The evening of September 15, 2016, found 6 candidates gathered at the Tabernacle United Methodist Church at 83 Main Street in Binghamton, NY. The 2+ hour gathering was a public event to allow candidates for the NY 52nd State Senate, the 123rd Assembly, and Broome County Executive elections to gather and present where they stand on some of the critical issues facing the State and local community.
More than 75 people attended the event, moderated by Bob Joseph of WNBF and the Binghamton Now talk radio program. The candidates were: incumbent State Senator Fred Akshar and his challenger Sharon Ball; incumbent Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo and her opponent Dorollo Nixon; and the incumbent Debbie Preston with her challenger Jason Garnar. The audience included several prominent members of Citizen Action, supporters from the Democratic and Republican Parties, and 2 of the major news stations (WICZ and WBNG).
The Candidate Forum was not a debate, rather it was an opportunity for each candidate to introduce themselves to the public. After the opening statements of each candidate, there were 4 general topics that had been agreed to by all the campaigns. They were Jobs, Heroin, Healthcare, and Community. From this realm of subjects, each candidate answered a question generated and offered by Bob Joseph. In all 5 questions were asked – What initiatives to bring jobs would the candidate seek; What more can we do about the Heroin epidemic; Programs to engage the youth; How to address the needs of the senior citizen population; and the Environment. The event then finished with closing statements by each candidate. Each candidate was allotted 90 seconds to answer, that was amended to 2 minutes by moderator Bob Joseph after all had answered the first question. Candidates were asked to refrain from attacks on their opponents, Parties, or other candidates.
What followed [Listen to audio of first hour of Forum] in some ways was the expected. Incumbents highlighted the record of recent achievements that they had accomplished, challengers promised a new direction. Republicans focused on cutting taxes, funding, regulations, and minimizing government intrusion. Democrats focused on training, blame of corporations, and larger government focus on individual needs. But to say that was all that was said would be an insult to incumbents, challengers, Republicans and Democrats.
In reference to jobs, the first question of the night and the most critical issue in the mind of constituents in the Southern Tier (currently there is a 5.6% unemployment rate as of July according to BLS data) there were a range of answers. State Sen. Akshar emphasized that the government cannot be the primary source of jobs and minimizing government intrusion was key to his small business advisory council. Sharon Ball focused on culture as being the cure to the lack of jobs, defying the need for outside investments or companies. Assemblywoman Lupardo addressed the benefits of regional partnerships created via Gov. Cuomo, and how this has improved agriculture and transportation in the area. Dorollo Nixon noted how only organic growth of business via entreprenuers could resolve the problems currently faced, and gave and example of how over-regulation was killing small business owners (as well as a potential solution to this problem). County Executive Preston echoed the thought that too much red tape was impeding growth, and several projects are ready to launch in coming weeks. Jason Garnar highlighted his belief that though 2,000 job opening exist at this time this was due to a lack of job training – a result of funding cuts.
Of course there were points that each candidate avoided or obfuscated as well. For Sen. Akshar and Assemblywoman Lupardo it was their votes for $15 minimum wage. Sharon Ball failed to address how focus on arts would benefit farmers and manufacturers in the District. Dorollo Nixon failed to clarify how his solution of 1 year licenses (excluding Doctors/Lawyers/and similar specialized fields) would not grow government. County Executive Preston took credit for the Dick’s Sporting Goods deal, and ignored the fact that airport flights from the region had recently been reduced due to lack of need. Jason Garnar edged on attacking his opponent in opposition to the rules, and repeated virtually verbatim his position that he stated in an interview just prior to the event and a video placed on Facebook earlier in the day.
But the forum was not about overly in-depth answers from any candidate. Nor was it meant to address every aspect of the issues being discussed. What it did do was clarify where each candidate stood and how they propose to carry out the duties of the respective positions they are asking the public to elect them to. Each candidate clearly stood out from their opponent in each criteria being asked. In that regard the event was a major success.
