19th Congressional District candidates John Faso and Zephyr Teachout sat side by side Thursday in a WAMC Northeast Public Radio debate that stuck mostly to well-tread campaign talking points, but veered briefly into the personal when Teachout attacked Faso’s voting record during his time in the Assembly.
Teachout, a Democrat, accused Republican Faso of missing 1,700 votes during his 15 years in the Assembly. Faso claimed he was on legislative business during the votes that he missed, and during 104 of the missed votes he was attending to his wife who was recovering from surgery for cancer.
“I think I was at the right place, Ms. Teachout,” said Faso, shifting to address his opponent directly. “I was at the right place at her side in the hospital, worrying about her and our two children, instead of sitting in the Assembly. And I think that's really a below-the-belt kind of thing.”
Teachout told reporters after the debate that she sympathizes with Faso for missing the 104 votes during his wife’s recovery, but those aside, there are still over 1,500 votes that he missed. “Most people can’t take a paycheck and then not show up for work,” she said.
Both candidates are vying to succeed Rep. Chris Gibson (R-Kinderhook), who is retiring after three terms in Congress to teach a leadership course at Williams College. The 19th Congressional District includes all of Columbia, Delaware, Greene, Otsego, Schoharie, Sullivan and Ulster counties, and parts of Broome, Dutchess, Montgomery and Rensselaer counties.
Faso wasted no time on Thursday in painting his opponent as a carpetbagger who parachuted into the district from Brooklyn. Teachout, a tenured law professor at Fordham University, moved into the district last March, but at Thursday’s debate touted her rural upbringing in Windsor County, VT, as being similar to the 19th District.
In turn, Teachout was quick to label Faso as a career politician and Super PAC beneficiary who worked on behalf of the fracking industry as a lobbyist for an Albany-based law firm after leaving public office.
Faso said he never worked as a lobbyist for a fracking company, and that the most prominent client he represented as a lobbyist was the autism advocacy group Autism Speaks.
When pressed on gun control, Faso said he would not support federal legislation to close the so-called gun show loophole where unlicensed dealers can sell firearms without performing background checks. He also gave a lukewarm nod of support for Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump, but maintained that he “wants to work across party lines to fix problems.”
“I said right from the get-go that I was going to support my party’s nominee, and that’s still the case,” said Faso.
Faso stressed that his biggest priority if elected would be spurring economic growth in upstate New York.
“If we do not get more growth, we will not be able to fulfill our obligations to seniors and veterans, much less provide opportunities for our children and grandchildren to find prosperity and happiness and hope in our country,” he said.
Faso believes the support that was seen in the district for Trump and Bernie Sanders during the presidential primary was a manifestation of the economic frustration that exists in the district.
“I have a serious plan to build the small-business economy,” said Faso, who supports ending what he calls federal over-regulation of small and medium-sized banks that are forced to “prepare reports that no one reads. That’s the problem that is stifling small business in our state.”
Teachout reiterated her support for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, but stressed that she’s someone who thinks for herself.
“I’ve shown in the past that I’m always willing to be independent when I disagree, and there’s plenty that I disagree with the top of the ticket on,” said Teachout. “I showed two years ago when I ran against Andrew Cuomo that I’m going to be independent, and I think it’s really important because people are independent, they’ve been disappointed by both parties ... and that disappointment is real and it’s for real reasons.”
On the local economy, Teachout said if elected she would work to break up the big banks and force them to lend to independent businesses, whom she called the “true job creators.” She’s also in favor of re-negotiating trade deals like NAFTA and reducing the $10 billion-a-year trade deficit she said the U.S. has with China.
“The core of the plan is recognizing that both Republicans and Democrats have really abandoned the independent business owner and the family farmer over the last three decades,” said Teachout. “People talk, but when you actually look at what’s happening on the ground it’s much worse.”
Teachout was asked if her support for campaign finance reform and overturning Citizens United is at odds with federal campaign disclosures that showed she raised $1.6 million through the end of June, some of which came from the billionaire Soros family.
“Not at all,” said Teachout. “I’ve spent my life fighting against big money in politics. We really have a crisis of corruption in our country right now. We have that crisis in Albany but also in Washington.”
Teachout claimed donations to her campaign average $19. “I’m really proud of the fact that we’re grassroots funded,” she said.
She then criticized Faso for not agreeing to an earlier campaign proposition she made to keep super PAC money out of the race. Faso responded by saying Teachout is “raising big money from all sorts of people who are connected to super PACS and she knows the law as well as I do, which is I have no control over what someone may spend or do independently.”
The candidates found common ground when they agreed to only serve five terms in congress. Teachout said 10 years is enough for her to achieve her goals in Washington, and Faso said he proposed term limits at the state level when he ran for governor in 2006.
They also agreed that state and federal regulators are both to blame for not stepping in sooner when PFOA contaminants were found in the drinking water in the Rensselaer County Village of Hoosick Falls.
They both agree as well that the tax burden on property owners and small businesses is too high in New York, and that heroin is a scourge in the 19th District that must be eradicated.
Faso and Teachout will meet again in two televised debates before Election Day on Nov. 8: WMHT on Oct. 13 and Time Warner Cable News on Oct. 24.
Reach Gazette reporter Dan Fitzsimmons at 852-9605, [email protected] or @DanFitzsimmons on Twitter.