Last week's debate between Democrat candidates for governor Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi and New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer showed that, despite both being Democrats who have a proven record in their present positions, the two candidates have their share of differences.
Spitzer is the front runner who has statewide name recognition, a sizable war chest and even a book about him that has recently hit bookstores while Suozzi, who never seems to be short on confidence, claims to be the candidate who will bring much needed sweeping reform to Albany to fix a broken state government.
It is no wonder that with the Democratic primary next month and with the Nassau County executive trailing in the polls, Suozzi came out swinging, claiming that he is a chief executive with experience running a government whereas Spitzer is a prosecutor who has been part of the problem that has left Albany broken.
"New York State government is dysfunctional. Both parties are rotten to the core. We have major problems that exist in the state. Eliot's been in office for the past seven-and-a-half years in Albany and he's never really focused on government reform. Instead he's focused on Wall Street. Why? It's government that is hurting us. Now, he's embraced by all the politicians, all the insiders and the lobbyists who have given us this broken system," said Suozzi in his opening statement.
Spitzer shot back in his opening statement about how, when he took over the Attorney General's Office in January 1999, a moribund office was transformed. "We took on pharmaceutical companies that were lying to the public, companies out of state that were polluting our air, government agencies that were defrauding us, that were wasting our tax dollars and we took on those companies in Wall Street that were violating their trust to us by squandering and lying to us and wasting away our pension dollars and our savings," he said, promising to reform state government by cutting property taxes, controlling spending and investing in the infrastructure.
Using his signature phrase, "I can do it because I've done it," Suozzi attempted to drive home the point that as the mayor of the City of Glen Cove and as Nassau County executive, he has served as a chief executive whereas Spitzer has only been a prosecutor. Suozzi pointed out that when he took over Nassau County, it was rated the worst run county in the nation and was one step above junk bond status. "Fast forward to today, four years later, Nassau as a county [had] the most dramatic financial turnaround in the nation. We received more bond upgrades than any municipality in the United States," he said.
Suozzi then attacked Spitzer for not going after government corruption since he believes waste, fraud and abuse are breaking the backs of the taxpayers. Spitzer countered by saying that Suozzi fixed Nassau's financial woes by raising taxes. Suozzi pointed out that he raised taxes in his first year in office but stated that Nassau is the only county in the state not to have a property tax increase in the last three years. Suozzi then challenged Spitzer to more debates. "This is the difference between you and I, Eliot. You don't understand what it takes to manage a large, complex, multibillion dollar government," the county executive said.
Spitzer, however, stuck by his record as attorney general, saying that the attorney general's office encountered and solved many problems in its transformation. "There are other problems only a governor can solve. That's why I'm running for governor," he said.
While the two candidates jockeyed for position during what looks to be the only debate before the primary, panelists rattled off questions pertaining to specific issues. Spitzer said he is in favor of same-sex marriage and would propose a bill to make it legal, while Suozzi is opposed to gay marriage, although he favors legal unions so that gay and lesbian couples have the same legal rights and economical benefits that heterosexual couples do.
A big part of the Suozzi campaign and his "Fix Albany" crusade has been a fairer formula to distribute state aid to schools. Suozzi, during the debate brought up the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case, which involved the state defending its school funding formula against a constitutional challenge, filed by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity on behalf of poor taxpayers of New York City and the low state funding city schools were receiving.
Suozzi attacked Spitzer for bringing the case in-house and arguing in support of the state formula despite the fact that he disagreed with the governor. "Your commercials say: I represent the people of New York. It doesn't say: I represent the governor," Suozzi told Spitzer. However, the attorney general maintained his poise and shot back, "This is what the job requires. It is obligatory. It is my sworn oath of office and I'm proud to have done it," he said, adding that taxpayers would have to shoulder the burden of hiring outside counsel for the CFW case.
The two candidates were also asked about the death penalty. Suozzi said he opposed the death penalty while Spitzer said the death penalty is appropriate in certain cases such as crimes against humanity, terrorism and the intentional murder of a police officer.
Both candidates agree they would not enforce the provision of the Deficit Reduction Act, requiring states to demand proof of citizenship to any Medicaid applicants.
A major issue in the upcoming gubernatorial election will be property taxes. Suozzi said he believes he can create jobs by changing some of the laws that make the cost of doing business in New York too expensive. He also said he has specifically proposed to reduce property taxes in New York State, change the Wicks Law and change the binding arbitration laws "that many special interests that support Mr. Spitzer don't want us to change."
Spitzer said that his $6 billion, three-year property tax cut is focused on the middle class and farmers who will benefit the most and said, when pressed by Suozzi, that the Wicks Law and binding arbitration must be changed. "These are all issues that of course we have to address. All of my supporters understand it. The citizens understand it. We are unified in that perspective," Spitzer said.
Suozzi believes he has identified $5 billion in waste to cut from the state budget, $2.15 billion of which could be used for property tax relief. He attacked Spitzer's plan for not being specific. "You have not given specific details as to how you'll pay for these multibillion dollar proposals that you've made," he told Spitzer.
While the two candidates debated the issues, their points were clear. Suozzi believes he is the man with the experience in government reform that the State of New York desperately needs. To Suozzi, Spitzer represents the status quo in a government that is broken and no longer works for its citizens. Spitzer believes he can bring the same amount of reform to state government as governor that he brought to the state's attorney general's office, in order for government to better work for the people.
Next month will see two candidates - Spitzer, way ahead in the polls, and Suozzi, the underdog - two men of the same party who couldn't be more different.