JOHNSTOWN -- Republican candidates for the 118th Assembly District met with questions from voters at a candidate forum held at the Johnstown Senior Center Thursday, but successfully avoided each other.
Robert Smullen, of Johnstown, and Patrick Vincent, of Cold Brook, are set to square off in the GOP primary on Thursday.
Smullen had been challenging Vincent to debate him for the past several weeks, but Vincent has declined stating that he was too busy with other campaigning.
Senior Center President Gary Locatelli, who organized the event, said there were no ground rules about interaction between the candidates set for the event, although Smullen had expressed a desire to him just before the start of the forum that he be able to have "nothing to do with" Vincent.
"I told them before they went up there to keep their talk to about 15 minutes, and then just take questions. That was it," Locatelli said.
While campaigning for office Smullen, a retired marine colonel, is simultaneously battling a charge in Niskayuna of felony filing a false instrument. He was arrested by the New York State Police after a complaint was made by Johnstown Town Board members Don Vanduesen and Timothy Rizzo, with supporting documents obtained by a Freedom of Information Law Request made by Vincent.
The charge against Smullen stems from allegations that he illegally filed a for military combat tax exemption on two of his homes simultaneously, one in Johnstown and one in Niskayuna. The exemption can only be taken on one primary residence. Smullen has admitted to making a mistake with the exemptions and agreed to pay back taxes owed in the town of Niskayuna, arguing that his true primary residence is in the town of Johnstown. Niskayuna is not in the 118th Assembly District, where he is running.
However, his wife and children appear to reside in Niskayuna, at least during the school year.
He has denied the felony charge and argues that his error was made innocently. Niskayuna is not in the 118th Assembly District. Conviction of a felony charge would make Smullen ineligible to serve in the Assembly.
Smullen's legal battle was not mentioned by either candidate or any of the questioners at the forum.
Vincent sat through Smullen's speech and the questions he received. Smullen left the senior center immediately after finishing his turn behind the podium before Vincent began to speak.
Smullen began his speech talking about his upbringing in the town of Johnstown, attending Meco Elementary School and graduating Gloversville High School. He said he participated in ROTC in college and then joined the Marines.
"I never intended to join the Marine Corps and serve an entire career in the Marine Corps, but I actually liked serving in the Marine Corps, and what I liked was that it is an institution of national unity for the United States. The whole military, just like places like West Point and Annapolis [Naval Academy] they bring people from all over the United States, they bring them together for a common purpose, which in this case is to defend the Constitution," he said.
Smullen talked about serving in combat in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001 and about his tenure as the executive director of the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District. He told the audience he recently turned 50 and he would like to join the local 50 and up club.
Greater Johnstown school board President Kathy Dougherty asked the candidates two questions: how would they help school districts like Johnstown, and explain the most difficult situation they faced in their professional life and what they learned from it.
Dougherty told Smullen that state aid to her district is flat because Johnstown has declining student enrollment and the state's combined wealth ratio formula caps the amount of additional aid the district can get even though about 50 percent of Johnstown students are considered to live in poverty. She said rising annual costs at the district have forced the school board to continue to ask residents to support higher taxes. Johnstown's school budget was the only one in the greater Capital Region to be voted down in May, although the second vote in June passed. She asked how Smullen could address the issue being a Republican in an Assembly controlled by two-thirds Democrats.
"In the votes in the Assembly and the committees, the Republicans win all of the arguments, but don't necessarily win all of the votes," Smullen said. "I don't want to over-promise and under-deliver my capacity as an assemblyman. What I can promise is that I'll be a strong voice heard loud and clear."
Dougherty pressed Smullen for a specific proposal regarding school aide, but he said he did not have one.
Smullen told Dougherty that his most difficult professional day was bringing home the dead body of one his best friends to the man's family after he was killed in combat.
Vincent described his life, serving in the U.S. Navy, working as a corrections officer for the state, serving as the mayor of Cold Brook and creating his business, Vincent's Heating and Fuel Service, in Poland in Herkimer County. He outlined his support for trying to connect the New York state Thruway to Fulton County.
"If you had Thruway Access today, two years from now you wouldn't even recognize the place. You'd start to grow again," he said.
He also said he's fearful of the possibility of a single-payer health care system being established in New York state because he's concerned too much of the cost would end up on the backs of property owners.
Dougherty challenged him to look at how a single-payer health care system, which would eliminate private health insurance and replace it with a system similar to Medicare, could help school districts like Johnstown save money.
"We've had insurance brokers come in and talk to us about how we can possibly save money, and right now there's no way to save the cost. If we went to a single-payer system, we could save 20 percent, almost $6 million," she said. "I recognize there would be an offset on the other side, but right now I resent that we are paying health insurance brokers because we don't have a single-payer system. Will you study the savings for a single-payer system for schools?"
"I would look at that, but I have a big fear. You're 100 percent right that it would save some money, but the flip side of it is raising that tax level up," he said.
"Eliminate the middleman," Dougherty said in reference to eliminating private insurance brokers.
Vincent said he's also concerned about the elimination of all of the private sector health insurance jobs, which he thinks could be as high as 200,000. He said he currently receives his health insurance through New York state and is now receiving a pension from his years as a corrections officer.
Smullen is also a pension recipient from the federal government from his career in the Marines.
Vincent said the most difficult day of his professional life was putting a second mortgage on his home to raise the money to start his business, because he knew if he failed he would lose his house.