For his 27 years in office, Democratic State Assemblyman Fred Thiele has enjoyed mostly smooth sailing come election season, riding on the popularity of his pro-environment record and his history of drafting state legislation that directly impacted the lives of the South Fork residents he represented.
But for this year’s election, his district has been dramatically redrawn, and it will now include all voters in Southold Town, and much of Laurel, who had been in the Second Assembly District. The Second Assembly District seat currently held by Jodi Giglio will now include most of Riverhead Town along with much of Brookhaven.
Republicans have taken advantage of this redistricting to put up Peter Ganley, a brash, 26-year-old Southold resident and former staffer in Congressman Lee Zeldin’s office, whose primary campaign tactic has been to accuse Mr. Thiele, 69, of checking out on his duties because he and his wife recently bought a retirement home in North Carolina.
The two candidates faced off in a contentious Oct. 17 Zoom debate organized by the League of Women Voters of The Hamptons, Shelter Island and the North Fork.
“There has never been a more difficult time to be a New Yorker,” said Mr. Ganley in introduction to his platform of focusing on “high taxes, rampant crime and corruption in Albany,” along with term limits.
“My opponent’s been in office longer than I’ve been alive,” he said. “Our problems are too big and too serious to re-elect somebody who has one foot out the door and is currently moving to North Carolina.”
“When you are the incumbent, this is all about your record. What have you done for the East End of Long Island,” said Mr. Thiele. “That is the strength of my candidacy.”
He touted the success of the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund, which he drafted in the 1990s, which has preserved more than 10,000 acres of land and been used to protect water quality here, along with working to fund the Peconic Estuary Program, bringing in record school aid and working with the Long Island Rail Road on a commuter train to the South Fork.
“You get results through experience,” he said. “You don’t trust important jobs like this to somebody who’s never been in community service.”
Mr. Thiele said his wife recently sold her house and they decided to build a vacation home in North Carolina.
“Some day, I’m going to retire and spend a few months a year in North Carolina,” said Mr. Thiele, a lifelong Sag Harbor resident. “I spent 30 winters in Albany. I don’t know if I’m going to heaven or hell, but when I go, I’m going from Sag Harbor.”
Debate Moderator Estelle Gellman asked the candidates what the state’s role should be in protecting a woman’s right to choose whether to have a baby.
Mr. Ganley had a few short words.
“I believe in parental notification for those under 18, and third trimester abortions should be limited to rape, incest and the life of the mother and the life of the child,” he said.
“The Supreme Court did us an incredible disservice this summer with the Dobbs decision,” said Mr. Thiele. “It undermined the concept of privacy, and that extends not just to reproductive rights, but to a whole host of other rights that are dependent on privacy.”
“Now, state legislatures are the last line of defense,” he said. “New York is a pro-choice state because the state legislature has been pro-choice. Are you going to trust this issue to someone who has a proven record of being pro-choice…, and not say they’re just going to tinker around the edges with a woman’s right to choose?”
On New York State’s attempt to strengthen its gun laws in response to the June Supreme Court decision striking down the state’s concealed weapon rules, Mr. Thiele said his record “shows strong support for gun safety across New York State, background checks and red flag laws. Not surprisingly, that law has been been challenged and will make its way through the court system,”
Mr. Ganley said he supports red flag laws and believes “the priority should always be getting guns out of the hands of violent criminals.”
He added that he supports making sure people who’ve been convicted of domestic violence can never own a firearm again.
On what the state should do to help East End towns deal with the consequences of rising seas, Mr. Ganley said that “climate change is real. It is a problem.” He said the East End is the most beautiful part of the state and he would work to get grant funding to protect it.
“You are right. We live in the most beautiful part of the state, and that’s not by accident,” said Mr. Thiele. “Myself and (former State Senator) Ken LaValle put together programs to make sure of that.”
Mr. Thiele urged voters to approve Proposition One on this November’s ballot, the $4.2 billion environmental bond act.
“That’s where the funding is going to come from to meet the goals set in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act,” passed by the state in 2019, said Mr. Thiele. He added that he believes industries that have polluted the environment should pay to clean up the pollution.
On health care, Mr. Thiele said he supports universal health coverage, but “I think that’s better instituted on a federal level. We can do Medicare for All or a public option. I support them. I think health care is a basic human right. New York State has expanded Medicaid as far as we can expand it.”
Mr. Ganley said he supports “a tier of health care for people who can’t afford it,” but does not support Medicare for All.
When asked their top three issues, Mr. Ganley said his was crime.
“I’m talking to people and they’re scared. We have a violent crime problem, and Fred Thiele voted for cashless bail,” he said.
“I do not support cashless bail,” countered Mr. Thiele. “It was included in the state budget. I never think we should be doing major policy initiatives as part of the budget. I voted for the budget, and I stated that I did not support cashless bail. If I’d voted against the budget, I would be voting against $700 million for towns and villages, the South Fork Commuter Connection, money for farmers and small businesses, clean water infrastructure, the Peconic Estuary, record amounts of school aid.”
Mr. Thiele added that, if he had voted against the budget, he was sure his opponent would be sending out campaign mailers saying he’d voted against these things.
“We need to give judges more discretion when it comes to the issue of bail,” he said.
Mr. Thiele added that his top issue, which wasn’t addressed during the debate, was getting voters to support the Community Housing Fund, a .5 percent real estate transfer tax on the November ballot that would be used for affordable housing in East Hampton, Southampton, Shelter Island and Southold.
“I have a track record. You can look at my record, specific proposals, and things I have moved forward for the East End on the environment, transportation, water quality,” said Mr. Thiele in his closing statement. “Compare that with my opponent, who has not one specific proposal, nothing but generalities, nothing but personal attacks. He believes if he repeats the lie enough people will believe it.”
“I have a track record and Mr. Ganley has a trash record. He just wants to talk trash,” he added. “On Election Day you can put out the trash, and I ask that you keep the steady leadership the East End has had working for them for the past 27 years.
“I’m not running against the Fred Thiele of 15 years ago,” said Mr. Ganley. “A lot of stuff he’s done on the environment is stuff I support and am looking to continue. I’m running against the Fred Thiele of the past couple terms, who voted for cashless bail and with the leadership on 98 percent of issues, is in the process of leaving the state, is checked out and doesn’t have another independent bone in his body.”