As 2018 begins, the midterm election year cycle kicks off in full swing in Congressional District 1, which includes Brookhaven, most of Smithtown and the entirety of the five East End townships.
Six Democrats are vying to take on incumbent Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin in a June 26 primary.
Progressive East End Reformers, known as PEER, has been holding forums with two of these candidates at a time, on alternating Tuesdays beginning Jan. 9 in the Bridgehampton National Bank Headquarters Community Room.
Candidates Vivian Viloria Fisher and David Pechefsky spoke on Jan. 9. Ms. Viloria Fisher, a former Suffolk County Legislator, represented the 5th District for 13 years, and Mr. Pechefsky is a long-time staffer for the New York City Council.
The second forum on Tuesday, Jan. 23, was a discussion with Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning, from the 3rd District, and Elaine DiMasi, a longtime Brookhaven Lab physicist.
The third and final forum will be held Tuesday, Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m., with Brendon Henry from Center Moriches and Perry Gershon, who has worked in the commercial real estate finance industry for 25 years.
PEER and its parent organization, the New York Progressive Action Network (NYPAN), advocate for “social, racial, environmental, and economic justice for all.” Included in their mission is a support for a $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All, a single-payer health care system.
At the forums, candidates were asked questions by moderator Kathryn Szoka, as well as the public, on their qualifications, positions on issues, and how they plan to achieve their goals should any of them be elected to the House of Representatives in November.
Our coverage of the Jan. 9 forum is online here. Our coverage of the Jan. 23 forum is below.
Kate Browning and Elaine DiMasi
Kate Browning of Shirley is in her 12th year as a Suffolk County Legislator, and she will be term-limited out of the legislature after completing this year. A native of Belfast, Ireland, Ms. Browning said she’d been asked by many people to join the race.
“A lot of people said ‘you should run against Lee Zeldin — Democrats, Republicans, even Trump voters,” she said in her opening remarks. “We have an out of touch Congressman — he’s out of touch on the issues, supported Trumpcare, and many other things.”
Elaine DiMasi turned in her badge at Brookhaven National Laboratory in July of 2017 as she decided to run for Congress.
“I came to the conclusion that a better problem solving ethic and problem solving ability was needed in Congress,” she said. “I’m running ’cause I know what’s possible and I want to look at Long Island 50 years from now and say we did what’s right. I want to look back and see burgeoning clean energy jobs and see that we revitalized the economy and protected the environment. We can do all these things.”
Elaine DiMasi said she completely supports Medicare for All.
“People don’t want a choice of health care companies, they want a choice of a doctor,” she said. “Evidence-based policy is what I’m all about. When people have access to health care, it saves their lives. It will address the opioid crisis and wealth inequality.”
Ms. DiMasi said reducing the power of health care lobbyists in Washington is a very important step toward national acceptance of Medicare for All.
Kate Browning said she believes “every option should still be on the table” for health care reform. She told the crowd that, if Medicare for All were to pass Congress now, President Donald Trump would likely veto it.
“The Affordable Care Act was something that was a good beginning and it got railroaded,” she said. “It got taken away with no real plan.”
Ms. Browning pointed out that, in Ireland, where there is a national health care system, there was recently a government shutdown that caused doctors to postpone surgery her mother was scheduled to have.
When it comes to access to contraceptives and abortions, Ms. Browning said that she is pro-choice, and “contraception shouldn’t be based on someone’s ability to pay.”
“No one should be allowed to influence what my personal decision is,” she said. “I’m a Catholic. Tell me one Catholic who has never used contraception.”
Ms. DiMasi said she believes the “controversy doesn’t arise from ordinary people who disagree with one another,” but from “very well-organized, well-funded organizations” whose goal is to ensure women don’t have certain rights. She added that, in parts of the midwest, Catholic organizations have a monopoly on health care.
“We have to understand the battle being waged and be able to proactively fight,” she said. “There has to be a non-parochial hospital everywhere.”
Ms. Szoka asked the candidates if they would support a clean DACA bill with no strings attached, and asked how the candidates would balance immigrants’ human rights with fears about immigration. The forum took place just days after Democrats agreed to continue funding the U.S. Government without a decision on what to do about the young people known as Dreamers whose parents took them to the United States illegally who were granted the right to work and go to school here.
“The wall, period, is a problem,” said Ms. Browning of Trump’s proposed wall between the U.S. and Mexico. “People are going to die because we don’t have a wall? That’s ridiculous. Drugs come in on planes and ships. How much money is this wall going to cost us? How much infrastructure do we need? It disturbs me that they want to tie a wall to DACA.”
Ms. DiMasi said she likely would have voted to continue funding the government along with other Democrats in mid-January, and she doesn’t know if there will be a vote on a clean DACA bill in February.