To the issue of the Heroin crisis, all the candidates agreed that more needs to be done. Jason Garnar relayed the personal aspect of the issue as it affected his own family, and his desire to increase medical health services. County Executive Preston detailed her efforts with Albany to repurpose the closed Broome Developmental Center and confirmed increased funding in 2017. Dorollo Nixon looked at the spiritual aspects of addiction, and that more beds for rehabilitation is not the same as a solution to the problem though education from police in schools detailing the serious problems of addiction may be one solution. Assemblywoman Lupardo recalled how her efforts years ago to stem over-prescription practices turned out to not be enough, and blamed insurance companies practices for reducing the potential treatment of some addicts. Sharon Ball was the only candidate to bring race into any issue discussed, equated the reaction to the Heroin crisis to that of the early stages of the AIDS crisis, and emphasized how this must be fought as a cultural issue with families and community to be combated. State Sen. Akshar noted his multiple efforts to date in creating programs to fight this crisis along with the State Senate, his work in the community on the issue, and a call to end political posturing that hampers efforts to combat Heroin use.
In responding to the question of retaining and providing programs for the youth in Binghamton, a population that leads the exodus out of the County, Asseblywoman Lupardo noted her connection to her young staff as representatives of the younger community, their needs and desires, while celebrating their innovation. Dorollo Nixon related one of several experiences he had with youth detailing how difficult the job market had become and the need to change New York from the least business friendly State by cutting regulations and taxes. Sen. Akshar identified a focus on young children in lower grades of public school and how he helped in directing $434 million to maintain and grow school programs will motivate the youth. Sharon Ball lamented the struggle for hope among the youth, and suggested fighting the perception that youth (and the general public) lack the ability to change Government and policy. County Executive Preston promoted the grants she had gotten to expand after school programs – Mountain bikes in Harpursville, a modified fitness room in Binghamton, and a gardening program in Deposit – and the expectation to widen the number of similar programs. Jason Garnar, citing his experiences with his own young children, related the importance of parents being able to spend time with their children as well as the need for some form of mentorship when that is not possible – while blaming the Cuomo 2% tax cap for limiting the breath of such programs available.
In looking at the other end of the spectrum of the community, Senior Citizens, many of the candidates took a moment to jokingly jab at each other and themselves on their ages before getting serious on the issue. Sharon Ball started the responses by sharing her experience in becoming a retiree and how the need for government “navigators” (people to help seniors find and maximize their options) is necessary. Sen. Akshar followed, relaying his efforts to help extend the fixed income of seniors via enhanced STAR programs, providing $26 million in Alzheimer’s research funding, and touting a need to reduce regulations that prevent local government from further helping seniors. Dorollo Nixon shared his experience as a Board member in an organization to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, and reminded those in attendance that the need for jobs was as imperative for seniors as it is for the youth. Assemblywoman Lupardo observed that many seniors may be uncomfortable and unaware of the services available in echoing the need for “navigators” as Sharon Ball had related, and shared her thoughts on expanding home services as an alternative to nursing homes. Jason Garnar shared a story of his grandparents experiences with advanced age, and how the need for transportation even for those not quite officially seniors is a vital concern. County Executive Preston celebrated the fact that she has kept and ensured for the future that Willow Point Nursing Home would not close on her watch, while confirming that additional minibuses were on the way to further increase the mobility of seniors in the region.
Overall, Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo was perhaps the most polished of the candidates at the Tabernacle Forum. Equally it would be fair to say that State Senator Akshar was the most energetic. The most pragmatic would be Dorollo Nixon, the most idealistic Sharon Ball, and most confrontational would be Jason Garnar who ended the night violating the terms of the Forum with a direct attack on County Executive Debbie Preston that was met with a counter-attack in reply.
For those members of the public that missed the event, there will be another candidate forum at the Vestal Public Library on Monday September 19, 2016. The event, the 6th Candidate Forum by the Americans for Restoring the Constitution (AFRTC) since 2010, will also include NY-22 congressional candidate Claudia Tenney – Kim Myers declined to attend, Martin Babinec did not respond to requests to attend. State Senate candidate Sharon Ball will not be able to appear but will meet with members of the AFRTC at a later date. County Executive Debbie Preston declined the event.
The AFRTC Candidate Forum features questions collected from attendees presented to the candidates. Candidates are under time restriction to respond, as with all forums and debates. No attacks of other candidates are allowed.
** Note – M V Consulting, Inc has in the past and/or will be interviewing several of the candidates at the Tabernacle Candidate Forum. Interviews in the past have been done with State Senator Fred Akshar, as well as Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo (who will again be interviewed next week). Jason Garnar has confirmed the intent to be interviewed in the next 2 weeks based on schedule availability. Offers for interview have been extended to all other candidates as well. **