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Job creation, state agency reform and political connections drew spirited responses from candidates for the 149th State Assembly District in a debate Friday held by The Buffalo News.
Freshman incumbent Sean M. Ryan debated challengers Kevin P. Gaughan, a government reform activist, and Joe Mascia, a four-time commissioner for the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. The primary is Thursday.
The most heated exchange came following a question about the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, asking candidates their views on the authority's recent financial troubles and what reforms they would propose.
Ryan, who answered first, said he held a public hearing when the NFTA proposed cutting routes, which gave the people a voice. Rather than cutting routes, a slight fare hike was imposed. He also touted his support for Howard Zemsky, who became chairman in May, and said the NFTA is on its way to positive reform.
His opponents, however, slammed Ryan for those same things. Mascia said residents shouldn't have to choose between cutting routes or a fare increase and said Ryan couldn't take credit for involving the public. Ryan jumped in, interrupting Mascia to say that he had, in fact, organized a public hearing.
Gaughan, in his response, said the NFTA needs an independent audit because "it hasn't reformed itself in 30-some years."
Both candidates also brought up the $2,500 donation Zemsky made to Ryan's campaign. "The problem is we still see the same people on the same boards," Mascia said.
Ryan responded by emphatically supporting Zemsky.
"Howard Zemsky is a breath of fresh air in Western New York," he said. "To make an allegation that somehow Howard Zemsky is part of the old guard just shows a profound ignorance for what goes on in our community."
On job creation, each candidate stressed the importance of rebuilding the area's economy to help struggling families. Ryan touted the governor's $1 billion funding pledge to help create jobs in the area. He also proposed reforming the industrial development agency system, one of his top projects, to reduce wasteful spending.
Gaughan spoke about the need to reduce state and county taxes, which together make the tax burden on Erie County residents among the highest in the country.
For Mascia, the focus was on creating private-public partnerships in places such as the outer harbor to spur job creation.
Each candidate also was asked to address the areas of their political backgrounds that critics often cite, which include Ryan's connection to the longtime political organization of former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, Gaughan's repeated attempts to run for office, and Mascia's limited political experience.
Ryan responded by reminding voters he has only been in office for one year, and had a 20-year career as a public interest lawyer before that. Gaughan said he doesn't like the label of perennial candidate because he has only run three times. And Mascia maintained that his limited political experience does not matter, because voters are looking for an independent voice in Albany.

email: kronayne@buffnews.com