Over the course of an hour-long debate at the Woodstock Playhouse Monday, October 24, Congressional candidates Democrat Zephyr Teachout and Republican John Faso answered moderators’ questions on trade, executive authority, the battle against ISIS and other issues, all while circling back to core campaign themes.
For Faso, that meant portraying his opponent, a Fordham Law School professor and author who moved into the 19th New York Congressional District from Brooklyn last year as an out-of-touch outsider with a “Grapes of Wrath” view of economic issues and little understanding of the needs of her would-be constituents. At the same time, Faso touted his own credentials as a pragmatic moderate who would work for bipartisan solutions.
Teachout, meanwhile, struck a note of economic populism, calling for stricter banking regulations, higher corporate taxes and renegotiation of foreign trade deals, while painting Faso, who served 15 years in the state Assembly and has worked as a lobbyist, as a standard-bearer for the status quo.
The debate was aired live on Time Warner Cable News and co-moderated by Capital Tonight host Liz Benjamin and reporter Nick Reisman before a crowd of about 200.
In an election year where voters have signaled dissatisfaction with the status quo, both candidates sounded notes of alarm in their openings statements. Teachout called herself an “economic patriot” concerned with bringing jobs back to the U.S. and ensuring clean water. She also hit on her campaign’s message of disrupting a system rigged to favor the rich and powerful.
“The deeper issue right now is that we have a crisis of democracy, everywhere I go in this district, people ask me how can we get Congress to work again,” said Teachout. “To work again for the people, not for big corporations, not for political parties.”
Faso also referenced “crisis,” saying that the country was in danger from spiraling debt as well as threats from abroad. In his opening statement the veteran state lawmaker called for tax and regulatory reform to help the small-business sector and enhanced military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities to deal with foreign enemies.
“We will be the first generation to leave our children and grandchildren with a country worse off than the one we live in,” said Faso. “But we have it our capacity to change this.”
On property taxes, both candidates acknowledged that New Yorkers paid the highest rates in the nation and needed relief. But they differed on how to achieve it. Teachout said that she opposed the state’s 2 percent annual property tax levy hike cap because it robbed local communities of control while not providing enough tax relief. Pressed by Benjamin to explain how she would fund major infrastructure improvements and quality education without raising taxes, Teachout said that she would raise taxes on “the 1 percent” and large corporations.
“We need a more fair tax system,” said Teachout. “Right now, the 1 percent and the big companies, mostly in New York City, are getting away with it.”
Faso called Medicaid costs, which in New York are split between state and local government, a major driver of property taxes. He proposed federal legislation which would force the state to assume all Medicaid costs, something he said would prompt state lawmakers to reform the program. Faso also used the tax question to take a swipe at Teachout’s recent move to the district.
“She doesn’t really know what she’s talking about when it comes to property taxes,” said Faso. “Maybe because she just moved to the district and hasn’t paid property taxes here.” (Offered an opportunity to respond, Teachout replied simply that she lives in Dutchess County and pays property taxes).
What to regulate, and how
The candidates also clashed over regulation of the financial sector, specifically the post-Great Recession Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that tightened regulations in banking and financial services and created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to enforce them. Teachout said that there were elements of the 2010 law that went too far and others that did not go far enough. She said she favors a “trust-busting” approach aimed at curbing the political power of large banking interests to influence policy for their own benefit.
“Big banks have way too much political power,” said Teachout. “They’re actually running the table in Washington.”
Faso accused Teachout of approaching financial regulation “like she’s looking at a Monopoly board.” Faso said that excessive regulations had harmed small local lenders and blamed the 2008 economic crisis on “bad regulation,” rather than too little regulation. Faso also criticized the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as an unconstitutional bureaucracy that operated without congressional oversight.
“This is what the left elites want, they want a super-bureaucracy to control every aspect of the economy,” said Faso. “That’s perfectly acceptable to Ms. Teachout, but it doesn’t work.”
There were several points of agreement between the two candidates. Both said that they would oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multi-lateral trade agreement that has faced opposition from both the left and right. Teachout delivered an economic populist argument, saying sweeping trade deals sent manufacturing jobs overseas. Teachout called for rejecting the deal outright, renegotiating existing trade agreements with China and Mexico and limiting future trade deals to bi-lateral rather than regional pacts. Teachout added that she opposed granting “fast-track authority” to the president to negotiate economic treaties without input from Congress.
“I will be a strong voice for ‘Made in America,’” said Teachout. “I think it’s time for a 21st-century trade policy that focuses on our workers.”
Faso said that he opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the grounds that it had been mishandled by the Obama administration. But, he said, he was generally opposed to putting up trade barriers — a practice, he said, that helped spark the Great Depression. Faso argued that fast-track authority was essential to allow nations to negotiate complex agreements in good faith and noted that those agreements are still subject to an up-or-down vote by Congress. Faso added that thousands of New York jobs were dependent on foreign trade.
“We have to be concerned when we hear all of these voices saying, ‘Let’s throw out all of these trade agreements,’” said Faso. “Because there are jobs here in New York State that depend upon it.”
Both against barge anchorages
Along with questions of national interest, the candidates also fielded questions on a hot-button local issue, a proposal by the Coast Guard to open 10 new anchorages on the Hudson to oil barges to relieve congestion at the Port of Albany. Local governments and citizens groups along the Hudson have opposed the plan as unsafe and a threat to the region’s tourism industry. Teachout said she opposed the plan as a step in the wrong direction for the regional economy. She also said that the Coast Guard lacked the capacity to properly vet the proposal for potential environmental and economic impacts.
“The correct number of barges on the Hudson River is zero,” said Teachout. “I’ve been very clear on that.” Asked for clarification, Teachout said her comment referred to the proposal for new anchorages, not current barge traffic.
Faso said that he would not support the proposal currently on the table. But he said there should be a discussion about the need for emergency anchorages in the event of severe weather or serious congestion at the port.
“What I would like to see from the Coast Guard, and the industry, is the justification,” said Faso.