With more than 140 people tuning in live, the four candidates running for the Democratic nomination for the 1st District Congressional seat met in a remote debate on Monday night.
East Hampton businessman Perry Gershon, Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, Stony Brook University chemistry professor Nancy Goroff, and Calverton business consultant Gregory Fischer are seeking the right to challenge the three-term incumbent, Republican Lee Zeldin, in November’s election. The Democratic primary is June 23.
The event, sponsored by the League of Women Voters was shown on the YouTube channel of Southampton Town’s public access television station, SEA-TV, and will be available for continued screening.
The remote setup was required because of the continuing ban on gatherings of more than 10 people due to the coronavirus epidemic.
Three of the four candidates agreed that defeating President Donald Trump and Mr. Zeldin, who has been one of the president’s most steadfast supporters, go part and parcel, if the United States is to restore economic prosperity, combat inequality, protect the environment, and regain its position as a global leader.
“Our cities are on fire, we have a pandemic that was mishandled from the beginning and has now cost the lives of over 100,000 individuals in the United States, and our government has been complicit, our congressman has been complicit,” said Ms. Fleming.
“We need a uniter, not a divider. Zeldin fights more for Trump’s agenda than for his own constituents,” offered Mr. Gershon.
Dr. Goroff said she had stepped down as the chairwoman of the Stony Brook chemistry department to run for office “because I knew we needed a government that is actually trying to make people’s lives better and basing policies on facts and reality.” On issues from global warming to health care, the Trump administration’s “willingness to ignore the facts and the evidence has risen to almost unthinkable levels,” she said.
Mr. Fischer, on the other hand, said it was more important to focus on serving the people.
“If there is going to be partisanship and flinging mud on both sides and endless bickering,” nothing will get done, he said. “Nobody cares who is to blame any more. They want to know how you are going to get us out of trouble.”
The first question asked the candidates what issues they thought had a reasonable chance of attracting bipartisan solutions. Ms. Fleming answered immigration reform and common-sense gun control such as background checks and assault weapons bans, which have strong support across the country.
Dr. Goroff said she would focus her attention on addressing climate change, which she called “the largest threat we face to our way of life today.” As a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, she said she had the expertise needed to help set ambitious goals for a carbon-neutral economy, as well convince other legislators of the importance of acting now.
Mr. Fischer pledged to be prepared to fight the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic, which he said would be broader this coming winter.
Mr. Gershon said funding for infrastructure to create a green economy was a top priority and pointed to the creation of the interstate highway system under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Another issue needing prompt attention is health care, he said.
The candidates, with the exception of Mr. Fischer, also took issue with the president’s “America First” agenda, with Mr. Gershon saying the it had led to a trade war with China, which he called a disaster, and said it was important for the country to recover its leadership role. “We need to find ways to work with our trading partners and coexist in an international arena,” he said.
Dr. Goroff said the United States used to be the world leader. “Now we have a president who has been backing away from that on every level,” she said. “What is America’s word going to mean when we pull out of agreements” such as the Paris Climate Accord and nuclear arms deals? she asked.
“‘America First’ is a misnomer. It is a guise under which Donald Trump acts impulsively and dangerously,” added Ms. Fleming.
But Mr. Fischer argued the strategy has had benefits, citing the American relationship with China, in particular. “They have used economics as a World War III weapon to dominate our economy, and they have done so masterfully,” he said of the Chinese.
The candidates tended to agree on immigration reform. “Nobody is discussing opening our borders and letting anybody in,” said Dr. Goroff of a frequent Republican criticism of Democratic immigration policy. She added that the nation must find a path to citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and stop the practice of separating children from the families at the border.
“It was entered into as a policy of cruelty to send a message to individuals in other countries to not come to this country,” added Ms. Fleming of the practice.
“Most citizens want several points addressed,” said Mr. Fischer. “They want registration, they want taxation, they want assimilation, and they want education so these people are ready for our society.”
“We’ve got to find a way to forward in the post-Donald Trump world, because Trump has taken a bad situation and made it that much worse,” said Mr. Gershon.
Post-pandemic, the candidates all favored varying degrees of a green economy based on a new focus on renewable energy sources and steps to combat groundwater pollution and global warming. But they also argued that workers needed to be paid a living wage and have access to affordable healthcare. Similarly, they voiced support for affordable housing and the type of development that would encourage young people to remain on Long Island.
Although the debate was largely cordial, Mr. Fischer was criticized for claiming that the coronavirus response was plagued by what he described as “mind boggling” negligence in the New York State healthcare system.
Mr. Fischer grew heated when Dr. Goroff criticized claims he has posted online that there is an easy and inexpensive cure for COVID-19. “One can put up a website any time one wants with supposed cures for challenges,” she said. “In order to actually have something that is legitimate, it needs to be tested, it needs to be fully vetted. One report, as the president and Mr. Fischer can learn, is not sufficient evidence to say a medicine will actually work.”
“You obviously haven’t read what I’ve published,” he responded, his voice rising, “There is 60 years of research. This is real science.”
The candidates offered reasons why they were the most qualified to replace Mr. Zeldin. Ms. Fleming cited her legislative experience, her many endorsements, and internal polling that she says shows her leading the race. Mr. Gershon said he was the only candidate who has interacted regularly with the people of the district. Dr. Goroff said she could motivate the Democratic base, while Mr. Fischer said his expertise in a wide variety of topics, would serve him well in office.