The stark divide in our national political climate was on full display Monday night, in one of the few chances this election season to see Congressman Lee Zeldin, a three-term incumbent Republican, face off against his Democratic challenger, Nancy Goroff, a chemist and former chair of the chemistry department at Stony Brook University.
More than 2,500 people watched the debate, which was broadcast on Southampton Town’s Sea-TV YouTube channel and held via Zoom by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island & North Fork. The debate was also cosponsored by the Brookhaven and Smithtown chapters of the League of Women Voters.
Boisterous viewers, siding with both candidates, gave a running commentary in the comments section throughout the debate, a rare personal touch enabled by the virtual format forced by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Moderator Cathy Peacock opened the debate by questioning the candidates why the death toll from Covid-19 in the United States is greater than any other developed nation, and what we can do now to prevent another pandemic in the future.
Mr. Zeldin said he believes bipartisan and non-partisan partnership and teamwork were essential to quashing the virus during the New York outbreak this spring — including his work with the White House to get 400,000 N95 masks brought to Suffolk County. He also said a major reason the virus got out of control was “the Chinese Communist Party and the World Health Organization making sure the facts were muzzled” early on in the pandemic.
“Congressman Zeldin tells a nice story, but unfortunately it just doesn’t match the facts,” said Ms. Goroff. “It’s really infuriating that we, the wealthiest country in the world, have suffered the most deaths, the most cases. We are farther behind every other developed country in the world, and we know that it’s because of an irresponsible president and his reckless and incompetent response to this pandemic. Unfortunately Congressman Zeldin has called his response ‘phenomenal.’ By the time those masks came here, it was much too late.”
Ms. Goroff added that the administration had removed health experts from China before the pandemic and ignored early information he received about how bad the virus would be, as was recently brought to light in a newly released interview he did in January with journalist Bob Woodward.
“Even now, the president is declining to wear a mask, declining to send clear public health messages,” she said. “We need real leaders who are going to look at the facts.”
The most stark differences between the candidates were drawn by their positions on climate change and the civil unrest that has rocked the nation.
“What has happened to law and order in our country? What recommendations do you have to restore both our ability to protest peacefully and to protect our citizens,” asked Ms. Peacock of the candidates.
The question cut to the core of Mr. Zeldin’s campaign strategy against Dr. Goroff, which calls her a “radical scientist” and centers around a photograph of Dr. Goroff at a protest holding a sign that says “Cost of Riot Gear for 1 Policeman=Cost of PPE for 31 Nurses.”
“I need to start by setting the record straight, because my opponent has been spreading lies about my positions,” said Ms. Goroff. “Let me be very clear: I am against defunding the police. The police play a very important role in keeping us safe. The police also need to have the resources and the training to do their job well. We have seen in incidents this spring and summer that there are issues we must address as a society, issues of systemic racism… I am committed to working with all stakeholders to make sure that we address those issues, and that we are funding social services sufficiently so that we are not asking to solve problems, at the end of a 911 call, that are long-term problems that need real solutions.”
Ms. Goroff said those services should include safe shelter for homeless people and drug treatment programs that give addicts support for the months to a year that they need to get off of drugs, not the shorter programs that are currently funded.
“Let’s talk about some facts: My opponent called the police dangerous. That’s on video,” countered Mr. Zeldin. “My opponent said that we should send non-police to respond to domestic violence crime scenes.”
He added that, during a Democratic primary debate this spring, Dr. Goroff was the only candidate who did not unequivocally say yes to federal funds to combat the MS-13 gang, and said Dr. Goroff supports a bill that “enacts cash bail nationally… and a mass prison release that includes violent criminals. He added that, when Dr. Goroff attended a screening before Suffolk County law enforcement agencies ,she was “asked to condemn rioting and looting and violence against police and she refused to.”
“This is personal to me. I was raised in a law enforcement household,” said Mr. Zeldin. “I believe that almost 100 percent of our law enforcement are made up of amazing men and women…. We should be doing more to support our law enforcement, not less.”
“Unfortunatly, once again Mr. Zeldin is telling stories for political expedience…. Let me be clear: I am against rioting. I am against looting. I am against letting violent criminals on the street. It seems remarkable that we have to even say such things but I want it to be perfectly clear,” said Dr. Goroff. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t do better, and I think when we look at the incidents we saw, George Floyd’s death and Brianna Taylor’s death, it’s clear to any of us that we must do better. For people of color, we must do better… I think we all as Americans believe in equal justice under the law, and there have been so many instances this year that have shown that, for people of color, they do not have that opportunity. We owe it to them to figure out, as a society, how we deal with those problems and make things better.”
Later in the debate, Mr. Zeldin asked Dr. Goroff to condemn an ad run by the 314 Action PAC on her behalf that said the Congressman voted against birth control and protecting the health of mothers.
“I am not responsible for what 314 advertises. Your campaign is advertising that I want to defund the police,” said Dr. Goroff. “If you want to talk about dishonesty in ads, take down your own ads now instead of pretending that I have a position that I do not have. Be responsible for yourself.”
Ms. Peacock asked the candidates whether they believe human activities have anything to do with climate change, if anything needs to be done about it, and if so, in what time frame.
