A virtual debate between the candidates in New York’s 40th state Senate District covered just a few topics – the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice and cash bail reform. The latter prompted the candidates to raise their voices and refute one another.
Tuesday’s News 12 debate featured Democratic state Senator Pete Harckham and former Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican. Harckham, who won a close race for his first term in 2018, says he’s delivered results during the COVID-19 crisis.
“This year, my team and I focused a lot of attention on our constituents during the coronavirus pandemic but we still managed to pass the second most amount of legislation in the entire Senate, focused on the families and workers around Indian Point, saving taxpayers money in the Mahopac school district, also dealing with climate change, opioid crisis and local economic development," says Harckham. "Challenging year but very productive.”
Astorino, who in 2017 lost his bid for a third term as county executive to Democrat George Latimer, won his first two terms handily in a 2-to-1 Democratic county. Some blamed his loss on a blue wave in response to President Trump’s election the year prior. In addition to jumpstarting the economy, Astorino, of Mount Pleasant, says his other priority as senator would be to repeal the elimination of most forms of cash bail for nonviolent offenders. These came as part of criminal justice reforms enacted last year which Astorino calls dangerous.
“Look, there is a reason why the judges and cops and lawyers and prosecutors think this is a dangerous law. Just ask them, Democrats and Republicans,” says Astorino. “Here’s a list of crimes that don’t qualify for cash bail that Peter thought was a good idea to let criminals be arrested and released back into our communities: Domestic violence, animal cruelty, child pornography…”
He continued with several other offenses, then Harckham weighed in.
“Let’s be clear, I did not co-sponsor the original bail law. I co-sponsored the fixes,” Harckham says.
“You voted for it,” Astorino says.
“I co-sponsored the fixes, and all of those things that Rob is trying to scare people with are covered in the law," Harckham says. "There were flaws in the first version of the bill. We fixed most of those back in April, and if somebody was a repeat offender, DAs and judges have the ability to remand those people, and it’s in the law. Read the law, Rob.”
“Ask the District Attorneys Association. They listed all those crimes. A judge just called me yesterday, and he’s so frustrated that he’s got to release these," Astorino says. "And the guy I just talked about Long Island, Pete, he was arrested four times in the last three months, repeat offender. They could not hold him because he didn’t qualify for bail under your dangerous law. He just killed his father and his sister.”
“Again, it’s absolutely false,” says Harckham. “The mechanism within the law allows DAs and judges to hold repeat offenders.”
Cash bail reform is a campaign issue dividing Democrats and Republicans throughout the state. Meantime, with COVID-19 cases rising, including in the Hudson Valley, the candidates were asked whether Governor Andrew Cuomo’s approach to contain clusters or President Trump’s view of living with the virus and opening the economy. Astorino says the right approach is a little of both. He lost to Governor Cuomo in 2014.
“But we do have to take it serious, we do have to socially distance and wear our masks, but I do think that better times are to come, but a full lockdown and shutdown is not something that we should do,” says Astorino. “In fact, the World Health Organization and others have said it would be the last thing we should do. Another full lockdown would be terrible for the United States and specifically to the most hard-hit state in America right here in New York, in the Hudson Valley.”
Harckham called Trump’s coronavirus response deplorable.
“So the important thing is that we’ve got to keep people safe, and that’s masks, that’s social distancing. And you know, Rob was saying we’ve got to get everyone back to school,” Harckham says. “Many of our parents don’t want their kids in school. Many of the superintendents I work with are at half attendance because parents are afraid to send their kids to school.”
The 40th state Senate district includes portions of Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess Counties. In addressing the impacts from the coronavirus pandemic, Harckham says school and municipal needs are great. The South Salem resident says the pandemic highlights the digital divide and underscores the need for federal funding.
“But there needs to be massive assistance, not just to the state, but counties and municipalities,” says Harckham. “You can’t tax your way out of this, you can’t cut your way out of this, you can’t borrow. So the governor has said all three would need to be on the table. I tend to agree with that.”
“Well, praying for a federal bailout is not how we solve our problems. We do have enormous problems in this state,” says Astorino. “The past budget, what happened, Peter Harckham and the rest of them added billions and billions of dollars to the state budget, creating even a bigger deficit as we go forward, and they’ve already said, you just said if you listened, that he will raise taxes.”
In closing remarks, Harckham went first.
“Truth be told, my opponent, Rob, is running for governor. That’s, that’s not a secret. People know he’s running for governor and he’s using this as a stepping stone,” says Harckham. “So when people decide as to what their vote is going to be, do they want somebody who’s going to be there seven days a week and focus on their needs or somebody who’s looking to use this for their personal and political aspiration.”
Astorino had a different message, partially delivered in Spanish, which he used to do on the county campaign trail.
“I will work across party lines in Albany because we have to. It’s not enough to just reopen New York, we have to rebuild it. People are hurting right now. We need jobs and we cannot raise taxes,” says Astorino. “A mis amigos y amigas en la comunidad Latina, yo quisiera su apoyo y su vote [To my friends in the Latin community, I would like your support and vote] and to everybody, and to everybody — Democrat, Republican and Independent — I would be honored to be your next state senator.”
Debate audio is courtesy of News 12.