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Finding best ways to help cities is key theme as candidates spar

Cities like Buffalo could be on the verge of a renaissance, but how to best help New York’s urban areas develop their economic and education systems was a recurrent theme during Wednesday’s gubernatorial debate – the only one in the campaign.

The debate, which was co-sponsored by The Buffalo News and WNED-WBFO, brought together Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Republican Rob Astorino, Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins and Libertarian candidate Michael McDermott. The four spent an hour in the WNED-TV studios in downtown Buffalo fielding questions on issues that ranged from fracking and economic-development policy to the Common Core educational standards.

The economic outlook for New York – and whether Cuomo has guided the state in the right direction – was a predominant theme, with all of the candidates touching on topics such as taxes and jobs in their opening statements.

Cuomo lauded his efforts attracting businesses to New York, using state money and tax credits to leverage private investments. A prime example is the Buffalo Billion, which is fueling major projects such as the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

The governor said those efforts have happened at the same time New York lowered its taxes to the lowest point in 50 years, and created more jobs than ever before.

“If you remember where we were, and you look at where we are now, there’s no doubt the state is better,” Cuomo said.

His opponents, however, disagreed, jumping at every chance to refute that point.

Astorino called Cuomo’s policies “massive corporate welfare” and said his economic development programs have not trickled down to the people who most need it.

“You’ve got cities that are losing,” the Westchester County executive said. “Poverty here in Buffalo is off the charts, especially with children.”

Rather, Astorino said he would stimulate the economy with lower taxes and looser regulations for business.

Hawkins echoed some of Astorino’s sentiments,saying he is running for governor to represent the “99 percent” of the population.

Later in the debate Hawkins also talked about the negative impact of segregation in New York schools – which one study deemed the most segregated in the nation – and talked about how the criminalization of marijuana has ruined inner-city communities.

McDermott criticized Cuomo’s Start-Up NY program, saying that it is incomplete and difficult to navigate.

“It sounds good, but it’s not really working that well,” he said.

If there is some common ground in this race, it appears to be in three of the four candidates’ opposition to the state’s controversial education standards, which Astorino referred to as “Cuomo’s Common Core.” Astorino even started a “Stop Common Core” party line that will appear on the November ballot.

Cuomo is the lone candidate supporting the rigorous standards, which are being adopted all over the country.

On other issues, Cuomo and Astorino, the two major party candidates, spent much of the hour dodging questions in favor of trading jabs against each other.

Along with the Common Core criticism, Astorino attacked Cuomo’s tax credits for businesses and what he called the overregulation of business.

Cuomo was quick to call out his opponent. At one point, following Astorino in responding to a question about whether he would assure voters there would be no toll hike on the Thruway, Cuomo said, “I don’t think he ever answered your question, but the answer for me is yes.”

At another point in the debate, Cuomo followed a remark by Astorino – who he sarcastically referred to as “My Friend Mr. Astorino – with the comment “Rhetoric is fine, facts are better.” Cuomo also faced tough questions about whether he interfered with the work of the state’s Moreland Commission, which he put together to investigate corruption in Albany.

The governor pointed to what he considered the success of the commission, including redefining bribery and setting tougher penalties. He also insisted that he did not stop the work of the commission.

“There was no abrupt stopping,” he said. “I wanted to get a law passed.”

Cuomo has put off making any decisions on whether to legalize the practice, saying the science is not yet definitive.

Astorino, on the other hand, maintains that allowing fracking could lead to an economic boom and the creation of tens of thousands of jobs.

While the minor-party candidates support the legalization of marijuana, that is one topic where Cuomo and Astorino see more eye to eye. Both said they support medical marijuana, but not the drug’s legalization for recreational purposes.

The debate followed about two hours of demonstrations, during which people on all sides of the political issues waved signs and chanted outside the WNED-WBFO studios.

Those for and against Cuomo faced off in an odd sort of call and response, with Cuomo supporters changing “Four more years,” followed by opponents saying “Hell no” and “Over my dead body.”

The debate comes on the heels of a new Siena Research Institute poll showing that Cuomo maintains a sizable lead in the race.

The poll of likely voters released Wednesday shows Cuomo leading Astorino by 54 percent to 33 percent, with Hawkins pulling in 9 percent.

The race is tighter upstate, where Cuomo has 47 percent to Astorino’s 37 percent, but Cuomo’s strength in New York City helps push up his overall numbers.

Astorino has a slight lead in the New York City suburbs.

Still, Cuomo’s 21-point lead is down from 29 percent a month ago, with the poll showing New Yorkers are not happy with the job the governor is doing in office. About 57 percent of respondents give his job performance a negative rating.

News Staff Reporters Tom Precious and T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report. email: tlankes@buffnews.com