The First Congressional District, which includes the entire East End, may well be in play this election cycle as Democrats attempt to win back the U.S. House of Representatives, and the race for the June 25 Democratic primary for the seat is down to two competitors as the April 4 filing deadline approaches.

Nancy Goroff, an organic chemist who had chaired the chemistry department at Stony Brook University, announced her candidacy in January. She ran against former Congressman Lee Zeldin in 2020. John Avlon, a journalist and political analyst at CNN who has long championed centrist ideas, announced his run for the seat in late February, and officially launched his campaign with an event in Sag Harbor’s Marine Park on Saturday.

Two other Democratic candidates, Jim Gaugran and Kyle Hill, dropped out of the race after Mr. Avlon announced his candidacy.

The Democrats are attempting to unseat one-term Republican Congressman Nick LaLota, who may face his own primary challenge from expelled former Congressman George Santos.

Mr. Avlon and Ms. Goroff have been actively debating the issues on the East End this month, and both came to the Jamesport Meeting House Saturday morning to answer questions from local Democrats in a debate organized by the Southold and Riverhead town Democratic Committees.

“New York 1 is in a position to make a real difference this year,” Southold Acting Party Chair Sandra Benedetto told the crowd that filled the pews in the 18th Century meeting house. “We can help Democrats take back the majority in the House.”

Of the 60 potentially competitive seats in the House of Representatives analyzed recently by the Cook Political Report, NY-1 is considered “Likely Republican,” a race that “is not considered competitive at this point but have the potential to become engaged.”

Mr. Avlon thinks he can provide that engagement. 

“They thought they could sleep on this race,” he said. “But we live in a great swing district.”

He was quick to point out that the district “only has 3,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats,” with an electorate almost evenly split three ways between Democrats, Republicans and Independents. The district was represented for 12 years by Democrat Tim Bishop before Republican Lee Zeldin unseated him in 2014 not long after district boundaries were redrawn, making the district more favorable for Republicans. Mr. Zeldin remained in office until his run for New York Governor in 2022.

Ms. Goroff said she has spent the past four years working at a local level to advocate against “right wing extremists who are using our kids as pawns” in school board races and library controversies, helping to found the Long Island School Strong Alliance, which “mobilizes people to advocate for our public schools, and for making sure our schools are places where every child feels a sense of belonging.”

“We’ve been building democratic power, with both a big D and a little d,” she said. “That’s what we need to take back this district.”

Ms. Goroff was quick to point out that Mr. LaLota is “part of a caucus that voted for a national ban on abortion,” and has taken part in “political stunts” like the February vote to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas of his handling of immigration, while offhandedly dismissing his fellow Republican Senator James Lankford’s border security bill.

“We need to show that all he’s interested in is talk. He’s not interested in actually doing the work,” said Ms. Goroff.

While there wasn’t much air between the Democratic candidates’ policy positions — they both had identical answers to a series of rapid-fire yes or no questions (Yes on funding for Ukraine, remaining in NATO, preserving Plum island and ending subsidies for fossil fuels) — this primary race could hinge on these two Democratic candidates’ communication styles. 

Mr. Avlon, who began his career as a speechwriter for then-New York Mayor Rudy Guliani, but before that had volunteered for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, is delivering a carefully crafted message built on his decades of work as a commentator and author looking for the middle ground.

Ms. Goroff, often introspective, talks frequently about the in-depth work she has done advocating for students and for solving the climate crisis, expanding on the inner workings of policy proposals, and promising that if elected her office will excel at constituent services.

Mr. Avlon, who quit his job at CNN in February to run for this seat, said he believes it’s not an accident that extremism has made many people disengage from civic life.

“I believe it’s by design,” he said, adding that strategists like Steve Bannon work to “make politics seem indecent, like something that no normal person would get involved in. It seems dangerous and dirty. We need to lean in now, not lean away. We’re in danger of sleepwalking into a dictatorship…. We need to be energized by this moment in history. We need to straighten our civic backbones and all show up.”

