Candidates for Congress Exchange Barbs in Public Debate

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Congressional candidates Perry Gershon, left, and Lee Zeldin listen to a question during the debate hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons at Hampton Bays High School on Monday, October 29. Michael Heller photo

Even as they both called for bipartisan cooperation and national healing, Congressman Lee Zeldin and his challenger Perry Gershon clashed repeatedly during a 90-minute debate before an audience packed with their supporters in the Hampton Bays High School auditorium Monday night. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the Hampton Bays Civic Association and the Press News Group, it was the only public debate scheduled between the two candidates on the South Fork.

“Why are you voting to support coal over renewable?” Mr. Gershon asked the incumbent, a Republican seeking his third two-year term. “Why are you voting to reduce air quality standards? Why aren’t you standing up in opposition when the Trump administration wants to relax all our Clean Air standards? Our fuel emission standards? Why aren’t you on top of these issues … and why are you happy when Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord and made us a world pariah?”

“I appreciate my opponent taking up his minute” for a rebuttal “asking 9,000 different questions,” Mr. Zeldin replied, “but I will tell you that I support the decision made with regard to Paris; we were making unilateral concessions on our part while other countries, the world’s largest polluters, were agreeing to increase emissions. We set these huge goals for the United States on an accord where China is telling us in exchange they’re going to increase emissions.”

In Canada and the European Union, he added, there were debates and a vote on the accord. “Here was the President of the United States agreeing to it on behalf of our country. You want to ask questions? Why is it that your financial disclosure has an investment of $250,500 in offshore oil and when you were asked … whether or not that exists, on your financial disclosure the answer to the voters was no. Why don’t you just say yes? Why don’t you just tell the voters what the truth is?”

Mr. Gershon later took time during his two-minute answer to a subsequent question about coastal retreat in the face of rising sea levels to respond.

“There’s nothing like telling a whopper to deflect attention or create an illusion of something that you know isn’t true,” he said. “So let’s start on my offshore oil investment. I do not invest in any offshore drilling,” something both candidates have opposed off Long Island. “That was what I was asked. I answered that I don’t and I don’t.” He said his investment was in Louisiana port infrastructure that receives imported oil from tankers.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with offshore drilling and you know that,” he continued. “But again, you like to deflect. We just got a question about rising sea levels and you talk about how no one should be telling us to withdraw from our land. Well, of course no one should be saying that. That wasn’t the question. The issue is global warming and rising sea levels and how does it affect us.”

Mr. Zeldin later leaned toward Mr. Gershon and, in a stage whisper, noted, “They did ask whether or not people should pull away from the coastline,” which prompted chuckles in the audience.

Despite his opposition to the Paris Accord, Mr. Zeldin said during the debate that “climate change is something that needs to be taken seriously.”

The Pittsburgh Shooting and Some Difficult Times

Moderated by Cathy Peacock, co-chair of the League of Women Voters government committee, the debate featured four panelists who asked 12 questions, some submitted by audience members, whom Ms. Peacock asked to hold their applause and any verbal outbursts until after the program so no time would be wasted.

Even so, there were a few murmurs, scattered applause occasionally and even boos at one point, as Mr. Zeldin charged Mr. Gershon with politicizing the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting on his Facebook page. “You haven’t even buried the people yet in Pittsburgh and you are already …,” Mr. Zeldin said before he was drowned out by boos as well as applause.

“It is incredibly important when these tragedies occur that we’re talking to each other, not past each other,” Mr. Zeldin added. “I’ll tell you what. Showing up at my office in Patchogue holding up a sign that has my daughters’ names on it, talking about shooting them, does not help get results.” Mr. Gershon never responded to that comment.

There were laughs, too, such as when Mr. Gershon, after listening to Mr. Zeldin emphatically call for protecting Medicare and Social Security for seniors and people about to retire, said “I wish you’d tell that to Mitch McConnell.”

On the call for gun control in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Mr. Zeldin said he agreed firearms should be kept out of the hands of terrorists and “someone who is not going to be a law-abiding citizen.” He added, “That firearm didn’t discharge itself.” He noted that he and Mr. Gershon made the First District race the only congressional race in the country with “two Jewish candidates,” and added of the shooting, “This does not happen anywhere in the word and when you see it happen right here at home it turns your stomach.” He concluded by saying he agreed “the State Department needs to appoint a special envoy to combat anti-Semitism around the world.”

“The question was about guns, specifically,” Mr. Gershon responded, calling for renewal of the ban on assault weapons and the defeat of any “concealed-carry reciprocity” law, which he called a policy favored “by people whose main interest is selling more guns not protecting people” in the congressional district. He said he favored the First Amendment and the rights of citizens to have firearms for protection and hunting. “I’m deeply disturbed as Mr. Zeldin is with what happened in Pittsburgh on Saturday and I’m almost as deeply disturbed by the pipe bombs that were sent out” to top Democrats.

