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 was held Tuesday, Feb. 13, 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.
Brandon Henry and Perry Gershon
Brandon Henry and Perry Gershon have vastly different backgrounds.
Mr. Henry, a bartender from Center Moriches who works in a plumbing contractor’s office and has a degree in political science from Southampton College, is building a populist campaign based on his lifetime of experience with working people in the First Congressional District.
“I’ve become more aware of how we are not being represented,” he said of the fishermen, tradespeople and domestic workers he’s known his whole life. “I have a five year old, and I realized I want my son to be proud of the country he lives in.”
Mr. Gershon, of East Hampton, has worked in commercial real estate for 25 years, and has raised a financial arsenal for this election. He first became involved in politics while working on Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign the year he came of age to vote, and decided to become more politically active again after walking through an exhibit on the rise of fascism at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with his son, who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“We as Americans have to fight back,” he said, adding that he found unsettling similarities between the erosion of rights in Germany and America’s current political situation. “I made it my personal mission to do something.”
Fracking, Nuclear & Alternative Energy
Ms. Szoka began the forum with pointed questions for Mr. Gershon on hydraulic fracking for oil and gas, and on nuclear power.
Mr. Gershon had invested in apartment housing for fracking workers in North Dakota.
Mr. Gershon said he believes America should not be investing in fossil fuels, but he believes fracking can be accomplished safely in some areas of the country. He said people in North Dakota are in favor of fracking.
“I think it should be limited to communities that have some understanding of the risk,” he said. “I’m not a big proponent of fracking. Put it in a state that wants the commerce.”
Mr. Henry said he thinks we should be focusing on renewable energy, and he believes President Trump’s recent tariff on solar panels from China is the opposite direction from where we should be going.
Mr. Henry said he doesn’t support nuclear power, and said it is already nearly impossible to evacuate Long Island, and there are massive traffic jams here if there’s just a car accident on the roads.
Mr. Gershon said nuclear power is “probably going to be something, on a limited basis, in the future in the renewable world.”
Some scientists believe nuclear power may be a necessary stopgap to stave off potential catastrophic climate change, because we are not reducing our use of carbon-based fuels quickly enough.
“Solar and wind are available as a technology when you have sun and wind,” said Mr. Gershon. “Battery technology can store power, but the problem comes when you have too much demand and don’t have enough sun or wind. That’s where nuclear can come in as a non-fossil fuel… Nuclear power is much, much safer now. There have been major advances.”
Ms. Szoka asked the candidates if we should set a timeline to convert the country to 100 percent renewable energy, as the towns of Southampton and East Hampton have already done.
Mr. Gershon said he believes it would be difficult to get such a goal to pass the U.S. Senate, “even if the right president were in place.”
He added that he would like to see public policy steered toward renewables.
“I want to do everything we can to get there,” he said. “Do I believe in a carbon tax? Yes, absolutely. But I don’t know if it could pass.”
Mr. Gershon said he’d like to see more federal money funneled to renewable energy research at places like Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University.
Mr. Gershon said a lot of great ideas come out of Stony Brook’s Business Incubator, but once the technology is developed, the products end up being manufactured elsewhere.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to have heavy duty manufacturing here again, but it would be good to have initial production done here,” he said.
Mr. Henry said he would like the federal government to commit to powering government buildings with renewable energy by “2030 or earlier.”
“We need to lead through example,” he said. “In the long game, if we start doing it bit-by-bit, it will be easier for the process to take place.”
Bridges & Tunnels
Ms. Szoka asked the candidates what infrastructure projects they’d like to see the federal goverment invest in here.
Mr. Henry said train bridges and sewer districts are necessary.
“Our entire area was built not expecting to be this big. Sewer districts allow growth to happen,” he said, adding that the Suffolk County Health Department won’t let new bars or restaurants into downtown Westhampton Beach because of their impact on groundwater.
“Sixty percent of buildings in town don’t have businesses in them,” he said.
He added that, when double-decker trains were put in service on the East End, several train stations were taken out of service, including at Quogue and Southampton College, because the Long Island Rail Road didn’t want to raise the platforms.
“I would love to have high speed trains here,” he said, but added that’s unlikely to happen due to the condition of the tracks.
Mr. Gershon said he believes Mr. Trump’s “$1.5 trillion” infrastructure plan is woefully underfunded, depending on state and local governments and private money for the majority of the funding.
“Trump’s plan is really a $200 billion plan,” he said. “We need to invest $2 trillion in infrastructure and make it a real national priority. We should be investing in rail and transportation here to improve business efficiency. A tunnel from Westchester or New Jersey to Long Island would take cars and trucks off the highway and reduce the cost of bringing goods to Long Island.”
