It was headlined as a State Senate showdown between Democrat Joe Mesi and Republican Michael H. Ranzenhofer on WBEN Radio Sunday.
But the real focus of the 90-minute debate was Buffalo Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano, who Ranzenhofer accused of illegally campaigning for Mesi through the Responsible New York political committee and its administrator -- G. Steven Pigeon.
Ranzenhofer, a veteran member of the County Legislature, said he saw Pigeon and Mesi "joined at the hip" at about 40 campaign events earlier this year before Pigeon, the former Erie County Democratic chairman, signed on as point man for Golisano's $5 million fund -- required by law to be independent of any campaign.
"Steve Pigeon is the single person in charge of the Golisano money. It's clear that Pigeon is directing the money and the message of the Mesi campaign," Ranzenhofer said. "As a candidate, you have to know the difference between right and wrong, stand up and say that this is wrong and not take the money."
Mesi, however, denied that he is participating in anything illegal.
"It certainly is legal; if it wasn't, it would have been stopped," he said of the significant radio and television campaign being waged on his behalf by Golisano's Responsible New York.
The exchange over the roles of Golisano and Pigeon ranked as the testiest of the "Hardline with Hardwick" conversation, which was hosted by Kevin R. Hardwick, a Canisius College political scientist. It will be the only head-to-head debate between the two in the race to succeed the retiring Republican incumbent, Mary Lou Rath of Williamsville. The outcome of that race could prove key in determining the majority of the Senate when it reconvenes in January.
Golisano's committee has emerged as the center of controversy in several local campaigns, most of which support Pigeon's political allies. Pigeon foe Jeremy C. Toth, an ally of Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, has even requested that the district attorney investigate his allegations of illegal coordination between Responsible New York and Hoyt's opponent in last month's Democratic primary.
"It's unfair for one person to try and purchase an election," Ranzenhofer said. "It's unfair for one person to have that much influence."
The candidate didn't stop there. He said it is also "unfair" that Golisano's independent committee is not bound by the campaign finance requirements that must be adhered to by committees spending on individual candidates.
"They [Responsible New York] keep their expenditures from the public; it's not transparent," he said. "It's just plain wrong."
Mesi, however, showed much of the same aggressiveness that he did for years when he was a heavyweight boxer. He said Ranzenhofer's proposal to slash state spending by 15 percent across the board is "totally unsafe, totally unrealistic and totally irresponsible."
He said he would try to protect workers with necessary jobs and would reform programs like Empire Zones and industrial development agencies to save money instead.
He later said Ranzenhofer's "sledgehammer" cuts would take $210 million out of the Western New York economy, eliminate 1,607 local jobs and cause irreparable damage to community strengths like colleges and research centers.
"We can get a more realistic approach by cutting 7 percent of our capital sending without affecting health care or safety," Mesi said. "We can be conservative, but we need to protect our investments."
Mesi insisted throughout the debate and in a post-debate interview that cuts will prove more effective if they are targeted, rather than implemented in a broad swath as proposed by Ranzenhofer.
That, Ranzenhofer said later, marked the clearest contrast between the two.
"I will go to Albany and make tough, across-the-board cuts that need to be made," he said, "while my opponent will only nibble around the edges and not solve a definite problem."
Ranzenhofer reiterated his contention that he has never voted for a tax increase, while promising he will not authorize new taxes under any circumstances -- even in the face of projections of a $9 billion deficit in the state budget next year.
Mesi, meanwhile, emphasized that he is not a "career politician" and that he would bring a fresh perspective to the Capitol.
The two demonstrated wide rifts on a host of other issues, including:
* Ranzenhofer favors a cap on property taxes; Mesi concurred, but only with a "circuit breaker" provision based on income of the homeowner.
* Mesi said he did not view the Taylor Law, which gives public employees various benefits in return for the inability to strike, as a "big problem." Ranzenhofer said the law's provision for imposing contracts often disregards a community's ability to afford them.
* Ranzenhofer said he would support the death penalty for murderers, while Mesi said he would support it only for terrorists and killers of police.
* Mesi supports Medicaid funding for abortions but also favors measures seeking parental notification for minors seeking abortions. Ranzenhofer said he supports the parental notification measure but not Medicaid funding.
* Ranzenhofer said he views marriage as a contract between a man and a woman; Mesi said he will support gay marriage.