ITHACA, NY – The two candidates for the 58th state senate district returned to Ithaca for another debate on Friday night, where they revisited some old topics and tackled some new ones.

Republican incumbent Tom O’Mara and Democratic challenger Leslie Danks Burke are fighting for the 58th district state senate seat, a large district which includes several Southern Tier and Finger Lakes counties: Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben and Yates counties, and a large portion of Tompkins County (the city and town of Ithaca, and the towns of Enfield, Newfield and Ulysses).

Friday’s debate was hosted by Ithaca College’s television station, ICTV.

Here’s a breakdown of the topics covered and where each candidate fell on the issues:

Lead in Ithaca schools’ drinking water

The debate got off to a contentious start, as Danks Burke went on the attack when presented with the first question, which was regarding the issue of lead in school drinking water supplies. It’s an issue that got a lot of momentum when tests showed Ithaca schools had lead-contaminated water and it quickly became a state-wide issue.

While O’Mara touted a bill he sponsored to ensure better testing standards for school water supplies. Danks Burke criticized the bill, saying that it didn’t actually provide any funding to help schools deal with this cost.

O’Mara said that his opponent was misrepresenting the bill and that it provides funding through state building aid, which is a portion of the aid that the state provides to schools every year.

“Mr. O’Mara doesn’t completely understand what his own bill says,” Danks Burke argued. Her interpretation of the bill was that any money that a school used for lead testing or remediation would be money that they wouldn’t then be able to use on other projects normally funded by building aid, such as roof repair, repainting or other projects.

(According to a Politico article that O’Mara referenced in support of his bill, he told reporters then “that testing would be fully covered by the state under reimbursable BOCES building aid… he conceded that reimbursable building aid doesn’t always fully cover school projects, so there may be some cost to schools.”)

On The Ithaca Plan and supervised injection sites

“I still believe it’s asinine, it’s preposterous, and we’re nowhere near, in this country, needing to get to that level,” O’Mara responded when asked if his opinion on supervised injection sites had changed. “Providing a safe haven for them to come in and inject heroin… is not the message we should be sending.”

O’Mara pointed to the progress being made in improving treatment options for opioid addicts, saying that Albany had passed regulations to help combat the issue and levied $190 million for that purpose this year and referencing the expansion of facilities planned for Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services and the recently announced detox facility in Ithaca. He said that this isn’t a problem that can be legislated away, and would require cooperation from all levels of government, healthcare and community groups to deal with.

Danks Burke agreed that supervised injection sites weren’t needed yet, but felt that the legislature should have done more sooner to combat the crisis, calling their efforts “Too little, too late.” She also expressed concern that pharmaceutical companies could use their money to sway lawmakers from passing bills that would hurt the opioid market.

On Ithaca welcoming refugees from Syria

“If the United States and Immigration Servies are allowing people into our country, and they have made those decisions and determinations about who is allowed in, then I applaud the good people of our community who are opening up their homes and supporting our neighbors who are in need of assistance,” Danks Burke said.

O’Mara acknowledged that America was a country built on immigration, but said that based on some of the issues with refugees in Europe, he was concerned about the vetting process and the possibility of terrorists entering the country through the refugee program.

(The Ithaca Voice did an in-depth piece on the vetting process for Syrian refugees, which you can read here.)

On the Medicaid unfunded mandate

Though this issue was covered in the last debate, Friday’s debate offered some new talking points.

O’Mara said that reducing and ultimately removing the massive burden of Medicaid on county property tax rolls was the main reason he got into politics. Danks Burke criticized him, saying that while the sentiment was nice, she felt O’Mara had not done enough in his 12 years in office and had voted to extend the Medicaid mandate six times.

“The local share of Medicaid that New York continues to put on its counties has gone down over the years, from 25 percent to around 12 or 13 percent,” O’Mara said. “The overall burden is still about $8 billion. My legislation calls for phasing that out over a seven-year period.” He added that he felt the full $8 billion could be tackled all at once but felt it was more reasonable to phase it out.

On fracking and renewable energy

Danks Burke immediately challenged the moderator’s assertion that lifting the fracking ban could bring jobs to the region.

“Around the country, there are more jobs in solar than there are in natural gas extraction. I want to see those jobs and infrastructure come here,” Danks Burke said. She said that in her home state of Colorado, which allowed fracking, she saw that the industry did not create or maintain jobs as it claimed it would. She also pointed to the recent success of Renovus here in Tompkins County as an example of how renewable energy could succeed here.

O’Mara gave the same stance he did at the last debate: while he supports renewable energy, he said that since 80 percent of our building heating is reliant on fossil fuels, it’s unrealistic to try and completely cut fossil fuels immediately. Instead, they should be phased out gradually, he argued.

On legislators taking outside income

Danks Burke holds a position that state senators should not have any outside income, so as to eliminate any potential conflict of interest. While she has not alleged any particular misconduct on O’Mara’s part, she has criticized the senator for continuing to work part-time for a law firm which has been involved in lobbying.

O’Mara countered by saying that he was strongly in support of having a legislature made up of working citizens with real-world experience, as opposed to a professional legislative class. He shot back at Danks Burke, arguing that he keeps his job to support his family, but that Danks Burke has the luxury of not needing outside income because her husband works for Cornell and makes $650,000 a year.

Corruption in Albany

Corruption and ethics reform in Albany has been a major rallying cry for Danks Burke’s campaign, and the issue came up in response to several questions during the debate.

“It costs us money. It’s not like corruption is just some amorphic thing out there that we fault because we’re moral people. It pulls money away from rural upstate counties and that’s a real problem when you see the level of poverty we’re dealing with,” Danks Burke said, bringing up food insecurity and lack of broadband buildout in the region as examples.

Asked what specifically would make her the best candidate to fight this corruption, Danks Burke said that she has refused outside income while campaigning and will do so when in office, so as to prevent conflicts of interest. She also noted that she discloses more than is required in her campaign’s financial reports, which show that 85 percent of her income comes from independent donors.

O’Mara said that the recent investigations that led to the arrests of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos in the New York Legislature were due to ongoing investigations under existing laws, thus he didn’t feel that new criminal law wasn’t the answer. He also pointed to the fact that the legislature recently passed ethics reform focused on stripping pensions of those convicted of corruption and said that he looked forward to the continued purging of “bad apples” from the legislature.

On creating and maintaining jobs

The debate ended on a note of agreement: both candidates said that when it came to creating and maintaining jobs, the state should “get out of the way.” Both candidates believed that the state’s job was to create an environment where businesses can thrive. (New York is among the bottom of the list when it comes to business-friendly tax climates according to the Tax Foundation.)

“Our businesses don’t want a handout of an incentive, and that doesn’t favor our existing businesses that have struggled for all these years,” O’Mara said. “We need to get to a competitive atmosphere, where our businesses can thrive and be competitive within the United States and globally.”

“We have long-time manufacturers, we have new tech startups, we have great educational institutions… we can partner up our educational institutions with existing businesses and build and grow for the future. We’ve got all the building blocks in place if the state would get out of the way,” Danks Burke said.

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.