They talked about taxes and jobs, pensions and schools.
But what the debate Wednesday morning among the three chief candidates for the 60th State Senate District really amounted to was a disagreement about less tangible matters, such as trustworthiness, integrity and independence.
Incumbent Republican Mark J. Grisanti faced off against challengers Michael L. Amodeo, a Democrat, and Charles M. Swanick, who is running on the Conservative line, in a one-hour heated session before a packed auditorium at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute on Kenmore Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda.
The session at the Catholic young men’s high school included questions on topics ranging from public education and the state pension system to the Buffalo Bills and campaign finance reform.
But throughout the morning, the discussion often circled back to questions of trust and reliability, especially for Grisanti, who voted last year to legalize same-sex marriage.
Grisanti took tough questions, many of them submitted by the student body, on that vote and his behavior in a fight earlier this year in the Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls.
“My wife was being attacked, and I came to her defense,” he said of the casino incident. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Swanick told the audience of hundreds of assembled students, faculty members and reporters that he supports traditional marriage. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” said Swanick, of the Town of Tonawanda, a former chairman of the Erie County Legislature and retired railroad employee. “That’s where my parents came from. That’s where I came from.”
Of the casino fight, Swanick said: “I don’t personally go to casinos, so I don’t have those kinds of issues.”
His comment drew chuckles from the students.
He added, “I think voters in the 60th District watched in amazement.”
Amodeo, an attorney from Hamburg, said he would have voted for legalizing gay marriage.
He charged that Grisanti voted for the bill not out of principle but for political gain.
“If it was a vote of conscience,” he said, “then he should have no problem in the future voting for every other issue affecting the LGBT community.”
Among other topics covered in Wednesday’s debate:
The Buffalo Bills
Grisanti said he is in the loop on negotiations involving the football team’s expiring lease on county-owned Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park as well as plans for a proposed waterfront stadium.
He said he didn’t want to weigh in on the proposed stadium idea yet. “Until there’s a completed proposal, I don’t want to comment,” he said.
He said he is not in favor of moving the team to Ontario.
Amodeo said he believes that the Bills must be kept in Western New York. “The Bills are a good economic generator for New York State,” he said.
Swanick said he worked on past Bills negotiations during Dennis T. Gorski’s time as county executive and stressed that speed was key to managing the situation well.
“My recommendation is they get these negotiations ... wrapped up as quickly as possible,” he said. “[The Bills] have a value here, and they must stay in Western New York.”
Amodeo said no cuts should be made in spending on public education in the state. He said cuts made since 2009 have hurt the system and made it harder to attract talented people as teachers.
“The last thing we should be doing is cutting funding for education in New York State,” he said.
Grisanti said he would like to see “parent choice as to where kids are going to school.” He said he would support a voucher that parents could use to send their kids to private, charter or public schools.
Swanick said his work on the railroad proved to him that many kids are not in school during the day, when they should be. “I would see hundreds of kids every day, out on railroad property during school time,” he said.
He said parents need to take responsibility and shoulder some of the burden of getting their children into learning environments.
Party loyalty and Cuomo
Grisanti called his record, including his work on the UB2020 plan, a testimony to his “fantastic rapport” with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Amodeo called Grisanti’s record of voting with the Republicans in Albany “99 percent of the time,” a sign that Grisanti is not as independent as he claims to be. “People want change,” he said. “They want people who fully represent their community.”
Swanick said he has knocked on 7,200 doors in the district and is hearing from constituents that they want to see change in Albany. “We need to change the mindset of the people in Albany, to get things moving for once and for all,” he said.