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Five Democratic candidates for New York State Senate vying to challenge GOP for seat vacated by Ken LaValle

The five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to run for the New York State Senate seat being vacated by longtime Republican State Senator Ken LaValle took part in an online debate sponsored by the Southold Town Democratic Committee May 19.

The candidates also participated in a Zoom forum sponsored by the Leagues of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island and the North Fork Monday.

Recordings of both can be seen on YouTube.

Candidates seeking the nomination are:

• Laura Ahearn, 56, of Port Jefferson

• Thomas Schiavoni, 56, of North Haven

• Valerie Cartright, 44, of Port Jefferson Station

• Nora Higgins, 53, of Ridge and

• Skyler Johnson, 19, of Mount Sinai

Here are some of their responses from the May 19 debate:

• Ms. Ahearn is a social worker, attorney and mother who runs Suffolk County’s Crime Victims Center as its executive director. She said she founded that organization in a room in her home and it now has 30 employees, she said. 

“For about 30 years, I’ve dedicated my life to protecting our most vulnerable,” she said. 

The center has helped reduce sex offender recidivism in the county by 75%, and domestic violence arrests are down by 20%, she said. “We have facilitated the return of about $6 million to crime victims” and educated 200,000 children and adults, she added.

She describes herself as “a moderate Democrat.”

“And I am dedicated.” she said. “When Albany attorneys told me I couldn’t pass certain laws, I went to law school at night for five years while working full-time, to learn how to pass those laws.”

She feels health care reform should be done on a national level, because if New York State does it on its own, people will migrate to New York to take advantage of the state’s plan, which will be funded by state taxpayers. 

But she feels “health care is a basic right for everyone.” She supports expanding Medicare and Medicaid. 

She was critical of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to put sick seniors into nursing homes, which led to a high infection rate in several nursing homes. She feels New York must get money from the federal government in order to restart its economy, and feels the state will probably need to expand unemployment benefits and aid to small businesses. 

She feels she has the best chance of defeating Republican candidate Anthony Palumbo of New Suffolk because she has raised the most campaign money and has the best name recognition of all the Democratic senate candidates.

• Tommy John Schiavoni, whose name is on the ballot as Thomas, is a Southampton Town Councilman who lives in North Haven. He was a teacher in Center Moriches school district for 30 years, and has served on the Sag Harbor Board of Education and the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals. He was also North Haven Village Trustee,and has been a member and an officer of the Sag Harbor Fire Department. 

He’s also a licensed plumber and has a commercial drivers license with certification to transport hazardous material.

“For every one dollar we send to Albany, we got 80 cents back in services, and that has to be turned around,” he said.

He helped lobby for state aid to schools while he was a teacher, and feels reopening schools is a key to restarting the economy.

Mr. Schiavoni, who stopped campaigning and raising money when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and turned to social media to get his message out, said education and health care are his two top priorities. He supports former President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and believes single-payer health care will happen in the future, but should not happen now. He said that even before COVID-19, New York was paying $26 billion more into Medicaid then it got back. He feels single-payer health care should happen on a federal level, not a state level. 

He criticized the state’s move to temporarily ban foreclosures and eviction temporarily during COVID-19, while not forgiving those debts. 

“Once the time is up, those payments are due,” she said. 

• Ms. Cartright is a Brookhaven Town Councilwoman and the only Democrat on the seven-member Town Board, having served on the board for seven years. She is also a civil rights lawyer and an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue.

She started her campaign five months after the first candidate.

“I came in with my eyes wide open, understanding that I would have some challenges,” she said. “I’ve been able to overcome a lot of those challenges and I have raised money and secured union support … I am working very hard to make sure that my name is recognized beyond the people that already know who I am, particularly on the East End.”

She supports the New York Health Act and feels “health care is an absolute right and we all need affordable, quality and accessible healthcare. The system clearly is not working at the state or federal level.”

She would oppose cuts to Medicaid, hospitals and education, she said, and she feels the state should be taxing the wealthy. She said Mr. Cuomo thus far has refused to do that. 

Ms. Cartright feels that police in Nassau and Suffolk counties, which have internal affairs bureaus to investigate charges against police, are basically policing themselves. She said feels the county should have a citizens advisory commission do that, like they do in New York City. 

“Each and every day I’m fighting for my constituents to make sure that their needs are met,” she said. “We need to make sure we are putting someone in office that has real life experience and understands people’s struggles, but also has experience as a legislator. I have seven years as a legislator, and I have 18 years experience advocating as an attorney.”

• Ms. Higgins has been a nurse at Stony Brook University Hospital since 1988 and has been a union representative there. She also has been a regional coordinator at the New York State Public Employees Federation.

She got involved in the union after it quickly resolved a case she was involved in, she said. 

“I am a mother of four, a stepmom to four and a grandmother to seven,” she said, adding that none of them want to stay on Long Island. She’s been involved in the Parent Teacher Association, she taught her kids religion and joined a church choir, and she was a Boy Scout and Cub Scout leader. After being a single mom for 11 years, she remarried in 2015, she said. 

“I was also elected to the New York State Public Employees Federation as the regional coordinator,” she said. “For that position I served in the capacity of the political action chair on Long Island.”

She is also the president-elect of the Professional Nursing Association of Suffolk County.

“I’ve got tons of energy, I love helping people and I’m tired of sitting on the sidelines watching people not getting what they need,” she said. “I want to go to Albany and be the voice for labor and health care and for the common person.”

She favors having health care for all people. She feels the health care system is top heavy and needs to be entirely revamped. 

Ms. Higgins criticized the state for not getting COVID-19 testing for the people on the front lines, such as nurses, who needed to be tested and were turned away. 

“Nobody should’ve been turned away,” she said. 

She feels health care is the biggest issue in the campaign. 

“I am not a lawyer,” she said. “I am someone who works hard. I get the job done and I’ll be advocating for the people.”

• Mr. Johnson, who is 19 years old, has gotten a lot of publicity due to his age. Stories about his campaign have appeared in local newspapers and even on MTV.

“People always say if you do well in school and then go to go to college and you have a good job and you’ll have a good life,” he said. “That’s what I was told when I was really young. And then the financial crisis hit.” 

He said the whole world “turned on its head” after that and “younger generations realized they were inheriting a world that was worse then the one their parents had.”

Mr. Johnson that because of his age, he’s able to use social media to get out his message, and his campaign has gone viral several times in the past few weeks. 

Because of this, he is reaching thousands of voters without spending a dollar, he said. 

He supports the New York Health Act and has spoken with its author, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, and is convinced it is not as expensive as critics have charged. 

If elected, he said, “I will vote to pass the bill because otherwise, people will die. People around the country are afraid to go to the doctor. Black and brown people cannot take care of themselves because they don’t have health insurance. Undocumented immigrants are afraid to walk into hospitals because they’re afraid they’ll get deported if they do.” 

He said he would never cut Medicaid in the middle of a health crisis.

“I believe health care is a human right and I would’ve been voting to pass single-payer health care and getting that enacted,” he said. 

Mr. Johnson feels that changes need to be made to the way schools are funded, so that they are not funded by property tax. 

He also criticized the governor for temporarily banning evictions due to unpaid rent or mortgages when the debt is not also forgiven. 

“Raise your hand if you can pay back $12,000 to $20,000 at the end of three months because they suspended your mortgage,” he said. “No one’s raising their hand.”

Another issue Mr. Johnson has campaigned on is legalization of marijuana, which he feels will bring in additional taxes for the state. Mr. Johnson has a web page with all of his positions on various issues listed.