Democrat Perry Gershon of East Hampton, left, looks to unseat two-term incumbent Republican Lee Zeldin of Shirley.

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and challenger Perry Gershon (D-East Hampton) faced off last night in one of only two head-to-head debates open to the public in the First Congressional District race this year. It was held before a standing room only crowd at Hampton Bays High School and sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the Press Newsgroup and the Hampton Bays Civic Association.

The candidates sparred — sometimes contentiously — on the hot topics in national news, such as health care reform, gun control, responsibility for inflammatory rhetoric, environmental regulation, border security and immigration. The events of the past week — pipe bombs and the mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue loomed large. 

Generally, the candidates’ positions were a study in stark contrasts on most issues.  (Watch the debate video below.)

Health Care

Gershon said he wants to protect the Affordable Care Act and says he supports “universal health care,” which he sees as “a right not a privilege.” The ultimate goal for health care policy in the United States should be a single-payer system, often dubbed “Medicare for all,” Gershon said. Zeldin said he doesn’t agree with “Medicare for all” and called it “government-controlled, one-size-fits-all health care,” which Gershon disputed.

Zeldin voted to repeal the ACA, commonly known as Obamacare and adopt in its place President Donald Trump’s proposed American Health Care Act of 2017. The AHCA passed the House by four votes in May 2017 but failed by an even closer margin in the Senate, when a terminally ill Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) voted against the measure.

Zeldin said last night the AHCA was a “good bill” that protected coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. The bill did allow insurers to charge higher premiums to people with pre-existing conditions if they had a gap in health insurance coverage for 63 days or more in the prior year. That would leave 6.3 million with pre-existing conditions at risk for higher premiums, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organization focusing on national health issues. Pre-existing conditions have been protected in New York since the 1990s, Zeldin said.

The AHCA would have reduced federal health care expenditures by an estimated $328 billion over 10 years primarily because of lower Medicaid spending and would have increased the number of uninsured by 13 million people by 2026, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services division of the federal Health and Human Services agency.

Gun control and mass shootings

A question about gun control was posed in the context of the most recent mass shooting Saturday at a Pittsburgh synagogue, where 11 people were murdered and several others seriously injured by a shooter armed with an AR-15 assault rifle and three handguns.

“Any criminal or terrorist or someone who is mentally ill should not have access to firearms,” Zeldin said. “I also think we should be tackling the hate issue,” he said. “We really have to get to the reason why that trigger was pulled.”

Gershon responded that he is “very much against the sale of assault weapons like the AR-15.” He said he, like Zeldin, is deeply disturbed by the synagogue shooting.

“I’m also deeply disturbed by the pipe bombs” mailed to opponents of the president last week, Gershon said.

“This is a product of the poison rhetoric,” Gershon said. “The president blames the media, blames others and takes no responsibility himself.” Everyone must “tone it down,” he said.

“It starts with the president,” Gershon said. “It goes to both of us. We can’t be calling each other names. We can’t be giving dog whistles to our supporters,” he said.

“To blame the president for what happened in Pittsburgh is outrageous,” Zeldin countered. “To spend so much time focusing on the president, as if he pulled the trigger, is outrageous.”

Zeldin said the synagogue shooter was “anti-Trump” and “pulled the trigger because he felt the president was being too friendly to Jews.” The suspect reportedly disavowed any allegiance to Trump in at least one post on the social media platform Gab, which holds itself out as a haven for free speech and is frequented by white supremacists, some of whom have been banned from other platforms such as Twitter for posting hate speech. (The suspect’s account was removed from public view by Gab after the shooting; Gab itself was subsequently taken down by its web host, though its CEO has publicly vowed the platform will be back up soon.)

“What’s outrageous is how you love to twist my words,” Gershon shot back. “Donald Trump is not responsible for the antisemitism in this guy’s heart. He’s not the one who pulled the trigger,” Gershon said.

“I’m not saying the president is an anti-Semite…I’m saying he’s enabling anti-Semitism by not condemning hate and violence the way he should be. It’s not the media creating this atmosphere,” Gershon said, apparently referring to the president’s comments following the most recent shooting. In a tweet yesterday, the president said the “Fake News Media” is the “true Enemy of the People” and “must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame.” The president told reporters he is not responsible for the pipe bombs sent to his political opponents, whom he regularly attacks on social media and at campaign rallies around the country.

The subject of responsibility for gun violence came up again with a question from the audience asking what type of gun control legislation each candidate would support.

Gershon said he supports the Second Amendment. “I don’t want to take guns away from honest, hardworking citizens,” he said. But he advocates “universal background checks without loopholes,” he said, including sales at gun shows, and “penalizing people who sell to people that don’t pass background checks.” Congress should renew the assault weapon ban that expired more than a decade ago, Gershon said.

“We should not have concealed-carry reciprocity,” Gershon said, referring to a law that Zeldin cosponsored and voted to pass, which would allow anyone able to carry a concealed weapon in their home state to carry a concealed weapon in any other state. It easily passed the House along party lines in December but has not progressed in the Senate.

“That law makes no sense,” Gershon said. “It will make us all less safe.”

