Veteran Assemblyman Spars With First-Time GOP Challenger

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New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., left, and his challenger Patrick O'Connor. Peter Boody photos

At a debate last week with his election opponent, Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said that he and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle are working on a proposal to allow the five East End towns to levy a half-percent tax on higher-end real estate transactions to provide financial assistance to first-time East End home buyers.

“We can’t build ourselves out of the affordable housing” problem, Mr. Thiele said on Thursday, October 25, when the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons sponsored the debate between the assemblyman, who is seeking his 12th two-year term in office, and first-time candidate Patrick O’Connor of Shinnecock Hills at the Hampton Bays Senior Center. “The market tilts too much to second homeowners,” Mr. Thiele said, “and we can’t increase density” because we’re already overstressing local highways and the environment.

A member of the Independence Party, Mr. Thiele, a former county legislator, Southampton Town supervisor and Sag Harbor village attorney, is running on the Independence, Democratic, Working Families, Women’s Equality and Reform Party lines. Mr. O’Connor is a Republican committeeman running on the Conservative and Republican lines. He describes himself as “30-year IT professional.”

“We have to make the existing housing stock more affordable,” Mr. Thiele said, and “we do it with a counterpart of the Community Preservation Fund,” under which each of the five East End towns imposes a 2-percent tax on real estate sales to fund open space, parkland, historic preservation and recreational property acquisitions.

Mr. Thiele’s answer came in response to the question posed to both candidates: what they would do to “advance the cause of affordable housing.”

Mr. O’Connor was the first to answer. “Right now, as far as affordable housing is concerned, we’d have to reassess the tax structures out here in order to start one thing,” he said. “Then we would have to go ahead and look at the loan process to, uh, I don’t think we want to have a repeat of the bubble that we had several years ago, so I think we need to be careful, but the one thing we really want and everyone wants is to have a roof over their heads which they can afford.” He concluded by saying he would have to give the issue some thought.

“Well, I’ve given it a little thought,” Mr. Thiele responded. “Affordable housing is one of the biggest issues we have out here,” he said, adding that he and Senator LaValle had been meeting for the last year with builders, bankers, housing advocates and local government officials to discuss how to make it possible for local workers to buy homes here. “Simply stated,” he explained, “we add an extra half a percent on the transfer tax and devote it to affordable housing to provide assistance for first-time homebuyers.”

Under legislation introduced in the Assembly by Mr. Thiele early in 2018, but which remained in committee at the close of the legislative session, the assistance to first-time buyers would be in the form of a loan for up to half the purchase price. It would be repayable when the house was sold, plus a proportional share of any profit.

Among other exchanges during the hour-long debate, Mr. Thiele hammered Mr. O’Connor after he had answered “no” to a question about whether or not undocumented immigrants should be allowed to obtain drivers licenses. “DMV and voter registration are linked right now,” Mr. O’Connor said, so it would be a “slippery slope going forward” with “opportunities for voter fraud.”

“That’s a red herring and that’s a fear tactic,” Mr. Thiele charged, using one of three chances each candidate had to comment on their opponent’s answers. “Nobody said anything about letting immigrants vote. You can have a green card and a license but can’t vote. Don’t interchange voting with public safety and driver’s licenses. They are completely unrelated. That’s just trying to scare people. That’s just playing to people’s fear. And I hope you’re better than that.”

“I am,” answered Mr. O’Connor.

Mr. Thiele also blasted Mr. O’Connor after he said he favored term limits for officeholders in part because “we cannot just rely on the voters to just take the bad people out of office.”

“Listen closely to what he just said,” responded Mr. Thiele, who said he favored stricter campaign finance laws instead of term limits. “You can’t trust the voters to make the right decision. He said it. I didn’t say it. When it comes to term limits, I do trust the voters. Term limits are one instrument, and not an effective instrument, to deal with a deeper problem: the influence of special interest money on the political process and that’s what we should be fixing.” He called the Citizens United decision one of the worst ever to come out of the U.S. Supreme Court because “someone on the Supreme Court thought money was speech.”

