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Doheny, Stefanik spar over residency, tax pledges, campaign tactics during debate


ALBANY — Somewhere between “unlike my opponent” and “I actually agree with my opponent” lies the difference between Matthew A. Doheny and Elise M. Stefanik, the Republicans facing each other in a June 24 primary in New York’s 21st Congressional District.

During a debate Tuesday at the Time Warner Cable News studios, the two candidates spent a lot of energy trying to distinguish themselves from each other. Sparks flew over questions about residency, tax pledges and campaign tactics. But for all the tension, the candidates agreed on several principles, though they tended to differ on policy specifics.

On the economy, Ms. Stefanik said she favored an overhaul of the tax code for a “flatter, fairer tax.” She envisioned a tax plan that reduces regulatory burdens and repeals the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

Mr. Doheny said he would like to see more investment in “21st century” physical and technological infrastructure in the district. He also said he favors regulatory reform and creation of a subregional economic development plan to tailor projects to the district’s diverse parts.

Both candidates agreed on the importance of Fort Drum and the need to develop the north country’s infrastructure. Both would have voted against the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration. The candidates agreed they would have voted against the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.

Despite his claim, Ms. Stefanik caught Mr. Doheny in an awkward position when he said he “probably” would have voted for the budget proposed by Rep. Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington. “That budget deal cuts benefits for military veterans,” she said.

Both candidates called on retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, to resign over allegations that the VA covered up long patient waiting times that surfaced following a CNN report that 40 veterans died while waiting for care at the VA hospital in Phoenix.

Mr. Doheny and Ms. Stefanik said that more flexibility is needed in how the VA provides care in the north country, including partnerships with local hospitals.

Both said they were against raising taxes, though they disagreed about how best to assure voters of their position. Mr. Doheny has signed Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform pledge, according to which Republican candidates promise never to raise taxes. Ms. Stefanik has refused to sign it, saying instead that she has made such a pledge directly to the voters.

Regardless of the outcome of the Republican primary, both Mr. Doheny and Ms. Stefanik are guaranteed a spot on the ballot in November, Mr. Doheny on the Independence line and Ms. Stefanik on the Conservative line. While neither cares to speculate about what happens after June 24, only one will move on to carry the major party’s banner against Democrat Aaron G. Woolf and Green Party candidate Matthew J. Funiciello in the general election to succeed Democrat William L. Owens, Plattsburgh.

For Mr. Doheny, those qualifications boil down to experience.

For Ms. Stefanik, it’s new leadership and new ideas.

The sharpest exchange came when the candidates questioned each other.

Mr. Doheny questioned Ms. Stefanik’s connection to the district. “Would you tell the voters of the 21st Congressional District why you didn’t vote in this district in 2010 or 2012?” he asked.

Ms. Stefanik replied that she had voted in Albany County via absentee ballot in 2010 and 2012 while working in Washington, D.C., and that she voted in the district in 2013.

“I voted here in 2013, Matt,” Ms. Stefanik said. “My family’s had a home here since I was three years old. What I’m focused on is what voters in this district care about, which is who’s going to be the better voice to create jobs, promote economic opportunities, fight for our constitutional liberties. I’m committed to being that voice.”

Meantime, Ms. Stefanik called Mr. Doheny’s campaign strategy into question. “Are you proud that you fill Republican primary voters’ mailboxes with untruthful statements attacking my public service experience?” she said.

Ms. Stefanik referred to a mailer from Mr. Doheny’s campaign that connected her to the Troubled Asset Relief Program — otherwise known as the fall 2008 bank bailout — and incorrectly attributed the information to the Johnson Newspapers.

Mr. Doheny stumbled a bit but defended the mailers. “I’m proud of the race we’re running right now,” he said. “We’re telling the truth, which I’m sorry you’re uncomfortable with, but that’s just the reality of the whole thing. We told the truth and that’s what this backs up.”

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