Zeldin did not respond to Gershon’s parry about the concealed carry legislation he cosponsored. He said he introduced the Protect America Act after the mass shooting in Orlando. The bill would provide “a very clear-cut, common sense way to ensure that any known or suspected terrorist is not able to purchase a firearm,” Zeldin said. “It would require due process with notice and hearing and a right to counsel,” he said.

Zeldin faulted the Department of Justice for failing to prosecute attempted illegal firearms purchases. He said there were 80,000 attempted illegal purchases of firearms last year, but “DOJ prosecuted 40 of them.”

He also said he favors banning bump stocks or any other devices that are used to convert a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic weapon.

When someone “manifests an intent” to conduct mass violence, Zeldin said, action must be taken. “The Parkland shooter manifested intent to shoot up a school,” he said, but nothing was done to prevent it.

“We should talk to each other, not past each other,” Zeldin said, chastising critics for immediately looking to “blame your congressman.”

Zeldin criticized Gershon for quickly “politicizing” the synagogue shooting by calling for stricter gun control laws and blaming Congress. Turning to his opponent seated next to him at the table he said, “You haven’t even buried the people yet in Pittsburgh.” His comment drew loud jeers and some cheers from the crowd.

“You get an A in performance art,” Gershon told Zeldin.

“As for politicizing the gun issue, it’s about time people do — if we’re ever going to do something. If we don’t do it now, then when? People who say ‘don’t politicize it’ want to dodge the issue. They never want to address it,” Gershon said. “We only pay lip service.”

Border security and immigration

The candidates differed on the topic of border security and immigration.

“I don’t support a border wall. I think it’s a myth,” declared Gershon. “A border wall is not the best way to have border security. We need bipartisan immigration reform,” the candidate said.

Zeldin said the U.S. needs to invest more money into a “physical structure” on the southern border and also into technology and manpower. Border security isn’t just about illegal immigration, he said. “It’s about guns and drugs.”

The congressman said there are parts of the southern border that do not require a structure and other parts that do.

Zeldin called for “more cooperation between ICE and local law enforcement,” which he said is needed to stop drug, gun and sex trafficking as well as illegal entry.

The environment and climate change

During a discussion of what to do about rising sea levels as a result of climate change, the candidates got into a scrape over Gershon’s investment in Louisiana port infrastructure that Zeldin said supports off-shore drilling. Gershon denied that the investment has anything to do with off-shore drilling. “And you know that,” he told Zeldin. Zeldin responded by reading a section of authorizing legislation by the State of Louisiana that he said establishes that the “whole reason the infrastructure [Gershon invested in] exists is to store oil from off-shore platforms.”

The infrastructure is to transport oil from tankers to a refinery, Gershon said. “It has zero to do with offshore oil drilling,” he said.

He said the country needs to fight climate change and criticized the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Zeldin defended it, saying that the U.S. agreed to reductions in emissions while consenting to other countries, such as China, actually increasing emissions.

Gershon called climate change “the biggest threat to all of us as a civilization, especially here on Long Island.”

Zeldin noted he is a member of the House’s bipartisan solutions caucus. He said members of Congress whose districts are not along the coast think people should just move away from the coast. “That is not an option,” he said. “The answer is not that we should leave the First Congressional District,” Zeldin said.

Gershon criticized the administration’s record on air quality in response to a question asking if the candidates would pledge more money for the Environmental Protection Agency to address Suffolk’s poor air quality — the worst in N.Y. state.

Pointing to regulation rollbacks, Gershon said the administration is supporting big business at the expense of the environment and he faulted the incumbent for not standing against those actions.

Zeldin said he voted to triple the EPA’s Long Island Sound program, which was reauthorized this year at $65 million per year for five years. He also said Congress has fully funded the Sea Grant Program and renewed the estuary program.

“We should all support funding for these efforts,” Zeldin said, but cautioned: “There can be no blank checks for any agency.”

Gershon vs. Zeldin: Who’s right for NY-01?

“There’s a lot at stake in this election,” Gershon said in his closing statement. “Whether I grew up here or not, I’ve been a resident and taxpayer in the district for 20 years.”

He cast Zeldin as an extremist out of step with the district, who is “associated with the Trump wing of the Republican party and guys like Steve Bannon.”

Zeldin rapped Gershon for designating his East Hampton vacation home as his primary residence and registering to vote at that address “just to run for Congress.”

Zeldin criticized his opponent for “supporting Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House” during the primary campaign and changing his position on that during the general election campaign.

“I don’t believe Maxine Waters should be the next chair of the House Financial Services Committee,” Zeldin said, eliciting a brief outburst from the audience. “I don’t believe Adam Schiff should be the next chair of the House Intelligence Committee. I don’t believe we should have free health care for people who are not in our country legally. I don’t believe we should be bankrupting Medicare for seniors.”

More than 600 people turned out for last night’s debate, the first head-to-head matchup of the two candidates in a public forum. The pair sparred at a Mattituck Chamber of Commerce debate last week, but that event was at a chamber dinner meeting and not open to the public. The each appeared separately at an N.Y. League of Conservation Voters forum earlier this month to answer questions about environmental issues.

A second debate is scheduled for tonight at 7 p.m. at the Sachem Public Library, hosted by the Brookhaven League of Women Voters.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.