Candidates for the 25th Congressional District in next week’s Democratic Primary squared off Thursday night in a debate held at the WXXI studios.
The Voice of the Voter Debate was broadcast and streamed through debate partners, the Democrat&Chronicle, 13WHAM TV, WDKX Radio and WXXI TV & Radio.
One of the issues the four candidates had some difference of opinion on was photonics, which has been touted by local politicians as something that could eventually create thousands of jobs in the Rochester area.
Brighton Town Board member Robin Wilt is concerned that photonics jobs created here will be mostly in manufacturing, and she says worldwide, studies predict automation will get rid of a lot of manufacturing jobs.
“We’re looking at a decrease in manufacturing jobs on an order of 400 million and so to rely on that technology as something that is going to be the job solutions for the future of Rochester, I think is misguided," Wilt said.
Former TV journalist Rachel Barnhart sees promise in photonics, but it will take work to figure out how that science can translate into more employment.
“Our big challenge is to figure out what are the jobs of the future and that’s going to take collaboration with all of our research institutions, with our community colleges, to stay ahead of this trend, because we don’t have the answer right now, but that is the big thing facing us in the future," Barnhart said.
Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle sees a big potential for this area, but says the photonics industry will take a while to ramp up.
“It’s a state and federal initiative it brings in RIT, U of R and a number of other economic institutions; but the importance of this is to stay with it, we have to continue to invest, we have to continue to work with our partners; that’s why Louise and I fought so hard not only on the initiative, but to keep the initiative in Rochester," Morelle said.
And Rochester City Council member Adam McFadden, also sees potential for photonics, but thinks that young people aren’t being prepared to be part of the workforce that will be needed.
“ I think it has promise, but I also think it has failed us so far, because we have not prepared our community for the jobs that are going to be created by photonics, and what I mean by that is , if you look at our education system, we have not prepared our students for stem related jobs," McFadden said.
McFadden also said he stands out because of his history helping communities of color. He previously had challenged the other candidates saying their records can't match up to his. He says he’s mentored young people and backed key legislation.
But Wilt says she has worked hard for communities of color as well.
“I fight against disproportionality. And I do that not only within urban communities but also within the town of Brighton. That’s why Brighton is one of three communities in the state of New York that has a rent source nondiscrimination law. It’s because I fought for it."
Barnhart says she’s used her journalism to advocate for necessary change and if elected would try to help reform the criminal justice system.
“One of the most pressing issues facing Rochester right now is racial segregation and the racial income gap. That’s directly related to many of our policies concerning education, and concerning housing and concerning transportation. I want to be part of the solution on all of those issues," Barnhart said.
Morelle says he’s backed legislation at the state level that has helped people of color locally.
“I’ve been at the forefront with the members of the Assembly Democrats seeking reform and criminal justice issues. Much of this is about the structural racism that occurs in our communities. I voted to raise the age and worked on that so we have the age of criminal liability in the state of New York raised,” Morelle said.
However McFadden challenged their help, saying it comes from a perspective that people of color are looking for “a handout.” He says he’s frustrated by the common belief that people of color in the city are automatically poor or more likely to need governmental help.
“What frustrates me is that anytime we talk about communities of color we always talk about our deficits when it comes to elected officials. We’re more than our deficits, we’re not all impoverished. We’re not all in jail. We’re not all looking for a handout.”
All four candidates say New Yorkers need universal healthcare, but they don’t agree on how it should be funded and implemented.
Barnhart specifically criticized Morelle for not voting for the NY Health Act, saying he was one of few Democrats to do so. She says it’s important to work with all sides but ultimately, universal healthcare is non-negotiable.
“Going to a single-payer system would reduce those costs but we have to consider all options and talk with all stakeholders. We have to talk with Republicans and Americans and figure out what they want and what we can get past but the end goal needs to be healthcare for everyone.
Morelle says he voted against the Act because it would create a patchwork system. He says that he wants healthcare passed at the federal level with an individual mandate.
“The individual mandate was the most single most important part of the Affordable Care Act because it ensures that everyone has to have some form of insurance. The reason you do that is because of adverse selection. If everyone isn’t required to have it then people will wait until they’re about to start a family to buy insurance. That drives premiums up significantly.”
McFadden had some concerns, saying he’d back single-payer options, but ultimately he worries about the current administration in Washington.
“I support a universal healthcare but I also have concerns about a single payer system if you have the current administration in charge of it. I don’t know what Donald Trump and his group would do to our healthcare system if they had control over it. I’d be very concerned about that.
Wilt maintains that she’ll fight for expanded Medicare and single-payer options because she believes we’re in a crisis.
“I like to say that I was in favor of single-payer health care before it was cool. I’ve been advocating for Medicare for all, expanding Medicare for the last decade and I think this is a solution to our healthcare crisis.”
All four acknowledge the high costs of insurance and the need for universal healthcare. But they have disagreements on the best way to implement it.
The primary is next Tuesday, June 26, from Noon to 9:00 p.m. for registered Democrats. WXXI will have live coverage including results and analysis starting at 10:00 p.m.
Whoever wins the primary will face Republican James Maxwell in November.