Major party candidates in the First Congressional District and Second State Assembly district met for a set of debates at the Vineyard Caterers in Aquebogue Wednesday night.
Over 100 attended the dinner-debate hosted by the Mattituck Chamber of Commerce before the Nov. 6 election.
The audience consisted of members of local chambers of commerce, the Long Island Farm Bureau, Long Island Wine Council and local elected officials. The event was not open to the public.
As local business owners, farmers and elected officials across party lines broke bread, the Congressional hopefuls engaged in a rapid-fire debate that clocked in at just under 45 minutes. Candidates Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Perry Gershon touched on national issues like healthcare and immigration and how they impact our local economy.
Candidates for NY State Assembly Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) and Rona Smith then faced off on local issues via questions delivered by moderator Jeff Strong of Strong’s Marina.
Here’s where they stand:
Perry Gershon is a first-time candidate who says he’s running because he feels Americans are concerned about the direction of the government.
“We needed change. That’s part of why Donald Trump got elected,” he said.
He aligns with progressive ideas in terms of healthcare — he supports eventually moving to a single-payer system — and protecting the environment.
Overall, Mr. Gershon said government should be rid of the “poisoned dialogue” happening in Washington D.C. “What we have right now is not good, and we’ve seen the events of today come out of that. We shouldn’t be worrying about politicians having pipe bombs at their homes. That’s just not the American way.”
Congressman Lee Zeldin was first elected in 2014. He is seeking a third-term in the House of Representatives. “I actually think that there’s a lot going in the right direction right now,” he said, citing a strong economy with historically low unemployment and increasing wages.
Mr. Zeldin said that over his two terms in Congress, national security has improved and strides have been made for veterans and the opioid epidemic. He touted local initiatives, such as securing EPA funding for estuary programs, passing legislation to save Plum Island and mandating that the Federal Aviation Administration hold a public hearing on the North Shore Helicopter Route as “big” wins that he hopes to build upon in a third term.
“There are always going to be more challenges ahead, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “We should be excited by that.”
A NATION DIVIDED
Mr. Zeldin said partisanship can divide elected officials, but bipartisanship exists. In Congress, he said, “You’ll see 435 members of the house talking to each other, cosponsoring bills together, writing joint op-eds, having press conferences … it happens every single day I’ve been in Washington,” he said, adding that “There is too much partisanship and we need to continue to work through it.”
Mr. Gershon agreed that there’s too much partisanship in Washington, but blamed President Donald Trump for leading that. “He is out dividing our nation – that’s a problem for us going forward,” he said. “We need to change the tone of the rhetoric.”
He said that voting on major bills — healthcare, tax reform — should not be decided on party lines. “We need to find a way to write major laws together.”
Mr. Gershon also called for new leadership in the Democratic Party and said he does not support Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. “She is too partisan. We need new, younger blood.”
Both candidates acknowledged that climate change is real.
Mr. Gershon referred to climate change as one of the “scariest” threats to Long Island and said pulling out of the Paris Agreement was a “terrible move that set the tone that the United States was becoming a rogue nation.”
Specifically, he said renewable energies should be promoted over burning coal and oil. “We’re going in the wrong direction,” he said.
Mr. Zeldin said it’s time to update outdated energy facilities on Long Island. “We tore down Shea Stadium and built Citi Field … There’s a better way to deliver energy here on Long Island,” he said.
He said initiatives like reauthorizing funding for the Peconic Estuary Program are helping water quality on the East End.
Mr. Zeldin stands by the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, referring to it as an “ambitious” and “unattainable” goal.
“Absolutely not,” Mr. Zeldin said on a ban across-the-board on semi-automatic weapons.
He is also opposed to the NY SAFE Act, a gun regulation law signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2013.
In the wake of Parkland, Mr. Gershon called for action on gun safety that would include mandatory background checks.
He does not support arming teachers and supports a ban on semi-automatic weapons. “It’s a step in the right direction,” he said.
Mr. Gershon does not support cuts to balance the deficit, which he blames on a “massive tax cut,” passed by Republicans.
“Our seniors have put in to the system. They’ve earned the benefits they’re going to get. We can’t be cutting that back,” Mr. Gershon said. “We must keep [Medicare] strong and solvent.”
Mr. Zeldin slammed Mr. Gershon’s Medicare-For-All proposal. “That proposal gives Medicare not only to everybody, it also gives it to people who are not in our country legally. That’s how you end up bankrupting Medicare,” he said.
