Four of the five Democratic candidates seeking to replace U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty sparred over issues such as energy and the influence of lobbyists during a debate Sunday.
Tracey Brooks, Darius Shahinfar, Phil Steck and Paul Tonko are seeking the seat of the retiring McNulty, D-Green Island, in the 21st Congressional District. They agreed on most of the issues during a two-hour forum held at Bethlehem Town Hall. About 75 people attended the event, which was sponsored by Democracy for the Hudson-Mohawk Region with support from Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace. Candidate Joseph Sullivan was absent from the forum.
All of the candidates agreed that more investment should be made in renewable energy technology like wind power. Brooks, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, criticized Tonko for his work on energy issues while he was in the state Assembly. She said deregulation of the state’s energy market has resulted in rising costs.
“Paul, you were a champion of deregulation,” she said, adding that he now claims to be against it.
Tonko, a former assemblyman of the 105th District and the former chairman of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, said former Gov. George E. Pataki issued administrative orders to deregulate the energy market — bypassing the Legislature.
The candidates also agreed that more high-technology and “green” jobs are needed to stop the brain-drain of young people leaving New York.
Tonko and Shahinfar said they would only support offshore drilling if it was part of a comprehensive energy package. Brooks and Steck did not support it. Steck called for a windfall-profits tax on oil companies to pay for new investments in renewable energy.
Steck, who is chairman of the Colonie Democratic Committee and a lawyer practicing civil rights and labor law, supported a “carbon tax” on the emission of greenhouse gases. He said it would create jobs.
“Business needs to innovate in order to avoid the tax,” he said.
Brooks said instead of a tax there should be tax breaks for companies that reduce their carbon footprint.
Tonko said he supports the cap-and-trade approach where companies that exceed a cap on emissions could buy credits from another company that is under the cap.
On other domestic issues, all the candidates said the country’s military budget should be cut to reduce the budget deficit and supported a government-run universal single-payer health care plan.
Steck criticized Tonko and Brooks for accepting campaign contributions from political action committees (PACs). Tonko said he supports campaign finance reform, but said during his time in the Assembly his opponents had no qualms about using out-of-state contributions to attack him. It is best to work within the current system.
“You’re put at risk and would be precluded from doing good work,” he said.
Shahinfar, an Albany attorney and former aide to Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, wanted Brooks to sign a pledge not to accept contributions from lobbyists or PACs. Brooks said she has accepted contributions from lobbyists, but will not accept gifts, meals or trips She also does not accept PAC money and said her campaign has 2,000 donors.
“We have the largest number of individuals contributing to my campaign,” she said.
On tax issues, most of the candidates favored rolling back the Bush tax cuts that benefitted the wealthiest Americans. “Working families are taking it on the chin,” Tonko said.
Steck said he did not support raising taxes.
Foreign policy also dominated much of the discussion. All of the candidates supported withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq within six months. Steck said he would not get involved in conflicts such as the current situation between Russia and Georgia.
“I don’t believe the United States should be the policeman of the world,” he said.
Shahinfar disagreed and said the United States needs to be part of a U.N.-led coalition to help out in situations like the genocide in Darfur. It also has to honor its commitment to defend its NATO allies.
“We can’t just cast the Third World aside and say ‘You’re on your own,’ ” he said.
The candidates all said they did not support a resolution sponsored by McNulty that said that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is a threat to world peace. They said they were concerned that the resolution would open the door to a naval blockade or even war with Iran.
Mary Alice Smith of Delmar said she has not decided on who she should support but said the candidates touched on the main issues of the war, the economy and energy.
“I think they’re all progressive and pretty much agree with one another for the most part,” she said.
Republican candidates are James Buhrmaster, Schenectady County legislator and president of Buhrmaster Energy Group in Glenville, and businessman Steve Vasquez.
The primary will be on Sept. 9.