By Phil Corso
Democratic Party primary challenger John Messer and state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) traded jabs over gay marriage and term limits in a heated debate last week, although they agreed on some key initiatives, such as job creation, opposition to hydrofracking and support for the state Dream Act.
The candidates squared off at New York Hospital Queens, fielding questions from moderators Joe Anuta, of TimesLedger Newspapers, and Melissa Chan, of the Queens Courier, two weeks before the Sept. 13 primary election for the newly redrawn 16th Senate District, which includes a large Asian population. The oddly shaped district includes a diverse population within Bayside, Flushing, Queensboro Hill, Murray Hill, Kissena Park, Forest Hills, Elmhurst and Woodside.
The debate, hosted by the Queensboro Hill Neighborhood Association , was held Aug. 29 in front of more than 200 people who sometimes got rambunctious, breaking out into applause and boos at points throughout the evening.
On the issue of jobs, Messer spoke of his experience as a small business owner and said the state should work on retaining its economic opportunities.
“We need to support our small businesses,” Messer said. He said he wanted to target businesses that could be brought into the state and sustained in the long term.
Stavisky said Willets Point could serve as a hub of job creation and economic growth for the borough.
“The opportunities at Willets Point are very dramatic,” the senator said.
She said she has made it a priority to encourage public-private partnerships while joining business with colleges in the state.
Both candidates said hydrofracking in its current state was an unsafe and irresponsible practice for the state to consider. They also supported President Barack Obama’s ruling earlier this year to allow children of undocumented immigrants to receive financial aid — similar to the state’s DREAM Act, which they back.
While mostly staying true to key Democratic positions, Messer and Stavisky showcased their differences over discussions of gay marriage and term limits in the Senate.
When asked if they supported gay marriage, which was passed into law earlier this year, Messer said he had to stick to his constituents’ views regardless of his own.
“People here do not support gay marriage,” Messer said, which led to some hissing from the audience, including one resounding “Speak for yourself.”
Stavisky responded by declaring her full support of gay marriage in the state on the basis of discrimination.
“If you are opposed to discrimination, you cannot pick and choose who you discriminate against,” she said.
On term limits, Messer won the cheers of his supporters by saying limiting the time in office of state legislators would keep them honest and encourage more voter interest by bringing more people out to vote. He said the district needed a breath of fresh air in the Senate, a clear reference to his opponent, who was first elected in 1999.
“We have a chance for fresh ideas,” Messer said. “People feel it is time for a change.”
Stavisky had a succinct response.
“We already have term limits,” she said. “They are called elections.”
Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.