While Mr. Avlon has a home in Sag Harbor and was involved locally in the effort to preserve author John Steinbeck’s house there, moderator Abigail Field asked how he, as a Washington insider who worked in national media for years as the editor of The Daily Beast, would react to accusations that he is a “carpetbagger who has not worked on local issues” and doesn’t understand the needs of the district.

“You know who doesn’t live here? Nick LaLota,” said Mr. Avlon of the sitting Congressman, who lives in Amityville, just outside of the district lines. Members of Congress are required to live in the state they represent, but not in the district they represent. “Between me and Nick LaLota, I’m the only one who can vote in this election. He said he’d move here, and he didn’t. It’s about trust. I care deeply about this community, and we have been a part of it for a long time.”

Ms. Field asked Ms. Goroff how she and her campaign had changed since she was defeated by Lee Zeldin in 2020.

“We’re not in a pandemic,” said Ms. Goroff. “We can meet voters face to face, and let people know why this election matters.”

“Nick LaLota is not Lee Zeldin,” she added. “People do not know who he is. He was a no-show (when he worked) at the Board of Elections while getting his law degree… He’s shown he’s uninterested in getting things done for people.”

“Look, you all want a candidate who can win,” she added. “In order to win, we do need a contrast with Nick LaLota. We need someone who people believe is going to make a difference in their lives. People are tired of talking heads, of people who just want to talk and don’t want to do. I’ve been doing that work, at the local level, for a long time, and that’s what we need.”

Mr. Avlon was a founder of the “No Labels” movement in 2010, which helped to form the Problem Solvers Caucus in Congress. No Labels is considering running a third party presidential candidate this year. Ms. Field asked Mr. Avlon to explain his affiliation with a group that might threaten President Joe Biden’s reelection bid.

“What No Labels is doing is absolutely disgusting and dishonorable,” said Mr. Avlon. “There’s no equivalency at all between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. It’s an extraordinarily reckless gamble at this point.”

He added that No Labels initially came together to “restore the strength in the center,” and that when he became the editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast in 2013 he “stopped having anything to do with them.”

“I do support the Problem Solvers Caucus,” he added. “But I condemn this organization, which is doing something incredibly reckless with this country.”

On issues ranging from President Biden’s job performance to immigration reform, economic policy, climate change, health insurance and Israel’s war in Gaza, the candidates’ positions didn’t differ greatly, but Mr. Avlon seemed to do a better job of energizing the crowd with rousing optimistic talking points that drew big applause.

Both said they believe President Joe Biden is doing great work.

“President Biden has done an outstanding job,” said Ms. Goroff, pointing out the Inflation Reduction Act’s (IRA) programs that support clean energy and jobs. “What the president has done for climate has been tremendous. His biggest mistake is he needs to talk more about all those big things. The more we see of the president and his predecessor, the bigger the contrast will be. Donald Trump is a danger to society and democracy. Nick LaLota was the first congressman in a swing district to endorse him. We need to hold him accountable.”

Mr. Avlon said Mr. Biden was listed as the 14th best president in U.S. history in a recent poll of historians, pointing out that the President and Democrats in Congress managed to pass more than 300 pieces of bipartisan legislation.

“He’s been a consequential and effective president,” he said, adding that the infrastructure bill and the CHIPS act to produce semiconductors in the United States, along with the IRA, will “do more to rebuild the middle class over time than anything in the past half century.”

“I love that we’re bringing manufacturing back to America, and making sure essential products aren’t made elsewhere,” he added. “These are lagging indicators, but folks are starting to feel them. With communication, there’s always room for improvement.”

“It’s not an accident that the middle of our politics has been hollowed out at the same time the middle of our economy has been hollowed out,” he added. “We need to play offense on the issues people really care about.”

Both candidates agreed that Long Island is on the front lines of climate change, and said they believe in investing in new technology to phase out fossil fuels.

“We need members of Congress leading the effort to bring everybody together,” said Mr. Avlon. “We don’t have time to lose.”

Ms. Goroff said she wants to see “ambitious and dedicated action” for the country to be carbon neutral in energy production by 2035, and in all other sectors by 2050.

