BUFFALO, N.Y. – Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Republican challenger traded insults and clashed over the economy and corruption Wednesday while two third-party candidates worked to get traction in the only scheduled debate in the governor's race.
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Cuomo noted that Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive, has been questioned over a housing desegregation settlement in his home county and said his views are too conservative to lead New York state. He said his administration has energized the economy, cut taxes and reduced government gridlock.
"Our taxes are at historic lows; our jobs are at historic highs," Cuomo said. "And we respect people's rights. We have Democrats and Republicans working together in Albany. There is more work to do to be certain but the arrows are pointing in the right direction."
Astorino criticized Cuomo's handling of the economy and government corruption, predicting that Cuomo "may be indicted" following allegations that his administration attempted to meddle with an anti-corruption commission when it began investigating groups linked to the governor.
"Four years ago Andrew Cuomo pretended to be the reformer," Astorino said. "Unfortunately right now he is swimming in the cesspool of corruption."
Cuomo, who has said there was no inappropriate meddling with the commission's work, dismissed Astorino's allegation, calling it a "truly outrageous" and desperate move. He then put Astorino on the defensive, saying he had fought the housing settlement, under which Westchester County agreed to build 750 affordable housing units in mostly white areas and market them to minorities. A federal monitor has accused Astorino of making false statements about the settlement.
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Astorino countered that Cuomo was playing "the race card" and that he has only tried to defend local zoning authority against a federal attack.
Two third-party candidates also participated in the debate.
Libertarian Michael McDermott criticized the major-party candidates and urged voters to carefully consider their options.
"Democrats and Republicans are the problem," he said. "Just vote Libertarian, one time."
Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, who came in third in the 2010 race, voiced opposition to hydraulic fracturing and said the state needs to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
"I wish this was the first of several debates," Hawkins said. "We've barely touched on the issues."
Astorino supports hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, while Cuomo has said he wants to wait for a study on fracking's health effects before deciding whether to allow the drilling practice.
Polls show Cuomo leads Astorino by double digits. For Astorino, the debate provided a critical opportunity to attack Cuomo less than two weeks before the Nov. 4 election.
Additional debates were proposed, but Wednesday's exchange was the only one that Cuomo and Astorino agreed to. The debate was sponsored by The Buffalo News, WNED-TV and WBFO-FM. It was televised statewide on public television.
The location of the debate likely was appealing to Cuomo, who appears eager to win western New York after losing the area in 2010. He has since targeted the area with economic development initiatives.
Cuomo is widely believed to have national aspirations and needs to show he can win handily outside of New York City, according to University at Buffalo Political Science Professor Harvey Palmer.
"There's a reason why it's in Buffalo," Palmer said. "I think he is fixated on winning upstate New York this time."