The first and possibly only three-way debate in the State Senate race in the 60th District was marked by mudslinging Thursday as the candidates mixed their positions on local and statewide issues with charges, countercharges and defenses of their political and personal histories.
With Republican candidate Kevin T. Stocker appearing on the podium for the first time in the campaign with Democrat Marc C. Panepinto and incumbent Mark J. Grisanti, who is running on the Independence line, much of the hourlong debate addressed such issues as who was taking big money from special interests, who committed election law fraud, who got accused of having misleading campaign signs, and which of the three candidates – all attorneys – represented an alleged heroin dealer in court.
At one point, Panepinto was asked about a controversial anti-Grisanti campaign flier on domestic violence distributed by VOTE-COPE, the political action committee of New York State United Teachers, which is supporting the Democrat’s campaign.
The ad, featuring a picture of a woman with two black eyes, accuses Grisanti of failing to fight against domestic abuse, when, in fact, Grisanti supported the domestic abuse bill in question.
Panepinto said he had been unaware that NYSUT was distributing the flier.
“I’m disgusted by the mailer that came out,” Panepinto said. “It is exploitive, and should not have happened.”
Grisanti thanked Panepinto for disavowing the ads.
Also during the debate:
• Panepinto said it is premature to talk about building a new Buffalo Bills stadium but, if that occurs, it must include private investment. Grisanti agreed. He noted that he saw some plans for a waterfront stadium and that he worries about waterfront traffic and congestion. Stocker said that there could be some future opportunity for a downtown stadium.
• Grisanti, who lost the Republican primary to Stocker, said that if elected, he would not caucus with Senate Democrats who he called “downstate Democrats.” Panepinto said he would caucus with Democrats, and Stocker said he would not decide whom he will caucus with until he gets to Albany.
• Stocker spoke against providing financial assistance to children of illegal immigrants hoping to attend college. Panepinto said children of illegal immigrants, who go to school and pay taxes, should be given an opportunity to attend college. Grisanti said he has voted against bills giving college support to children of illegal immigrants.
• Panepinto said he supports public financing of elections in New York State. Grisanti said he is against it. Stocker said campaign finance reform is needed.
• Grisanti said he does not think the SAFE Act gun-control law should be repealed. He said he helped work on the legislation to make sure that the rights of hunters were protected. Stocker said the act should be repealed. Panepinto said that the law has some good provisions but that others go too far.
Much of the debate focused on attacks by the candidates. Many of the accusations were made by Stocker, who opened the debate by declaring that trust is a major issue in the campaign.
“My two opponents betrayed the trust,” he declared.
At various points in the debate Stocker said Panepinto isn’t qualified for office because of a 2001 election law conviction, and Grisanti broke the public trust by representing a heroin dealer in his private law practice.
Stocker also accused Grisanti of taking money from polluters and flip-flopping on issues; and Panepinto, of political activities that put his wife, a judge, in jeopardy of violating the judicial ethics code.
Panepinto responded that he made a mistake in 2001 when he signed as witness to a nominating petition that he had not actually seen being signed. He said, as he has before, that he paid a fine, had his law license suspended for 30 days 13 years ago, learned from his mistake and moved forward with his life.
Panepinto also said his political activities are not putting his wife in violation of the judicial ethics code, and chastised Stocker for making such an unfounded allegation.
“It’s disgusting he would insult my wife that way,” Panepinto said.
Grisanti denied taking money from polluters as Stocker alleged, and the senator spoke about the legal right of representation when acknowledging that he represented an accused heroin dealer. The man, as Grisanti previously said, is the son of a family his firm had long represented on noncriminal matters.
Grisanti then turned the table, saying that complaints had been filed against Stocker four times in his past campaigns for misleading campaign signs, which, in one case, implied Stocker was a judge and another case implied he had endorsements from parties that had not endorsed him.
Stocker denied that the signs were misleading.
“The symbols were not misleading,” he said. “There was nothing misleading.”
At other times during the debate, Grisanti chided Panepinto for all the money – at least $800,000 so far – that NYSUT is spending to support him. Panepinto then criticized Grisanti for all the money – about $600,000 – a conservation group, funded in part by former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, is spending to support Grisanti’s candidacy.
Stocker, whose campaign is largely self-funded, faulted both Grisanti and Panepinto for being supported by special interests. He added that the voters are his only interest.
Stocker said he is running for office to fight for the hardworking families of New York and to fight against party bosses.
Panepinto said he is running for office to fight for public education, for a minimum wage that is a living wage, and to support women’s rights and the environment.
Grisanti said he is running because he wants to continue the his work n a string of issues, including reviving the Western New York economy and bringing resources back to the region from Albany.
The debate was sponsored by WBBZ-TV, and held at the station’s studio in Eastern Hills Mall, Clarence.