A first-term New York state Senator and his Republican opponent recently took part in an Orange County Citizens Foundation debate. Democrat James Skoufis is seeking re-election in the 39th District, which had been held by longtime Republican Senator Bill Larkin, who did not seek re-election in 2018 and died at age 91 a year later. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne has more on the contentious debate.
The 39th District includes parts of Orange, Rockland and Ulster Counties. The tone was set during opening statements Thursday. Skoufis says on the heels of the coronavirus pandemic, there must be a two-pronged focus in the next two years.
“One, over the next two years, the next term of this senator has to protect our public’s health. Nothing else works, nothing else matters if we don’t first protect our public’s health. And, on a parallel track, we have to rebuild the economy. We’ve got to rebuild our small businesses, we’ve got to put people back to work. That’s the focus,” Skoufis says. “This is not the time, it’s never the time but, especially now is not the time, to send someone to Albany who is a lifelong partisan, who is going to wage ideological crusades. We need someone with a steady hand on the tiller, a level head and someone who digs in and does the work. I look forward to doing that work the next two years.”
Republican Steve Brescia, chair of the Orange County legislature, addressed the tone of the campaign during his opening statement.
“I’m running mainly because I don’t like the direction the state of New York is going in. It’s less affordable, it’s less safe and it’s just not a fun place to live or, it’s not the Empire State anymore that we grew up with, many of us. And we need leadership in Albany, and we’re not getting that right now,” Brescia says. “And my opponent just seems to be attacking me personally rather than sticking to the issues. And it’s been a punch in the gut, I gotta tell you that, for this whole campaign. I’m like the Rodney Dangerfield candidate in this election. I’m the old man, as Senator Skoufis calls me. That’s why I put out signs, vote for the old man with common sense and vote for the old man with leadership ability.”
Asked about closing a more than $14 billion state budget gap, Skoufis says there are two possible solutions to solve the COVID-19 driven deficit — cuts and taxes.
“The way I propose to close it is to have a very modest increase in personal incomes taxes on New Yorkers who are fortunate enough to make more than $5 million annually. This would be a temporary, two-year surcharge to get us through the financial crisis of this pandemic, and that would raise a number of billions of dollars,” Skoufis says. “I would accelerate casino licenses in New York City, not the opening of the casinos, the license process — that’s a billion dollars.”
The former state assemblyman says he won’t support cuts to health care or education. Brescia, who is a longtime Village of Montgomery mayor, has different ideas and wants to cut waste.
“I mean, let’s look at the low-hanging fruit in the state of New York, not what Senator Skoufis just discussed. Let’s take away the $420, $420 excuse me, million-dollar tax credit for the Hollywood film industry, and let’s cut out the $100 million for public funding, which is supposed to cure corruption but we know it’s going to exacerbate corruption and make it worse, as we’ve seen in New York City,” says Brescia. “Let’s cut out some of the other items, dip into the millions of rainy day funds that the state has, and I believe it’s over a billion. I didn’t get that verified today. Let’s eliminate $27 million for free tuition that the senator voted for as an assemblyman.
The two verbally attacked each other in most rebuttals. For most topics, the two presented stark differences and, at times, each leveled his share of accusations. When talking about economic development, two big projects in Orange County dominated the conversation — Medline, the country’s largest privately-held manufacturer and distributor of medical supplies, which broke ground over the summer on a 1.3 million square-foot facility in the Town of Montgomery; and Amazon, with plans for a warehouse, also in the town.
“So there was a lot of controversy about those projects but, at the end of the day, Medline is going to have, going to produce, with their 45-B agreement, they’re going to produce, I believe, $26 million in tax revenue to the Town of Montgomery and the school district, and Amazon is $29 million, and I didn’t take a stance on either one of them,” Brescia says. “You had your man at one of our hearings just trying to cause a little bit of commotion.”
“I would just say, on Medline, once again, my opponent cited the large property taxes that Medline will be paying and, again, I’m proud of the fact that I got them to that number working with RPM and local residents while you stood on the sidelines,” Skoufis says. “That number you cited is $10 million higher because of our efforts, no thanks to you.”
“What about all the construction jobs? If you go to the Medline site, you see New Jersey plate, New Jersey plate, Pennsylvania plate and so on. So you really cost the county a lot of residual income in the Town of Montgomery and the surrounding area and others, so, but, I still haven’t heard your stance on Amazon. You kept quiet about that,” Brescia says. “What’s the difference between Amazon, a million square-foot warehouse, and Medline, a 1.3 million square-foot warehouse, where you were out there with your t-shirt on playing the caped crusader, and you didn’t say anything about Amazon. You sat like a sheep in the pasture.”
Skoufis did not talk about Amazon beyond this. In answer to a question about leadership and the ability to be decisive, Skoufis stressed his independence.
“I represent a district that Donald Trump won by five percent four years ago; Assembly District, 12 percent he won. And so, that goes to tell you that I can’t win these races with just Democrats,” says Skoufis. “I’m proud of the fact that many, many Republicans have saw fit to cross over and support me in these races. And I hope and look for that to continue.”
“Last year, out of all 40 state Senate Democrats, I had the second most independent of the 40 voting records, in terms of breaking with ranks and voting for or against legislation compared to the rest of my party and where they voted, and so, that is independence,” says Skoufis.
“And he’s never really never served in a leadership position. I’ve been mayor of the Village of Montgomery for 30 years, and I don’t do that by, without compromise, and chairman of the legislature because I go across party lines and I talk to people,” Brescia says. “And you can bet your bottom dollar that some of those people that cross-voted for you that time aren’t going to vote for you this time, especially those in law enforcement.”
Brescia also criticized the elimination of most forms of cash bail for nonviolent offenders. This came as part of criminal justice reforms enacted last year. The two debated about several other topics, including affordable housing, energy and the approach to improving communication with the Orthodox Jewish Town of Palm Tree.