“None of this should be happening in America,” Mr. Gershon added, “and it’s an outcry of the poison rhetoric that’s filling our country, but the leader in chief of this country is the major proponent of the poison rhetoric. He doesn’t stop. He wants to blame the media. He wants to blame the press; it’s the enemy of the state. But he doesn’t take responsibility himself for his own words. And if he doesn’t we’ll never heal.”

Prompting a murmur from the crowd, Mr. Zeldin called Mr. Gershon’s focus on “putting the blame on the president of the United States for what happened in Pittsburgh I think is pretty outrageous … the shooter was anti-Trump so to get asked about Pittsburgh and to fill up your entire time just hating on the president as if he pulled the trigger is outrageous.”

“What’s outrageous is the way you love to twist my words,” Mr. Gershon replied, “because that’s nothing like what I said. Donald Trump is not responsible for anti-Semitism in this guy’s heart. He’s not the one who pulled the trigger. But the atmosphere Donald Trump has created in this country that suggests certain bad acts can be tolerated, encouraging violence at rallies, creates an atmosphere where lunatics come out and do their thing.”

Discrimination and the Tangled Web of Health Care

Asked for their positions on health care, Mr. Zeldin said he “disagreed” with the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), some provisions of which remain in effect, and argued that Mr. Gershon’s charge that the Republicans’ American Health Care Act would do away with protections for people with pre-existing conditions was misleading. He said the law specifically protects people with pre-existing conditions and, in New York State, state law has done so anyway since the 1990s.

“We also have to reduce the costs of health care so where we are on the South Fork right now, I mean, we really need tort reform,” Mr. Zeldin said, because of the high cost of medical malpractice insurance.

Mr. Gershon, like Mr. Zeldin, called for reducing drug costs. He also called on President Trump to enforce the ACA, which remains on the books “and not try to destroy it.” The ultimate goal, he said, was universal health care in the form of a single-payer Medicare-for-all system. But only on a bipartisan basis “when the time is right.”

The moderator rebuked the audience for an outburst of applause when Mr. Gershon — responding to a question about the Trump administration’s plan to change the definition of gender to exclude transsexuals from civil rights protections — “It does not matter whether you’re discriminating against LBGTQ, whether you’re discriminating against trans, whether you’re discriminating against Jews, whether your discriminating against African-Americans; black, brown, it doesn’t matter. Discrimination is wrong and a president who is pushing a discriminatory agenda sets the wrong tone for society.”

Mr. Zeldin said he “has a problem” with “having a policy in place where … a male could go into a female bathroom … and then say afterwards that it was not a violation of any law because their internal sense of gender told them they were a female.” He said that Obama administration definition of gender has to be changed “in a way that is protecting individuals outside of the statutory classes and that includes sexual orientation … but we need to see both sides of this argument.”

Protecting the Environment and Term Limits

Mr. Gershon said he favored reinstating Clean Air standards and EPA funding rolled back by the Trump administration. Mr. Zeldin listed environmental accomplishments in the House of Representatives including reauthorizing “the EPA Long Island Sound program, fully funding Sea Grant and the National Estuary Program and passing “multiple proposals to protect Plum Island.”

“I think the question was about clean air,” Mr. Gershon responded. “I didn’t hear ‘air’ in anything you said.” He added that Republicans control all three branches of government but have not passed legislation to preserve Plum Island, which the government plans to sell after having moved its animal disease center to Kansas. “I don’t see Donald Trump pushing for Plum Island,” he said. “Last thing I heard about Donald Trump and Plum Island, he was talking about developing a golf course there.”

Mr. Zeldin said he strongly supported term limits for members of Congress but added, “You have term limits every time you vote.” Mr. Gershon called term limits “a mixed thing” but added “the real good thing about term limits is it changes the fund-raising reality” of two-year terms, which forces congress people “to spend too much of their time raising money.” Mr. Gershon said he favored public financing of campaigns.

A retired Manhattan real estate lender for 30 years who recently moved to his second home in East Hampton, Mr. Gershon said government should not be run by “classes of professional politicians.” People who had been successful in business should be involved, too, he said. “That’s the difference between us,” he said of Mr. Zeldin. “I’ve been in the private sector for 30 years and I think the government could use more of that today.”

“So you make some decisions in life,” responded Mr. Zeldin, who grew up in Suffolk County. “I chose to serve in the United States Army on active duty. I graduated with a law degree and could have made a whole lot more money outside of the military.” He started a law firm after his military service, he said, but gave it up to run for the New York State Senate, where he served for two terms. He lives in Shirley.

In addition to Mr. Zeldin and Mr. Gershon, Kate Browning will appear as a candidate on the November 6 ballot in the election for the First Congressional District. A Democrat who served in the county legislature, she lost the Democratic primary for the nomination to Mr. Gershon and is running as the candidate of the Women’s Equality Party.

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Peter Boody is news editor of The Sag Harbor Express. Previously he was the editor of the Southampton Press for many years and also edited several other papers, including the Shelter Island Reporter and the East Hampton Press, of which he was founding editor. He was a regular correspondent for the New York Times Long Island section and wrote the novel “Thomas Jefferson, Rachel & Me.”