Thursday, October 26, 2006

Senator in Slugfest!

Traveling north up a very dark Route 100 on my way to the Somers Public Library for a joint Bedford/Lewisboro North Salem/ Somers League of Women Voters (LWV) candidate debate on a recent Monday night, I wondered if there would even be a “phone booth” crowd present on this cool October 16th evening.

I passed the Croton Reservoir, over the hills and into Lincolndale and arrived at the Jacob Reis Park to find a packed parking lot. Tension was in the air as I approached the Somers Library building and observed from a distance the community room packed with a standing room-only crowd spilling out down the hallway and into the entryway. I simply was not prepared for the political theatre about to unfold before me.

The Honorable Sandy Edlitz, Democratic incumbent Westchester Family Court judge, was just con- cluding her

remarks as I entered the back of the cramped room. Judge Jeff Cohen, Democratic candidate for County Court Judge from Yorktown, followed with a brief statement. Unopposed Democratic 89th District Assemblyman Adam Bradley stepped up to the podium and promptly described his past achievements in Albany and upcoming plans for reform.

A TV camera was rolling as League of Women Voters moderator Bruce Gilchrest of Chappaqua stepped back up to the podium to introduce the next participants, the real reason why this crowd was assembled from across Westchester and Putnam County, the sole opportunity for the contenders for the 40th Senatorial District, which contains Bedford, Cortlandt, Lewsisboro, Pound Ridge, Somers, Yorktown, Peekskill, all of Putnam County and eastern Dutchess County, to square off in Westchester.

Like a night at a boxing match, I found Democratic County Legislator Michael Kaplowitz, 47, Somers favorite son, in the left side of the room surrounded by supporters. Incumbent Republican Senator Vincent Leibell, 60, of Patterson, was encircled by his staff in the back of the room. Tall, fit and dressed in their dark navy suits, ready to square off in the League’s tightly controlled verbal match comprised of two League questions and two audience questions.

Kaplowitz was first to enter the ring, pointing out that he was a Somers resident, lawyer, Chartered Financial Analyst and stock broker with 9 years experience on the Westchester County Board of Legislators, including several years as Chairman of the Budget Committee. With this background in mind, Kaplowitz stated that he was “a realist and an optimist.” He forcefully contended, “state spending is out of control, having risen from $63 billion to $114 billion with no end in sight.” He concluded his opening remarks, prepared to the final second, indicating that “New York, like Washington, has no energy policy,” and called for New York State to do its part in “reducing our dependence on foreign oil.”

Senator Vincent Leibell, confidently approached the podium with statesmanlike stature cultivated after serving 23 years in the New York State Assembly and Senate. Leibell stated that when he and Michael Kaplowitz talked about New York State, he “ wondered if we are talking about the same state.” Leibell went on to criticize
Kaplowitz when he asked “Why haven’t you come to Albany?” Leibell described for the audience how he has frequently met with Westchester County Executive Andy Spano and Larry Schwartz, and, members of the Westchester County Board. Leibell said for him “New York State is a far different picture than what Kaplowitz has painted.” Kaplowitz later described in detail to this reporter that he had made numerous trips to Albany over the years, indicating that he, “ Prefers to meet with people who are important.” He indicated that he has “…not only met the legislature’s Westchester delegation on numerous occasions but has accompanied delegations of senior citizens, concerned taxpayers and Red Cross representatives to Albany.”

Moderator Bruce Gilchrest introduced the first question which described “an ideal situation where there is health insurance for everyone.”

Kaplowitz responded, going into detail about the “1.9 million New Yorkers who are uninsured.” He advocatedfor “The need to boost enrollment for every New Yorker,” and called for a public health policy that is both “preventative and humane.” Kaplowitz used all of his final seconds, stating that New York must “ control costs, especially premiums and pharmaceuticals.”

Senator Leibell stepped into the ring, with years in Albany, responding that “Healthcare is challenging but we need a national health care policy that considers the different issues that are faced at the state level versus the national level.” He detailed his efforts to create a “quilt or safety net” for New Yorkers and his efforts to “support our hospitals.” Gilchrist’s second question focused on the environment with a call for reducing emissions. Kaplowitz, a noted policy wonk on Westchester environmental issues, jumped at the opportunity to respond. He described in detail Westchester County’s efforts to reduce emissions of its own vehicles. Kaplowitz advocated the implementation by Con Ed of “an advanced new generation of ‘smart’ electric meters that ensure accurate meter readings, provide residential and small business customers with incentives to significantly control their energy and automatically manage their costs without guessing.” Kaplowitz indicated that these new meters “should reduce the likelihood of electricity shortages and defer the need for future power plants.”

