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Don’t sleep on Rep. Mike Lawler

New York Republican settles into Washington after November upset

Rep. Mike Lawler was a vendor at Yankee Stadium when he was in college. “It certainly puts your salesmanship skills to the test,” he says.
Rep. Mike Lawler was a vendor at Yankee Stadium when he was in college. “It certainly puts your salesmanship skills to the test,” he says. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Being a Republican in deep-blue New York, Mike Lawler is used to being a perennial underdog. 

Yet the 36-year-old first-term congressman has churned out a series of wins in largely Democratic districts and ascended quickly through the ranks of local, state and now national politics. In November, he toppled Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Sean Patrick Maloney in what was one of the most shocking upsets of the midterms.

Lawler’s just getting settled in Washington — empty boxes were piled along a wall in the lobby of his Longworth office and the walls were still mostly bare in late January — but he’s already learned one thing. “This is a rough and tumble business in Washington, more so than any state capital,” said the former state assemblyman. “Politics ain’t beanbag.”

He met with Heard on the Hill near the end of his first month in office and reflected on his early days in Washington, his embattled New York colleague George Santos and whether his vow to work with anyone and everyone will stand the test of time. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You’re a New York guy. So what are your sports loyalties?

A: Yankees, Giants, Rangers. I still remember watching every game of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals.

I was a vendor at Yankee Stadium when I was in college, so I got to watch every game for free. I got to meet everyday people from all walks of life, and it certainly puts your salesmanship skills to the test. I had hotdogs, soda, Cracker Jacks, peanuts — it would vary. It was a union job and seniority-based, so the beer guys were there from the 1970s.

If I had to say a basketball team, it would be the Knicks. But it’s probably my least favorite sport.

Q: You scored one of the bigger upsets this cycle, unseating DCCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney. How did you pull that off? And can you repeat the victory with Democrats gunning for the seat?

A: I think there were a few factors. Number one, redistricting produced a fair set of maps in New York, so there were a lot of competitive districts. 

Number two, Democrats controlled everything in Washington, Albany and New York City for the first time in our nation’s history, and they created a mess. 

And number three, I was from the district, born and raised. I’ve lived there my whole life. Maloney only represented a quarter of it, so he didn’t have that built-in advantage of incumbency. 

I stayed hyper-focused on the issues that mattered to voters, like affordability and crime. I was campaigning everywhere, doing six, seven, eight events a day, while he was galavanting the globe in London, Geneva and Paris with a month to go. 

I’ve won two elections in a row in heavily Democratic districts. I won a two-to-one Democratic district for the state assembly in 2020 in a presidential year, and I won this district, which has 70,000 more Democrats than Republicans. Folks can underestimate me at their own peril. 

Q: You’ve called on Rep. George Santos to resign as his résumé and campaign finances come under scrutiny. But for now, he’s still a part of the New York delegation. Have you had contact with him?

A: There’s no relationship, and certainly the freshman members of the delegation are not dealing with him at all. His conduct is embarrassing and unbecoming, and frankly, the fact that he really has not taken responsibility in a serious and meaningful way just reflects very poorly on his ability to do his job.

Q: While campaigning, you said you were willing to work with everybody from Kevin McCarthy to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Can you really do that?

A: Absolutely. You know, I did a press conference just a few weeks ago with Josh Gottheimer, the Democrat from New Jersey, and I’ve already signed on to a number of bills introduced by Democrats and have sought their co-sponsorships on legislation I’m introducing. 

You need to be able to build relationships within your own conference and across the aisle, especially coming from a district like mine. My objective is to get things done. 

I went to the president’s reception [last month], and I will continue to work those channels. [At the same time], the White House needs to recognize that there is no longer one-party rule, and they can’t just circumvent the speaker. They need to negotiate in good faith. 

Q: When you say you want to get things done, what does that include?

A: All of us who got elected in the House Republican majority, we did so to be a check and balance on the Biden administration. And that starts with spending. 

We need to get on the path toward a balanced budget. If you go back and look at any major spending reforms in our nation’s history, they have almost always been tied to the debt ceiling. So I don’t find this to be shocking or new. This is a reality, and it’s a tool that we in the House have to force the White House to the table.

Obviously, I want to lift the cap on SALT, to ensure that especially my constituents, who live in a high tax area, can afford to live there. 

And we need to secure our border and really fix our immigration system once and for all. My wife is an immigrant. This is not about being anti-immigrant. It’s about having a system in place that actually works.

Quick hits

Favorite concert? My first concert was The Beach Boys, way back when in the ’90s. I went to see The Who with my dad before he died, and I also saw Michael Jackson’s last concert four days before 9/11.

Last book you read? “When Character Was King” by Peggy Noonan, about Ronald Reagan.

One thing you’ve learned this month? Politics ain’t beanbag. 

Least popular opinion? My unabashed support for natural gas.

In politics, do the ends justify the means? No, you need to have integrity in everything you do. 

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