“Our livelihood, our children and the ability to live here on Long Island depends on us taking clear action,” she said, adding that the U.S. also has to be a leader in helping the rest of the world transition to clean energy.

On immigration reform, Mr. Avlon said the legislators who opposed funding for the border protection bill based on its inclusion of funding to help Ukraine defend itself “are the Neville Chamberlains of today.”

“I will not allow Republicans to say they are the solution to the problem. They rejected their own bill. They are the problem,” he said, adding that he supports more visas for temporary and agricultural workers. “Immigrants make our country better in every way, but we need to make sure the rules are enforced. This is a win-win if we do it right. The Republicans keep demonizing the people who are the backbone of our country.”

“We are a country of immigrants, and we are a country of borders,” said Ms. Goroff added. “We need a way for people to get into the system, and we need border security.”

On health care, Mr. Avlon said he remembered seeing signs reading “Government Get Your Hands Off My Medicaid” while covering the Tea Party for his book “Wing Nuts.”

Health care, he said, “is not working for working families.” 

Mr. Avlon said he was in favor of the public option for health insurance initially proposed in the Affordable Care Act, and said he supports actions like Mr. Biden’s recent cap on the cost of insulin.

“We need to stop polarizing a conversation that’s practical,” he said. “We can’t have people living in fear of being bankrupt if they get a serious illness.”

Ms. Goroff said she believes it would be most practical to lower the age at which people become eligible for Medicare, over time, until it covered everyone ages 50 and up, and then allowing younger people to buy into the program as a public option.

“That would cover the vast majority of serious health care problems,” she said. “It will make this a much fairer and more accessible health care system than we have today.”

Neither candidate said they would support an immediate cease-fire in Israel’s war in Gaza.

Ms. Goroff said that, as a Jewish American with family in Israel, she believes “Israel absolutely has a right to defend itself” against the Hamas terrorists who massacred civilians on Oct. 7, 2023, but added that Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu “is not doing Israelis any favors with the way he is prosecuting the war.”

“We need to get the hostages back. We need to get humanitarian aid back in. And we need at least a temporary stop in the fighting,” she said, adding that both Netanyahu and Hamas “are more interested in staying in power than helping their people.”

The long-term solution, she said, is “a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel.”

Mr. Avlon said he doesn’t support an immediate cease-fire unless all the Israeli hostages are released, and he said he favors the policies of Israeli centrist Benny Gantz over Netanyahu.

He said there’s “no moral equivalency between the victims of terrorism” and the terrorists, and added that he is disturbed by the drastic rise in antisemitism in the United States in the months since Israel was attacked.

“We need to condemn it (antisemitism) clearly,” he said. “Liberalism is standing up for people who have been the victims of violence. Not long ago, support for Israel was broadly bipartisan. The Netanyahu government has made that difficult.”

He added that he “supports a two-state solution as a way to achieve stability in the region.”

Both candidates said they would vote to codify same sex marriage, and would fight against a potential national ban on abortion.

“The vast majority of Americans believe that decision should be between a woman, her doctor and her god, not the government,” said Mr. Avlon, adding that support for same sex marriage is about “fundamental American values — freedom, equality and self-determination, values that should unite us, adding that turning backwards on the right to marry “doesn’t reflect our country’s character, on a deep level.”

Ms. Goroff, the mother of two adult children who both identify as LGBTQ, said her kids “should have a right to marry whoever the heck they want,” and added that her recent work in Long Island schools reinforces her position. 

“I’ve been working at a local level to support who they are in schools, and not be bullied by other kids or school boards,” she said, adding that, as someone who knows first-hand what pregnancy does to a woman’s body, “the idea that women’s bodies are just vessels, and some men in Washington should get to make a decision for a woman of carrying a pregnancy to term is so horrifying. They don’t seem to think we’re fully human.”

Both candidates also gave a resounding “yes” when asked if they would support their opponent in the general election if the other candidate won the primary. 

Primary Day is June 25, and early voting will be held June 15 through June 23.

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Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she 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

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