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Candidates debate issues for the 118th Assembly District

Candidates debate issues for the 118th Assembly District

Legal marijuana, healthcare and guns among topics
Candidates debate issues for the 118th Assembly District
From left are Patrick Vincent, Philip Paige, Keith Rubino and Robert Smullen.
Photographer: Jason Subik/Gazette Reporter

118th Assembly District  -- The Pine Tree Rifle club hosted a pre-primary candidates debate that included members of two parties seeking the 118th Assembly District seat.

All four declared candidates for the district participated in the debate forum: Republicans Philip Paige of Madrid, who is the former St. Lawrence County assistant administrator; Patrick Vincent of Cold Brook, owner of Vincent's Heating and Fuel Service in Poland; Robert Smullen of Johnstown, a retired Marine Corps colonel who until recently served as the executive director of the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District; and Democrat Keith Rubino of Herkimer, an employee of the Central New York Developmental Services Office and a CSEA union member.

The 118th District includes Fulton, Hamilton, Oneida, Herkimer and St. Lawrence counties. County party endorsements have so far split along geographical lines with the Fulton County Republican Party endorsing Smullen and the Herkimer County Republican Party endorsing Vincent.

The seat, held for many years by retiring Assemblyman Marc Butler, R-Newport, has the following registered voters: 39,748 Republicans, 21,803 Democrats and 4,994 independents.

The debate began with opening statements and then featured questions from the audience selected by Pine Tree Rifle Club President Paul Catucci. Candidates were given approximately 60 seconds to respond to questions.

All four candidates expressed support for the 2nd Amendment right to own guns and a desire to either repeal the New York state SAFE Act in part or completely. Each said they would need to partner with Assembly Democrats to make progress on the issue.

Other questions involved legalization of marijuana, how to lower costs for New York state businesses and reduce the local share of Medicaid and what to do about border security and illegal immigration.

Rubino said New York should join states like Colorado and legalize marijuana, providing a source of tax revenue to pay for infrastructure repairs and lower local property taxes.

"I want to raise revenue. I am a very big proponent of legalizing marijuana in New York state. I think that we have an incredible opportunity to raise a massive amount of revenue from marijuana, and looking at Colorado we've seen that the usage of marijuana has actually gone down and Colorado made about $5 billion after three years of legalizing marijuana," he said. "I've plugged in and crunched the numbers for New York state, and I saw we could see something to the tune of $15 billion three years in."

The three Republicans on the panel expressed caution on the issue of legalizing marijuana. Paige, a libertarian who plans to run on that party line in November irrespective of the outcome of the Republican Party primary, said he supports individual liberty, but cautions that the federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule I drug, which means attempting to take it over the Canadian border can result in serious federal felony charges. He said the federal government should change its policy and recognize that marijuana does have medicinal uses, before New York state legalizes it and sends a mixed message.

Vincent and Smullen expressed skepticism about raising state revenues through legalizing recreational marijuana and instead advocated lowering state spending. Both advocated that the state alleviate some of the local share of Medicaid while finding ways to lower the costs of that program without hurting the poor who need it.

Vincent said he thinks New York is missing a major opportunity by not legalizing natural gas fracking.

"I'm going to hold back on marijuana legalization until we have more information. What we need, ladies and gentlemen, is more jobs. What I'm all in favor of is legalized fracking. We're the Saudi Arabia of natural gas," Vincent said.

Smullen said the marijuana legalization is very prickly issue and a slippery slope to many people. "I say, hasten slowly in a case like this, where time is the thing that allows people to move forward and for attitudes to change and for people and views to change, and if it comes down to voting on things, I say vote carefully and vote slowly and be able to make sure that the debate is very well ventilated in the public sphere, because otherwise we'll end up with a whipsaw effect on the federal and state level, and it will be very confusing for folks."

Paige said one thing that might differentiate him from his Republican opponents will be his willingness to criticize Republican leaders in Albany, even at the cost of discretionary spending items doled out to legislators.

"When you do your discretionary spending, you're beholden to your party leader and God forbid you say anything that's out of line, kiss your discretionary spending goodbye, so I have said I will not accept or direct any discretionary spending," he said.

Rubino said the best way to lower health care costs for businesses and New Yorkers would be to convert the state to a single-payer health care system that could lower prices by being the only purchaser of health care. His position on health care drew the loudest applause of the night, despite a mostly conservative crowd of about 50 people.

Fulton County Sheriff Richard Giardino told the candidates that New York state needs to do a better job with mental health services, an issue that is often cited by gun rights advocates as a potential alternative to more restrictive gun control laws.

All four candidates expressed broad agreement with Giardino's statement.

Smullen, considered by many the front runner in the race, talked about his experience in the Marine Corps. and how it taught how to unify people of many different backgrounds. In answer to a question about illegal immigration, he said New York state needs to do a better job enforcing the law, while treating people humanely.

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