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Final NY-21 debate: All three oppose Trump overriding 14th Amendment

From left, Green Party congressional candidate Lynn Kahn, Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik and Democratic congressional candidate Tedra Cobb participate in a debate Tuesday at WWNY-TV in Watertown. (Photos — Sydney Schafer,Watertown Daily Times)

WATERTOWN — One week before the midterms, the final debate between the three women running for the 21st Congressional District was lively, with all three going on the attack at various points through the debate.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, Democratic candidate Tedra Cobb and Green Party candidate Lynn Kahn held their third debate Tuesday in the studio of WWNY-TV. Much of the debate covered well-trodden ground for the candidates, like health care, but a few of the questions brought up new subjects.

The debate started off with one of these, a question about a story from earlier Tuesday about President Donald Trump’s plans to end birthright citizenship by executive order. All three candidates condemned the suggestion.

“I do not agree with President Trump, and I believe it would be unconstitutional,” Stefanik said. “I do agree with President Trump on the importance of securing our border.”

Kahn, like Stefanik, was both quick to condemn Trump’s suggestion and distance herself from some of the most pro-immigrant progressives.

“I do not agree with this effort,” she said. “I think there are many legal challenges to many parts of his statement. I am not for open borders.”

Cobb likewise condemned the president, who would override the 14th Amendment to the Constitution with his proposed executive order.

“No, the president cannot supersede the Constitution — not the law, not the Constitution,” Cobb said. “The president is exceeding his bounds.”

Another area where candidates largely agreed was on protecting on the rights of gay and transgender individuals.

“I worked with my community to fight for marriage equality in New York state,” Cobb said.

Cobb said she would work to ensure access to mental and physical health care for all residents.

“This is not a partisan issue; this is a human rights issue,” Cobb said. “I believe Congress has to take a stand, not only now but in the future.”

Stefanik said this is an area where she has split from her party.

“When it comes to marriage equality and protecting rights for gay and transgendered Americans, I have a strong independent record of doing just so in Congress.”

Kahn said she would support equal rights before pivoting to another part of the moderator’s question on abortion.

“I fully support the rights of all citizens, gay, transgender, straight, whatever,” Kahn said.

Perhaps the most contentious question was a request for a direct yes or no on whether the candidates supported an assault weapon ban.

Cobb has particularly struggled with this issue. She was caught on camera earlier this summer saying she supported a ban but could not say so publicly. Over the weekend, an endorsement from the Albany Times Union said she announced her support. Cobb said the endorsement was inaccurate, and the Times Union walked back its statement, but she has never clarified whether she supports the ban.

“I’ve lived here for 30 years, and I’m a gun owner, and I support our Second Amendment rights,” Cobb said, and criticized Congress for not passing gun control measures with broad support. Asked again by the moderator for a yes or no answer, Cobb thanked him for the question but still did not have a clear answer.

“The 1994 assault rifle ban failed because it listed specific weapons,” she said. “My goal is to get gun owners and non-gun owners alike to talk about how we solve this problem. It may be that, it may be, it may be — I don’t know. It may be another option we haven’t looked at.”

Stefanik and Kahn were both unequivocal.

Stefanik pointed to some bipartisan reforms on background checks that had passed Congress and repeated she was not in favor of an assault weapons ban.

“We know (Cobb’s) position is to support an assault weapon ban,” Stefanik said. “She supports an assault weapon ban.”

Kahn said she was calling on the president to publicly address political violence, but that she did not support an assault weapon ban, either.

At one point in the debate, the candidates were given an opportunity to ask the candidate next to them a question.

Stefanik tried to ask both Kahn and Cobb a question, although the moderator directed it just to Kahn.

Stefanik said she would be voting for Marc Molinaro for New York governor and Kevin McCarthy for speaker of the House, and asked her opponents who they would be voting for. Kahn answered she would be voting for Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins for governor.

Kahn asked Cobb about an issue Kahn has been uniquely vocal about in the race, the number of children removed from families by the state.

“I agree with you, Lynn; we want families to stay together,” Cobb said, touting the importance of programs to support families, treat addiction and help families reunite.

