Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

New York State Senator Tom O'Mara is photographed above with President Martha E. Pollack in 2017. He will be on the ballot for the Nov. 3 election.

October 5, 2020

State Senate Candidates Spar and Share Sides During Debate

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New York State Senator Tom O’Mara (R-N.Y.) and challenger Leslie Danks Burke exchanged heated words Thursday night in a virtual event hosted by Cornell’s Institute of Politics and Global Affairs.

The debate, moderated by Profs. Alexandra Cirone and Sabrina Karim, government, questioned the candidates on fossil fuel divestment, calls to defund police forces and the New York State Health Act.

In contrast to the presidential debate earlier in the week, the senatorial candidates found more common ground: Both opposed the power “overreach” of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), criticizing his extension of emergency executive authority.

Danks Burke then criticized O’Mara for his vote to “expand Cuomo’s already oversized powers” in exchange for $40 million in COVID-19 relief.

Both candidates expressed their support of local law enforcement, saying that they were not in favor of defunding or reallocating funds for the police. O’Mara remarked that citizens need to  support the police “now more than ever,” and that the state must continue funding the department.

“To broad brush paint our law enforcement as racist is just completely wrong, uncalled for and causing great disharmony in our country,” O’Mara said.

Danks Burke said that institutional and systemic racism does exist, and that the state needs to “hold elected officials and people accountable and undo the rules that perpetuate this systemic oppression.” She noted that improved training for officers would be a step in the right direction.

O’Mara held a different view.

“I do not buy into the fact that racism is institutional or systemic,” O’Mara said. He continued to say that racism does exist “at all levels of our communities, state, our country.”

He said that the police needed more oversight, and expressed support for independent disciplinary review boards. Currently, many police agency review boards are internal, and the majority of the members are former cops.

Neither candidate supported the fossil fuel divestment campaign directed at New York’s Common Retirement Fund, the state’s pension plan. Supported by climate science experts — including Prof. Rob Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology — the campaign’s goals are predicated on data that demonstrates a downturn in profitability of fossil fuel investments.

O’Mara attributed his decision to keeping the retirement fund “solid,” saying that the comptroller should focus solely on increasing the fund, not risking its stability.

“The job of the comptroller of the state of New York is [to be] sole trustee of our retirement funds,” O’Mara said. “New York’s retirement fund is one of the best in the country. Let’s keep it that way.”

Danks Burke took a different approach. She commended Cornell on its moratorium on fossil fuel investments, which occurred this May after years of student activism. However, since the legislature does not have the same expertise as Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (D-N.Y.), Danks Burke said that they should not involve themselves in decisions on divestment.

O’Mara previously served as chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee, and detailed his contribution to providing an excess of $1.2 billion for Cornell’s research on invasive species, as well as state funding for clean water and algae bloom cleanup. O’Mara said by supporting environmental conservation, he was still supporting economic development and the lowering of taxes by ensuring “less expensive damage” in the future.

Danks Burke questioned O’Mara’s dedication to environmental causes, pointing out his standing position as an attorney at a law firm that has represented anti-environmental business interests before the Senate, which he held while chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee. Barclay Damon, LLP represents Honeywell International, a company accused of pouring carcinogenic chemicals into a body of water near Albany in 2016.

“It’s a lobbying firm that represents many of the very companies that do pollute our environment,” Danks Burke said. “That sort of conflict of interest is allowed in New York State … but it doesn’t make it right.”

The senator called Dank Burke’s allegations “baseless and wrong,” reminding her that all senators undergo a thorough review process by the Legislative Ethics Commission. Practicing law while holding office is legal, O’Mara said, and no more a conflict of interest than his senate colleague, who has a day job as a veterinarian.

On the issue of the current housing crisis, O’Mara was concerned about the flood of eviction proceedings to come. He empathized with landlords, saying that both tenants and their landlords should be taken into consideration with any relief package going forward.

Danks Burke agreed that cutting property taxes by 50 percent would relieve renters and homeowners. However, she said that to help New Yorkers long-term, there needs to be a new tax structure.

“We gotta get away from this regressive tax structure that’s killing our families and our working people here, and forward a system where everybody can afford to live,” Danks Burke said.

The candidates were divided on the New York Health Act, a plan for universal healthcare that has seen wide support in Ithaca for years. O’Mara said the Act would “devastate” the state economy. He cited the nearly $200 billion price tag, which would hurt the already “bloated” state budget, as well as burden taxpayers. Danks Burke disagreed, and said the New York Health Act would actually save the state money.

While the candidates shared some common ground, they split down partisan lines on nearly every key issue. With Election Day in less than a month, voters will soon have to decide who to send to the Senate.

O’Mara closed out the debate reminding the audience of his work in reducing property taxes with the Medicaid and property tax caps that over the years has reduced county property tax growth.

In her closing statement, Danks Burke said that unlike her opponent, she intends to immediately introduce a bill to cut property taxes by addressing the Medicaid for-profit program.

“We can’t keep on making the same choice and expecting things to change,” Danks Burke said.