With LaValle Retirement, Democrats See An Opening

Candidates for the Democratic nomination for the 1st District State Senate seat took part in a Zoom debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

For decades, New York State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle maintained an iron-tight grip on his district, winning 22 terms — usually by a two-to-one margin. But when Mr. LaValle announced his retirement earlier this year, his 1st District seat attracted five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in the June 23 primary.

In a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters on Monday, the five hopefuls —Laura Ahearn, Valerie Cartright, Nora Higgins, Skylar Johnson, and Tommy John Schiavoni — sought to differentiate themselves and win the right to face off against Republican Anthony Palumbo, who currently represents the North Fork in the State Assembly, in the November election.

The candidates agreed on many issues, from the need for more equitable funding of education and more affordable housing options to allow young people to settle on Long Island. Likewise, they agreed that the state should make it easier to vote, from expanding the use of mail-in ballots to automatically registering citizens when they come of age. Similar positions were also staked out in the need to combat climate change and make the transition to renewable sources of energy.

But they did offer contrasting positions in some areas, notably health care.

Mr. Schiavoni of North Haven, who is a retired teacher and current Southampton Town councilman, said the time was not right to move forward with the New York Health Act, which has been discussed for several years and has as its ambitious goal universal health care for all New Yorkers.

Pointing to the state’s deficit of more than $13 billion and growing, Mr. Schiavoni said, “For this year, the New York Health Act is not ready. I believe we are not there.”

He said New York currently pays out more than $26 billion to other states to, among other things, subsidize their insurance programs, and said if universal health care is going to work in the United States, “we are going to need to do it on the national level.”

Ms. Ahearn is a lawyer, social worker, and executive director of the Crime Victims Center, a nonprofit that seeks to prevent the sexual abuse of children and to provide support services for other victims of violent crime.

She agreed with Mr. Schiavoni on the New York Health Act that universal health care should be a national priority. “Health care is a human right,” she said. “All of us should have access to it regardless of immigration status.” But she said if the state pressed ahead with its own plan, it would attract newcomers from bordering states who would tax the system.

Mr. Johnson, a 19-year-old student at Suffolk County Community College, strongly disagreed. Passing the New York Health Act would be a top priority if he were elected. “The bill is affordable, it is sustainable, and it is good for New York,” he said “We took some steps with the Affordable Care Act, but it’s not enough.”

He was joined in that position by Ms. Cartright, a Brookhaven councilwoman and civil rights attorney, and Ms. Higgins, a nurse and coordinator with the Public Employees Federation union.

“When our federal government fails us, we must step in,” said Ms. Cartright. “People should not have to make medical decisions based on the cost.”

“I definitely want to see that everyone is completely covered. I don’t want to see anybody not seek medical care based on what is in their wallet,” said Ms. Higgins. “Somewhere in the past we went wrong, and greed took over and we did not look to take care of our fellow man.”

The candidates also differed when they discussed the Black Lives Matter movement and the

“Say Their Name” agenda of police reforms proposed last week by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“This package does not go far enough,” said Mr. Johnson, who said the state has to take further steps to make police accountable and take apart “the prison industrial complex” and a justice system that routinely sentences African-Americans to sentences that are three times as long than those meted out to whites.

Ms. Cartright agreed. “It goes beyond everyone is agonizing over this senseless murder,” she said of the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis last month. “There are centuries of institutional racism we must work tirelessly to change. I support every one of the pieces of legislation that is before the Senate and Assembly.”

“No justice, no peace,” said Ms. Higgins. “We’ve heard it, now we have to implement it.”
“What we saw in Minneapolis was nothing less than a public lynching,” said Mr. Schiavoni. Nonetheless, Mr. Schiavoni said it was important to not paint all police officers with the same broad brush.

“We need the police, we need people to protect and serve,” he said. “When led well, when they have the proper training, they do well.”

Ms. Ahearn called the killing of Mr. Floyd “absolutely sickening” and said it was another example of the structural racism in American society. Like Mr. Schiavoni, though, she said it was important to not blame all police, adding that “99.9 percent of them are doing a great job.”