A Rare Congressional Face-Off in the Midst of National Anguish

Perry Gershon and Lee Zeldin
Perry Gershon and Lee Zeldin

The Hampton Bays High School auditorium was packed to the gills, with an overflow crowd watching on television in the cafeteria, as the two candidates for Congress in our First Congressional District faced off in their only free and public East End debate Monday night.

Incumbent Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin is seeking his third term in office, while his challenger, Democrat Perry Gershon, has had a long career in real estate finance and was motivated to run because he knew President Donald Trump’s reputation from his work in New York City, and he wants to put a check on the president’s power in Washington.

The mood was mostly civilized at the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons-sponsored event, despite a campaign season that has been filled with rancor, both locally and across the country.

It helped that Hampton Bays School District Superintendent Lars Clemensen warned the crowd ahead of time that his students were in the house and the adults needed to set a good example for them. It also helped that LWV moderator Cathy Peacock set a strict rule that the audience not make any noise or applaud anything said throughout the debate, at the request of both of the candidates.

The audience didn’t always heed her rule, but their rousing standing ovation for both candidates at the end of the debate was a hopeful sign after a week filled with hate-fueled events nationwide.

Press News Group Executive Editor Joseph Shaw, a Pittsburgh native, asked whether we should take guns away from people who may commit mass shootings, as suggested by Pittsburgh’s mayor after Saturday’s shooting in a synagogue there that was the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

Mr. Zeldin said this is the only Congressional race in the country with two Jewish candidates, and said he agreed that “any criminal, terrorist, or people who are not going to be a law abiding citizen should not have a firearm.”

“We have to get at that hatred. We need to protect religious freedom in this country. It is a right. You should feel free and safe. There should be no fear,” he said.

Mr. Gershon said he’s “very much against the sale of assault weapons.”

“I’m deeply disturbed with what happened in Pittsburgh on Saturday, and I’m maybe as deeply disturbed by the pipe bombs sent out earlier this week,” he added. “It’s an outproduct of the poisoned rhetoric in this country, and the leader of this country is a major proponent of divisive rhetoric.”

Mr. Gershon harkened back to the summer 2017 white nationalist rally and counter-protests in Charlottesville, Va, in which the president said there were “very fine people on both sides.”

“That gives license to lunatics who might have antisemitic rage,” said Mr. Gershon. “We’ve got to tone it down. It starts with the president, and it goes to both of us.”

Mr. Zeldin countered that it is unfair to blame the president and not the person who pulled the trigger.

“This is an atmosphere that Donald Trump has created,” countered Mr. Gershon. “Encouraging violence at rallies creates an atmosphere where lunatics come out and do their thing. The president is not an antisemite, but he’s enabling antisemitism in America.”

Questioners Kathryn Menu, Janice Landis, Joseph Shaw and Carol Mellor at the debate.
Questioners Kathryn Menu, Janice Landis, Joseph Shaw and Carol Mellor at the debate.

Carol Mellor of the League of Women Voters asked the candidates to share their views on what can be done to fix the American health care system.

Mr. Gershon said “the ultimate goal must be universal health care. That means we need to make sure everyone has insurance and can use preventative health care going forward. That’s the critical foundation of any plan going forward.”

He said he supports the Medicare for All single-payer system recently passed by the New York State Assembly, which has not passed the State Senate, but admitted that’s not a priority on the national level, where it would be impossible to pass without bipartisan support.

Mr. Gershon said he wants to keep Washington from undoing the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, work to reduce prescription drug costs and allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies if he is elected to Congress.

“I don’t agree with Medicare for All. No one has figured out how to pay for it,” said Mr. Zeldin. “It’s not in the best interest of my constituents.”

Mr. Zeldin added that he supports tort reform to reduce the number of medical malpractice lawsuits. He added that he supported the 2016 21st Century Cures Act, which authorized $6.3 billion in funding for National Institute of Health research to cure diseases. Mr. Zeldin added that New York law has protected people with pre-existing conditions since the 1990s.

“The ACA stabilized the New York markets in 2014,” said Mr. Gershon, adding that the mandate for people to get health care coverage, undone by the Trump administration, was a key to keeping care affordable for people with pre-existing conditions.

