So, when the New York Republican walked into the US Capitol on Tuesday — hours after he became one of the most closely watched Republicans in Congress by brokering a deal to create a commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection — he strategically surrounded himself with other GOP members in Congress, shielding himself from reporters eager to question his break with leadership.
In a Washington gripped by gridlock, Katko stands out as a bipartisan dealmaker.
Katko initially drew the ire of Republican leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy this week when he, as the top Republican on the House Committee on Homeland Security, worked with Democrats to create the commission, a body that will likely further plunge Republicans into the conspiracy theories and lies that inspired the January attack. While this isn’t unusual for the four-term Republican from the Syracuse area — he also joined with only nine other Republicans who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump in early 2021 — it has once again branded Katko as the rare lawmaker willing to break with his Republican colleagues.
“I don’t think John Katko loses a lot of sleep over the slings and arrows of political attacks,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, a Republican from South Dakota. “He’s a tough guy and I think he understands this ain’t beanbags.”
Katko’s office declined to make the congressman available for an interview.
The congressman’s political positioning is both pragmatic and personal.
The Republican lawmaker represents a swath of upstate New York that, despite electing him for going on eight years, backed both Hillary Clinton in 2016 and President Joe Biden in 2020. The district, which begins on the banks of Lake Ontario outside of Rochester and stretches down to include all of Syracuse, is a mix of ruby red enclaves and solidly blue metropolitan areas, allowing someone more moderate like Katko to buck his party at times and not pay a significant political price back home.
Katko’s career has also prepared him for this moment. The Republican’s path to Congress began decades earlier, when he worked as a federal organized crime prosecutor in Syracuse for the US Attorney’s office, overseeing a number of high-profile cases and leading the Syracuse Gang Violence Task Force. That history as a prosecutor, people close to Katko said, is key to understanding why he is pushing to investigate the origins of the January 6 attack.
“In his heart, he is an investigator and a legal mind — a law and order type, but not in the Trump tweet law and order type way. He busted up very violent gangs in Syracuse,” said a Republican operative close to Katko. “So, (this commission) is kind of at the nexus of his independence and bipartisanship and of his bona fides as a federal prosecutor.”
It was those sensibilities — of a prosecutor and an investigator — that Katko brought to the House floor on Wednesday when he served as the Republican spokesman for the bill that would authorize the commission.
While many GOP members attacked the proposal, Katko responded to their concerns and nudged support for the bill. The mild-mannered lawmaker remained calm right up until the end, when he gave an impassioned speech, pounding his hand on the lectern as he pleaded with his fellow Republicans to vote yes.
Listing off the names of officers who lost their lives, Katko said supporting the commission was a way to honor their service.
“I want these officers and their families to know that we are doing it not for us and not for politics. We’re doing it for them. You’re doing it for them,” Katko said. “I urge my colleagues to support this legislation.”
Ultimately, 35 Republicans voted yes.
‘Thank you for your guts’
Katko’s career in public service began with the federal government in Washington, DC, including stints at the US Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice. Later, he returned to the Syracuse area and began working as a federal organized crime prosecutor with the US Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of New York.
It was in this role — as a top prosecutor taking on gang violence in Syracuse — that Katko’s career took off, allowing the future congressman to prosecute a range of cases, from organized crime to money laundering to fraud. This time provided him with the springboard to retire from DOJ in 2013 and run for Congress.
After arriving on Capitol Hill, Katko has carved out a niche for himself. He is respected by both sides of the aisle, not tethered to his own party’s leadership while still toeing the GOP line when it counts. And of the 10 House Republicans that voted to impeach Trump, Katko is the only one who has actually gained stature and responsibilities within the Republican conference since the vote.
As Rep. Liz Cheney was cast out of her House leadership role for publicly rejecting Trump’s lie about the 2020 election, Katko was elevated. This week, he won a position on the powerful House GOP Steering Committee, left vacant when Rep. Elise Stefanik became the new GOP conference chair. As evidence of Katko’s popularity in the conference, he won the regional position by beating out Rep. Claudia Tenney, who serves in a nearby Central New York District and is loyal to Trump.
Katko is also shrewd about when he chooses to break from his party.