Cobb asked her question to Stefanik about a television ad labeling Cobb a Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointee for her work on a state committee on open government, although she was appointed initially by then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

“I’m giving you a chance to be honest, and I’m asking you, will you please take it off the air?” Cobb asked.

“I will be honest to viewers. Tedra Cobb is a Cuomo clone,” Stefanik replied. “She supports Governor Cuomo; she supports government-run health care; she supports infringing on your Second Amendment rights.”

Stefanik said she would not take it off the air. Stefanik also said repeatedly that Cuomo is one of Cobb’s biggest donors.

“Governor Cuomo is not one of my biggest donors; that’s ridiculous,” Cobb said.

While the governor’s campaign did donate the maximum an individual can give — $2,700 — to Cobb and the other Democratic candidates facing Republican candidates in New York, he is not her top donor. According to Cobb’s last filing with the Federal Election Commission, three union political action committees and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s leadership PAC donated $5,000. Cuomo’s is one of 81 maximum individual donations listed in the filing.

Near the end of the debate, the questions moved toward topics that have received less coverage.

One question was about whether the candidates support Plan 2014, the International Joint Commission plan to regulate water levels on the St. Lawrence River.

Cobb spoke about the flooding that happened along the river last year, although she did not say whether or not she supported Plan 2014.

“Elise Stefanik did not come to our communities. Governor Cuomo came, Patty Ritchie was there, and Addie Jenne was there,” Cobb said. “We need to make sure the river is not flooded and that Canada is not able to supersede New York, along the river.”

Stefanik said Cobb did not answer the question and touted her own record of visits through the district, although she did not directly refute Cobb’s assertion. Stefanik said she supports Plan 2014 and called for more monitoring sites and insuring the representative to the IJC can visit the local area to hear concerns.

“I have been the voice that has shepherded through Plan 2014,” Stefanik said. “I will continue to be the independent voice to adjust Plan 2014 so it works for our communities and works for our economy.”

Kahn said local communities have been ignored by the government.

“The problem is both flooding and lower water levels,” Kahn said. “Government agencies are not talking to the people affected.”

Another contentious issue was the recent North America Free Trade Agreement replacement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Stefanik had claimed Cobb did not support the agreement, which garnered cautiously bipartisan praise when it was announced.

“I did not say I support the trade agreement; I said it did not go where we needed it to go,” Cobb said.

Cobb said farmers wanted 10 percent of Canada’s dairy market opened to U.S. dairy imports; instead about 3.9 percent of the market was opened. Cobb also pointed to the failure of the agreement to address tariffs on aluminum, steel and timber.

“Once again, Tedra Cobb will vote no on our updated and improved NAFTA,” Stefanik said, doubling down. “We need to finalize it, and I intend to vote yes for that in Congress.”

Kahn called for a $20-per-hundredweight price floor for milk and a supply management system.

“Messing with the Canadian supply management system is not the answer,” she said.

Finally, the candidates closed with their views on marijuana legalization, with both Cobb and Kahn supporting decriminalization or legalization.

“Marijuana is a gateway drug to a clean kitchen,” Kahn said.

Stefanik said she did not support federal action, although she thought states could determine policy for themselves.

“I’m also concerned about fentanyl lacing our marijuana,” Stefanik said.

While there have been some reports of the synthetic opioid being mixed in with marijuana, it appears to be fairly uncommon; the fact-checking website Snopes last year said nearly all reports of such lacing are based on faulty information.

In closing, Stefanik highlighted a list of differences between herself and Cobb.

“This election is a choice; it is a choice between results and resistance,” she said. “She is a (Nancy) Pelosi parrot and a Cuomo clone. I am an independent-minded candidate that has achieved real results for this district.”

Cobb was almost as harsh in her closing, criticizing Stefanik for her vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement.

“She voted to do so because she takes money from pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists,” Cobb said. “I have not taken a dime from corporate PACs or from lobbyists. I’m here because of the people in the district who have gotten me here.”

Kahn ended with a plea for bipartisan collaboration.

“We have the solutions; there’s so much that we know how to do,” she said. “Attacking and counterattacking is not solving the problem. … Our folks in this district that I have talked to are fed up with the anger and the hatred that goes on between the two parties.”

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