Well, almost everything. Ninety-nine percent of everything, if you’re to believe one of the candidates.
Republican Russ Gallo and Independence Party candidate Ben Akselrod faced off – sort of – last night during the Manhattan Beach Community Group’s town hall debate, but, with incumbent Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz absent, they found themselves agreeing far more than not.
Charter schools? They’re both for it. Corruption in Albany? They’re against it. The MTA? Open those books! Small businesses? Can we please cut back on the regulations and fines? Term limits? Well, when the incumbent they’re looking to unseat has been in office for 12 years, you bet they’re for it.
That’s not to mention that Gallo and Akselrod agree on a slew of other topics not mentioned during the debate: gay marriage (against), the Voorhies Avenue mosque (against), Israel (FOR!).
One attendee – okay, I did it – submitted a question noting the candidates’ similarities on so many topics, and asked that they speak a little on what differentiates them from each other.
Russ Gallo: “I’m running on the Republican and Conservative lines. I have a legitimate chance of defeating Steve Cymbrowitz here. Make no mistake about it, we can win this thing. I agree with Ben on 99 percent of the issues. Unfortunately, I don’t see a path to victory for him on the Independence Party line.”
Ben Akselrod: “There’s a difference. The difference is that after being elected, my opponent, if Russell Gallo is elected, he will be in the minority in the State Assembly. The two-to-one majority of Democrats will not allow him to provide for the district. I’m a registered Democrat, I will be caucusing with the Democrats … I will be able to legislate better as a Democrat.”
So it’s “I’m different because I can win,” and “I’m different because I can do something if I win.”
These arguments, even if not particularly inspiring, certainly have their merits, especially considering Albany’s dysfunction.
But what about the one percent of issues on which the two candidates differ?
On legalizing marijuana, Gallo, formerly assigned to the National Guard Bureau and the Counterdrug Task Force, said absolutely not.
“Marijuana use is dangerous, despite what people say that are proponents for having it become legal. It’s an unfiltered cigarette,” Gallo said. “Besides, it is linked to many other crimes, street level crimes and quality of life crimes. People who smoke marijuana or possess marijuana on the street level are often times connected with gang activities.”
Akselrod said he believed legalization was a “bad idea,” but supports legalizing it for medical use.
On pay raises for Albany legislators, the duo disagreed again. Gallo said that pay raises are unacceptable, but per diems – travel, food and lodging stipends for legislators’ trips to Albany – should stick around. Akselrod said per diems are too open to abuse, and should be terminated, and legislators instead should receive a “modest” pay raise.
Gallo also publicly pledged not to raise “taxes or fees” under any circumstance, while Akselrod took a more moderate approach, noting that budgetary situations change and tax increases could be unavoidable.
“It’s probably easy for a member of the minority party, which always votes against the budget, to say he will not vote for it. Unfortunately, the budget needs to pass,” Akselrod said.
If you thought one area the two could agree on is dishing on their absent opponent, Cymbrowitz, think again. The incumbent’s name rarely came up, except for three off-the-cuff attacks from Gallo alone.
The Republican criticized Cymbrowitz for “pandering for votes,” as well as his allocation of funds for a Parks Department feasibility study that yielded, according to Gallo, nothing. He also claimed Cymbrowitz voted 99 percent of the time with Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, “who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, part of a hush money package, to a woman who accused Vito Lopez of sexual harassment.”
Cymbrowitz declined an invitation to the debate, claiming that the Manhattan Beach Community Group had criticized him publicly, and thus could not be impartial.