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Palumbo, Johnson debate key issues in race for New York State Senate

Incumbent state Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) and Democratic challenger Skyler Johnson  squared off Monday on issues ranging from abortion to crime and ethics, among others, in a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island and the North Fork branch. 

The candidates are vying in the First District in the New York State Legislature.

Mr. Palumbo has the backing of the Conservative Party while Mr. Johnson also has the support of the Working Families Party. Mr. Palumbo worked as a prosecutor for several years and has a private law practice in Mattituck. In April 2013 he was elected to the state Assembly, where he served until he was elected to the seat vacated by longtime Republican state Sen. Ken LaValle two years ago. 

Mr. Johnson currently works in a nonprofit called New Hour for Women and Children, which assists formerly incarcerated women and their families with reentry into  society. Participants in the program have a recidivism rate of about 2%, whereas the recidivism rate is over 70% for the general public, Mr. Johnson said. 

Mr. Johnson also serves on the board of Temple Beth Emet in Mount Sinai, and previously worked with Southampton Village Mayor Jesse Warren.

Following is a rundown of some of the issues discussed:

Abortion Rights

Both candidates were asked if they support New York’s current position on reproduction rights, and if they would recommend any changes.

“I voted for the Equal Rights Amendment,” Mr. Palumbo said, referring to a resolution earlier this summer to enshrine equal rights in the New York State Constitution, including solidifying the right to an abortion. “I think the people should decide. I’m kind of a less government is more kind of guy. That certainly will be passed next year and women’s right to choose will become part of the New York Constitution.”

“It’s unfortunate to me that Senator Palumbo has tried to run away from his record on this and has use the Equality Amendment as a way to avoid his own responsibility on the issue,” Mr. Johnson said. “Reproductive rights are under attack across the United States. The only reason why reproductive rights remain legal within the State of New York is because we keep electing people who will keep it legal.”

Mr. Palumbo said he supports abortion in cases of rape, incest and when the life of a mother is at risk. Mr. Johnson criticized Mr. Palumbo for voting against the Reproductive Health Act. Mr. Palumbo said it’s “fear mongering” that Republicans are going to restrict the right to an abortion in New York.


Mr. Johnson also criticized Mr. Palumbo for representing clients in cases against Riverhead Town, which he represents in his role as state senator.

“Last year, your constituency sued a homeowner to prevent the illegal operation of Airbnbs, and you acted as their attorney against the town, against your own constituency,” Mr. Johnson said, calling that “incredibly unethical behavior.”

Mr. Palumbo called his opponent’s comments “a bold accusation from a 21-year-old who does not own a home. I own a home and I have a kid in college. I have an 11th-grader who’s about to go to college and a wife. So I do need to, unfortunately, continue to work a little bit at my wife’s law firm as a lawyer.”

Mr. Palumbo said he works full time as a state Senator. 

“I have had 37 bills passed in the past session,” he said, adding that this was done despite being from the minority party in the Senate.  


Mr. Palumbo said enforcement is the key to stopping crime, and noted that New York has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation. “Most of the gun crimes are committed with illegal guns,” he said. 

“I voted for the red flag law, and I voted for mental health background checks, which is always a smart way to control guns from getting into the wrong hands,” Mr. Palumbo said. He added that “if we don’t prosecute people who are running rampant in our streets  … for whatever reason, that clearly has emboldened the bad guys.”

Mr. Johnson said pointed out that his opponent voted against a proposal to ban domestic abusers from having firearms and said, “It’s very concerning to me that you think that someone who has been convicted of attacking their spouse should be allowed to have a gun.” Mr. Palumbo also voted against requiring a license for semi-automatic weapons, Mr. Johnson said. 

Mr. Palumbo said the bill his opponent cites is already law, and will probably be found to be unconstitutional.

IDA reform

Mr. Johnson said he feels Industrial Development Agency reforms are needed. IDA’s provide businesses with substantial  tax abatements to locate in certain areas. Mr. Johnson feels better oversight is needed to determine  which companies receive tax breaks.

“I want to make sure that we’re not focusing on giving tax breaks to these giant corporations that are coming here anyway,” Mr. Johnson said. 

 “A lot of times, a lot of corruption and cronyism takes place during that process, and it ends up wasting taxpayer dollars,” he added. 

Mr. Palumbo said he feels billionaires should pay their fair share of tax, but that local municipalities lose tax revenue when billionaires and millionaires move out of state. 

Mr. Johnson said billionaires are not leaving, as feared, and that there are 123 billionaires in New York State. 

“Why don’t they leave?” Mr. Johnson asked. “Because they don’t want to.”