CLIFTON PARK — U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko and his Republican opponent, Joe Vitollo, set out clearly differing philosophies during a wide-ranging forum Tuesday night at the Hilton Garden Inn. The two will face off in next week’s 20th Congressional District election.
Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said his priorities if he is returned to Congress include protecting Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, while Vitollo criticized Congress for borrowing against Social Security funds, and urged more reliance generally on the private sector.
“Government’s role is policy, the private sector’s role is action,” said Vitollo, a registered nurse who also ran against Tonko two years ago but lost in a landslide.
Much of the discussion at the event sponsored by the Leagues of Women Voters of Schenectady, Saratoga, Albany and Rensselaer counties focused on health care.
Vitollo said he firmly favors government requiring insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions, though be believes providing health insurance should be left to the private sector, not government. He said he’s personally seen doctors and nurses go “above and beyond” for people they knew didn’t have the ability to pay.
Tonko defended the Affordable Care Act — sometimes called Obamacare — even though President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have sought to roll back many of its provisions.
“When people talk about socialized medicine, it’s not accurate,” Tonko said. “What we have is a public/private partnership with the (Affordable Care Act). There’s a reason government steps in. I believe in capitalism, but there has to be a means of addressing when inequality and unfairness come in.”
The men also differed on term limits.
Tonko, who has served in Congress since 2009 and before that served for nearly three decades in the state Assembly, said he doesn’t favor term limits. “I think every two years in Congress and every six years in the Senate you get a report card from the voters,” he said. “It takes time to develop expertise in specific areas.”
Vitollo said he thinks members of Congress should be limited to eight years in office. “The founding fathers never intended anyone to spend a lifetime in Washington, to develop power and develop agendas,” he said. “If the president can get it done in eight years, the Congress should be able to get it done in eight years. Eight years is enough.”
Referring to recent violent incidents, including the murders of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Tonko called for civility and an end to “hateful rhetoric” that he said is coming from some of the most powerful people in the country. “The last couple of days have reminded us that words matter, that tone matters,” he said.
Vitollo, however, said Democrats like Tonko aren’t equally harsh in their condemnation of people who are outspoken on the left. “It seems like one side can do something and the other side can’t,” he said.
The forum also featured the 49th state Senate District race, in which state Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, is being challenged by Democrat Michelle Ostrelich of Niskayuna. Tedisco, who served in the state Assembly for decades, is running for his second term in the state Senate, representing a district that runs from Glenville and Clifton Park into the Adirondacks.
Tedisco and Ostrelich also offered different views on issues ranging from health care to gun ownership.
Ostrelich said she favors a bill that would require “safe storage” of guns in homes with children to prevent accidental shootings.
Tedisco, however, said that interferes with gun owners’ rights, especially in rural areas where police aren’t likely to be nearby. “If someone breaks into their home, I’m not going to tell them they should have their guns locked in a safe,” he said.
Asked about the 2018 federal tax cut and its restrictions on state and local tax deductions, the candidates criticized it, but Tedisco said the solution is to lower New York’s taxes.
“Eighty percent of our constituents do better under this law,” he said. “Why are we suffering? Because we are the highest taxed state in the country.”
Ostrelich said the tax bill is part of a larger federal government assault on New York. “We are suffering in New York. We are under attack by Washington, make no mistake,” she said., “The SALT deduction is just one example of how we are under attack by Washington.”
Ostrelich said New York could have a single-payer health care system paid for by savings from within the current system, while Tedisco said the answers to high health care costs include allowing insurance companies to sell policies across state lines, encouraging individual health savings accounts and legal reforms to reduce the liabilities that he said drive up medical costs.
More than 200 people attended much of the 2 1/2-hour event.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 6, with polls open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.