Dr. Goroff has made climate change a centerpiece of her campaign, and said she initially got into the race because she was disheartened by the administration’s actions that have impeded our response to the crisis.
“Human-caused climate change is the biggest long-term threat we face to our way of life here on Long Island,” said Dr. Goroff. “Whether in the Mastic/Shirley area where Congressman Zeldin has made his home or on the East End, flooding from increased sea levels is a serious problem. Coastal erosion, sea level rise, extreme weather, they all threaten us. Climate change also threatens us from a national security point of view, because of droughts that are causing great dislocations across the globe, leading to our largest refugee crises.”
“The science is absolutely clear that human activity and human emission of carbon dioxide, methane and other carbon compounds is the cause of climate change,” she added. “Thankfully, it is not too late, but we must take vigorous, ambitious and sustained actions.”
Ms. Goroff said we should aim to make our electric production carbon neutral by 2035, leveraging existing technologies and working to develop new technologies
Mr. Zeldin touted his role on the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, and, as he has repeatedly when the subject of climate change is raised, also touted his co-sponsorship of the Carbon Capture Improvement Act, which creates financial incentives to capture carbon at existing fossil fuel plants. It was introduced in the summer of 2019 and is currently in the House Ways & Means Committee.
Without answering the question about the cause and solutions for climate change, Mr. Zeldin then pivoted to tout his support for legislation to protect clean water on Long Island, including remediation of the contaminant PFOS surrounding federal military sites on Long Island and funding for SeaGrant, the Plum Island lighthouse and the Peconic Estuary Program.
“I don’t know why my opponent would be trying to dumb down voters. We should stick to facts,” said Mr. Zeldin. “My opponent said that I’ve only had three legislative proposals signed and passed into law. The answer is 10.”
On how the United States is perceived in the world and on our current and potential future relationship with China, Mr. Zeldin said China is “the largest geopolitical threat on the planet. It’s a large powerful country and they don’t share our values.”
He then touted the administration’s abandonment of the nuclear deal with Iran and its work to support Israel, and the defeat of ISIS.
“Our adversaries don’t respect weakness, they respect strength,” said Mr. Zeldin, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve for the past 13 years who has served as a military intelligence officer, prosecutor, magistrate and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, where he was deployed to Iraq and served for four years on active duty.
“We know the United States’ position in world is so much weaker now than was four years ago,” said Dr. Goroff, who added that the Congressman never answered the question about whether climate change was caused by human activity. “By turning our backs on our allies and ignoring our adversaries, the president has put us at risk and in danger. Pulling out of the Iran deal brought Iran so much closer to nuclear weapon… We are now an isolationist country, which puts our troops in danger, makes us weaker, and leaves a vacuum for China to go into.”
“It’s important to address climate change. It’s real and that’s why I belong to the caucus,” said Mr. Zeldin on rebuttal.
On how the national deficit from the economic recovery from the pandemic should be paid back, the candidates agreed that ending the pandemic as soon as possible is the key. Mr. Zeldin said small business owners need more assistance.
“It’s not about balancing the budget next year, our deficit is that big,” he said. “It is about coming up with a budget plan over the next several years.”
“We absolutely do need to get past the public health crisis in order to solve the economic crisis,” said Dr. Goroff, who added that, while a vaccine will be an important part of that, CDC Director Robert Redfield told Congress a week that “the most important thing for us to do is for everyone to wear masks,” a statement that was immediately countered by President Donald Trump “because it didn’t fit his narrative.”
Dr. Goroff added that the federal government needs to immediately get funding to states, schools and local government.
“I’ve been disappointed that Congressman Zeldin has been unable to do that,” she said.
In his closing comments, Mr. Zeldin said Ms. Goroff is “running on one issue: she’s a scientist. I’ve done more to advance science this year than she’s done in her lifetime,” as Ms. Goroff was seen in the next Zoom frame laughing with her microphone muted.
“We face incredible challenges now, from the pandemic to fixing the healthcare system, that require voters to look at the facts and reality,” said Dr. Goroff. “I hope from what you’ve heard tonight of my background and experiences, you know I am ready to do that.”
After the debate, both campaigns declared a decisive victory for their candidate.
“This debate clearly shows that as a scientist, educator, and mother of two, Nancy is in a much better position to lead Suffolk County out of the pandemic health crisis, versus Rep. Zeldin who only seems interested in spreading misinformation,” said Goroff spokeswoman Hannah Jeffrey. “Nancy knows that we have to put our trust in public health experts and follow the science if we are to ever recover, unlike Rep. Zeldin who would rather put his trust in Donald Trump’s reckless and incompetent leadership.”
“Congressman Zeldin made a solid case for why he should be re-elected tonight; delivering huge wins for Long Island, from his robust Covid response to the $2 billion Electron Ion Collider he helped secure for Brookhaven National Lab and many more key local victories,” said Zeldin Campaign Manager James Zenn. “Radical Professor Nancy Goroff failed to backup the lies of her campaign and her left wing allies and tried to spin, deflect, deceive and divide throughout just about every answer. She once again struggled mightily to explain her anti-police views, including calling our law enforcement dangerous and refusing to condemn violence against officers and much more anti-police policies and rhetoric.”