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Cuomo, Astorino debate; trade charges of racism, lying and breaking the law

BUFFALO -- On a stage together for the first and only time in this campaign, Democrat Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Republican Rob Astorino each went for the other's throat, with charges of racism, lying and breaking the law.

At a debate hosted by a Buffalo public television station, the two traded blows over taxes, housing, abortion, race and a now-defunct anti-corruption commission, throwing out words such as "disgrace," "despicable" and "racist." Two minor-party candidates were also part of the debate but steered clear of the personal jabs.

Cuomo didn't outline a second-term agenda but said his first term turned the state around. He touted reductions in corporate and personal income taxes and defended his targeted approach for letting certain businesses go tax free for 10 years as a way to jump-start upstate New York. "Upstate New York is coming back," the governor said.

Astorino, in a twist for a Republican, accused his Democratic rival of providing massive "corporate welfare."

"The privileged and well-connected are doing well in Andrew Cuomo's term. The rest of us, not so much," Astorino said, while accusing Cuomo of equivocating on natural gas drilling and bridge tolls.

The themes and criticisms didn't break much new ground, echoing much of what each candidate has said for months. But it was the first time they exchanged verbal jabs face-to-face -- and in front of cameras.

Meanwhile, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, a Syracuse resident, championed "clean energy," opposed natural gas drilling, called for legalizing and taxing marijuana, and declared he was the lone candidate for the "99 percent" of New Yorkers.

Libertarian hopeful Michael McDermott, a Hauppauge resident, tried to make a mark by saying the major parties spent too much time bickering instead of solving problems and that residents had nothing to lose by giving his party a shot.

But they were overshadowed by the feisty exchanges of the major-party candidates.

While Astorino's offensive was expected, Cuomo attacked with as much vigor, despite holding at least a 20-point lead in most polls. He had avoided debating Astorino until the Buffalo faceoff.

The barbs started early, with Astorino saying that Cuomo was "a person who very well may be indicted after Election Day," referring to a federal prosecutor's investigation of a corruption panel that Cuomo shuttered.

And the gloves were off.

After that, the two tended to give perfunctory answers to debate panel questions, then used the rest of their time to attack the other. Cuomo, for instance, used a question about the Buffalo Bills football stadium to talk about a federal housing lawsuit against Westchester County that accused it of discrimination. (Astorino noted the suit started under his Democratic predecessor.)

"The federal government is trying to enforce the civil rights law . . . they say you are discriminating against African-Americans and low-income people and it's a disgrace," Cuomo said.

He later turned a question about abortion into an attack in which he said the Republican "disrespected" women (regarding abortion rights), and Latinos and African-Americans (regarding housing).

Astorino did much the same.

He used a question about pledging to serve a full four-year term to say "let's go back to the racist stuff which he is throwing out, which is just despicable." He noted he received endorsements during his county election from black clergy.

"When he throws out the race card, it's because he has no ideas," Astorino said. Body language told the tale as well. At times, either man shook his hand in apparent exasperation. Astorino at times extended an open palm toward Cuomo as the governor spoke and shook his head dismissively. Cuomo once hefted a thumb in the Republican's direction and wagged it as he said Westchester had the highest taxes in the nation.

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