Election 2020: Palumbo, Ahearn vying to fill vacated seat held by LaValle

For the first time in four decades, a new representative will fill the seat in New York’s 1st Senate District. During a Tuesday evening debate that covered a number of key issues, the two candidates vying for that position in November’s election both vowed to continue the work done by New York State Sen. Ken LaValle over his 44-year career. 

Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), who was first elected to office in 2013 and is now the Republican candidate for state Senate, called Mr. LaValle a “tremendous mentor” and said his current position in the Assembly has prepared him to follow in Mr. LaValle’s footsteps. 

The Democratic candidate, Laura Ahearn of Port Jefferson, who is a social worker, attorney and executive director of Suffolk County’s Crime Victims Center, said she has worked closely with Mr. LaValle at times during her career and hopes to follow the work he has done for the environment, local education and higher education.

Mr. LaValle announced in January he would not seek re-election.

The online debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island & North Fork, with Estelle Gellman serving as moderator. It was streamed live on YouTube. It included questions on criminal justice reform, renewable energy, health care, the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and water quality.

In response to a question about the economy recovering from the pandemic, Ms. Ahearn said the federal administration is “playing politics with people’s lives and businesses” and that the first thing is to fight for federal stimulus money, which can be used for investments in infrastructure. 

“One of the great things we have is an opportunity to invest in green infrastructure in revitalizing our downtowns,” She said. “We have such opportunity to make these investments in our downtowns that can become pedestrian-friendly, with transit-based housing to offer opportunities for families to have that affordable housing.”

She said raising taxes alone will not solve the economic woes facing many school districts, health care and public safety sectors.

Mr. Palumbo said his focus is on two areas: smartly and safely opening businesses and deregulating. He said people understand the threat COVID-19 poses and small businesses can safely operate without burdensome regulations from the state. 

“There were metrics in a Wall Street Journal article indicating that partially open vs. completely open have essentially the same infection rate,” he said. “I think the fact that we continue to remain closed and have these random closures that the governor feels are hot spots, so to speak, I don’t think that’s conducive to safely and smartly reopening.”

Mr. Palumbo also criticized the state’s recent criminal justice reform measures such as bail reform, arguing the legislation was passed without input from all the stakeholders. He said he debated the bill and argued that it failed to account for charges that are nonviolent felonies that still result in fatalities, such as second-degree manslaughter. (The state Legislature amended the law in April to include additional crimes that can require bail.)

“I think we could have made smart changes, but nothing like we’ve seen,” he said.

He cited the repeal of a law known as 50-a, which shields officers’ disciplinary records from being made public, as another measure he is against.

Ms. Ahearn said that after seeing the image of George Floyd being killed in Minneapolis, it was clear change was needed across the nation in police departments. Referring to the 50-a repeal, Ms. Ahearn said she supports the release of substantiated claims, but not unsubstantiated claims. She said she supports a ban on police using choke holds.

“At the same time, law enforcement needs to have tools to be able to protect themselves,” she said.

She cited her experience partnering with local, state and federal law enforcement through her years working in the Crime Victims Center and said she would want stakeholders at the table for discussion before any sweeping changes were made.

Speaking about affordable housing, both candidates said they supported a proposal that would add a 0.5% real estate tax paid by property buyers for creation of a Community Housing Fund, similar to the way revenue was raised for the Community Preservation Fund. The legislation passed the Assembly and state Senate last year but was then vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Ms. Ahearn said the pandemic has exacerbated the affordable housing problem on both the North and South forks.

“We have to make the housing stock more affordable in the first place,” she said. “Maybe we need to look at what our stock is right now and then work on revitalizing those downtowns, add some incentive-based housing projects like the Ronkonkoma Hub to make housing more affordable for young families.”

Mr. Palumbo said he co-sponsored the bill with Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and said it’s something “that we’re in dire need for.”

“As a Republican, I think my colleagues cringed at more taxes for Long Island, but that’s how serious it is, particularly on the East End,” he said.

Mr. Palumbo pointed to a recent effort to increase the number of LIRR trains that come to Greenport as one “small solution to a big problem,” in terms of helping the workforce. 

Speaking about how the pandemic has highlighted the differences between wealthier and poorer communities, Mr. Palumbo pointed to the North Fork Mental Health Initiative that began in 2018. The program was modeled after a similar program on the South Fork that began in 2014 to bring more mental health programs and services to schools.

Ms. Ahearn criticized her opponent for his record on voting rights, saying that while Mr. Palumbo will encourage residents to get out and vote, he has not been in favor of measures to expand access to voting.

“He’s voted against everything that makes it possible to reduce barriers to voting,” she said. “Why would we want any obstacles for seniors or the disabled?”

In response, Mr. Palumbo said he voted against early voting, which took effect last year, because it was an unfunded mandate and he said so far, the total number of ballots cast with early voting included appears on par to prior years. He admitted that may look different in a “divisive” presidential year.

Mr. Palumbo at times criticized the governor, a Democrat, for exerting too much power during the pandemic and failing to take responsibility for the number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.

He said one-party rule is not the way to go.

Ms. Ahearn said she believes the governor “did a phenomenal job in bringing us through this human catastrophe that we all have suffered.”

She said the number of deaths in nursing homes is “deeply troubling.” She said she wants to look more closely at nursing home operators, because they did not have to accept patients with COVID if they could not care for them.

Ms. Ahearn said she hopes to start a pandemic response unit that can quickly assemble to get testing and supplies in place and resources to school districts for remote learning. She also said that some of the rules affecting small businesses during the pandemic could have been lessened.

The winner of the election will serve a two-year term.