Congressional Hopefuls Square Off in Progressive Caucus Forum

A capacity crowd was in attendance during a Southampton Progressive Caucus Candidates Forum at the Stony Brook University Southampton Campus on Saturday, 1/13/18.
Health care, military spending, foreign policy and immigration reform were just some of the topics six Congressional hopefuls hoping to win the Democratic Party nomination discussed during a forum held by the Southampton Progressive Caucus on Saturday, January 13, in Stony Brook Southampton’s Chancellors Hall.

Kate Browning, Elaine DiMasi, Vivian Viloria Fisher, Perry Gershon, Brendon Henry and David Pechefsky are hoping to face two-term Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin in November’s mid-term election.

Stephen J. Kotz, the news editor for The Sag Harbor Express, opened with a question about health care, and specifically if candidates would support the Medicare for All Bill pending in the House of Representatives, and if not, how can Congress make health care more accessible and affordable than it is under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Mr. Henry, a lifelong resident of the East End and a bartender in Center Moriches, said he supported the bill. “We can’t be the only country in the civilized world that doesn’t have it,” he said of single payer health care. “We can’t have a system that bankrupts people for getting sick, and we can’t have a system that keeps people from getting help.” He agreed that while the ACA does help some people, high deductibles, copays and premiums make the cost of health care still burdensome for many.

Mr. Pechefsky, a longtime staffer for the New York City Council, who has also worked for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and most recently for the non-profit Generation Citizen, said he also supported the bill. He said his wife, an emergency room doctor, says people are often denied coverage for the care they need under the current system. Citing evidence of single-payer systems working in places like Canada and Australia, he talked about keeping doctors and hospitals private, with payment coming from the government. “It’s the only solution to having a better, fairer, more cost-effective health care system,” he said. “We must get the profit motive out of health care.” Mr. Pechefsky added opposition from insurance companies is formidable, and the change will need to be backed by education and insider political strategy to build a coalition within government.

Ms. DiMasi, who spent 21 years working as a federal contractor and project manager at Brookhaven National Laboratories, also said she supported the bill, and that the current health care system is turning health care providers into “wage slaves” to health insurance companies, spending hours filling out paperwork that takes time away from the care they are providing.

Ms. Browning, a Suffolk County Legislator, said health care should not be for a chosen few. Having grown up with the National Healthcare System in Belfast, Ireland, she experienced the trials of hospital waiting lists, sharing that her own siblings have health needs that have been put on hold due to these waiting lists. Ms. Browning did not take a position on the bill, but said a comprehensive overhaul was in order.

Mr. Gershon, a businessman, said he supported the bill, which he says removes the burden of providing health care from small businesses. “Any universal health care system makes sure that people see their doctors more frequently so we don’t have the high cost of emergency situations,” Mr. Gershon said.

Former Suffolk County Legislator Ms. Fisher said there should be universal health care. Expressing concerns of political vagaries and the recent turmoil with Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), she said thousands of children in Alabama will not have health care coverage. New York State, which is a wealthier state, will step up to the plate, but it will cost residents much more, she said. “We spend more than any other industrialized country in the world on medicine, on health care, and yet we don’t have the outcomes that support that level of spending,” Ms. Fisher said.

Mr. Kotz also asked candidates to weigh in on current alliances, particularly with Saudi Arabia, and military spending. Ms. Browning, who has two children in the United States Air Force, said the country needs to take better care of its servicemen and women overseas, and when they return home, in particular when it comes to health care through the VA hospital system. She said she did not see diplomacy improving under the leadership of President Donald Trump.

“We do have alliances with many countries that we don’t necessarily agree with everything, so it’s very hard, especially in the Middle East with what’s going on, we have to create alliances,” Ms. Browning added. “We should certainly move our democratic values and encourage our democratic values with all the countries that we negotiate with.”

“If we have a treaty with another nation, and it puts their citizens into poverty to keep up the terms of the treaty, that should be just as bad in our view if the terms of treaty put our own citizens into poverty,” said Ms. DeMasi.

Ms. Fisher agreed diplomatic relations with other countries is necessary, as is a closer look at the military. “One way to protect our young members in our military is not to send them off to false wars,” she said.

Mr. Gershon said the United States does not need to overthrow countries, he suggested building a diplomatic floor and stop depleting the State Department.

“Our defense budget is ridiculous,” Mr. Henry said. “It needs to be cut. And when people hear ‘cut’ they think it affects the solider. It doesn’t affect the soldier; the soldier makes $1.39 an hour. We’re not paying them for what they’re doing.” Alliances with countries that violate human rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights need to be looked at as well, Mr. Henry said, adding the United States can’t hold the torch of liberty while supporting oppression in other countries.

On the topic of immigration and deportation, Mr. Gershon, whose paternal grandparents were immigrants, said he believes immigrants are an important part of American society, and he is pained by the current administration’s direction when it comes to immigration policy. “It’s hard for me to advocate breaking [laws],” he added in terms of Immigration and Customs Enforcement working with local departments to deport immigrants here illegally. “On the other hand, we’re not supposed to be looking for ways to entrap people, entrap immigrants for breaking one law and then moving them to deportation the next day. That can’t happen in a civilized society.”

Ms. Fisher expressed concern for the young people who applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status and exposed their family’s information. “They’ve been tricked,” she said. “The rug has been pulled out from under them by Donald Trump, and Lee Zeldin has not done anything to make their lives whole again.”

“We need to be realistic about this,” said Mr. Henry, adding that a wall cannot be built and people can’t be thrown out. A solution he offered is a tax ID system to get people documented, allow them to get a driver’s license and insurance, and rent fair and safe housing.

Citing research that shows laws that discriminate can create personal prejudice, Ms. DiMasi said she will oppose for-profit prisons and that she will help fight to keep the promises made to DACA recipients. “What we want to do is fix an executive branch that’s making ICE do these terrible and unconstitutional things,” she added.

Mr. Pechefsky doesn’t view immigration as a problem, rather a social integration and cohesion problem. Solutions to create social cohesion, he said, include education, community building, and creating a path to citizenship.

Ms. Browning said the Suffolk County police department should not be an agent for ICE as it is not their job or what they’re paid to do. “Immigrants are feeding our economy,” she said. “Many of them take jobs and do jobs that our kids don’t want to do, and we know that.”