LYONS — If the forum Tuesday at Ohmann Theater is any indication, the two Democrats running in the 24th Congressional District race won't overlook Wayne County in the primary or general elections.
Dana Balter and Juanita Perez Williams answered questions from the crowd of more than 100 people for more than an hour. The forum, which was sponsored by Wayne Action for Racial Equality and the Citizens Response Network, covered health care, immigration, taxes and more.
But it was a question about Wayne County's role in the 24th district that seemed to interest the audience.
The candidates were asked how they would win votes from Wayne County during the election. The westernmost county in the 24th district is a Republican stronghold. As of April, there were nearly 9,000 more active GOP voters than Democrats in Wayne County.
Dan Maffei is the last Democrat to win this Syracuse-area congressional race. When he won the 2012 election, he lost Wayne County by more than 9,000 votes.
Both candidates pledged to have a constant presence in Wayne County. Balter, D-Syracuse, said it was her first stop after entering the congressional race in September. She questioned why Democrats have overlooked the county.
"To me, the heart of representation is about showing up," she said. "It is about listening. It is about making the person-to-person connection in the community."
She added later, "Wayne County will never be at the bottom of the list."
Perez Williams, D-Syracuse, acknowledged that while she hasn't been in the campaign as long as Balter, she has made traveling to Wayne County a priority. When she launched a series of community conversations in the district, the first event was at a home in Marion, a town in western Wayne County.
If elected to Congress, she plans on being a frequent visitor to churches, community centers and other sites in the county.
"I will be here," she said. "I will be a voice for Wayne County and I will ensure that you have a representative that you see."
The candidates answered questions on other issues during the forum. They agreed that the Trump administration's policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border must end. They both support repealing the tax overhaul passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump late last year.
The pair also agreed that more needs to be done to combat gun violence. Perez Williams supports a ban on assault weapons. Balter wants to ensure public health agencies have the ability to research gun violence.
There was one prominent disagreement during the forum, and it came on the final question of the night. An attendee asked Perez Williams to clear up her stance on abortion. Balter's campaign launched a television ad early last week that raised questions about whether Perez Williams supports a woman's right to choose.
The ad highlighted social media posts by Perez Williams in which she wrote about her "pro-life advocacy" and participation in the March for Life, an annual anti-abortion rally held annually in Washington.
Perez Williams, who has repeatedly said that she is pro-choice, reiterated that stance at the forum. She called the Balter campaign's ad "disingenuous."
"I have always supported a woman's right to choose," she said. "I will always protect and defend it."
Balter responded by saying that she is "100 percent pro-choice" and reiterated her belief that her stance is different than Perez Williams'. She defended her campaign's TV ad and disputed the claim that the commercial is dishonest.
She again questioned Perez Williams' past comments on abortion and her participation in the March for Life.
"I don't understand how somebody who says and does those things can be trusted to protect these rights," she said. "And my question is, which of those is the real Juanita Perez Williams?"
The forum was held one week before the Democratic primary in the 24th district. Polls will open at noon Tuesday, June 26.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face U.S. Rep. John Katko in the general election. Both candidates have said they support their party's nominee in the congressional race.