OLEAN — The five Democratic candidates in the 23rd Congressional District met Saturday night in what is probably their last forum before the June 26 primary.
More than 60 people attended the forum at the Cutco Theater at Jamestown Community College sponsored by the Citizens Action Network of Southwestern New York and the Olean Times Herald.
The candidates are:
Dr. Linda Andrei, a retired cardiologist from Ithaca.
Max Della Pia, a retired Air Force officer, attorney and congressional aide from Owego.
Ian Golden, an Ithaca businessman.
Tracy Mitrano, a former university administrator and cyber security expert from Penn Yan.
Eddie Sundquist, a Jamestown attorney and former teacher.
Each candidate professed to have what it takes to take on incumbent Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, seeking a fifth term in Congress. They have all endorsed Medicare for all, a type of single-payer system Reed has opposed.
Elizabeth Ludvik welcomed those attending the forum and Jim Eckstrom, Olean Times Herald editor, served as moderator. The forum was videotaped and should be posted for viewing through the Times Herald’s website early this week.
Andrei noted that if elected, she would be only the second scientist in the House of Representatives. “It’s time to bring science and sanity back to public discourse.” As a doctor, she said she is used to listening to people.
Della Pia said he was the only candidate with congressional experience, having worked as an aide to Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan. He said he’s also the only candidate to have a glacier in Antarctica named after him. He was stationed there for a time.
He was also a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, a defense attorney and a representative of Lockeed-Martin. “I can identify with and relate to people. I have already served them.”
It was Golden who first brought up the electability issue. “Who is the most electable against Tom Reed?” he asked.
At one time there were twice as many candidates in the Democratic field. Most were hamstrung in their fundraising because of so many candidates. Andrei has self-funded most of her campaign expensesband is rolling out a district-wide radio campaign.
Golden said he met many of the same kind of people he’s met in his primary campaign he knew growing up in rural Pennsylvania. “Many of our towns and cities are really struggling,” he said, noting that unemployment is a growing problem.
As a businessman, he said, “I’m the only one (here) who has created jobs upstate.”
Mitrano described herself as “a daughter of the district,” having grown up here and not moved away from the Western New York/Finger Lakes area for either higher education or a job. “I grew up here (in the district). My politics are about putting people first,” unlike Reed, she said.
Sundquist went right after Reed, saying, “We hardly see what he is doing for people here. He’s not doing anything for Dresser-Rand (in Wellsville). He’s not doing anything for the farmers. He’s not doing anything for immigration. He’s talking about a wall to keep people out.”
Answering a question about election strategy in a Republican-leaning district, Della Pia said to win in November, Democrats “will have to join together a fractured Democratic Party.” He added: “We need to turn non-voters into voters. They have to trust the person you send after Tom Reed.”
Mitrano called her approach “common sense politics.” To win the election with Republicans having an edge in voter registration “we have to touch folks in the middle.” The Corning mayor has endorsed her, Mitrano said, as a “moderate progressive.” Mitrano said she has already garnered the Working Families Party line and that of the Women’s Equality Party.
Sundquist said the key to the election is listening to people, as he did at the Basilica Fest earlier in the day. In addition to flipping the Congress to a Democratic majority, he said “we’ve got to talk to each other.”
Andrei said her listening on the campaign trail has shown “we are living in a time of tremendous fear,” she said. At the same time, people are “looking for hope and ways to connect with each other. We have to find our common humanity.”
Mitrano listed five things she thought were needed: healthcare reform, education reform including more vocational training, zero percent interest on student loans, infrastructure for the 21st century, conserving natural resources and labor reform.
Sundquist said he was the only candidate with a comprehensive jobs plan, including how to address the lack of trades jobs through vocational training and retraining. He said people with student loans need help from the crippling loan debt.
Andrei, the retired cardiologist, said, “Healthcare must be a right, like clean air and clean water.”
Della Pia complained that special interests are driving the issues. The tax reform package pushed through by Republicans “was a payoff to special interests.” He added: “It’s like Tom Reed didn’t listen” to constituents when voting for the tax bill that is adding $1.5 trillion to the national debt.
“The rich don’t need the money,” agreed Mitrano, who called for reinstating the estate tax. She said she was for bringing the business tax rate down.
Sundquist called the Republican tax plan “a tax scam,” noting that despite an extra $20 a month in their paychecks, wages haven’t increased in 10 years. “They gave a majority of the money to the wealthy donor class,” he said.
Sundquist also called for more resources to fight the region and nation’s opioid epidemic, including more drug courts and treatment for addicts and their families.
Andrei said healthcare is the prime concern in the district and that the tax plan was “all smoke and mirrors.” Reed receives contributions from the oil and gas industry and pharmaceutical companies, and his vote on the tax breaks was “anything but fiscally conservative,” she said. Right after the tax cuts, Reed started talking about cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlement programs, she stated.
Reed’s handicap is his record, Della Pia insisted. “His donors dictate everything he does and he’s a rubber stamp for the executive branch.”
Golden said Congress has “lost touch” with the people and is hovering around a 15 percent to 18 percent approval rating. Like others, he suggested working toward public financing of campaigns. The region’s farmers need a farm bill that will help them, he said, declaring the need to look for “new opportunities” while he doesn’t see a “vision” for the district from Reed.
Sundquist said he’s started building relationships with what could be a large class of incoming freshmen Democrats in the next Congress. “I would focus on jobs and economic opportunity here.”
Della Pia said people “want fairness and opportunity for everyone. They want a fair shot. They are starting to lose hope. I want to restore that. We need someone who can bring people together.”
Golden expressed some respect for Reed’s town hall meeting schedule and the fact he continued holding them after many of his Republican colleagues did not. But he questioned “whether (Reed) is listening or not” at the meetings.
“I think we can take back this district, but it won’t be easy,” he said.
Andrei upped the ante more, telling the audience: “This is the most important election of your lifetime. … Our democracy depends on turning he House blue to reclaim it.”
Della Pia said someone not driven by special interests needs to be the next congressman in the district. “What has Tom Reed done” other than rename two post offices and get a commemorative coin?
Mitrano said, “It’s been an honor to be part of this process. I am running to put people first.”
Reed has called all the candidates “extreme Ithaca liberals” despite their addresses, Sundquist concluded. “Call me what you want,” he said, adding he planned to fight to prevent outsourcing, to encourage Medicare for all and help stop the opioid epidemic.
(Contact reporter Rick Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)