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51st debate

State Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, left, and Democrat challenger Joyce St. George participated in a televised debate at Cayuga Community College Thursday.

AUBURN — With a massive district that touches nine counties, the candidates for the New York Senate's 51st District have a lot to keep in mind, but both candidates managed to place an emphasis on Cayuga County during a televised debate Thursday.

Incumbent state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, and challenger Democrat Joyce St. George discussed everything from harmful algal blooms to health care during the debate at Cayuga Community College.

While the 51st District includes much of southeastern Cayuga County, it also includes parts of the Mohawk Valley, the edge of the Adirondacks and the Hudson Valley, making for a wide variety of constituents with equally varied concerns.

Seward, who was first elected to the office in 1986, said he's been able to stay abreast of all those concerns by placing a high priority on keeping in touch with constituents, touting the 40,000 miles he puts on his vehicle every year driving throughout the district.

"Everyone in each community should have access to their representative in the state Senate," Seward said.

With the restrictions of budgets in mind, St. George said, if elected, she would continue the approach she's taken throughout her campaign of meeting with local leaders of all kinds to hear directly about what affects them, and also said she'd expand online communication with constituents.

"You talk, you listen, you travel," St. George said.

One of several points the pair agreed upon was the urgent need for the state to address the issue of harmful algal blooms, both in Owasco Lake in particular but also throughout the entire state.

Seward pointed to his past efforts on the issue, like securing grant funding for projects like stream bank restoration to reduce algae-feeding nutrients flowing into the lake or the state's $65 million HAB Action Plans as proof he's attentive to the issue.

Projects from the state like helping farmers afford projects to reduce nutrient loading into watersheds are a positive step, according to St. George, but they only address a symptom of a larger issue.

Citing a recent United Nations report, St. George said climate change was the greater cause behind HABs, and that the state needed to reduce the use of fossil fuels to truly protect water quality.

"Otherwise, throwing all the money you like won't do it," St. George said.

The most contentious topic of the night, requiring multiple time extensions from the moderator, came from a discussion of health care. Specifically, the candidates disagreed on the viability of the New York Health Act, which would introduce a single-payer universal health care system in the state.

As a board member and chairperson for a hospital, St. George said she supported the law, pointing to a reduction in out-of-pocket costs for individuals and expansion of coverage to everyone in the state, including those who are technically covered but stuck with high deductibles and co-pays.

"I think there's still plenty of things that need to be settled with it, but it is built on sound finance. And I think that looking where we are, where we've been, I certainly don't want to keep going there," St. George said.

Seward, however, said the law would simply be too expensive for the state government, and cautioned against a potential exodus of businesses and high-income residents if taxes were raised too high.

"I think this is a better discussion nationally rather than having New York state go it alone because we will see businesses and people flee this state," Seward said.

Seward will appear on the ballot under the Republican, Conservative, Independence and Reform party lines. St. George is running both as a Democrat and under the Working Families and Women's Equality lines.

Election Day is Nov. 6.

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Staff writer Ryan Franklin can be reached at (315) 282-2252 or ryan.franklin@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @RyanNYFranklin

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County government reporter