Immigration, Obamacare, travel restrictions to Cuba, and, of course, Donald Trump were some of the issues discussed by incumbent Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin and his Democratic opponent, former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne Holst, at a candidate forum sponsored by the North Fork, Riverhead and Mattituck chambers of commerce.
The forum Thursday night at Pace’s Dockside Restaurant in Mattituck gave each candidate about a half hour to speak and answer questions, but they did not interact with each other.
• Mr. Zeldin, 36, a first-term Congressman from Shirley, said in his introductory statement that since he took office in 2014, he’s gotten bills passed that restored funding for bridges, and allowed states to opt-out of Common Core without facing penalties from the U.S. Department of Education.
He is also proposing a bill still pending in Congress that would block the federal government from selling Plum Island to the highest bidder, and demand it have a research function along with an open space and public access component.
Likewise, Mr. Zeldin touted a bill he has sponsored to study and eventually construct a $17.7 million beach nourishment project at Hashamomuck Cove in Southold, which is designed to protect the homes and businesses there, as well as Route 48.
He also cited his efforts to help kill federal proposals to redirect truck traffic from Connecticut to the North Fork via Cross Sound Ferry.
Prior to becoming a congressman, he served four years active duty in the U.S. Army and still serves as a major in the Army Reserves. An attorney, Mr. Zeldin also was elected to two two-year terms to the New York State Senate beginning in 2010, where he says he helped to repeal the bulk of the MTA payroll tax and to repeal a state Saltwater Fishing License. He also helped create a statewide program to help returning veterans cop with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and traumatic brain injuries, he said.
• Ms. Throne-Holst, 56, who is from Sag Harbor, served for six years as Southampton Town Supervisor and two as a Southampton councilwoman before deciding not to seek reelection in order to run for Congress, where she had to win a primary over Dave Calone for the Democratic nod.
Prior to that, she co-founded the Hayground School in Bridgehampton and was director of the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreation Center.
Ms. Throne-Holst said she was not registered with a political party when she was elected to town office on the Democratic line.
The town’s finances were in disarray when she first took office, she said.
“It was very clear to me having run private organizations, that all was not well,” she said. “The budgets in Southampton were systemically unbalanced and had been for years. There was a deficit in almost every major fund … so I set about putting my financial background to work.”
Ms. Throne-Holst said that despite being in a minority, politically, she was able to bring consensus to the board. She then was elected supervisor by a 60-40 margin.
As supervisor, she said, she was able to cut spending by $11 million in two years, and to not raise the general tax rate for entire term in office.
As to why she’s running for Congress, Ms. Throne-Holst cited polls indicating that 89 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with Congress because its mired in gridlock and partisanship,
The Affordable Care Act, often called “Obamacare,” was one of the issues the two candidates disagreed on.
Mr. Zeldin said the Health Republic insurance co-op was not set up or run by people with expertise in that field and was spending more than it took in before eventually going out of business in 2015, leaving 200,000 people in New York State without insurance, and leaving hospitals on the hook for millions of dollars.
He feels President Obama considers it a “legacy item” and as such, is very defensive when others suggest changes.
He feels that whoever the next president is will be less reluctant to changes.
But Mr. Zeldin said he feels “Obamacare is going to collapse in 2017.”
Ms. Throne-Holst blames the collapse of “Obamacare” on the fact that Congress didn’t properly fund it. She feels Congress has to fix the Affordable Care Act and can’t just repeal it without having a replacement.
Both candidates cited the need for immigration reform and the need for seasonal employees at area farms and businesses.
“More than 50 percent of agricultural workers right here on the East End of Long Island are undocumented immigrants today,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “I don’t know of any farmers who get up in the morning and say ‘Yay! I can’t wait to break the law today. But if I don’t, I won’t be able to bring in my crops and my business will fold.’ ”
Mr. Zeldin said the problem has been that most of the recent attempts to solve the problem try to combine everything into one bill, which then fails to gain acceptance because controversial elements are left in the bill with acceptable ones.
There are employees who hire the same immigrant employees every summer, who now have to wait weeks to get those employees back because of paperwork.
“We should be first getting off the table all of the solutions with bipartisan agreement,” Mr. Zeldin said. “Now, we hold that hostage over a debate over most controversial elements of this fight.”
Support for Trump
An audience member asked Mr. Zeldin “Why can’t you say I will not support him?”
“I do support Trump over Hillary,” said Mr. Zeldin, to loud applause from some audience members.
“I have reasons for it related to a lot of important substantive issues that I care deeply about,” Mr. Zeldin said. “I respect your ability to vote the other way. That’s what makes America great.”
Ms. Throne-Holst, who spoke after Mr. Zeldin, did not bring up Mr. Trump.
However, on Friday morning, her campaign issued a press release entitled “Lee Zeldin Continues to Embrace and Imitate Trump’s Hate-Filled Campaign,” and added that “Donald Trump has spent his entire campaign driving our country’s political discourse into the gutter.”
Travel restrictions to Cuba?
Both candidates were asked their opinion on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s recent proposal to end travel restrictions and embargoes on Cuba.
Ms. Throne-Holst supported it.
“For 50 years, it hasn’t worked. It has done nothing for us and plunged the Cuban people into poverty,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. Mr. Zeldin said he opposes it until Cuba corrects human rights violations, stops harboring fugitives from the U.S. and stops holding property belonging to U.S. citizens.
Mr. Zeldin voiced opposition to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He said if a small business only has $30,000 available to hire two minimum wage employees, raising the minimum wage won’t increase the amount they have available, and it may result in one of the employees being laid off.
Ms. Throne-Holst, who did not address that issue, criticized Mr. Zeldin’s handling of the helicopter noise issue.
She said the federal government extended the so-called North Shore Route, which locals have criticized, without his knowledge and said that would not have happened if she were in office. She raised that issue after Mr. Zeldin’s turn to speak.
Mr. Zeldin held a 15-percentage point lead over Ms. Throne-Holst in a recent Newsday/Siena College poll, the only poll made public thus far in the congressional race. The poll showed 53 percent favored Mr. Zeldin, 38 percent favored Ms. Throne-Holst and 9 percent had no opinion.
Mr. Zeldin also was leading in campaign contributions and campaign spending through Sept. 30, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
The reports show that Mr. Zeldin’s campaign had received $4,027,135 in total contributions and had spent $2,105,073.
Ms. Throne-Holst had received $3,226,504 and has spent $2,503,375.
Photo caption: Anna Throne-Holst and Lee Zeldin. (Credit: Tim Gannon)