Tompkins County Democrats gathered at a forum Wednesday night to hear the three Democratic congressional candidates for the New York 23rd district speak and address community concerns. While the candidates covered issues across all areas, an unofficial consensus soon developed that one issue trumped all others: jobs.
At the forum, which was hosted by the Tompkins County Democratic Committee, the three candidates — Leslie Danks Burke, Melissa Dobson and Nathan Shinagawa ’05 M.A. ’09 — each answered questions from a moderator, the audience and, briefly, each other.
Danks Burke attacked Rep. Tom Reed (R – N.Y. 23), the incumbent congressman, for his what she said was his lack of progress on jobs.
“Jobs are definitely the most important issue in this election,” she said. “[Look at] President Obama’s infrastructure plan. The president wants to build roads, bridges and railroads and we have people who are skilled in those areas out of work in this district, but Tom Reed voted against the transportation bill. That is a vote against working people.”
Shinagawa agreed with Danks Burke’s emphasis on the importance of creating jobs in every county in the district.
“I am the only candidate in this election who has a record of creating jobs locally,” Shinagawa said. “The County Development Corporation has supported both Cortland Produce and the Ithaca Beer Company.” Shinagawa helped bring $56 million in new investment to Tompkins County while working for the County Development Corporation, he said.
Shinagawa added that his experience in the Tompkins County Legislature led him to focus on jobs and economic development not only in the county but throughout the Southern Tier.
Dobson also stressed her commitment to keeping jobs in New York and creating new ones.
“Creating job opportunities is an issue across the state and across the nation, and should be everyone’s priority,” Dobson said. “At a federal level, we can implement tax incentives to keep historic industries here.”
One point that all three candidates agreed on was that American workers in the manufacturing sector face unfair competition from China, whether due to currency manipulation or to that country’s lax safety and labor standards.
All three were also adamant about the need to protect the jobs of New York’s small farmers. Each candidate’s specific policy recommendations, however, differed greatly.
Dobson stressed that changes in agricultural technology that will lead small farmers to need increased government assistance.
“Farming has become a high-tech industry,” Dobson said. “It’s a matter of getting loans and grants spread around the state.”
Danks Burke, however, said that the Farm Bill — the primary agricultural and food policy tool for the federal government — treats small farms and large agribusinesses the same. She said that in Congress she would push for separate treatment of the two.
“Small farms are operating in a completely different system than large agribusiness,” Danks Burke said. “We need to look at subsidies and tax incentives to make sure they reflect that difference.”
Shinagawa focused on the need to extend the Cooperative Extension System, which is part of the Department of Agriculture and has an office at Cornell University due to the University’s land-grant status. Cornell Cooperative Extension aims to improve communities in New York State through university-based research in areas of agriculture and food systems, according to its website.
“The Cooperative Extension helped end the Dust Bowl,” Shinagawa said. “I’m in favor of expanding that as well as looking at grants and subsidies.”
Additionally, all three candidates expressed confidence in their ability to beat Reed in the November election should they receive the Democratic Party’s nomination.
“I think whoever runs against Representative Reed needs to appeal across party lines. I actually had Republicans circulate petitions for me because they believed in my message,” Danks Burke said.
Dobson noted her proximity to Reed’s hometown, the City of Corning.
“I think it’s important to note that Representative Reed never carried his hometown,” she said. “I’m from that area and I have no doubt that I can carry areas like that.”
Shinagawa announced that his campaign has been endorsed by the Working Families Party, as well as by several mayors and county Democratic parties.
“People thought that a Tompkins County resident couldn’t win, but I’ve proven that wrong. I have support from nine mayors and numerous organizations across the Southern Tier,” he said.
Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 said he was pleased with the results of the forum.
“As an elected official who counts on his [congressional representative] to deliver for Ithaca and as a Democrat, I was extremely impressed with the caliber of the candidates and the tenor of the discussion,” Myrick said.