Twenty states and the Trump administration are now in court working to undo the pre-existing condition requirement on the basis that, without the mandate for coverage, the pre-existing condition coverage should also be stopped.

Mr. Gershon added that the ACA said states could allow insurers to charge extra for people with pre-existing conditions, which “gave states the ability to really let the preexisting coverage go away.”

Mr. Zeldin shared the story of Health Republic, which offered plans sold on the New York health care exchange, which went belly up in 2015, leaving patients in the lurch. He posited a hypothetical situation in which a cancer patient at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital was in the midst of treatment when her health insurance was cancelled.

“I don’t think it stabilized coverage,” he said of the ACA, adding that Health Republic going under “was an Obamacare impact. Premiums and deductibles were going up.”

Sag Harbor Express Editor Kathryn Menu asked the candidates their positions on a recent proposal for coastal retreat in Montauk laid out by consultants for East Hampton Town.

“How should we be preparing to deal with climate change?” she asked the candidates.

“Some people in Congress want people to move away from the entire eastern seaboard,” said Mr. Zeldin, adding that he would never ask his constituents to move. “This is our district. This is our home.”

Mr. Zeldin pointed out that the long-awaited Fire Island to Montauk Point Army Corps of Engineers project, half a century in the making, is due to get underway soon, bringing “a whole lot more sand to protect the coastline,” along with raising houses in flood zones and building a higher and wider dune to protect the Atlantic shore.

He added that electric plants on Long Island are inefficient and “we need a seat at the table for fishermen.”

Mr. Zeldin than repeated his oft-repeated refrain that Mr. Gershon invests in offshore oil drilling. Mr. Gershon countered by saying that he has an investment in a piece of infrastructure in Louisiana that is used to bring oil from tankers ashore, not to drill for oil offshore.

“You’re not pursuing policies that would be fighting climate change,” Mr. Gershon told Mr. Zeldin. “Maybe you’re giving it lip service here, but it has not been your record.”

He added that he believes it is imperative that the United States gets back into the Paris Climate Accords.

Ms. Mellor, of The League, said the American Lung Association has rated Suffolk County’s air quality as the worst in New York State, asked the candidates if they supported more EPA funding for clean air, and reinstatements of clean air standards.

Mr. Gershon said he believes clean air should not be a controversial issue, and pointed out that former President Richard Nixon, a Republican, established the EPA.

“We stopped doing what we should be doing in the past two years,” he said.

Mr. Zeldin pointed out that he has worked to secure funding for Sea Grant, the National Estuary Program and the Long Island Sound Study.

“All these are very good and important programs for the First Congressional District,” he said.

“I didn’t hear the word ‘air’ in anything you said,” countered Mr. Gershon, who then asked Mr. Zeldin why his measure to protect Plum Island is going nowhere in the U.S. Senate.

“I don’t see Donald Trump pushing to preserve Plum Island,” he said. “Last I heard, he was talking about maybe developing a golf course there.”

“It was a Democratic Congress that passed a bill to sell Plum Island to the highest bidder,” countered Mr. Zeldin.

Mr. Shaw, of the Press News Group, asked the candidates their position on gender being defined as “biological sex at birth,” as is the case in a North Carolina statute governing who can use public bathrooms.

Mr. Zeldin said “we need to change the Obama designation of ‘internal sense of gender.’”

“A male can go into a female locker room because their internal sense of gender told them they were a female,” said Mr. Zeldin, then inserted a frequent dig at Mr. Gershon’s New York City address (his opponent has a home in East Hampton as well as New York City). “You can register to vote where your heart is, but what’s the burden of proof of where your heart is?”

Mr. Zeldin added that his position on the use of restrooms is an attempt to protect people who aren’t part of a statutorily protected class.

“The Trump administration tried to stop transgender soldiers from serving in the military. The Secretary of Defense stopped him,” said Mr. Gershon. “Why does he want to do this? It’s wrong.”

“I am absolutely for the Equality Act (a bill in the House of Representatives providing protection to people based on their gender identity and sexual orientation) and protecting all people in this country,” said Mr. Gershon. “The president is proposing this agenda, perhaps to rile up his base and rile up the rhetoric and make this about bathrooms, but that’s not what this is really about.”

