Alumni Spotlights

John Katko, ’84: A Life of Advocacy

John Katko, ’84, was elected as the U.S. representative for the 24th Congressional District of New York in November 2014. He is a cum laude graduate of Niagara University, where he earned a bachelor of arts in political science and received the Niagara Medal. The Camillus, N.Y., native has been married to his wife, the former Robin Gibson (who attended NU’s College of Nursing), for 27 years. They have three sons: Sean, Liam, and Logan. We recently caught up with Rep. Katko to ask him about his career, his inspiration, and what he hopes to accomplish in Congress.

Why did you choose to attend NU?
I chose to attend Niagara University because I was drawn to the environment of a small, Catholic institution. Additionally, a number of my family members had attended, or were attending Niagara University at the time.

When did you first know you wanted to be an attorney? Why?
I first decided that I wanted to pursue a career in law while I was studying at Niagara University. The political science curriculum at NU was writing-intensive, which I enjoyed. I decided that I wanted to continue on a career path that would allow me to focus on writing and challenge my advocacy capabilities.

What one thing that you learned at Niagara has served you best in your career?
Niagara taught me humility and the significance of always keeping an eye on the most important things in life. I truly believe that the religion and philosophy classes required by the Niagara University core curriculum instilled in me a view of life that I would not have had if I attended a public institution.

What was your career path from NU to today?
Following my graduation from Niagara University, I worked at my uncle’s insurance company for a year. I then went on to pursue a law degree at Syracuse University College of Law. Upon graduating from law school, I began a legal career in private practice at a firm in Washington, D.C. It was not long before I embarked on a career in public service, serving first as a senior trial attorney at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in the Enforcement Division, and then commencing my 20-year career as an assistant U.S. attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice. Throughout my career as a prosecutor, I had the opportunity to serve as a senior trial attorney on the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, and in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Ultimately, my wife, Robin, and I returned to Camillus to raise our family. For over 15 years, I served as a federal organized crime prosecutor in Syracuse for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of New York. In this role, I led high-level narcotics prosecutions and was instrumental in formulating the Syracuse Gang Violence Task Force and successfully prosecuting the first-ever RICO gang case in the City of Syracuse, which led to a significant drop in the city’s violent crime rate. I also prosecuted political and police corruption cases.

I retired from the U.S. Department of Justice in January 2013 to run for U.S. Congress. In November 2014 I was elected to represent the 24th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, which includes all of Onondaga, Cayuga, and Wayne counties and a portion of Oswego County.

What would you consider the highlights of your career and why?
The highlights of my career include formulating and implementing the Syracuse Gang Violence Task Force. The Task Force’s inception changed the course of law enforcement in Syracuse, dramatically reducing violent crime in the City of Syracuse.

What did you enjoy most about your job as an attorney?
My favorite part about being an attorney was having the ability to advocate my position on high-stakes issues.

This was your first run for any political office. What made you run for Congress?
I left my 20-year career as a federal prosecutor to run for public office because I believe Central New York deserves strong, independent leadership in Washington. I could not stand on the sidelines any longer and watch the divisive party politics in Washington and the negative impact that it would have on our children and grandchildren.

The race gained national attention, and your victory was a come-from-behind win. Was there a time when you lost confidence in your ability to win the election?
Early on, I made a decision to be at peace with any result the election would bring. I was determined to work as hard I could.

Of course, there were high highs and low lows. But our team was on the ground working tirelessly every day. I think the people of NY-24 recognized that our district deserved a stronger leader in Washington, and I am honored and humbled that they put their trust in me to represent Central New York in Congress.

How will you define success in this position?
I will define success by positively impacting our community and the lives of the people who live here and by achieving tangible results through legislation.

What’s the significance of the purple tie?
I wore a purple tie on Election Day to signify my commitment to working in a bipartisan manner to represent Central New York in Congress. I believe that we need to work together – Democrats and Republicans. That means reaching across the aisle and working with the other side. To get things done for our country, it is imperative that we take into consideration what both parties have to say and engage in the great art of compromise.

The purple tie was also a nod to my alma mater. It was at Niagara that I formed the foundation for my future successes.

What do you do in your spare time?
When I am home in NY-24 I spend a majority of my time meeting with constituents across my four-county district. But family is always first. I coach my sons in hockey and enjoy spending time with my wife, my sons, and our black lab, Sadie.

What is your philosophy in your life and career?
Treat others the way you expect to be treated.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life? What lessons did that person teach you?
My wife, Robin, has been the biggest influence on my life. Since the first day we met at Niagara University, she has consistently reinforced to me that when you are nice to the people around you, good things happen.

Is there anything else that you would like to say?
Go Purple Eagles!