38
I do. I do. And I've come out very strongly in favor this long before we went through this redistricting process, or at least the latest twists and turns in the redistricting process here in New York. I think we should have federal legislation that outlaws gerrymandering, so that whether you live in one state or another, you know that the maps are being drawn fairly, they're being drawn in a non-partisan way, and that they're being drawn so that the voters get to pick their leaders and not the other way around. So yeah, that is something that I that I strongly support, and it's a central pillar of my platform to strengthen democracy, because, you know, what we're seeing in situations across the country where districts are being drawn to be very, very red or very, very blue, is that it rewards the type of extremism that is tearing our country apart. So instead of giving folks an incentive to find common ground and work together, again, it's giving people an incentive to scream the loudest from the extremes, and that is not good for democracy, and it's not good for the American people.

George C., WRFI 24:44
Now, another thing about this campaign is that when you originally launched it, it was under the original 22nd district, which included your native Broome County. Of course, now after redistricting, it was going into Ithaca and you've relocated here. Now, the maps been thrown out again. You pledged to remain in the race. Would you also pledge continue in the race in whatever district Ithaca is thrown into?

Josh Riley 25:05
Yeah, you know, we're going to-- my hope and expectation is that Ithaca is in a district that we're able to run in. You know, the reason I ended up not running in the Broome County districts, as everybody knows, is because Antonio Delgado, then the Democratic incumbent, actually was representing Broome County. And I thought it would be irresponsible to run a primary against a Democratic incumbent. I just would not do that. And so being able to run in this district over the last few months has been a huge privilege and honor. You know, Cortland County, Madison County, were part of the old 22nd, there's counties that were part of the old 24, there's counties that are part of the old 23rd. So I think just like all the other candidates, you know, waiting to see exactly what these district lines are, you know, we're eager to see what the court comes up with.

George C., WRFI 26:00
Well, I'll just have time for one more question. You've been endorsed by the Working Families Party. If you lose the Democratic nomination, would you consider remaining in the race as the WFP's nominee?

Josh Riley 26:10
Yeah, I'll tell you what I told them, which is I, you know, I have no intention of being in a race where it would be harmful to the Democratic Party, I don't want to speak for the Working Families Party, I think I owe them much more respect, to let them you know, speak for themselves. And if we ended up in that situation, to have that conversation with them, I'm really honored to have the Working Families Party endorsement. You know, they have a long history of backing labor and workers. And so I'm proud to proud to have that endorsement. I also, you know, don't really think too much about the premise where I don't win the Democratic primary. So I haven't given it a huge amount of thought, because I don't think that's the situation we're going to end up in.

George C., WRFI 26:56
Well, we'll add our wrap up point for today. So I'm gonna give you two minutes for your closing statement.

Josh Riley 27:02
Yeah. Great. Well, thanks. So one thing I just want to acknowledge, I know, Mother's Day was last weekend. And I just want to say first and foremost, to all the moms who are out there, this has been an extraordinarily difficult couple of years for you. And I've said this before, I just want to say again, how much you're appreciated, and you're loved. And thank you for everything you do. That includes my own mom and my wife, who's a mom of our son. You know, we've talked a lot today about policy and legislation. I think that's critically important. But I actually think maybe the most important thing a member of Congress can do is constituent services. And I got my start in public service working for Maurice Hinchey, and I was, you know, very junior staffer. My job was to open the mail and greet constituents and, and answer the phones. And when constituents came into that office, the question was never 'Are you a Democrat or Republican? Did you support me or my opponent?' It was always 'how can I help you?' And it was a place where anybody could go who needed help. And it's a model that has stayed with me, and has really-- a model of public services that has stayed with me and really inspired me. It's something that I'm really hoping to carry into the job. I think it's critically, critically important. For any listeners out there who are interested in the campaign. We would love to have your support, you can you can visit our website at It's Josh You can contact us there you can learn more about the campaign there. And I would love to have the opportunity to earn your support.

George C., WRFI 28:38
Well, you've been listening to our interview with congressional candidate Josh Riley. Josh, thanks for joining us in the studio to discuss your campaign and your position on the key issues.

Josh Riley 28:46
Yeah, thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.

George C., WRFI 28:48
This is the final interview in WRFI's series of Congressional and State Senate candidate interviews. Primaries in New York's Congressional and State Senate races are on August 23rd, and the Assembly and Statewide primaries on June 28th. You can listen to archived interviews and see all of our news content at our website Our producer is Corinne Shanahan. For WRFI Community Radio News, I'm George Christopher.