He said the commitment made to seniors and those nearing retirement should be upheld. “You can’t just keep kicking the can down the road.”
Mr. Zeldin supports a new H2C visa program to help employers find staff on the North Fork. He said the process should be expedited and simplified.
“I support ICE, I oppose sanctuary cities,” he said, adding that local law enforcement should cooperate with ICE to combat “MS-13, drug trafficking, sex trafficking, and human trafficking.”
He said a long-term permanent solution to both border security and DACA is an opportunity for both Democrats and Republicans to compromise.
Mr. Gershon mostly agreed, adding that a “clean” DACA bill should have “no strings attached,” to people who see the U.S. as home.
He agreed that borders should be enforced and ICE should do their job. “But ICE should be working with communities and not antagonizing communities,” Mr. Gershon said, noting that immigrants who feel comfortable with local law enforcement could prevent MS-13 from increasing its ranks.
Mr. Gershon reiterated that politics are too polarized. “All politicians, regardless of party, should be working to lower the acrimony and the toxic discord between the two parties,” he said, condemning political violence.
Mr. Zeldin referenced the protests that ensued as President Trump took office. “The streets of Pennsylvania Avenue were lined up with people calling for his impeachment before he even took office,” he said. “When you come in second place in an election, you accept the results… settle your scores at the ballot box,” he said.
Incumbent Republican assemblyman Anthony Palumbo said he’s fiscal conservative who fights to preserve quality-of-life and the environment on the East End. Despite “vitriol” in federal elections, he said he routinely works with Democrats to pass bills, including the North Fork Mental Health Initiative and working to save 875 acres near the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant.
Democrat Rona Smith of Greenport said her top concern is creating affordable housing. “It’s a problem for local businesses. They are struggling to find staff because they can’t find any place to live,” she said.
The questions asked by the moderator focused on more hyperlocal issues.
What will you do to help farmers and support agriculture?
Mr. Palumbo said he does not support the unionization of farm laborers and voted against expanding minimum wage requirements. He said smaller businesses, including farms, should be exempt from a $15 minimum wage.
As for unionization, he says it wouldn’t work. “It’s not appropriate in that industry because when it’s harvest time, you work unbelievable hours,” he said, adding that the high costs could drive farmers out of business.
Ms. Smith said immigration reform plays a role in the issue. “If you don’t have workers, you cant run a successful business,” she said, adding that she hopes to see farmers prosper. “We want that land to stay in production.”
Should the government help fund advanced wastewater systems to combat nitrogen in our water?
Ms. Smith suggested filtering nitrogen at drinking water sources. “I think we need to explore things at all levels. Just because something is simple doesn’t mean its wrong,” she said.
Mr. Palumbo helped to earmark $2.5 billion for water quality improvements, largely on Long Island. He said nitrogen is plaguing larger bodies of water and threatens drinking water. “There’s a lot more we can do but we’re certainly starting out on the right foot.”
Would you support gambling at EPCAL?
Mr. Palumbo voted against allowing casino gambling in New York. “I think that is such a short-sighted quick fix,” he said, adding that eventually, he foresees this leading the way to sports betting. “The jury’s still out with me. We’d have to really tightly regulate it,” he said.
Ms. Smith agreed, noting that this could be a short-term solution. “We should look for businesses to go into EPCAL that are going to bring permanent jobs and permanent tax income to Riverhead and the surrounding area,” she said.
What could be done to save lives from the opioid crisis?
Mr. Palumbo highlighted the state I-STOP legislation as a proactive measure to combat opioid addiction. He called for an increased focus on recovery efforts.
Ms. Smith agreed that it’s a serious problem nationwide. She addressed the crisis from a public health standpoint. “One of the ongoing problems is that without full health care coverage, opioid addicts are not eligible for rehabilitation,” she said, noting that health coverage could help address the issue.
How would you protect fishermen from restrictive regulations that make it difficult to compete and thrive?
Ms. Smith said that state borders should not be the “be all and end all” when considering regulating these industries. “[These] are people’s livelihoods. We don’t have nearly the amount of people working on the water fishing, shell fishing, that we once had,” she said.
She suggested coordinating EPA and state DEC guidelines that can often be contradictory.
Mr. Palumbo said the state DEC has hired a consultant from Maine who is working to address issues in the fishing industry. He said the regulations are unfair for Long Island fishermen but not as strict in neighboring states. “We’d stand on shore on the sound and see boats farming away making a nice living when we weren’t even allowed to fish,” he said, adding that much of the data the decisions are based on are outdated.