Pictured are state Assemblyman Will Barclay and Gail Tosh prior to Wednesday's debate for the 120th Assembly District, hosted by The Palladium-Times at the McCrobie Building.

OSWEGO — Incumbent state Assemblyman Will Barclay and Democratic Party challenger Gail Tosh exchanged opinions on the issues facing central New York and offered differing visions of the 120th Assembly District’s future in front of a standing-room only crowd at the Roy C. McCrobie Building Wednesday night.

Hosted by The Palladium-Times, Wednesday night’s debate was the first and only scheduled debate in the race for the 120th Assembly District, which includes most of Oswego County and portions of Onondaga and Jefferson counties. Barclay, a Republican, has represented the area in the state Assembly since 2003, and Tosh is the first to challenge his seat since 2008.

Before a capacity crowd, Barclay and Tosh took questions on a variety of state and local issues, including health care, economic development, education and the local economy. The candidates cordially proposed contrasting views on many of the issues but found some common ground on subjects like nuclear power and the need for the state to provide local governments with funding to pay for mandated programs and services.

Barclay opened the debate saying his motivation for re-election is much the same as his initial run for office, centered on fighting to ensure his children had opportunities to stay in the area and prosper.

“I love this area. I was born here. I grew up here, and I’ve now raised a family here and I plan on staying here,” he said. “We live in a wonderful area and we have so many opportunities, but unfortunately we get a lot of mandates and other policies coming down from the state that make it very hard to make a living here and provide opportunity for our children. That’s why I go to Albany and that’s what I fight for.”

Tosh introduced herself to the crowd by saying that in recent years she “woke up to an America that was moving in a direction that (she) could not support.” She said people started to lose their jobs, and “fear, anger and hatred” entered the national conversation as the federal government eroded protections for minorities.

Though conceding that Barclay is not responsible for the rancorous political climate in the U.S., Tosh said the district needs “innovative solutions” and “fresh ideas” to develop a more proactive economic development plan for the future.

“Mr. Barclay has a lifetime of experience as a legislator and a legal expert, but the solutions he’s offered to our community just haven’t provided the results the way that we would have liked them to,” she said. “It’s time for new ideas and a new direction. If we keep making the choices that we’ve made in the past we’re going to continue to get the same results.”

The first question posed to the candidates was whether or not the state should be subsidizing nuclear energy and what role the plants play in the county’s economy now and in the future.

Tosh said the district is on “borrowed time” with nuclear power, adding the area needs to move quickly to replace the aging facilities with another reactor. Nuclear could be the foundation of a renewable energy economy, and the plants are crucial to the long-term job prospects in the district.

“I will go to the governor and say ‘we need an expedited plan to get a new, state-of-the-art reactor opened up in the 120th so we can be a major part of the 2030 energy initiative’,” Tosh said, referencing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to have 50 percent of the state’s electricity provided by renewable energy in the coming decade.

Barclay pointed to his extensive efforts to keep the James A. FitzPatrick Nuclear Power Plant open and push the state to offer subsidies through the state Clean Energy Standard. Barclay noted the plants don’t necessarily have to close when the current licensing runs out in 2029, and the licenses for each of the plants could be renewed.

“Those plants have been updated and they’re probably as modern a plant as anywhere,” Barclay said. “And they’re as safe as ever and efficient as ever, so there’s no need those plants have to close in 10 years.”

The three nuclear reactors in the district provide a significant number of jobs and have an enormous economic impact, Barclay said, and the state subsidies are minimal compared to the economic activity generated by the facilities. The state should maintain a diverse energy supply, he said, and nuclear plays a role in that.

Tosh repeatedly stated her support for the New York Health Act, which she says would create a single-payer health care system in the state. The formation of such a system would make the state more attractive to businesses by cutting insurance costs, Tosh said, and boost entrepreneurship in the state by providing affordable health care to everyone.

“Small business is the engine that drives our innovation, our invention and our progress, so lets give that engine some gas,” Tosh said. “Lets take away the fear of branching out on our own and starting a new business by not being able to supply health insurance to our families.”

Though Barclay agreed “small business is the backbone of our economy,” he said the best way to encourage growth and entrepreneurship is to put an end to the unfunded mandates coming from Albany. Many of the policies make sense in a vacuum, he said, but called the unfunded mandates “death by a thousand cuts.”

“We have to unshackle small businesses and let them grow and let them run the businesses the way they do,” he said.

Barclay said Tosh seemed to believe education and health care could be provided at no cost, adding “unfortunately that’s simply not the case.” Both candidates want to help people, Barclay said, but lawmakers must be conscious of how much taxpayers can afford.

“I think her idea is government can solve everyone’s problems and everything is free when it comes from government,” Barclay said. “Well it’s not… I love the idea of health care for all, but when you’re talking about a quarter of a trillion dollars to pay for where is that money going to come from?”

Tosh rejected the idea that she believes health care would be free, and said Barclay was trying to deliberately mislead the public with those comments.

“All these things are going to cost money,” she said, adding people are currently paying exorbitant amounts for health care. “The New York Health Act we’re going to be paying in taxes, but we’re not going to be paying high premiums… I don’t care if you call it a premium or a tax. I’m looking at the bottom line and the bottom line is significantly better.”

Following the debate, Barclay said the campaign was not taking anything for granted and has been working hard to earn the support and votes needed to remain in the assembly. He said the debate provided a “fair airing of hopefully provided community members with an opportunity to see the difference between the candidates,

The district has made “great strides” during his time in office, Barclay said, noting the nuclear power plants remain open and those affected by last year’s flooding were able to get some financial relief. However, he said there is “a lot more to be done.”

Tosh said “it’s time to go in a new direction,” and said the district would continue to get the same results if voters continue to make the same choices.

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