Democratic Congressional Hopefuls Speak Out in Advance of Primary

The five Democratic candidates hoping to run against incumbent Lee Zeldin for Congress in November include, from left to right David Pechefsky, Elaine DiMasi, Kate Browning, Perry Gershon and Vivian Viloria Fisher. Peter Boody photos

The five candidates running in the June 26 Democratic primary for the chance to take on two-term Republican Lee Zeldin in November explained why they’re doing it, how they’d try to win, what they would do about immigration, whether Obamacare should be fixed or replaced and whether or not they would support Nancy Pelosi as speaker, at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons on May 24 at Hampton Bays High School.

Only one of the five said they would support Nancy Pelosi for another term as speaker: Perry Gershon of East Hampton, a commercial real estate lender and former sports bar owner.

Vivian Viloria-Fisher of East Setauket, a former county legislator and retired schoolteacher known for her civil rights advocacy, said it was “premature” to be making that decision. The three others said it is time for new leadership.

The candidates agreed that Lee Zeldin has to go; that appealing to core Democrats as well as moderate Republicans and independents is essential to victory; and that it’s time to adopt comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.

They generally agreed that the ultimate solution to the nation’s health care troubles is a Medicare-for-all single-payer system but that it’s a long way off. Most said that, meanwhile, Obamacare needs to be made to work.

All agreed that, if they lost on June 26, they would continue to the party’s effort to oppose Lee Zeldin because he “is not right for this district,” as candidate Kate Browning of Shirley, a former Suffolk County legislator, put it. “We need a representative who represents the needs of families,” she said.

There were no fireworks between the candidates, although David Pechefsky of Patchogue, a former staffer with the New York City Council, used one of his rebuttal options to ask Ms. Browning about the financial support she has received from Congressman Joe Crowley of Queens, whom he criticized as a supporter of the war in Iraq “who wants to be speaker.”

“Congressman Crowley believes in my campaign,” said Ms. Browning, “and he believes I’m the only one who can win.” She added that Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Steny Hoyer also had backed her.

“And so you know I believe Steny Hoyer is another interested in becoming leader,” the Belfast native added in her distinctive brogue. “It doesn’t matter whether they give me money or not. I’m a very independent person … I don’t follow the party line.”

Ms. Viloria-Fisher touched on the issue after explaining that she had to know the “dynamic” of Congress before deciding whom to support for speaker, although she said she had been impressed by Ms. Pelosi’s vote against the Iraq war.

“As to the donations by legislative leaders to somebody in a primary,” she added, “let me be clear they generally follow the lead of the county chair and the county chair has put his thumb on this particular race.”

She explained that as a legislator “I had to stand up quite a number of times against the party,” including its decision to cross-endorse all five Republican candidates for district attorney, treasurer, comptroller, sheriff and clerk, which, she said, disenfranchised voters.

Attended by about 125 people, the forum lasted about 90 minutes and featured a strict format that allowed for opening statements, two-minute answers to seven written questions from audience members with one-minute each for up to two rebuttals and closing statements.

Summaries of the statements and responses to questions of each candidate follow:

Kate Browning

Kate Browning

“We don’t have a voice in Washington” because Lee Zeldin, a key Trump backer, “spends more time on Fox News and MSNBC” than he does representing his constituents, said the former school bus driver and mother of three who met her husband — a New York City police detective — in Germany, when he was in the U.S. Army.

“One of the most important things for me is our infrastructure. We heard by the first of the year we’d have an infrastructure bill. We haven’t seen that.” She supports renewable energy, a woman’s right to choose and “labor,” which is “under attack right now by this administration.”

She said she was inspired to run by Mr. Zeldin who “has done absolutely nothing to help us out” in all the years the legislature has been working to find the funding for a sewer project in southern Brookhaven Town.

“He’s so far to the right he has forgotten who he is representing,” she said. “You have to be able to work across party lines. You have to be able to work with the other side to get things done … I have a record of being able to work across party lines, as being able to get things done, and I think that’s important.”

She never lost an election, she said, and always won with at least 57 percent of the vote, even though her district “was more Republican than Democrat.” She appeals to blue collar voters, she said, “and they are the people we need to win this election.”