Industry experts in California and Canada, have indicated that this advanced technology does not necessarily change the price of electricity but “ more accurately reflects the true cost of electricity used at various times of the day for the advanced metering system to reduce peak electricity usage.” Studies have shown that taking electric meters out of obscure locations such as basements and placing them near primary entrances has the biggest impact on controlling use and costs.

Kaplowitz enthusiastically called for the need to “boost renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.” He stated that “New York cannot stay this course.” The crowd responded with loud applause to his conclusion that “New York can lead on an energy policy that focuses on conservation and renewable fuels.”

Senator Leibell then claimed that in the New York State Senate “No one has better environmental credentials than I.” He described his efforts and concluded his remarks with the fact that Mike Kaplowitz has received “ campaign contributions from a ‘smart meter’ company.”

The moderator then opened the floor for questions from the audience. A Somers gentleman asked Senator Leibell to “reconcile the fact that the courts have ruled that New York City schools have been under-funded to the tune of several billion dollars while you have given taxpayer dollars to private education.”

Leibell detailed his history of directing taxpayer dollars to both public and private schools indicating that New York has a lengthy history of “ giving money to public and private schools as part of a bi-partisan public policy.”

Kaplowitz, long considered a “budget watchdog,” hammered Leibell for questionable use of his discretionary spending such as sending secret state tax dollars out-of-district to Leibell’s children’s college, and, to a commission that represents private universities, not SUNY schools. The Putnam County legislature just approved an 18.65% property tax increase for fiscal year 2007 on October 3rd. Multiple school budgets have failed and two school districts are operating under contingency budgets in the 40th Senate District.

Kaplowitz concluded his remarks when he stated that as a State Senator, he would “not be sending our public dollars to private schools until our public schools are fully funded. Education is ‘job one’ of state government!”

A Somers woman described the recent bi-partisan Massachusett’s legislation that is intended to insure all of its consumers and asked both candidates to do the same in New York. Kaplowitz described in detail the $30 million of indigent health care provided by Westchester Medical Center; that 18 cents of every dollar is spent on health care; and his opinion of Massachusetts consumer driven model.

Senator Leibell promptly described the New York Senate’s review of “ the Massachusett model and their questioning of their ability to finance this with their current revenue stream.”

Leibell got down to business when he said “a lot of my time has been spent on rescuing the Westchester Medical Center because of what the Westchester County Board of Legislators did and didn’t do.”

A Bedford resident questioned Senator Leibell about any efforts to fix the broken New York State Legislature as defined by a recent Brennan Center report. Leibell indicated that he considered the Brennan Center report, “ A partisan report produced by Democratic staff.” Senator Leibell concluded his remarks by stating “We can all agree that reforms are necessary.”

Kaplowitz popped right up, charging “Albany does not get it! Each legislative body does not talk to the other; they do not have mandatory conferences on legislation.”

An Avalon resident expressed his frustration with the multiple levels of Medicaid reimbursement for the same services. Kaplowitz indicated that home health care was preferable to institutional care. He stated that he was concerned that “ Health insurance companies were making un- Godly pro_ ts,” and “in certain instances, Medicaidreimbursement is not high enough for providers to meet their costs.”

Senator Leibell asked the audience “Which program would you like dropped?” He described the history of Medicaid, indicating it is a result of federal legislation and that New York has a legacy of o_ ering a more expansive program than those o_ ered in most other states. Leibell clearly stated “ Medicaid fraud needs to be addressed,” and that there needs to be “a cap on charges to local county governments”

Leibell responded to a resident’s concern about the current atmosphere of scandal a_ ecting campaigns for candidates from Washington and Albany. He stated “In twenty-four years of o_ ce, this is the most disappointing campaign” he has been involved in. Senator Leibell indicated “ No party has a monopoly on integrity. I’m satis_ ed with my years in office.”

The audience responded with loud, boistrous applause when Legislator Kaplowitz responded that as State Senator, he “won’t set up private foundations with $10 million in taxpayer dollars.” He went on “I will disclose where all member dollars are going and I will not participate in the $87 million GLOP.”

Moderator Gilchrest then ruled the next questioner, Mark Fang of Yorktown, out of order for an inappropriate question Kaplowitz. In addition, the audience booed Fang and called for him to sit down. It was the _ rst time that this reporter had ever observed an “out of order” ruling by a moderator at a LWV debate.

The two candidates then had precisely one and a half minutes to provide their closing remarks.

Senator Leibell accused Mike Kaplowitz of “ dropping the ball” with the _ nances at the Westchester Medical

Center, and further charged that its Board was loaded with unquali_ ed political appointees. Leibell proudly described his commitment to creating a_ ordable housing for the district’s senior citizens through his Putnam Community Foundation.

Michael Kaplowitz, with unrestrained exuberance, concluded his remarks, down to the last second, by stating that as a candidate for State Senator “I believe we can do better, with school taxes, with property taxes and energy policy, not in secret but in transparent government. We can do better, we must!”

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