Janice Landis of the Hampton Bays Civic Association asked the candidates if they believe Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are entitlements and whether they support these programs.

“These are not entitlements. They are rights we have. We pay into these systems and we expect to get something for it,” said Mr. Gershon. “We shouldn’t be having a discussion about cutting back Social Security. Get rid of the cap on Social Security taxes. Let people who can afford it pay more into the system. There’s no reason the wealthiest people can’t pay more.”

In 2018, Social Security only taxed earnings up to $128,400 per year, above which there is no Social Security payroll tax.

Mr. Zeldin said he believes in protecting the programs, but said he would like to put a stop to doctors milking the medical insurance.

“Our country needs to have a conversation with each other to ensure we’re totally covering seniors close to retirement, and ensuring Social Security is going to be there for my daughters and their generation,” he said.

“I wish you’d tell that to (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell,” said Mr. Gershon.

Ms. Mellor asked the candidates what types of gun sale legislation they would support.

“I don’t want to take guns away from honest, hardworking citizens. We have a right to protect ourselves and a right to hunt,” said Mr. Gershon. “But we shouldn’t be supplying guns to people who want to shoot up a school.”

Mr. Gershon said he would like to close loopholes in background checks, and do more to penalize people who sell guns to people who don’t pass background checks. He also said he would support reviving the national assault weapon ban that expired in 2004.

“We can do a lot to lower damage if there are fewer AR-15s around,” he said.

He added that he’s against the concealed carry reciprocity bill that passed the House of Representatives with Mr. Zeldin’s support.

“It will give people from out of New York exemptions from the New York Safe Act,” said Mr. Gershon. “That’s a policy advocated by the gun lobby, people whose main interest is selling more guns.”

Mr. Zeldin touted his bill, the Protect America Act, introduced in 2015, which would remove some names on the government’s no fly and terrorist watch lists, and then allow the Justice Department to “deny firearms and explosives to individuals who are engaged in terrorist activities.” That bill never made it out of committee. He added that about 80,000 intended illegal purchases of firearms have been thwarted, but the Justice Department has only prosecuted 40 of those cases.

Mr. Zeldin added that he believes the public dialogue, in which “as soon as there is a shooting, you automatically blame your member of Congress as if they pulled the trigger is not helping.”

“Why, after every school shooting, nothing gets done in Congress?” asked Mr. Gershon. “After Columbine, nothing happened. After Sandy Hook, nothing happened. New York passed the Safe Act but nothing happened nationally. And after Parkland, we haven’t passed any laws. After the Las Vegas shooting, we haven’t even banned bump stocks. We’ve given lip service to it, but we don’t get anything done. We need to commit ourselves to making this country better. We need to reduce the number of guns in circulation…. We need to make it harder for these people to get guns and we need to limit the types of guns that are available to them.”

Mr. Zeldin, full of emotion, said that Mr. Gershon, on Facebook on Monday morning, said ‘you might think I’m politicizing this tragedy. That’s exactly what I’m doing.”

I give you credit. You didn’t just politicize it. You actually said ‘I am politicizing this tragedy,’” said Mr. Zeldin, his voice crescendoing. “You haven’t even buried the people yet in Pittsburgh and you are….”

Mr. Zeldin was drowned out by a chorus of boos from the audience.

“The candidates didn’t want any of these interactions. Please stop,” said Ms. Peacock, the moderator.

“It is incredibly important that when these tragedies occur, we are talking to each other, not past each other…. Showing up at my office in Patchogue with a sign with my daughters names on it, talking about shooting them, does not help get results,” said Mr. Zeldin.

“You get an A in performance art,” Mr. Gershon told his opponent. “If we ever are going to move forward, we need to talk about it when people are paying attention. Guns in this country are a national tragedy and we need to do something about it. If we don’t do it now, when are we gonna do it? When is the time right. When people dodge and and say don’t politicize the issue, they never want to deal with our gun safety issues…. There is no better time than the present. Not just guns, which isn’t really what I wrote about. I wrote about the hate rhetoric in America that’s overcome us, that’s led to the events that happened in the last week. We need to do something about that, and that’s really what I want to politicize.”

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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