As an immigrant herself, she said the opportunity to become a citizen and flourish here “should be afforded to any immigrant … Lee Zeldin went to the William Floyd School District” and “knows my bus,” she said, noting that both the salutatorian and valedictorian there are “children of immigrants.”

“He needs to see that and he needs to realize the benefits of the immigrants in this country,” she said.

She said she supports amending and improving Obamacare. “Single-payer may be possible but at this point in time, Republicans have sabotaged the Affordable Care Act and it’s failing.”

Ms. Browning said she has “been to too many funerals for young people who have died from drug addiction.” She called for tougher enforcement to catch drug dealers, better treatment and educational efforts including “recovery schools” and better regulation of “sober homes.”

Elaine DiMasi

Elaine DiMasi

A physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory for 22 years, Dr. DiMasi — she has a PhD in physics — has “been working there … building infrastructure for the research community and shepherding your tax dollars and making sure that innovations are made so we can have clean energy and clean water,” said the Pennsylvania native.

“I’m a candidate who has a plan for how to create new clean energy jobs for this district and we can have a way to bottle the sun and wind that’s coming into this district and create wealth that will allow us to work on other important problems like health care, like wealth inequality, like gun violence and opioid addiction,” she said.

“We need Congress to look at the facts just the way my colleagues do; we need Congress to collaborate and work together on things,” said Dr. DiMasi, who added that “the biggest unsolved problem facing our district right now is Lee Zelden.”

She said she had been inspired to run because, as a BNL scientist, “I had a front row seat to see what happens if Congress can’t pass a budget. Laboratory leadership, just like any agency or public service in government, instead of doing the work, they are figuring out whose jobs to terminate. That’s exactly upside down. Congress should be making sure we have jobs in this community.”

“We need new candidates who understand large projects, who understand federal budgets, who understand traveling worldwide,” she said, “to make sure that contracts delivered to the United States government are built here and are built well and are built for the benefit of the American people.”

As for how she’d target her campaign politically, she said, “My message is for everyone in the district who wants government to solve problems and make sure we have well paid workers. I’m the only candidate who has a specific plan for exactly how we will leverage what we have in the clean energy economy, the research economy and our talented work force that knows how to manufacture, knows how to build, knows how to drive boats, knows how to maintain and operate equipment.”

On immigration, she said, “I’m a scientist so I spent the better part of my working life with people from around the world. They’re my partners and collaborators.”

Lee Zeldin’s “fear-mongering rhetoric” should be fought by holding “him accountable to the facts. The fact is that our agricultural workers and employers need a skills-based system so that migrant workers might not be bound to a particular employer but to a trade they need to carry out.”

Mr. Zeldin needs to be shown “his own constituents overwhelmingly favor keeping our promise with the DACA program” to give Dreamers a pathway to citizenship, she added. He needs to know that the American immigration system “holds up core values that are very important to all of us,” she added. “It keeps families together. It insures that we do have special skills coming into this country. It insures that our diversity of immigrants from all over the world will come here and [it] makes a way for us to be compassionate when there are catastrophes and refuge situations.”

Her vote for House leader, she said, will be “with the younger generation of younger voters” who know that “too many regressive tax laws, insurance laws, banking laws, far too many regressive laws have been passed. It’s time to reverse those drastically. Young people know we’ve been at war and that we need to be spending down the skills and people that we have on war.”

She’s for replacing Obamacare because of its “unacceptable vulnerability” to political “sabotage” because of its funding requirements that Congress can cut. But she went on to say she would work toward “improving the Affordable Care Act and, moving forward, if the tone is go towards Medicare for all … but at this point that’s not going to happen overnight.”

She said she favors needle-sharing programs and the legalization of medical cannabis. She said a “revised health care system has to make rehabilitation last long enough to work” and that there must be transportation infrastructure to connect people to programs. 

Perry Gershon

Perry Gershon

“I’m doing it because the country is under attack right now,” said the businessman and former campaign worker for Ted Kennedy and Gary Hart. “Donald Trump in his election has really changed the landscape … He’s put [not only] the causes we believe in nationally and internationally in jeopardy, but the whole republic and the core that holds us together.”

