More Than One Hour

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When the two men who want the Democratic nod for governor only hold a single debate, much is called for from that one event.

Organizers and candidates must keep in mind issues of importance from around the state – and some that are important to those in regions of the state. Those concerns vary not just across the perceived Upstate-Downstate divide, but even from region to region as a poll conduct by my organization, the Center for Governmental Research, and the Marist Institute showed. Take a look again at the New York Matters poll for a better understanding.

But in all honesty, having Upstate concerns mentioned, let alone discussed in detail, was too much to expect in an hour.

And so it was true that Upstate concerns received scant attention during the Eliot Spitzer-Tom Suozzi debate last week. And yes it was also true that the second largest city didn’t even get the televised broadcast of the debate (check out the quizzical response by the Buffalo News to this fact).

The one Upstate question asked candidates, basically, if they would not forget Upstate concerns if elected.Check out the question in the New York Times transcript of the debate, it was asked by Capital Tonight host Brian Taffe.

Left unasked were a number of Upstate discussion points that need serious debate:

  • The state’s school aid formula. Struggling upstate city school districts are in the same position as New York City’s school district. However, there are also those who believe that money won’t cure the problems of education in Rochester, Buffalo or Syracuse (just as it won’t New York City’s schools). Where do these men stand on the overall school aid system?
  • What about overhauling the Workers Compensation benefits package or the state’s pension system. Suozzi did mention the “hostile business climate” when addressing the one Upstate question. There were no specifics on how Suozzi would change the Wicks Law, which businesses say drives up the cost of public construction projects. There was no mention of reforming the Workers Compensation benefit package (check here for a fuller accounting of this issue) or the state’s generous pension plan. Unions have argued against the changes. Where do the candidates stand?
  • Unshackle Upstate – a lobbying effort driven by business groups Upstate – has asked that if the laws above couldn’t be changed, how about exemptions from provisions in those laws for distressed areas upstate? Would either of these candidates go for this?
  • Taxes are too high for Upstate’s economic climate, right? That’s because government spending is too high – second only to Alaska in per-capita spending. The biggest cost of government is people. So what about the state workforce? Suozzi has said in campaign literature that he would cut the workforce of New York by 10 percent. He didn’t say that during the debate. How would he do that and not gut services? Would Spitzer do the same? How would they deal with public employee unions on that score?

So there is no denying that issues of most importance to Upstate New York were lost in the shuffle of downstate concerns during that debate.

But perhaps more troubling about the Upstate slight was this: The lack of understanding that many issues are shared across New York State.

I was traveling on Long Island last week and you might be surprised at how they talk about problems there. Long Islanders speak about losing their young people in droves – just like we do in Rochester, Buffalo and Binghamton. They speak of a high property tax burden, one that, in fact, may be more of an acute problem than in upstate regions. They see a stagnant economy that is more reliant on tourism, because traditional manufacturing industries are shrinking.

A debate that had sprinkled in a few targeted issues for Upstate along with the questions about the New York City’s mass transit system and its redevelopment efforts for Ground Zero would have achieved some balance.

That would have allowed Upstate voters to feel included. And that might have helped them connect more with the larger issues – taxes, government spending, state regulations – that have an impact wherever you claim your home. Perhaps even an occasional nod to places beyond New York City metropolitan area when asking about the larger issues would have helped knit together what is that perceived state geographic divide.

But don’t place the entire blame on the organizers of the debate. Instead, put some of the onus on the candidates, more specifically the frontrunner, for the dearth of debates.

We need more than one debate before the primary … and a few of them before the general election.

Suozzi wants more of these, including one on the Upstate economy. Agree to them, Mr. Spitzer. Because now is our time for hearing answers and making choices. And this state is just too diverse for one hour to seem even remotely satisfying.

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