TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—New York State Senate candidates pursuing the Democratic nomination for the 53rd District appeared before voters for the first time as a trio, kicking off the election cycle in earnest as the petitioning period looms next month.

Leslie Danks Burke, Lea Webb and Dr. Ammitai Worob fielded questions for about an hour from WRFI’s Fred Balfour and the Tompkins County Democratic Committee’s interim chair Linda Hoffmann, who also hosted a similar event this week with House of Representatives candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in New York’s new 22nd Congressional District.

This is a summation of the forum, though the entire event can be watched here.

Each candidate gave an opening statement, followed by a question from Balfour that asked each candidate’s primary concern upon entering office, if they are elected.

Webb started by highlighting the New York Health Act, explaining that the problems laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic would not be solved simply by the pandemic ending, whenever that may be. The disparities would still exist regardless. Beyond that, she mentioned housing, a fair economic rebuild and environmental protection.

Worob followed by similarly emphasizing healthcare, citing his own background in medicine, and similarly boosting affordable housing. Danks Burke took more of an economic tone, focusing on the need for economic reform and tax changes, while also endorsing a move toward a universal healthcare system.

“Families and people across the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes are falling out of the middle class,” Danks Burke said. “Our tax structure right now prioritizes the very wealthiest among us and the rest of us are having to pick up the tab. We have very regressive property taxes, I’d like to see those cut in half in order to make our Medicaid program work for the people it’s actually supposed to be helping.”

She said public schooling and beneficial job creation would be two particular priorities to use tax money from large companies.

Worob was asked what kind of experience he has in setting policy in New York State, an especially significant question for the lone Democratic candidate who is entering without political experience. He acknowledged that he had never set governmental policy, but argued that his work as a healthcare provider had given him a look inside healthcare policy and running a small business gave him insight into the challenges they face in the state.

Webb mentioned her work on climate issues, which included Binghamton’s Climate Action Plan, and spoke about her work concerning the establishment of the Human Rights Commission in Binghamton and work on housing and addressing vacant properties during her time on council. Meanwhile, Danks Burke spoke about organizing enthusiasm around the Reproductive Health Act in New York (which was passed in 2019) even in some of the deeply red parts of the region.

Balfour then asked each candidate to explain how they would best help students access community colleges, particularly since Tompkins Cortland Community College and SUNY-Brooome, to name two local examples, have struggled with enrollment over the last several years.

“We definitely have to deal with the costs of tuition,” Webb said, herself a graduate of SUNY-Broome. “Also creating clear pathways to education, one of the things that often happens is a disconnect between what do you do when transitioning from K-12 to college. Understanding that because we have an inequitable system that does not provide wages, for instance, for our families so that even once you have a degree, you’re still struggling. Those are just some key issues that when we’re having these conversations that we have higher ed institutions in that discussion.”

Danks Burke serves on the foundation board of TC3, saying that has made her acutely aware of the school’s enrollment difficulties. She said one solution she had been a part of implementing was a network of childcare resources/location for students who needed it to attend classes.

Worob said that federal funds would be helpful, but that the state should be able to safeguard the schools from financial ruin. Communities need to take ownership (in a figurative way) and emphasize partnerships to increase “community buy-in,” which will in turn help enrollment, he said.

State-level solutions to housing were then addressed, moving away from the more local-specific issues. Danks Burke said the state needs to be facilitating fixes that municipalities want to employ, such as championing accessory dwelling units. Webb mentioned the Restore New York program, something the state organized to help municipalities with their housing issues while also noting the utility of mobile homes in rural communities as a way to address housing access. Worob echoed Danks Burke’s earlier comments about property taxes, while also pushing the need for more infill development to enhance the housing stock.

Webb was the only candidate to also mention, and support, the good cause eviction legislation that is currently being debated at the state level (and has generated plenty of discussion in Ithaca as well).

Each candidate said they would support the New York Health Act, which remains in limbo at the state level. The law would create a single-payer healthcare system in New York State, ensuring New Yorkers would not be priced out of necessary medical care.

“The New York Health Act is a critical and necessary piece of legislation to not only lift the financial burdens on our families but also ensure that they have a better quality of life,” Webb said. “And that their health outcomes are not simply dictated by zip code or any other cultural background they may have because of the existing disparities within our healthcare system.”

Worob said that the law should be tweaked to better foster rural access, but that he supports the NY Health Act overall. In response to the next question, he endorsed universal childcare funding, in part because of some of the deficiencies in current childcare structures that were shown by COVID.

“What it comes down to is funding for childcare, universal pre-K,” Worob said. “There’s a lot of things that have been exposed [by COVID], we need to be looking forward to what we can do to be ready for and not have the same pitfalls that we had the last two years in terms of how it’s affected families and the economy. Investing in the front-end is going to pay off on the back-end.”

To finish, Worob, Webb and Danks Burke delivered final remarks, reiterating much of what they had asserted during the hour-long forum—Danks Burke with a message that the fight to bring upstate needs, particularly from a Democratic perspective, to Albany is not over after redistricting and that her political background has prepared her well for that work; Webb insisting that her experience in Binghamton government makes her the best-suited liaison between constituents and lawmakers in the capital; and Worob that his business and healthcare acumen are crucial to the challenges most centrally impacting Central New Yorkers.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com