O'Brien and Funke go on the attack at first debate


Rochester Rotary events are usually polite, cordial affairs. But today the organization hosted the first debate between Democratic State Senator Ted O'Brien and his opponent, Republican Rich Funke.

And both candidates seemed to have the same strategy: go for the throat.

Funke was up first for opening remarks, and he drew on his background as a sports and news anchor. He said he made a career out of asking questions and searching for the truth — skills that would serve him well when he's bombarded by special-interest requests in Albany, he said. The people in the district know him, he said, and he knows them. 

But just before going into his background and qualifications, Funke lashed out at O'Brien and Democrats, saying that they've run a slew of negative ads against him that wouldn't pass Rotary's Four-Way Test. And he repeatedly painted O'Brien as part of a Democratic conference that doesn't have Upstate's best interests in mind.

O'Brien eased into his attacks. He said he's voted to lower taxes for the middle class and Upstate manufacturers, and touted his support for the state's property tax cap. He invoked his endorsements from both the labor community and the Rochester Business Alliance, which, he said, is a reflection of his ability to represent the different constituencies in the district. And he's authored bills that would address unfunded mandates and take away tax incentives for companies that move jobs out of the state.

Then O'Brien took his shots at Funke, who, he said, is too conservative for the district and not specific enough on his positions. He said that Funke would be part of a Republican conference that's preventing adoption of the full 10-point Women's Equality Act; Funke opposes the act's abortion rights provision. And O'Brien equated Funke's opposition to the SAFE Act with opposition to universal background checks for gun purchases.

In between barbs, the candidates spelled out their positions on key issues, though they largely stuck to points they've made previously.

On the SAFE Act: O'Brien said that the state needs to keep moving forward with the law, but Funke said it "made criminals out of law-abiding citizens overnight."
  • On fracking: Funke said it should be a home rule matter, and that fracking is not appropriate for the 55th Senate District, which has substantial fresh water resources. O'Brien said that if the state does move forward with fracking, it needs strong laws to regulate the industry and adequate staff to do it; he backs laws to regulate fracking wastes and said that state regulator agencies don't have adequate staff. Fresh water is the state's most precious resource, he said. 
  • On the Women's Equality Act: The candidates essentially argued that the other side is holding up the package, which includes anti-sex trafficking laws and a prohibition on wage discrimination. Both support the first nine points, but differ on the 10th, which would rewrite state laws so that they match protections guaranteed under federal law and Roe v. Wade. O'Brien committed to all 10 points, but Funke only backs the first nine.
  • On START-UP NY: O'Brien supports the tax-free-zone program, which he said will encourage growth in the local and state "innovation economy." Funke pushed back on claims that he opposes the program, but said that the state needs to cut taxes for businesses that are already here, and that officials ought to ask those businesses how they feel about other companies getting tax-free status.