Ms. Szoka asked the candidates if increased mechanization and globalization of industry would make it impossible for many people to find work in the future.
Mr. Henry said he believes in green technology, and he supports a living wage for workers, particularly at corporate retail jobs, where managers often play games with workers’ schedules to keep them from working full time and getting benefits, leaving workers with no choice but to rely on government services, like WIC, Medicaid and food stamps, to meet their basic needs.
“We have corporate welfare for businesses that can easily afford to pay these people,” he said.
Mr. Gershon said jobs in CD1 had developed around the defense industry, and many services left town when Grumman stopped building airplanes here.
“We really never replaced them,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ll be able to attract one employer here to replace them. Grumman left because it’s expensive to do business in Suffolk County. We need to reduce transportation costs, and start up idea-based businesses. Automation has reduced the need for workers. We’re an idea-based society…. We can do early stage development on Long Island because we have Stony Brook (University).”
Mr. Gershon said income inequality in America was getting smaller throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but the fortunes of working people and the rich started to diverge under former President Ronald Reagan’s tax plan, and worsened further with Reagan’s support of breaking up the air traffic controller strike in 1981, which began a campaign to break up unions across the country.
“We’ve been making generation after generation of indentured servant,” said Mr. Henry. “We have generations of people living in debt their whole life. I still owe money on my undergrad in political science, but I can now tell my mom I’m using my degree.”
Mr. Henry said he believes student loan interest rates should be reduced, and there should be paths to total forgiveness of student loans.
Mr. Gershon said he likes the idea of having student loans come directly from government, and having borrowers pay back the loan as a percentage of their income after they graduate.
Ms. Szoka asked Mr. Gershon, who is Jewish, under what situation he believes the United States should cut its $3.7 billion in military aid to Israel.
“We’ve been partners since the state of Israel was created,” he said. “America has a special relationship with Israel because of that.”
But, he said, since the Six-Day war in 1967, Israel has taken territory and exerted military might over its neighbors.
Mr. Gershon said he believes in a two-state solution, but the current, very conservative Israeli government is not making that easy. He added that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are not helping the situation.
“We need to be pushing the two state solution,” he said. “The Obama administration was going in that direction and we have to go back there.”
“There is horror going on around the world. We should be using funds in humanitarian efforts on all sides,” said Mr. Henry. “We should show the world who we are. We stand there as torchbearers of liberty, but as we go around the world we’re not practicing what we preach. I don’t think we should be giving aid or help to any ruling party that is oppressing people. Right now we do blanket funding around world. That needs to be totally revamped.”
Ms. Szoka asked the candidates what they thought of the president’s idea of building an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.
“Nuclear weapons are an end, the end,” said Mr. Henry. “we should not be looking at ways to endgame. We should be looking at ways to continue the game…. This is the existence of our human race. Nobody wants to push that button…. Well, maybe one guy does.”
Mr. Gershon said “it’s mindboggling to me that we’re having this conversation at all.”
He pointed out that, after Bill Clinton’s administration, the federal government had a ‘peace dividend’ because we’d reduced military spending during a time when we weren’t embroiled in conflicts overseas.
“We’re spending a lot of money on undeclared foreign wars now,” said Mr. Gershon. “That has to stop. Somehow we went from undeclared wars to revamping our nuclear arsenal… The best thing to do is speak up now and in Congress, and in the campaign against Lee Zeldin. Talking about the concept of a nuclear war as fightable is going to destroy our planet. We have to stop it as soon as possible.”
Ms. Szoka asked the candidates what they planned to do to win the primary, and if they will be involved after the primary is over if they aren’t the winner.
“I’m from here. I have thousands of interpersonal relationships with people,” said Mr. Henry. “People are fed up with politicians. We have enough rich guys repping rich guys. I’m in your tax bracket. I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to fight for you.”
“We’re the biggest curve ball you can throw at him,” Mr. Henry said of his campaign versus Lee Zeldin. “I have no political background and you can’t say I take money…. You can see my bank account… Me and him are the same age and we’re from two towns apart. I stand for people. There’s gotta be equality for everyone.”
Mr. Gershon said he believes the campaign is going to be fought on the issues, but “I do have the resources to get the message out about why Lee Zeldin is wrong for the district.”
“He’s too right wing for this district. This is not the same Lee Zeldin who ran in 2014 and 2016,” he said. “He’s associated with Mercer and Bannon. He’s (House Intelligence Committee Chairman) Devin Nunes’ biggest fan. We need to paint Zeldin for what he is, and he seems to want to help us. He’s to the right of (Representative) Peter King and law enforcement on concealed carry. (Former Congressman) Tim Bishop won six terms because he got the progressives out, got Southampton out. He also got moderates and independents. My background in business will bring moderate voters out.”