The race for the First Congressional District seat being vacated by Lee Zeldin as he runs for governor will be the one to watch on the East End this November, and it carries with it a potentially significant impact on which party will control the U.S. House of Representatives come the new year.
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, a Democrat and former prosecutor from Sag Harbor, is running against Republican Nick LaLota of Amityville, a Navy veteran and former Amityville Village Trustee, who currently serves as the chief of staff to the Suffolk County Legislature.
Ms. Fleming, like many Democrats this election cycle, has made reproductive rights and helping working families a hallmark of her campaign, while Mr. LaLota has touted his family’s law enforcement background and worked to paint Ms. Fleming as a “tax-and-spend Democrat.”
Debates between the two candidates in this race have been few and far between. They answered questions from reporters and the public in a Nov. 20 forum on Newsday TV and are slated to face off again in a Zoom debate organized by the Express News Group on Oct. 27.
At the Newsday debate, many of the questions were about pocketbook issues like helping regular people live on Long Island, combatting inflation, ending the cap on state and local tax deductions imposed in former President Donald Trump’s tax bill, and President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan.
Moderator Joye Brown, Newsday’s Associate Editor, also asked the candidates to weigh in on Congress’s role in codifying issues ranging from same sex marriage to reproductive rights to gun control.
When asked if they were pro-choice or pro-life, Mr. LaLota said he’d looked at Ms. Fleming’s note cards, and seen one that said “you’re winning if you talk about abortion. You’re losing if you talk about the economy.”
“The Dobbs decisions (overturning Roe vs. Wade) is now a state issue,” he added. “My opponent is spending a million dollars making it a federal issue. I do not support abortion in the third trimester except for instances of rape, incest or the life of the mother, and I insist parents get notified before a minor child contemplates an abortion.”
“My opponent keeps changing his position on abortion,” said Ms. Fleming. “His political position basically abandons women and gives up on 50 years of fundamental freedoms that women have counted on. Any one-size-fits-all regulation has no basis in medical care.”
On same-sex marriage, Ms. Fleming said that “every person has a right to marry who they love,” and added that in his opinion in the Dobbs decision, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said “they’re coming right after same sex marriage, privacy in the home and contraception” next.
Ms. Fleming, who worked on special victims cases as a prosecutor, added that these cases often go to a grand jury and take a significant amount of time, during which doctors in some states are now unsure whether they are breaking the law if they perform an abortion before the case is decided.
“I absolutely would vote to codify same sex marriage,” said Mr. LaLota. “I have a gay relative and friends. They should be entitled to the American Dream.”
On whether there need to be more background checks before people can purchase firearms, Mr. LaLota said his wife is a public school teacher, and the fear of a school shooting is a real one for his family.
“We need to make school districts themselves harder for the bad guys to get,” he said. “I learned in the military that bad guys are cowards. They want a soft target. If the school board wants it, the government should invest resources.”
Ms. Fleming said that “special interests have controlled this debate for too long. Weapons don’t belong on our streets. Ammunition does not belong on the streets. Yes, we need mental health investment and red flag laws to keep guns out of the hands of those who are dangerous.”
She added that she had been endorsed by several police unions, including the Amityville PBA, “where LaLota balanced the budget on their backs,” she said.
On whether they would continue to support Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion of their country, Mr. LaLota said he wished politicians would invest in the border of the United States, and added that, while this country “has a duty to protect innocent people here and internationally, what doesn’t cost much is stronger diplomacy out of the White House. It can’t be America alone that does this.”
“I’m curious to hear Mr. LaLota say there should be an international coalition working against Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, because there is. It’s NATO,” said Ms. Fleming. “It’s 30 countries, that were unified in a unique way by the President of the United States prior to the invasion. It’s absolutely an unprovoked attack on a neighboring democracy, and it has to be condemned.”
On helping working families, Ms. Fleming said we’re facing a “housing crisis unlike any other,” and said she’s proud of her record working to step up county social services during the pandemic and its aftermath. She said she would work to repeal the cap on state and local tax deductions, and she thought President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness executive order wasn’t targeted enough but “there’s an entire generation entering the workforce with crushing academic debt.”
Mr. LaLota said he believes the president “is trying to bribe voters in an election year. It’s terribly wrong and terribly unamerican.” He added that two-thirds of Long Islanders are living paycheck to paycheck, and that under Biden’s watch, interest rates have doubled and gas prices have risen. He asked debate watchers to look at a website his campaign has made called “Billion Dollar Bridget” that he said contained a record of spending that Ms. Fleming had been a part of approving during her time on the county legislator.
He added that he believes no one should overvalue the endorsement of a police union, which he said the union would automatically do if you vote for their contract. He added that he believed Ms. Fleming had “said some sick things” by calling the police killing of Kentucky EMT Breonna Taylor a murder.
“That’s a dangerous thing to say,” he said. “I want people to stand by our cops.”
Ms. Fleming said Mr. LaLota’s website about her “is chock full of lies,” and added that she thought his statements about the student loan forgiveness being a bribe and the police union endorsing you if you vote for their contract were “a cynical way of looking at government.”
“I’ve always been there, with resources and support,” she said. “His number one goal is partisan politics, not keeping costs down. That is not the champion from Long Island we need in the U.S. Congress representing us.”
On whether or not Joe Biden won the 2020 election, Ms. Fleming said “absolutely.”
“On any given day, I don’t know if Joe Biden knows he’s President of the United States,” said Mr. LaLota. “On my Twitter on January 7, I condemned the people who trespassed and battered government property. We’re the party of law and order.”