The three Democratic hopefuls seeking Republican U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin’s 1st District seat sought to differentiate themselves before a decidedly friendly audience at LTV Studios in Wainscott on Monday.
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming of Noyac, businessman Perry Gershon of East Hampton, and Nancy Goroff, a Stony Brook resident and the chairwoman of the Chemistry Department at Stony Brook University, appeared at the forum, which was sponsored by the East Hampton Democratic Committee.
The partisan standing-room audience cheered loudly when Democratic Chairwoman Cate Rogers, in her introductory remarks, stated that the party’s goal for November: the defeat of both President Donald Trump and “his most ardent supporter,” Mr. Zeldin.
“We can’t do it without the participation of every Democrat in the party this year, every independent who feels the same way, and anyone else who knows that we need to stop the tyranny that is happening now,” she said.
The congressional primary will be held on June 23, almost two months after the presidential primary on April 28.
The three candidates took turns poking at Mr. Zeldin, who they said had abandoned the district and linked himself to the president’s fortunes, and explaining why they would be best suited to defeat the third-term incumbent in November.
Mr. Gershon, who lost to Mr. Zeldin in 2018, said he was well prepared to face him again. “Since that election, I have not stopped campaigning,” he said, referring to a series of 10 town hall meetings he has already begun to hold throughout the district, as well as other public appearances.
He said he had listened to people talk about their concerns, from the high cost of health care to cost of living on Long Island, and the need to combat climate change and protect clean drinking water — all issues, he said, that Mr. Zeldin has failed to address.
Ms. Fleming, who worked for 10 years in the Manhattan district attorney’s office before serving six years as a Southampton Town councilwoman, was just elected to her third term on the Suffolk County Legislature. “The person who can take him on is the person with a record in local government,” she said.
She, too, complained that “Lee Zeldin has abandoned us,” on issues ranging from the sharp reduction in the state and local tax deduction in the 2017 Republican tax overhaul to the need for affordable housing, better transportation and attention on environmental issues.
Dr. Goroff, who was introducing herself to an East End audience, pointed to her long career in education. “I’ve been in public service my whole life, teaching and doing research at Stony Brook University,” she said. If elected, she would be the first woman with a doctorate in the sciences to serve in Congress.
“We deserve a government that is actually trying to make people’s lives better. We deserve a government that is basing policy on fact and reality,” she said. “Doesn’t seem like so much to ask for, right?”
She complained that Mr. Zeldin has not held a town hall meeting in three years and that his office hours are practically “a state secret,” reserved only for his supporters. He spends most of his time appearing on Fox News to defend the president, she added.
Moderator Andrew Strong then asked the candidates a series of questions that had been compiled by committee members and the audience. The candidates often provided similar, or slightly varied, answers.
Asked how he would find a bipartisan approach to targeting climate change, Mr. Gershon said he would make it an economic issue. “We can actually put people to work if we invest in green energy and getting off of fossil fuels,” he said, “and that’s a pretty good bipartisan issue.” Dr. Goroff echoed those comments, but Ms. Fleming said the first step was to convince voters that Mr. Zeldin, despite his claims, is not an environmentalist.
On health care, Dr. Goroff said the Democratic options are all similar. “We are all in agreement [that] we need to have for every American access to high-quality affordable health care,” she said. She said a public option to allow people to buy into the federal Medicare program would likely be the next logical step.
Ms. Fleming, on the other hand, said it was important to shore up the Affordable Care Act by retaining things like coverage of preexisting conditions and fixing problems such as high premiums and prescription drug costs.
Asked what her priorities would be, Ms. Fleming said she would focus on restoring unfettered federal tax deductions for state and local taxes paid, combating climate change, improving health care and reducing gun violence.
Dr. Goroff said as a scientist she would focus on climate change and health care. Mr. Gershon added campaign finance reform to the mix, pointing out that big pharmacy and oil companies bankroll many elected officials, and stymie reform.
The candidates were in general agreement when it came to funding affordable housing, adopting meaningful gun control and a number of other common Democratic themes, including the treatment of refugees at the border.
Ms. Fleming, who worked in county government as it sought to provide rebates for homeowners installing innovative wastewater treatment systems, attacked County
Comptroller John Kennedy for seeking an Internal Revenue Service ruling that now requires homeowners to pay tax on their rebates for “his cynical, cynical approach” that sought only to hurt his opponent in the 2019 county executive’s race, Steve Bellone. Mr. Gershon said
Mr. Zeldin had failed to provide leadership on the issue. Dr. Goroff called for “an end to the political games” that Mr. Kennedy had started and Mr. Zeldin had encouraged.
In her closing statement, Ms. Fleming pointed to the large number of endorsements from East End elected officials she had received as well as her relative success on the fundraising trail, despite a late start.
Mr. Gershon said he had name recognition and dismissed endorsements. “The only endorsement that matters at the end of the day is the endorsement of the people who vote,” he said.
For her part, Dr. Goroff said the race would be won in Brookhaven, where she lives and has many contacts.