Thursday night’s debate between Rep. Tom Reed and Democratic challenger Tracy Mitrano was the most electric political event I’ve ever been a part of in my 30 years of covering local and regional politics.
I expected it. When the Times Herald and the League of Women Voters of Cattaraugus and Allegany Counties made the invitations for the debate, I really hoped they would be accepted because of this year’s political climate. The Times Herald has been instrumental in bringing 23rd Congressional District debates to Olean several times in my tenure as editor — and I didn’t want us to miss out this election cycle.
I hope it wasn’t lost on political watchers and readers here that, compared to the other two debates that Reed and Mitrano engaged in, the meeting in the Olean High School auditorium was a true public event — with the raucous and partisan atmosphere testing the candidates far more than a closed-door affair at the Jamestown newspaper or an in-studio event in Corning.
Some in the crowd failed to govern themselves as I would have wished, but I didn’t feel anyone took it to the point that they should have been ejected from the auditorium.
And, to their credit, both candidates handled the atmosphere well.
In the aftermath of the debate, I’ve been thinking about a couple things.
First, it struck me that if Mitrano, a Democrat who has done surprisingly well in independent fundraising and forced a legitimate race in the solidly Republican 23rd, why can’t the Democrats be more competitive in our state Senate and Assembly election cycles?
This is in no way a knock on Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, and Assemblyman Joe Giglio, R-Gowanda, who are unopposed on Tuesday. I believe both are extremely effective, knowledgeable representatives of their respective districts — I certainly wouldn’t want to run against either of them.
But I had a good talk with Giglio in the auditorium after the debate and we noted that we really had not had occasion to meet and discuss issues for quite some time. Why? Giglio has been unopposed or faced only token challenge in recent elections.
Young, again, truly formidable as one of the ranking Senate members in Albany, has also faced token — or no — opposition.
“That’s not always necessarily a good thing,” I said to Giglio, who took no offense, understanding my point was that healthy debate and discussion during election cycles brings issues to the forefront in any district.
Spirited elections keep everyone — not least the incumbents — on their toes even more than they already are. And that CAN be a good thing.
Certainly, there’s apples and oranges comparisons here. The 23rd Congressional District’s eastern end brings far more Democrats to an election than Young’s 57th Senate District or Giglio’s 148th Assembly District, but still, Democrats have long ceded the 57th and 148th.
Which is not good, particularly if I am going to make my next point — or really complaint.
It also does no good for a state if a governor is so entrenched that he can ignore and never set foot in entire regions of his state when he is up for re-election.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is (sort of) running for re-election to a third term while at the same time running (sort of) for president in 2020, has been to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico more times than he’s set foot in our end of the Southern Tier over the past year or so.
Cuomo’s numbers, locked in by overwhelmingly Democratic support downstate, apparently sees no point in actually visiting parts of the state he governs, perhaps because he deems certain regions “just a bunch of Republicans” not worthy of being graced with his presence.
Cuomo also certainly can’t be bothered to engage in debate against his electoral opposition — he took part in a single one-hour “debate” with Republican Marc Molinaro as the governor trucked over the hapless TV host serving as the moderator.
Just as it’s not necessarily a good thing that local or regional elections are shoo-ins, it does a state little good to have a governor so dismissive of reaching out to ALL his constituents.
In any event, folks of the 23rd Congressional District, get out and exercise your privilege to submit your ballot. That’s one vote — be it for Reed or Mitrano — in at least one race that definitely will mean something on Tuesday.
(Jim Eckstrom is executive editor of the Olean Times Herald and Bradford Publishing Co. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)