SYRACUSE — Dana Balter says it's health care. Francis Conole and Roger Misso believe it's economic security.
Based on what the Democratic candidates for the 24th Congressional District have heard from voters, those are the top priorities for central New Yorkers.
The question was one of several answered by the three Democrats at a forum sponsored by Syracuse-area Indivisible groups Thursday night. About 80 people attended the 90-minute forum to hear the congressional candidates share their views on addressing poverty, protecting Social Security and what they support to combat climate change.
Misso, D-Syracuse, said economic security is the number one issue for NY-24 voters because of his personal experience and what's he been told in conversations with voters. As the father of two young children, he highlighted the importance of jobs and "hope for the future."
"We need people to feel safe in their economic situation first and foremost," he said. "Once we've done that here in this region smartly and safely ... we can make a lot of progress on those other issues."
Conole, D-Syracuse, agreed that economic security and "finding that path to prosperity" are the top issues for NY-24 residents. He criticized Republican U.S. Rep. John Katko for supporting the 2017 tax law that, he argued, largely benefits the wealthiest Americans.
"It does not invest in the middle and working class," Conole said.
Balter, D-Syracuse, has been hearing the same stories since 2017 when she first ran for Congress. She was the Democratic nominee in 2018 and lost to Katko by five percentage points.
During her campaign last year and since she's launched another bid for the congressional seat, she continues to hear concerns about health care.
"People all across our district, of all ages, of all political stripes, of all economic groups are struggling to pay for health care," she said, adding that high deductibles and prescription drug prices are among the problems with the existing health care system. "We've got to do something about it."
The candidates reiterated their support for some form of Medicare for all. Balter's support of Medicare for all is consistent with her position during the 2018 campaign.
However, Balter believes it should be implemented in stages. The first step, she said, is to lower the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 55. After that, she wants the public to have the ability to buy into Medicare and, eventually, enroll children in the program when they're born.
"It's a system that works incredibly well and it's very popular," Balter said. "It's the most efficient health insurance program in the world."
Conole mentioned health care as a crisis that needs to be solved. He acknowledged there has been progress with the Affordable Care Act and supports strengthening the 2010 health care law. He wants to protect the "vital components" of the law, while also taking action to control costs.
The difference between his position and Balter's is that he supports a Medicare public option that allows people to buy into the program.
"I think that Medicare-like public option will be something that provides people an option, but exerts downward pressure on the markets and lower costs for everyone," Conole said.
Like Conole, Misso supports the creation of a public option. He thinks that will help the U.S. get to universal coverage for all Americans. He agrees with Balter that enrolling children in Medicare after birth is a worthwhile goal.
"We need to make it cheaper," he said.
Poverty is a major concern across the district, especially in Syracuse. With nearly a third of Syracuse residents living below the poverty line, the city has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
The candidates agreed there isn't one proposal that can solve central New York's poverty problem. Misso blamed "racist government policies of the past" for systemic poverty affecting residents, especially African Americans and Hispanics.
He also panned the proposed warehouse in Clay that experts say will likely be an Amazon distribution facility. The large structure could receive nearly $66 million in tax breaks. But, as Misso noted, the jobs at the facility would pay around $30,000.
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"That is not the future of our economy here in central New York," he said. "We need to stand up to stuff like that. We need to provide direct economic stimulus to our black communities, to our underprivileged communities."
Conole again argued that the tax law doesn't invest in the middle and working classes. He wants a more equitable tax structure and supports the federal government investing resources in underprivileged areas.
Education is also a priority for him. Driving across Onondaga County, he said, there are some of the best schools in the state and some of the worst. He wants to increase federal investment in struggling schools and provide access to health care for underserved areas of the district.
"The difference couldn't be more stark on how we Democrats want to approach this problem versus Republicans," Conole added.
Balter believes reducing poverty will require addressing numerous other issues. She agreed with Conole that education needs to be a priority and for central New York to have "great schools for our kids to go to no matter where they live."
Access to health care and good-paying jobs are also important, according to Balter. She also wants to protect retirement security and supports unions. And she agreed with Misso that tearing down the Interstate 81 viaduct in Syracuse is necessary because the elevated highway divides the city and made it one of the most segregated cities in the U.S.
"We have to tackle this problem in all of those ways if we hope to make progress," she said.
Near the end of the forum, the candidates were asked why they are the right choice for Democrats to challenge Katko in 2020. It's a question the four county Democratic committees in the district will consider as they determine which candidate will receive the party's designation early next year.
Conole believes his military service and roots in central New York are assets. He, like Misso, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He served in the Iraq War and was a defense policy adviser at the Pentagon under two defense secretaries.
His family has longstanding ties to central New York. Throughout his campaign, he's mentioned that his grandfather, Patrick Corbett, is the only Democrat ever elected Onondaga County sheriff.
Conole grew up in Westvale, a western suburb of Syracuse. Katko lives in Camillus, a town in western Onondaga County.
"I think it can be a west side shootout against Mr. Katko," Conole said.
Balter made her case based on past experience. She created a "movement for change," she said, that included nearly 2,000 volunteers. She won Onondaga County in the 2018 election — the first time Katko has lost a county in three election cycles.
"We came closer than anybody ever has to beating him," Balter said. "We just have 2 1/2 points to go to get him."
Misso also highlighted his roots in central New York and military background. But he believes he's the strongest candidate because of his ties to the district's rural areas.
A Red Creek native, Misso grew up on County Line Road separating Cayuga and Wayne counties. While he's a Syracuse resident now, he would be the first person from Wayne County elected to Congress in 192 years.
He thinks he can beat Katko in Cayuga, Oswego and Wayne counties — the district's more rural counties that Katko has won by wide margins in past elections.
"We need to do something different," Misso said.
The forum was held two days before the start of early voting for the local elections and less than two weeks before Election Day, which is Tuesday, Nov. 5. Early voting runs from Saturday, Oct. 26, through Sunday, Nov. 3.
After the local elections, Democratic Party leaders plan to have a months-long designation process that will include candidate forums and meetings with Balter, Conole and Misso.
The party will designate a candidate before the petitioning process begins in late February.