Three candidates seeking the Republican nomination to run against Governor Andrew Cuomo this fall appeared in Amherst Saturday morning, where they took turns taking shots at the incumbent and his policies, including the Buffalo Billion.
The debate was hosted by Daemen College and sponsored by the Erie County Republican Committee.
"Nothing is more important to the Republican Party than defeating Andrew Cuomo," said Erie County GOP chairman Nick Langworthy in his opening remarks. "It is the absolutely number one objective of the Erie County Republican Committee to do everything we can. We thought it was very important to bring these candidates to you. so you could hear them."
Former Erie County and City of Buffalo elected official Joel Giambra, longtime State Senator John DeFrancisco and former Housing Commissioner for the Pataki Administration Joe Holland took turns criticizing Governor Cuomo's Buffalo Billion program, an energy policy that bans hydrofracking, the state's taxes and regulations, ethical troubles in Albany and education policies including the Excelsior program.
The criticism began with the Buffalo Billion.
"The Buffalo Billion, unfortunately, has been a tremendous public failure," said Giambra, a businessman who previously served as the Erie County Executive, Buffalo Comptroller and Buffalo Common Councilmember. "What the governor attempted to do here was to gain political access, if you will, to Western New York because of the tremendous beating he took by (former gubernatorial candidate) Carl Paladino. This was his way of trying to find a way to ingratiate himself politically, using taxpayer dollars to fund a billion-dollar building that today sits, virtually, almost empty."
That building is the Tesla/Panasonic Gigafactory 2 factory in Buffalo's Riverbend neighborhood. Holland spoke of the factory while criticizing Cuomo for an energy policy that entirely eliminated hydrofracking as an option.
"Unfortunately, this governor has been colonized by the environmental lobby," he said. "All of these policies, solar panel factories, it's not based on grassroots and an economically driven approach in order to create the kind of development that's needed. It's dictated by policies of the far left and that's unfortunate because it won't work."
John DeFrancisco, who hails from Syracuse, has spent the past 25 years in the State Senate and is giving up his seat to run, and with it his influential role as Deputy Majority Leader. He, too, considers Buffalo's Gigafactory 2 a Cuomo failure.
"The governor does things based upon the political benefit he is going to get," DeFrancisco said. "He had a great news conference, thousands of jobs. There was nothing behind it. There was no clawbacks. There was no security that the taxpayer had, once he did that. And so, not thousands of jobs. It's down to 200."
DeFrancisco went on to say that Buffalo is not alone.
"Look at the Soraa project in Syracuse," he continued. "A $90 million building sitting there empty. And you know what he wants to do? No penalties for them walking away."
Like DeFrancisco and Giambra, Holland is an Upstate New York resident, hailing from Auburn. He explained during the debate that he holds "upstate roots but also downtown credibility."
"I'm the only statewide candidate for governor that can put together that winning coalition," Holland said. "I can do that, not only because I will make history as the first African-American Republican candidate for governor, but I also have a track record of service, of making a difference in the New York City area. Out of that comes a network of supporters I can cultivate to vote for me and move the numbers in a positive direction."
DeFrancisco, like Holland, thinks even New York City voters have acquired a "Cuomo fatigue" that may work to the Republican Party's advantage. He suggested Cuomo and New York City mayor Bill De Blasio are not on speaking terms.
"Just look at the papers over the summer, the 'summer from hell' with the subway system," he said. "How does the governor deal with it? He doesn't say 'it's my problem, I've made some mistakes, I'm going to correct it.' He blames De Blasio."
The Republican hopefuls also noted the current corruption trial of former Cuomo aide Joseph Percoco during the debate.
The overall tone of the debate was cordial, with no candidate attacking any other. Giambra did say he was the only candidate among the three with a record of cutting taxes and, after the debate, offered a hint of how he may position himself against one of his opponents.
"Mr. DeFrancisco has been in the Senate for a long time. He's voted for all these budgets. It's going to be very hard for him, I think, to be able to ask the voters to send him back to Albany to fix the problems that he helped create," Giambra said.
DeFrancisco, following the debate, was asked if being a longtime lawmaker in a Legislature where many other have been disgraced with scandal might work against him. He believes voters will quickly realize he's not "part of the machine."
"If people watch what I have done over the years, as far as the advocacy against some of the things that have happened, I don't think they will take me in that light," he replied.
The field of GOP contenders was reduced to three following Friday's surprise withdrawal from the race by Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, who cited a desire to spend more time with family.
"This is going to be a competitive race for the Republican nomination," Holland said. "At this point there are three candidates, two who have served in elected office. One is an Albany insider. What I bring to the race is the difference that's needed for the Republicans to win back the State House."
In his opening remarks, New York State Republican Chairman Edward Cox said New York State is the least business-friendly of all states in the nation and 11 years of policies under Democratic governors has worsened conditions and killed jobs.
"New York State is a blue state. But we are not Manhattan or West Side blue, we are blue collar blue. That's New York State," said Cox. "New York State wants good jobs and Republican governors will bring good jobs to New York State."