On Monday night at the State University College at Oneonta, candidates addressed a packed room of voters. From left, incumbent Sen. James Seward, sits next to challenger Don Barber and moderator Laurel Elder at the event sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Oneonta Area. (Star photo by Brit Worgan)

ONEONTA _ State Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, and man who wants his seat in the Legislature, Don Barber, clashed in a standing-room-only candidates forum at SUCO on Monday night.

Throughout the League of Women Voters of the Oneonta Area-sponsored forum, Barber wove in publicly funded universal health care as the salve for much of the state's woes, while Seward stood on his record but promised not to protect Albany's status quo.

More than 120 people gathered in Craven Lounge at Morris Hall to bear witness and pose some of their own questions.

The candidates took each other to task over campaign contributions donated from outside the 51st Senate District, which encompasses all or parts of Otsego, Chenango, Cortland, Greene, Herkimer, Schoharie and Tompkins counties. They also sparred over Barber's proposal for a single-payer health care system, redistricting and the state's fiscal crisis.

They largely agreed on environmental issues, including the NYRI powerline. Seward said he supports rights for same-sex couples but not marriage, while Barber said he supports gay marriage.

While Seward listed his accomplishments in his opening statement, Barber, a six-term supervisor of the town of Caroline, criticized his rival.

"My opponent is a lifelong Albany bureaucrat," the farmer and small-business owner said in his opening statement.

The question-and-answer portion of the forum was moderated by Hartwick College political science professor and League member Laurel Elder. The questions came from the live audience, those watching on a public access channel and a media panel consisting of Daily Star Editor Sam Pollak, WUOW General Manager Gary Wickham and Central New York Radio Group News Director John McGraw.

"When people lose jobs in this country, they lose their health insurance coverage," Barber said in response to a question on how a universal health care plan would be publicly funded.

"I don't think we got much of a response from my opponent in terms of the cost of such a program," Seward said in his rebuttal, noting the estimates of such a system delivering health care to 19 million people would cost the state $100 billion _ or nearly the equivalent of the current state budget.

"I think it's more than pie in the sky; I think it's disingenuous," Seward said, adding that Barber should instead be running for Congress.

However, Barber countered with specific figures on how his plan would actually save money and said the current system of employer-funded health care is responsible for slowing down the economy.

"If you don't shoot for the sky, you will never reach it," Barber said.

Barber later linked Seward directly to the state's struggling economy and "gridlock" in Albany.

"Our economy has been deteriorating for 22 years," Barber said.

Seward has been in the Senate for 22 years.

In an exchange over campaign contributions, Barber said 80 percent of his contributions have come from within the district, while 70 percent of Seward's have come from corporations, New York City, out-of-state and the insurance industry.

"I could care less where my contributions come from," Seward said. "I answer only to the people of the 51st Senatorial District. My record is clear on that."

Seward said his district also has businesses directly involved in the insurance industry that employ 1,000 people, turning the tables on Barber.

"He's grabbing cash from wherever he can get it," Seward said, referring to the latest campaign finance disclosure from the state Board of Elections which he said shows Barber receiving 50 percent of his contributions from outside the district.

Seward pointed to contributions from New York City and a $6,000 contribution from an Ohio resident.

"What interest does this individual have in the 51st Senatorial District?" Seward said. "He should set the same standard for himself."

In his closing statement, Seward, the Senate's minority whip, urged voters to look at his experience, leadership, seniority and familiarity with the district.

"You know me and I know you," said Seward, a graduate of Hartwick College and Oneonta High School.

Barber urged change for a stronger Empire State, including energy independence, a stronger economy and a greater emphasis on agriculture.

"We can be the breadbasket of the eastern seaboard," said Barber, who often referred to his upbringing on a family farm.

Before the forum, as more chairs were brought into a packed Craven Lounge, co-organizer Karen Geasey said she was thrilled at the attendance.

"It's fabulous," Geasey said.

The forum will be rebroadcast on Channel 23 at 1 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. next Monday.

The 51st Senate District has 77,801 registered Republicans and 52,431 registered Democrats, according to voter registration records. There are nearly 51,599 registered voters who selected a third party or did not designate a party.

Election Day is next Tuesday.

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