“Back when I started” as a commercial real estate lender 25 years ago “I was given a list of 10 names of people known in the country” as bad risks “and Donald Trump was number one on the list,” he said.

“The Democrats must win this election to put a check on the president,” he added.

He cited as major issues in the campaign “health care, protecting the environment, getting guns off the street, gun safety laws and jobs. We need an economic agenda and I can speak to all of those issues and coalesce us together to get elected as a Democrat in the fall.”

As a real estate lender, he said he knew how to bring “parties together as a conciliatory and figure out complex solutions to people problems as well as keep people employed and keep things going. I was a lender who foreclosed once in 25 years. So I found ways to make things work and that’s what we need in government. I’m going to find a way to work with the other party because if we don’t do that, this country is doomed.”

In his campaign, he said he will focus on reaching both core Democrats and moderate independents and Republicans. “You need a coalition so you need good turnout from the left,” such as voters from his home region, the South Fork, he said. “If you don’t get that turnout, which we did not get the last two elections, there’s no way we’re going to win.”

“But we also need to bring some other people into this group,” he added. He said he was sure there are a lot of independents and Republicans — he cited the concentration of educated voters in Smithtown — who are “just not happy with President Trump.”

“If we have credible messaging to workers that we are going to bring better paying jobs, particularly in energy in Suffolk County,” he said, “people are going to want to vote Democratic and that’s how we build a coalition.”

“Immigrants are part of the core of America and we need to keep immigration flowing in America,” he said. He cited a long article on the Politico website recently about how Lee Zelden has “done so well in this district” by “using immigrants as his foil. He and Trump are calling immigrants animals.”

“The best thing we can do about MS13,” the gang that the Republicans have made into a key talking point in Suffolk, “is get immigrants out of the shadows,” he said. “When immigrants are hiding from law enforcement they are fair game, fodder for MS13. We need to change that cycle so that immigrants work with law enforcement and are part of society.”

He said he’d met Nancy Pelosi, who he said “is doing a tremendous job rallying support for Democratic candidates throughout the country.” The time for her to have stepped down as leader would have been after the party’s loss of the House in 2010. “But if we take the majority back in 2018, Nancy Pelosi deserves another chance at being speaker.”

“Medical care is a right not a privilege,” he said, expressing his support for Medicare for all. “However, we’re not going to get there overnight. We need more numbers than we’re going to get in this election. Meanwhile we have to shore up the Affordable Care Act.”

He said the opioid crisis is “a big deal nationally and in this district. Blame the drug users and send them to jail is what Trump is talking about.” That’s the “wrong approach. We need better treatment options and better rehabilitation” but the marketing strategies of the drug companies need to be targeted too and “we need to take care of our vets” by making sure they do not become addicted to painkillers.

David Pechefsky

On leave from his job as senior advisor with Generation Citizen, a national non-profit that trains college students to be “democracy coaches,” Mr. Pechefsky said that “running for Congress is kind of like being a superhero in the sense that you are supposed to have an origin story. I’m not a superhero but I’ll share a little bit of my origin story.”

His family moved from New York City to Patchogue in 1972. In 1975, his father lost his job in the city fiscal crisis and he died in 1982 when Mr. Pechefsky was 14. “We really struggled,” he said, and they had to move “to the other side of town.” His mother held down two jobs “and what really carried me through was the support of teachers and family and friends.” They helped him get his college degree and a master’s degree, he said, which opened the door to his career in public service.

“I’ve worked in New York City government on housing policy. I’ve worked on a host of federal programs. I haven’t been an elected official but I know how to get stuff done in government and I’ve also worked internationally,” including in Africa “as an advisor trying to build democratic institutions. So I’m running for Congress to do something, not to be someone. I want to deliver for the community and the district that delivered for me.”

“I am not someone who woke up after Trump was elected and said, ‘Oh my God. I have to run for Congress.’ This has been my life’s work to see that government is effective and truly working in the public interest and I’ve always been for social justice and the underdog.”

“The fact that the government has been captured by corporate interests and warmongers didn’t start with Trump,” he said. “Trump may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back but this has been going on for a long time.”