The congressman is not an outspoken opponent of Trump. He refuses to engage when asked questions about the former President and walked a tight rope during the move to oust Cheney, who he considers a friend. Katko told a local paper that he would vote for Stefanik, a fellow New Yorker, for conference chair, but only if Cheney was removed. It gave him the opportunity to never take a firm position on Cheney’s ouster while backing Stefanik.
“I have a lot of respect for John,” said Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan, another Republican who voted to impeach Trump and serves on the Homeland Security committee with Katko.
Even some Republicans who were unhappy with the agreement he struck on the commission were still happy Katko was involved in the process.
“John did a good job making a really bad product better,” said Rep. Tom Cole from Oklahoma.
Katko’s willingness to strike the agreement without direct input from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was noticed by Democrats as well. During the Rules Committee meeting on the bill, Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado thanked Katko for attempting to take the politics out of the negotiations.
“I just want to begin by saying to Mr. Katko,” Perlmutter said, “thank you for your guts.”
California Rep. Judy Chu tweeted a photo of she and Katko on Tuesday holding a small dog that had the text “Our Fragile Democracy” atop it.
“It’s always better when we work together, just as we should for the #January6th commission,” she wrote.
Katko, like all members of Congress, has his detractors, but his primarily come from the Republican’s far right flank.
“He has a different view of January 6 than almost all the Republicans in the House,” Rep. Ken Buck told CNN.
“I think (McCarthy) thought it was very important, on a bill that is as serious and important as this bill, that he be part of the process and I imagine that disturbed the leader a great deal,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey.
A different reaction
A key reason Katko has been able to weather the post-impeachment storm is he has received support from Republicans back home.
When the New York congressman voted to impeach Trump, there were some Republican leaders in his district who were surprised — and the most conservative among them said they had lost confidence in the Republican. But the reaction to that vote among most Republican county parties in Katko’s district has been markedly different than the reaction elsewhere to people like Cheney, Meijer and others.
Where Republican county and state parties have censured colleagues like Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez and national Republicans from former President Donald Trump to hosts on Fox News have targeted people like Cheney, Katko has largely gone unscathed, with some county parties openly voting not to censure him.
“I want a person who seeks the truth and then does the right thing because he or she knows the truth. And that is what we got with John Katko representing us,” said Sue Dwyer, the Cayuga County Clerk and a member of the county’s Republican Party.
The Cayuga County party considered censuring Katko after the vote, but when the Republican congressman appeared before them to explain his vote shortly before they considered the censure, he won the Republican body over. Katko, according to party members, walked them through how unsafe January 6 was for lawmakers in the Capitol and the threat the insurrection posed.
After hearing from Katko directly, the reprimand was overwhelmingly voted down.
“When you look at what our district is made up of, you will see that you cannot be way, way over one way or the other,” she said, “and still win office or be effective.”
And in Onondaga County, the largest in Katko’s district, Republican Chairwoman Benedicte Doran issued a statement after January 6 that excoriated Trump.
“The words and actions by President Trump have continued to inappropriately sow unfounded doubts in the election,” she said at the time. “The Republican Party is bigger than just one person.” Doran declined to be interviewed for this story.
Katko, despite running in a district that rejected Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 election, has never won an election by less than 5 percentage points.
In 2014, Katko easily defeated incumbent Rep. Dan Maffei by nearly 20 percentage points, trouncing the Democrat by casting himself as an independent politician in a time of hyper partisanship.
“Anybody want to know why I’m wearing a purple tie?” Katko asked during his victory speech, according to local reports. “It’s a combination of red and blue because we all got to get together.”
Since then, Katko has proven resilient, despite running in a district routinely targeted by Democrats.
Katko easily won reelection again in 2016, winning over 60% of the vote despite the fact that Trump lost the district. Katko again won reelection in 2018, despite Democrats winning back the House and making gains in districts won by Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. And then Katko won reelection once more by 10 percentage points in 2020, despite Biden winning the district by almost the same margin — making him one of only nine Republicans nationwide to represent a district won by the President.
So, when McCarthy came out against the deal he brokered, Katko dismissed the possible kerfuffle.
“Everybody’s got their own choices, that’s all it is,” he told reporters Wednesday. “If it wasn’t far enough, then that’s cool. I’m all good.”