Candidates vying to represent New York’s First Congressional District and Second State Assembly District faced off Wednesday evening at an invitation-only event hosted by the Mattituck Chamber of Commerce at The Vineyards in Aquebogue.
In the fight for NY-1, incumbent Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), running for a third term, and Democrat Perry Gershon, a businessman from East Hampton, faced each other in the East End’s first head-to-head debate in the hotly contested race. They disagreed on most topics, trading barbs on a host of local and national issues.
With the Nov. 6 election just days away, the sometimes-contentious debate took place after a week of controversy over mailings sent to voters by both campaigns.
While the 140 people guests dined, Gershon, a first-time candidate, opened the debate portion of the evening by saying that “Americans are concerned with the direction of our government.” He pointed to specifics on issues like healthcare, the environment, the economy and the current political discourse as examples where there is little consensus among Republicans and Democrats and where he said measures need to be taken.
Zeldin fired back by defending his record, saying that a lot had been done and that they needed to build on that. He said that locally, having the FAA reassess the North Shore helicopter route and having passed bills to protect Plum Island were “big wins” and that he had many allies on the North Fork. The country is “heading in the right direction,” Zeldin said, emphasizing issues like the economy, national security, veterans and the opioid crisis.
The elephant in the room however — especially on a day on which packages containing apparent pipe bombs were sent to former president Barack Obama, the Clintons and other Democrats, as well as to CNN — is escalating partisan acrimony.
Gershon expressed concern over the polarization of the two major parties. He said Republicans, led by President Donald Trump, contribute to the division with a “Red vs. Blue America” notion. Zeldin argued that the partisanship is fueled in part by Democrats who did not accept the results of the 2016 election.
Zeldin argued that despite the division, “bipartisanship … happens every single day in Washington” where members of the House work across the aisle every day on numerous bills.
“We need to continue to work through it,” Zeldin said.
Gershon countered that there may be bipartisan consensus on minor bills but on big bills like healthcare and tax reform, the Republican-controlled Congress shut out Democrats and votes went along party lines. “That wasn’t healthy” for government, Gershon said.
Gershon said that if elected, he would find ways to write laws together, “build bridges and have a dialogue.” He said that in order for that to happen new, younger blood is needed, which is why he does not support Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. “She’s too partisan,” he said.
Both Zeldin and Gershon seemed to agree that climate change is a major issue for Long Islanders and especially relevant to the the East End.
Gershon said over the last two years there have been many policy reversals on this issue that are setting the country back, like pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord. Locally, he advocated for reducing carbon emissions and promoting renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind power. He said he is also concerned about the nitrogen runoff affecting bodies of water. He said an all-around approach is needed and that protecting the environment is “more than just funding individual projects.”
“Climate change is absolutely real and is one of the scariest threats to us here on Long Island,” he said.
Zeldin said that having clean air and water is a right of every American. He pointed to the investment in EPA programs such as the Peconic Estuary Program, which was reauthorized this year.
He also said that Long Island has outdated plants that are not delivering energy in an efficient way and that it is time “to move on.” He likened it to the tearing down of Shea Stadium to build Citi Field, a more economically and environmentally efficient facility.
He said that he supported the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement—although it can’t officially do so until November of 2020 . He called the accord “a unilateral compromise on our end for an ambitious and unobtainable goal.”
On immigration issues, Zeldin and Gershon agreed that ICE is necessary and borders should be enforced.
Zeldin said that MS-13 is “being defeated” thanks to local law enforcement, ICE and other agencies. He emphasized he opposes sanctuary cities and “illegal immigration.” He also said he supports a proposal for a new work visa, the H2C, that would especially benefit the agricultural industry, he said.
Gershon said that immigrants need to know they can trust local law enforcement and that ICE should be working with communities, “not antagonizing” them, which he said was crucial when reporting crimes.
He also said he supports “a clean DACA bill with no strings attached,” referring to the Obama policy protecting certain undocumented young adults brought into the U.S. as children.
The two candidates also clashed on the issue of gun rights.
Zeldin said “absolutely not” when asked if he supports a ban on semi-automatic weapons.
“By adding one single feature to a rifle now we ban it, even though there are more lethal fire arms out here,” he said.
Gershon said this is an issue that “has become scary” and that common sense gun reform is needed.
Gershon said he supports mandatory background checks, not arming teachers or having any weapons in schools and the renewal of the 2004 ban on semi-automatic weapons. He also said he is in favor of the NY Safe Act, which was signed into law in 2013. He also said that he does not support the Concealed Carry Reciprocity law, which Zeldin voted for, that gives gun owners with concealed-carry rights in their home state conceal-carry rights in other states, regardless of local laws in those states.
“Do you want people who have not complied with New York State law to carry concealed weapons on the Long Island Rail Road. Does that make you feel safer? Not me,” he said.
Other important issues discussed were the economy, the national debt and healthcare.
Zeldin said there are now “more available jobs than people to fill the positions” and that unemployment is at a historic low.”
Gershon said that under Republican leadership, the national debt and the federal deficit have skyrocketed due in part to the tax cuts Congress approved last year, which he said didn’t benefit people on Long Island.
Gershon said he supports the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare.
He said that “it had taken us a long way” and it was important to preserve and strengthen it. He said he was in favor of continuing to provide health coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, as well as reducing prescription drug prices, but that the goal should be to “ultimately move to a single-payer system at some point in the future.”
Gershon said that he wants to help secure the Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs for those who have been contributing to it. He said he opposed cuts to the programs and that a way of offsetting costs would be to look at the tax cap for the programs.
Zeldin criticized Gershon’s single-payer proposal, saying that it would bankrupt the system and further add to the national debt. He went further by saying that Gershon’s proposal “gives Medicare not only to everybody, it also gives it to people who are not in our country legally.”
Palumbo, Smith face off in Second Assembly District race
Democratic challenger Rona Smith of Greenport squared off against incumbent Republican Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo of New Suffolk.
Smith, longtime chairperson of the Southold Town housing commission, said affordable housing, which affects residents and local businesses alike, is one of the most challenging issues we face.
Palumbo defended his record, saying he is a fiscal conservative who routinely works in a bipartisan way to pass bills. He said he has secured many victories for the communities he represents, including $175,000 in funding for the North Fork mental health initiative, preservation of over 875 acres set aside by the Old Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant as well as funding for schools and money to combat the opioid epidemic.
In respect to the agricultural industry, Palumbo said that he does not support the unionization of farm workers and he said that farms should be exempt from a $15 minimum wage. Smith said that immigration reform was one of the top priorities for the farming industry.
Other issues discussed included: government funding for advanced septic systems that can remove nitrogen from wastewater; gambling at EPCAL, which is currently not an option; the opioid crisis, which both agreed is an ongoing problem that affects everyone, requiring more recovery and rehabilitation efforts; and the local fishing industry. Both agreed that local fisherman are suffering due to current regulations which they said need to be updated or changed.
Incumbent State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) did not attend the event. Challenger Greg Fischer of Calverton attended and was allotted 10 minutes to address the audience. Fischer spoke about the need for government to embrace innovation and technology, China and his ability to work in a bipartisan manner.
The debates were moderated by Mattituck Chamber of Commerce member Jeff Strong of Strong Marina. He chose six questions per debate that were pre-submitted by the audience on different topics.
The audience consisted of members from the Mattituck Chamber of Commerce, North Fork Chamber, Riverhead Chamber of Commerce, Long Island Farm Bureau, Long Island Wine Council, North Fork Promotion Council, Mattituck-Laurel Civic Association, Jamesport Civic and Greenport Business Improvement District, as well as local elected officials.
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