“To win we’re going to have to excite and engage people that are not typical midterm voters,” including the young. “My campaign is in part about speaking to young people, to newly registered voters from the Muslim community,” who “should be part of a broader Democratic coalition.”

“The common denominator, left or right, is the economy,” he said.” Taxes and health care are “unaffordable.”

“We should not fall into the narrative that immigration is a problem,” he said. “We know immigration is a strength. Open societies are dynamic, culturally and economically.” Democrats need to make “an affirmative case why immigration is good,” said the candidate, who added that his wife, an ER doctor, is an immigrant from Uganda.

Mr. Pechefsky said he had “a lot of respect for Nancy Pelosi” but “it’s time for new leadership” that “moves us away from our disastrous foreign policy” that has kept us in wars for years that impose a “tremendous moral and financial cost.”

“We don’t have a health care system; we have an industry that makes profits,” he said. He added he is a “strong supporter of Medicare for all” but “we need to build a coalition to get there and I’m part of the coalition.”

 Vivian Viloria-Fisher

Born in the Dominican Republic when Rafael Trujillo was dictator, Ms. Viloria-Fisher came to New York City when she was an infant. Her father died when she was six. “We were always very appreciative of the opportunities that we had in this country,” she said, “and that we had a safety net to protect us from having a tyrant rule over us. So imagine what I felt when I began to get a glimpse of what Donald Trump was and is.”

A retired teacher and mother of five who went on to serve 12 years on the Suffolk County Legislature until term limits prevented her from running again, she said she “decided to go visit Lee Zeldin when he was about to vote on the Affordable Care Act repeal. But he responded to my questions with just talking points. No depth. No empathy. I knew that I had to run” against him.

The Trump administration and its backers have been “lying to the American people about everything that they were going to be doing, which have proven to have been falsehoods, to have [led to] chaos, and a lack of leadership and lack of respect for our norms and our Constitution.”

Health care should not be treated as a “commodity,” she said, but the Trump administration has been undermining research work at the National Institutes of Health. In the legislature, “I knew I had to work on environmental issues because George Bush was just pulling us out of Kyoto. We have a president who has now pulled us out of the Paris talks.” In the legislature, she said she “put a cap on CO2” and “banned a carcinogen from our drinking water.” She also “put together a welfare to work commission to help people move from welfare to work.”

She won seven election campaigns for the legislature in a district with a registration that was less than one-third Democratic. “I couldn’t have done it with just Democratic votes,” she said. “People saw that I was able to produce and represent my community.”

She authored legislation “requiring everyone to build to green standards,” she said, and “hired a woman to work for me; she then ran for the legislature and is now majority leader of the legislature.”

“I have stood for the immigrants of Suffolk County. That doesn’t have to alienate the far right,” she said. “Farmers need immigrant workers.”

She said she had dealt with anti-immigrant politics like Trump’s when Steve Levy was county executive and she had opposed his “draconian pieces of legislation.”

“I was called racial slurs; my life was threatened, and a truck sat outside my house for six hours with placards saying ‘Deport Vivian Fisher,’” she said. “I’m the only person standing before you who has stood up against that fear-mongering.”

She said “we need a path to citizenship. We need a temporary visa program that works for our farmers.”

A delegate at the 2008 convention that nominated Barack Obama for president, Ms. Viloria-Fisher said he had made a mistake as president treating health care as a product to appease providers. “We kind of boxed ourselves in with that” and ended up with Obamacare, “which didn’t work. It doesn’t work to use health care as a product. It’s not a commodity. It’s a right. We have to move to Medicare for all.”

If she loses in June, she will continue to work as a board member of Planned Parenthood, teaching English as a second language in a local church, working with immigrants and volunteering for “my own food policy council.”

Doctors need to be restrained in the use of painkillers, she said. “Obviously they have been giving out opioids too freely for too long,” she said. She favors allowing rehab facilities to “keep people long enough to be really rehabbed.” The pharmaceutical companies, she added, are “just as bad as cigarettes and the tobacco companies.”

She cautioned voters to “look carefully” at the claims they read in campaign literature. She cited one mailer that claimed Planned Parenthood receives funding from Suffolk County, which she said “is not true.”