In his opening statement, Mr. O’Connor charged that Mr. Thiele had “fallen out of touch” with the voters of his district. “There are constituencies out there right now that feel neglected” and “thrown under the bus.” Fishermen in Hampton Bays, Springs and Montauk “feel he hasn’t had their back. Fixed-income people have reached out and never heard back. Other subjects such as opioids, crime, have had less of an impact from Mr. Thiele over the last few years.”

He said it’s “too expensive to live on Long Island because of skewed tax structures, regulations and various other mechanics from Albany … things that have been helped by Mr. Thiele and caused by things Mr. Thiele has voted for.”

In his statement, Mr. Thiele said his independence “informs the way I represent this district and the way I approach the district,” focusing on consensus-building and bipartisanship. “I don’t go to Albany to win debate points but to get things done for my district.”

Questions were posed by members of the League. The first question was about legalizing marijuana. Mr. O’Connor said he favored it for medical purposes but “no blanket legislation.”

“Medical marijuana is already legal in New York State,” Mr. Thiele noted. “I do support decriminalization, but the jury is out on legalization” for all other purposes. He said the governor has been holding hearings and listening sessions on the topic. “I want to hear more. I have reservations. Marijuana is still a gateway drug.”

Both candidates said they favored protecting a woman’s right to making “private reproductive health decisions.” Mr. Thiele said the state needs to update legislation adopted in 1970 “to protect reproductive freedom,” before the U.S. Supreme Courts Roe vs. Wade decision that guarantees a right to abortion. “I believe Roe vs. Wade is in jeopardy” because of recent appointments to the court. “It’s more imperative than ever that the states update their law to protect women’s reproductive choices,” Mr. Thiele added.

“I screened with the National Organization for Women,” Mr. O’Connor said. “Yes, I am a pro-choice Republican. I see no conflict here whatever.”

Asked if they supported legislation to allow the terminally ill to self-administer fatal drugs, Mr. O’Connor answered, “Honestly it’s not something I’ve given a great deal of thought to. I always feel any choice like this is a final choice.” He added that a “health professional” should be involved in the decision.

Mr. Thiele said he had cosponsored legislation to allow it. The decision should be “up to individuals, not the government,” he said.

Both candidates expressed concerns about the proposed Deepwater Wind South Fork Wind Farm, which will be southeast of Block Island but will serve the South Fork, and Deepwater’s pending sale to a Danish company. Mr. Thiele said he favored alternative energy and that “climate change is real” but “you do have to balance renewable energy with other stakeholders such as fishermen … I can’t say I support it yet. The jury is still out, The Danish sales makes me less likely to want to support the project.”

“A lot of things have to be figured out before is considered a smart idea,” said Mr. O’Connor. “This is a subject that actually causes a lot of the fishermen on the East End to feel they’ve been thrown under the bus.

Asked about providing parks for youth, Mr. O’Connor said it was a local matter. “All politics is local. Each of these communities need to address their parks individually.” Mr. Thiele disagreed, saying the state and county have been involved in an expansion of the East End park system. He cited the $1 million in funds he and Senator LaValle had obtained for Good Ground Park in Hampton Bays.

The candidates agreed state officeholders convicted of “ethical violations” should not receive their pensions. Both supported early voting, although Mr. O’Connor said that “lots needs to be ironed out.”

Mr. O’Connor said he didn’t see the need “to refine” current ethics policies for elected officials while Mr. Thiele blasted the state’s current set-up with the governor’s office and the legislature overseeing their own ethics panels. “You can’t oversee yourself,” he said, adding “there should be a constitutional amendment to create an independent ethics agency.” He noted the Committee to Reform the State Constitution had recommended to voters that they not vote for Mr. O’Connor because he “didn’t respond” to their survey on the question.

Mr. O’Connor responded, “One of the things that bothers me right now is having too much power up in Albany.” He said the “attorney general running for office now has alluded to the possibility of politicizing the attorney general’s office. Having that power in the attorney general could be even an independent body could be misused; that’s why I think it deserves greater thought.”

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Peter Boody is news editor of The Sag Harbor Express. Previously he was the editor of the Southampton Press for many years and also edited several other papers, including the Shelter Island Reporter and the East Hampton Press, of which he was founding editor. He was a regular correspondent for the New York Times Long Island section and wrote the novel “Thomas Jefferson, Rachel & Me.”