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How Marc Molinaro went from teenage mayor to key vote in Congress

The New York Republican got an early start

Rep. Marc Molinaro attends a hearing in February. The Republican from New York got an early start in politics.
Rep. Marc Molinaro attends a hearing in February. The Republican from New York got an early start in politics. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Like a lot of other members of Congress, Rep. Marc Molinaro got his start running for a local office. But unlike most, he had to get his mother’s permission first. 

Now 47 years old, the freshman from New York’s Hudson Valley won his first election at 18. His most recent election brought him to Washington alongside a handful of other Empire State Republicans who won districts that President Joe Biden carried in 2020. That surprisingly strong performance arguably won the GOP control of the House, and it definitely put a target on their backs heading into 2024. 

Molinaro chatted with CQ Roll Call outside the House chamber earlier this year about deferring college, becoming village mayor and picking his battles in Congress. This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: You won your first election at 18 years old. Plenty of lawmakers get bitten by the political bug at an early age, but most of them go to college first. 

A: I fell in love with public service in high school. I had a great social studies and participation in government teacher, Steve Sutton. I called him on Nov. 9 to thank him and tell him he should take some credit.

My hometown was sort of this standard Hudson River village that saw its heyday come and go. As I was getting involved [in politics] as a volunteer, I worked every day at the local deli. The neighbors there were like, “You can speak pretty well. You know your issues. Why don’t you run for the village board?” 

I often get told, “You must have had a lot of young people voting for you.” The truth is, it was the older residents who remembered the heyday, the energy, the enthusiasm of the village.

I said to my mom, “I’m going to put off going to SUNY Cortland.” She said, “If you lose, you’re going off to school.” She’s an Italian mother, so she figured I would lose. But I won.

A year later, when I was 19 years old, the mayor was planning to retire, so I ran home and asked my mom if it would be OK if I ran for mayor. And if they paid me enough so I could support my family, I would have wanted to be the mayor of Tivoli until the day I died. 

There are very few people in political office who could survive 12 months, let alone 12 years, as a village mayor. You get called because of the speeding, the barking dogs, the potholes, the snowplows, the potential burglary. You get called when Mrs. Jones doesn’t know how to get her Social Security check. You get called when people say, “What does that policy mean?” You get called when the twin towers are attacked and people were wondering if they’d have access to their bank accounts. You become a lifeline in many cases.

Q: The GOP controls the House right now, and arguably the only reason they do is because of guys like you from New York who won last year in swing districts. You and Mike Lawler, Anthony D’Esposito, Brandon Williams, Nick LaLota and even George Santos could have a lot of power if you wanted it. So how do you plan on using it?

A: Well, the slim majority means every member has significant authority. And the reason I stood with Speaker McCarthy was because he understood that all of us now have the right to leverage the voice of the people we represent. 

The five of us in New York recognize that we have the capacity to move the dialogue. We won’t be irresponsible, but for instance, the discussion of the “fair tax” wasn’t fair. Imposing this massive sales tax on people isn’t fair, and we said so. And then the speaker said, listen, he can’t support that bill — it will go through the process, but he can’t support it. We leveraged our votes. 

[In the spring] there were efforts to alter the Parents Bill of Rights in a way I think would have pitched it far too conservatively, and maybe even targeted populations. Several of us said no, and those amendments failed. 

Q: So are you guys going to get a SALT deal or what?

A: It’s a priority over the next several years. We want very much to end the SALT cap. There’s some conversation, which I support as well, to expand the cap to allow married couples not to be penalized, things of that nature. But for now, our focus is total repeal.

Let me offer, though, that I get it. The state of New York is irresponsible with taxpayer money, with massive waste, fraud and abuse. But who’s not irresponsible are the local governments that are screwed because the state forces spending down onto them. 

The bulk of property tax in my counties? That isn’t because the county of Broome made a bad decision, it’s because Albany did. And so I say to my colleagues who say, “We don’t want to bail out those states that tax and spend too much,” that I am all for putting pressure on Albany to be responsible with taxpayer dollars, but I don’t want to punish the taxpayer.

Q: We already mentioned that 2022 was a good year for the New York GOP, but many pundits would give the credit — or blame — to your opponents. How concerned are you that the New York Democratic Party might get their act together in 2024?

A: First of all, they overreached on redistricting, and the districts remain. And let’s not overplay this. It’s not like they’re dysfunctional and out of money. They may not have shot straight the way they wanted to, and there’s internal fighting that happens on both sides. But they spent a fortune in these districts attacking not only our records but attacking us personally, and we overcame that. 

The Democrats think that just by spending another $45 million on these districts, they’re going to buy them back. And I just will tell you, the voters that I interact with are tired of that crap. This isn’t a game to them. They’re willing to give a Republican the benefit of the doubt, as long as I reflect their interests. 

I don’t think anybody on either side would argue that my opponent ran some sloppy campaign. He ran a targeted campaign, and he said some things that were entirely untrue, but in a district that’s basically 50-50, neither of us was going to win by more than 1 or 2 points, and I won by 2.

Q: You describe yourself as pragmatic, but back when you ran for governor in 2018, Andrew Cuomo called you a “Trump mini me.” An effective attack for Democrats more broadly in swing districts is to paint Republicans as beholden to Trump. Does it worry you that you’re going to face that even more if Trump is on the ticket?

A: I’m in a job that I truly love, and we are just getting started. How presidential politics plays out, it plays out. 

I would argue that Andrew Cuomo was not effective with that attack, and it’s the reason I won more counties than any Republican up until that moment. They are running campaigns in the district already saying I’m going to destroy and privatize Social Security, so let me make this very clear: We are not going to touch Medicare or Social Security. That is a red line for me. 

The people in this district know my lifetime of public service and my willingness to work very pragmatically across party lines. No amount of this $45 million crap or “Oh, look over there, the boogeyman” is going to undo that. The mayor of Tivoli is the mayor of the 19th Congressional District, and I want to be the person they turn to regardless of the issue.

Quick hits

Last book you read? “Grant.” Early in his life, [President Grant] had a drinking issue. But in that biography, you realize how he struggled very hard to control it, and ultimately did. Had the nation been a little more friendly to him, Reconstruction would have resulted in a wave of advancement in civil rights.

In politics, can the ends justify the means? To an extent, yes — but not when it means breaking the rules, breaking the law or harming individuals.

Your least popular opinion? That the New York Mets are a great baseball team.

One thing your friends know about you that your constituents don’t? As a high school student, I did role-playing games. I was an RPG guy and played a little bit of Dungeons & Dragons.

Giants or Jets? Giants. My grandfather was buried in his Giants sweater. We bleed blue.

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