Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice and state Sen. Eric Schneiderman tonight skipped the first upstate debate for Democratic attorney general candidates, televised by WXXI public broadcasting in Rochester.
It was sponsored by Voice of the Voter, a collaboration between WXXI, the Democrat and Chronicle and WHAM-TV.
Those participating were Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, 64, D-Greenburgh, Westchester County; former state Insurance Superintendent Eric Dinallo, 47, of Manhattan; and former federal prosecutor and Navy officer Sean Coffey, 54, of Bronxville, Westchester County.
Schneiderman, 55, and Rice, 45, cited previous commitments for their failure to attend, according to the report by Democrat and Chronicle reporter Brian Sharp. A Schneiderman spokesman said he had “campaign events with various cultural leaders and communities.” A Rice spokesman said she was meeting with leaders from New York’s Korean community, taking questions from Flushing residents and then meeting with senior citizens in Queens.
The three candidates seized on the absence of Rice and Schneiderman, with each saying they would be focused on upstate issues.
More from the Democrat and Chronicle’s report after the jump.
Little more than two hours before Tuesday’s debate began, a federal judge blocked the state from collecting sales tax on cigarettes sold on American Indian reservations to non-Indians.
All three candidates said they would enforce the law, should it stand. Coffey said he thought the state was right to seek collection. Dinallo said this issue is a first step toward bringing clarity to other issues around reservation tax concerns.
Brodsky said the next attorney general will need “considerable” political skills when it comes to enforcement. The candidates all noted the violent protests that erupted in 1997, when the state last attempted to collect the tax.
As for funding of the Islamic community center and mosque, all said the attorney general should investigate if there actually is something to look into. None argued there was, at this point.
Brodsky, however, was strongest in advocating the supporters seek an alternate site, saying “the social fabric is being torn by this.” Coffey said he doubts the facility will be built, questioning the ability to raise money.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found 71 percent of New York state voters surveyed think Cuomo should investigate financing of the mosque. Among Democrats, 65 percent urged action.
“People have to have the basis for an investigation,” Dinallo said. “I would do it if there were facts presented.”
On other issues, Brodsky promised to be an attorney general focused on family issues, from electric bills to foreclosure.
“I know it is a little counterintuitive to have an attorney general that says, ‘I have a role in the economic policy of this state,’ but it’s true,” he said.
Coffey threw his support behind a property tax cap, claimed to be the only true independent, and said he would beef up the public corruption unit in the Buffalo office.
Dinallo, once the top lawyer in former Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s office, said his background makes him the most qualified and pledged a focus on public integrity cases, going after the outside business interests of legislators, to clean up Albany.
Whoever wins this month’s primary moves on to face Republican candidate, State Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, on Nov. 2.
Being New York attorney general has become a launching pad to higher office, from Robert Abrams’ failed Senate bid to Spitzer’s jump to the governor’s office to Cuomo’s gubernatorial bid.
Candidates said Tuesday they have no higher political aspirations.
“The last thing we need right now is an attorney general planning the next political move,” Brodsky said.
Coffey told the audience Tuesday that he could not win the primary without upstate’s support.
“I am the upstate candidate,” Coffey said. “I lived (in Niagara Falls) a couple years as a kid.”
The response drew chuckles from the audience. But the fact that two of the five downstate candidates declined to participate in the debate was an issue noted by those in attendance.