“I don’t know whether Trump would sign that,” she said. “We need to stop the march of institutional racism, laws that enforce racism, using words like illegal, alien and talking about a wall. All institutional marks of racism have to stop. We pretend there’s a cost to having Dreamers here? It’s a benefit. We want all people to be documented. That’s how our social safety net, our tax and benefit system, works. That’s where our sights should be set.”
Ms. Szoka asked the candidates if they supported free tuition for public colleges, as long as students met the school’s standards for academic achievement.
Ms. DiMasi said she supported free tuition as long as vocational schools are included.
“Which are the best systems in which people will succeed and graduate?” she asked. “Is it better to give them the first year and give the rest contingent on performance? We need to know the answer and make sure it affects all kinds of schools.”
“When I was in high school, I was jealous of the kids that got to go to auto tech,” she said. “I want high schoolers to feel like there are myriad possibilities and they don’t have to walk away from their friends to do that.”
Ms. Browning said that kids from minority communities often have a tough time their first year at college, and she would like to see the free tuition program allow students the opportunity for a second year even if they didn’t meet the school’s standards their first year.
But, she said, “we do have to have a GPA attached to that to make sure they have an incentive to keep going.”
Ms. Browning touted Suffolk County Community College, and pointed out that her son went to a BOCES program for aviation.
“He’s a helicopter mechanic, and he’s very successful,” she said.
An audience member asked about racial profiling by the Suffolk County Police Department, which was placed under a consent decree by the Obama administration in 2013 requiring the department to implement policies to end discrimination against Latinos.
“Steve Levy didn’t help things,” said Ms. Browning, referring to the former County Executive under whose administration the abuses took place. “The Department of Justice is very happy with how things are moving, and they expect to be released shortly” from the consent decree.
“I didn’t say there’s no racial profiling. It’s in all walks of life,” she said. “We had a police officer arrested — he was targeting immigrants and stole from them.”
Ms. DiMasi said she has faith in new Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini and Sheriff Errol Toulon.
The conversation got testy when Ms. Browning backed up the county’s acceptance of Immigration & Customs Enforcements’ administrative warrants to hold undocumented immigrants in custody. Many immigrant advocates argue that, if the person in custody was dangerous, it would be easy for ICE to instead get a warrant signed by a judge.
Ms. Browning said former Sheriff Vincent DeMarco had brought a list of people being held on such warrants and they were “rapists, sexual assault and serious felonies. I think that’s something we all have to think about.”
“Criminals don’t belong on our streets, period,” she said.
“I grew up in Belfast, and I know what it’s like when the police come and take your father. It’s wrong,” she said. “As a child you don’t forget those days.”
“One person’s warrant without cause is another person’s racial profiling,” said Ms. DiMasi. “With a deficit of trust, we’re not going to be able to solve this problem.”
Michael Daly, a South Fork affordable housing advocate and columnist for The Beacon, said many people think of the East End as filled with wealthy people, but our local transportation has been gutted by Suffolk County, and affordable housing is difficult to come by. He asked what impact members of Congress can have on housing here.
Ms. DiMasi said she believes the federal infrastructure package should encourage light rail and other public transit on Long Island.
“It will increase the value of being there, because there won’t be as many cars on the road,” she said. “Look at what the millennials are going to vote for. There’s a balance between wages and the cost of property. They’re going to have to live with that.”
Ms. Browning, who used to be a school bus driver who drove kids from Springs to BOCES, said she knows there are plenty of regular people here on the East End.
“We need to make sure NIMBYism stops,” she said. “When you say low income or affordable housing, people automatically assume it’s ‘not our type of people.'”
The candidates had differing strategies on how they would approach the general election if they became the Democratic candidate.
Ms. Browning said she serves a mostly Republican district, and she’s been able to win Republican support during her 12 years in the County Legislature.
“When I knocked on doors, people said ‘we want you to run and we will support you,'” she said. “we see a great energy this year. We need to keep up that momentum, because, if we don’t, we lose again.”
Ms. Browning said her district includes many minority communities, and she will work on voter turnout in those communities if she becomes the candidate.
“The primary a couple years ago got pretty horrendous, and it caused a major divide,” she added. “I’m hoping this time that doesn’t happen.”
“As a scientist, there is a symbolism for the anti-truth, anti-fact climate that this administration is putting on our heads,” said Ms. DiMasi, who said her commitment to science has resonated for voters she’s spoken with.
“People who are independently minded — Democrats need them back into the tent,” she added. “Those people can vote for a scientist who’s a politician now.”
Ms. DiMasi said she’s hiring community coordinators to work with immigrants, women and African Americans, and she hopes to also get the message across that she believes in smart and renewable energy technology, and hopes to bring together universities, business incubators and scientists to support green tech here.
“The best way to unify people is not to tell them you’re unifying them,” she said. “Congress should be a team of 435 people. They should not all have the same skills…. We won’t solve problems without a broader base of perspectives.”