By Stephen J. Kotz
It was pitched as a conversation, but the tone was at times sharp, as the two candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the 1st District Congressional race faced off at the Southampton Arts Center on Saturday.
Former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, while touting her own practical experience, tried to paint her opponent, Dave Calone, a venture capitalist and former chairman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission and federal prosecutor, as a big-money candidate trying to buy his way into public office and lacking the experience that she would bring to the table.
Mr. Calone, in turn, questioned Ms. Throne-Holst’s late arrival to the Democratic Party, asking why so many local Democrats had not endorsed her candidacy, and charged that under her watch, Southampton Town was a haven for pro-development interests.
The winner of the June 28 Democratic primary will face off against Representative Lee Zeldin, a first-term Republican, in November.
The event was a loosely structured debate that dispensed with timed responses and rebuttals. It was sponsored by The Press News Group and moderated by its executive editor, Joseph P. Shaw.
Mr. Shaw, noting that previous debates between the two had been sponsored by local Democratic committees and the candidates had only offered nuanced differences on major issues, urged them from the very beginning to differentiate themselves for the voters.
Ms. Throne-Holst sought to put to rest complaints among some members of the Democratic faithful that she was not committed to the party. She has come under fire for only changing her registration from the Independence Party to the Democratic Party when she announced she was running for Congress.
But she said she had been asked to make her first run for town board by Suffolk County Democratic Chairman Richard Schaffer after a career in the nonprofit sector devoted to “working with and for people to solve problems, to deal with issues around income inequality, access to education, and access to social services.”
“I am a Democrat by the results. I am a Democrat by how I lived my life. I am a Democrat by having pushed forward the most progressive agenda this town has ever seen,” she said.
She said her inclusionary policies in which she reached across the aisle may have rubbed some partisan Democrats the wrong way, but pointed out, “The national Democrats don’t seem to have a problem with Bernie Sanders seeking that nomination. Bernie Sanders is a registered Independent.”
She said she too had received endorsements from prominent Democrats, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and former Congressman Tim Bishop.
Southampton Town was dominated by the Republicans and in financial straits when she was elected, she said, pointing to her efforts to improve its finances, take on the gargantuan task improving water quality, and preserve 4,000 acres of open space.
Mr. Calone, a resident of Setauket, grew up in Brookhaven Town, before attending Princeton University and Harvard Law School. Although he has never held public office he served as both a federal and state prosecutor in cases ranging from corporate fraud to terrorism. He also served for eight years as chairman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission. He also is a venture capitalist, whose firm starts small businesses both on Long Island and across the country.
Mr. Calone said he learned the values of the Democratic Party —“opportunity, hope, fairness” — from his grandfather and had tried to live by those values. He said he was “distraught” by the election of Mr. Zeldin, whom he described as “a leader in Washington of values that are very different than those of us on the progressive side of things.”
“I am not a Democrat of convenience, I am a Democrat of conscience,” he said, asking on several occasions Ms. Throne-Holst to explain why all the elected Democratic officials on the East End had endorsed him.
Ms. Throne-Holst also took the attack to Mr. Calone. In a discussion of campaign finance reform he criticized her for being backed by Wall Street money, and she shot back, “For a hedge fund Wall Streeter, I have to say your rhetoric doesn’t match your actions.”
Mr. Calone protested that he did not run a hedge fund but was a venture capitalist, adding, “The only time I’ve ever worked near Wall Street was when I was a state prosecutor,” but Ms. Throne-Holst pressed on, insisting — despite some boos and hissing from the audience — that he invested in oil companies and had sent funds to the Cayman Islands, which are better known for their tax shelters than their beaches.
She said she was proud to have more than 4,000 donors, whose average contribution was less than $100 and pointed out that Mr. Calone had poured $250,000 of his own money into his campaign. “When individuals are able to put a quarter million dollars or more into a race than you are perverting democracy right there,” she said. Mr. Calone responded that the race was so important to him he had decided to invest his savings in it.
The candidates also squabbled over who was the more committed environmentalist. Mr. Calone said he believed one of the first responsibilities of elected officials is to “preserve, protect and defend our natural environment.” He said as chairman of the planning commission, he had supported open space acquisition, including the purchase of a parcel of Amagansett farmland that had been eyed for a condominium project. He said he had worked to encourage renewable energy, both on the planning commission and as a member of the Long Island Power Authority board, and had supported the county’s efforts to improve water quality. He said he was proud to have the endorsement of the Long Island Environmental Voters Forum, and charged Ms. Throne-Holst’s record was one of over-development.
She responded with a litany of environmental accomplishments, ranging from the creation of the town’s sustainability committee, the adoption of a more sustainable building code in the town, and aggressive open space protection.
“In the past, the town board waited for landowners to come to it,” she said, but under her leadership, she said the town created a wish list of 2,000 acres of land and “we then went actively out and made sure we preserved those properties.”
She also pointed with pride at the Clean Water Technology Center at Stony Brook University that is now led by her former chief of staff, Jen Garvey, which she described as the “Silicon Valley” for the development of cutting edge technology to reduce residential nitrogen pollution.
The town also offered incentives for solar panel, while LIPA, with Mr. Calone on its board, pushed ahead with rate increases and fossil fuel powered plants, she said. Mr. Calone countered that he had been a strong advocate for renewable energy while on the LIPA board.
Mr. Calone charged that Southampton Town had approved more planned development districts than the rest of Suffolk County combined and said he was proud to have cast the deciding vote on the planning commission against the controversial Tuckahoe Center commercial development.
Ms. Throne-Holst said that zone change proposal was still being worked on when it was rejected by the planning commission, but stressed that she supported it because traffic studies showed it would actually result in 700,000 fewer vehicle miles per year, as people did their grocery shopping closer to home.
She also argued that PDDs are not always a bad thing, saying she supported the Sandy Hollow Cove affordable housing proposal and the Canoe Place PDD.
The candidates also sparred over East Hampton Airport with Mr. Calone charging East Hampton officials felt as though they had been “stabbed in the back” when Ms. Throne-Holst did not support their efforts to control helicopter flights into the airport. While Mr. Calone called that “an example of not being able to work with your neighbors,” Ms. Throne-Holst said she was merely looking out for her constituents and trying to impress upon East Hampton Town that a regional solution — one that included the input of the Federal Aviation Administration — was necessary.
If elected, she promised to “plant myself outside the door of the FAA and I will not leave until they come back to the table and work with us on a regional solution,” she said.
Mr. Calone, who said he had the Independence Party nomination, said he was the best candidate to defeat Mr. Zeldin. “When I get the Democratic nomination, he’s going to be scared.”
Ms. Throne-Holst said her experience in public office would carry the day. “This is a district that looks for people with a track record of bringing people together and working to get it done,” she said.