The first debate between U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin and his challenger Dr. Nancy Goroff laid out their thinking on weighty matters of national importance, from the coronavirus pandemic and education inequality to health insurance and immigration that laid bare stark differences between the candidates in their views of the world today.
But the virtual face-off Monday night hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island & The North Fork was also soured with testy exchanges over the inaccuracies in the television commercials and other campaign tactics that the two campaigns have directed at each other.
Mr. Zeldin, a Republican who is running for a fourth term in the House of Representatives, introduced himself to those tuned into the League of Women Voters virtual debate, as a former active duty paratrooper who served in Iraq and continues to serve in the Army Reserve, who has been called the 12th “most bipartisan” member of the House by a political think tank, who has secured key funding for infrastructure projects on Long Island and who mustered millions of pieces of PPE for Suffolk County during the spring coronavirus surge.
Ms. Goroff, a Democrat and the former chair of the chemistry department at Stony Brook University, said that her goal in looking to unseat Mr. Zeldin was to be a part of what she saw as needed course adjustment in federal government to one that seeks to address crucial issues to American lives like climate change, healthcare and gun safety and to return to an ideal that puts empirical facts and science behind decision making rather than emotion and political pandering.
“I got into this race because I want my kids to live in a world where the government is trying to make their lives better,” she said.
The split between the candidates diverged quickly when asked by debate moderator Cathy Peacock what they saw as the reason the United States, the wealthiest county in the world, has had the highest number of COVID-19 infections and the highest death toll of any country in the world.
Mr. Zeldin quickly turned his focus to the early days of the pandemic response, when Republicans and Democrats in the Congress worked quickly to pass large aid packages to help protect businesses and rally the medical response. That sort of cooperation was “the right attitude,” he said, and the model for what lawmakers need to find a way to do again to guide the country through the continuing onslaught.
He harked back to the role he played in working as a go-between for New York State and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone with federal officials, mustering shipments of ventilators and protective equipment to local hospitals and first responders in Suffolk — a role he has won praise for even from usual critics.
“The best way for us to continue to get through this is working together,” Mr. Zeldin said. “When the county executive’s office contacted me and said the county stockpile ran out of key items of PPE, late on that Saturday night I was going back and forth between Jared Kushner at the White House and Lisa Black at the county executive’s office and by 5 p.m. the next day at the White House, the president was announcing … he was sending us 200,000 n95 masks. He sent us almost 400,000 within 48 hours. That was how we were working together early and how we need to continue to work today.”
Ms. Goroff said that Mr. Zeldin, “tells a nice story” but that it didn’t answer the question actually posed, which was why the U.S. has suffered such a giant toll from a pandemic other developed countries kept in check. She squarely blamed “reckless and incompetent” actions by President Donald Trump and spotlighted Mr. Zeldin’s applause of the president’s leadership during the crisis.
“Congressman Zeldin called his response ‘phenomenal,’” she sighed. “By the time those masks came here, it was too late.”
She said that to overcome the pandemic the country needed a leader who led by example — spotlighting Mr. Trump’s continued refusal to wear or advocate for the wearing of face masks.
To the struggle ahead of digging the U.S. economy out of the financial hole of the pandemic, Ms. Goroff said that it is imperative that the federal government give the country another injection of aide, especially to local governments and schools to avoid broad layoffs. She faulted Republicans in the Senate for being unwilling to advance funding proposals from the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and the White House.
Mr. Zeldin said there are some bright spots in the economy already: the unemployment rate already being lower than economists had projected it would be much further into a recovery. He said that an additional injection of funding to the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses should be a top priority of Congress and spotlighted the White House offer of $1.8 trillion in new aid. But he also acknowledged that Republicans in the Senate have not been favor of it and said that once the country gets through the pandemic, the focus needs to return to balancing the budget.
On the future of healthcare, Ms Goroff said that she believes that Medicare-like coverage should be expanded so it is available to anyone who does not get health coverage through their job or cannot afford private health insurance. She said that anyone should have the option to “buy into” Medicare.
“We have to make sure every American has access to high quality, affordable healthcare — period. Unfortunately, the congressman has voted to repeal or to gut the Affordable Care Act 15 times “including voting against protecting coverage for pre-existing conditions. The people of this district deserve so much better. There are 71,000 people in this district who would have lost their healthcare if the congressman’s effort and the efforts of his party had been successful. The congressman has never offered a positive vision for what would replace it.”
Mr. Zeldin, who has indeed been a reliable vote against the Obamacare law, took exception to the inference that he was against protecting pre-existing conditions because of it. He noted that an alternative bill that he voted in favor of — though it ultimately failed to win enough support from other GOP congressmen to pass the House — had specifically protected pre-existing conditions. He said that he has co-sponsored legislation that would reduce the cost of prescription drugs, but said he does not approve of Democratic calls for fixing drug prices.
“I don’t believe the answer is price setting,” he said, preferring to see the government negotiating prices.
Mr. Zeldin sits on a House heroin and opioid task force, and said that he has advocated for additional funding to fight the opioid epidemic.
Mr. Zeldin used the topic of his stance on healthcare to spotlight a television commercial that has been aired recently accusing him of being against the allowance of abortions to protect the life of a mother, which he said the bill he supported also specifically allowed for. He called on Ms. Goroff to denounce the ad, which was produced by the abortion rights political action committee 314Action.
Ms. Goroff did not pledge to make such a demand and said that she does not control what 314Action does in its campaign. But she, in turn, pointed out that a commercial Mr. Zeldin’s own campaign has produced accuses her of supporting calls to “defund” police departments in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, a policy approach that she said she opposes vehemently.
“The police play a very important role and they need the resources and training to do their job well,” she said, adding “Let me say again, I am against rioting, I am against looting and I am against violence on the streets.”
Mr. Zeldin accused his opponent of refusing to condemn violent clashes with police at some Black Lives Matter protests and cited references to an interview Ms. Goroff gave in which she used the word “dangerous” to describe police officers in their interactions with people of color. Mr. Zeldin also accused Ms. Goroff being against increases to federal funding for countering gangs like MS-13.
“We should do more to support our law enforcement, not less,” Mr. Zeldin said, “and not these dangerous anti-police policies and rhetoric that set us back.”