Democrats Debate For First Congressional Race

Above: Top row, left to right: Candidates Kara Hahn, Jackie Gordon and Bridget Fleming. Bottom row: Moderator Jay Schoenfeld and timekeeper Virginia Capon.

While Republicans have rallied around former Suffolk County Board of Elections Republican Commissioner Nick LaLota as their candidate for the First Congressional District seat currently held by Lee Zeldin, three Democrats are vying for their party’s nomination, which will be decided in a June 28 primary.

Mr. Zeldin is vacating the seat to run for Governor of New York.

Robert Cornicelli fo St. James and Anthony Figliola of East Setauket were also vying for the Republican endorsement, and Mr. Figliola intends to remain in that primary. Mr. LaLota, who left his seat as the commissioner in December 2021 to run for Congress, currently serves as Chief of Staff for Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey. He is a former Naval officer and Annapolis graduate who lives in Amityville, outside of the First Congressional District. The U.S. Constitution does not require representatives to live in the district they represent.

The three Democratic candidates, South Fork Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn of Setauket and former Babylon Town Councilwoman Jackie Gordon, faced off in their first public debate sponsored by the Brookhaven and Southampton Town Democratic Parties on Feb. 24. 

Ms. Gordon ran a spirited campaign to win the Second Congressional District seat last year, but lost by a six-point margin to Andrew Garbarino. Ms. Gordon now lives within the newly drawn district lines for the First Congressional District that were adopted in February of this year — those lines are widely believed to favor the Democrats.

The Zoom debate between the Democrats, which was attended by nearly 150 people, gave the candidates a chance to burnish their progressive credentials, with candidates mostly supporting proposals to address climate change, affordable health care, infrastructure, environmental justice and initiatives for working families. The nuance was in how they planned to go about these initiatives.

Ms. Gordon, a U.S. Army Reserve veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, described her greatest accomplishment as working together with the community in Babylon to build housing for formerly homeless veterans.

“It was really a fight, but we got community input,” she said. “We had NIMBYism. Folks didn’t want formerly homeless folks in their backyard, but it’s beautiful. The veterans are doing great. We have about a dozen veteran services organizations on site. Veterans become homeless for a reason.”

Ms. Fleming, an attorney, former prosecutor and Southampton Town Councilwoman said she believes all three Democratic candidates bring the local touch to this race.

“You see people who have been in Congress for decades with one or two bills,” she said. “It’s really exciting to drive around and see things you’ve done that really impact people.”

She added that she’s most proud of her work creating the Flanders Farm Fresh Food Market, a farmers’ market in a food desert that employs young people from the community and participates in programs to provide nutritious food for seniors and families with young children.

Ms. Hahn said she is most proud of passing laws allowing Suffolk County Police Officers to use the opioid antidote Narcan to revive people who have overdosed. 

“Newsday had comments at that time where people were saying ‘let them die.’ It was awful,” she said. “But within a month, the police commissioner said ‘we are saving lives left and right because of your bill.”

Ms. Hahn, a social worker who has served on the legislature since 2012, including as Deputy Presiding Officer, said she followed up with working to help get people revived by the police with Narcan into drug treatment programs.

On issues facing the federal government, Ms. Gordon and Ms. Fleming said their first bill would be to repeal the cap on state and local government tax deductions imposed with the 2017 Trump tax reforms, which have hit states with high property taxes, like New York, particularly hard. Ms. Hahn said she would work to help pass fair voting laws to prevent voters from being intimidated.

On climate change, Ms. Fleming and Ms. Hahn highlighted their work on shoring up the coastlines of the First Congressional District. Ms. Fleming discussed the work she did shepherding the sustainability aspect of Southampton Town’s master plan through to acceptance, and Ms. Hahn touted the work she’d done as chair of the legislature’s environmental committee for ten years, adding that she was committed to goals to ween the economy off of fossil fuels.

Ms. Gordon said she would sit down with subject matter experts to see the best way to move forward with renewable energy.

“Wind, hydro and nuclear  — all can be clean and all can be possible. I am open to finding the best source and what’s best for Long Island,” she said. “I’ve been driving a full electric car for two years now. We need to do better to make sure this earth is left for our children and our grandchildren.”

The candidates were asked by moderator Jay Schoenfeld how they would define Medicare for All and whether they supported it. 

Ms. Fleming said she doesn’t believe the federal government should set aside the existing Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), but should instead build on it, combatting surprise billing and negotiating prescription drug prices.

“Lots of folks have coverage they want to hold on to,” she said.

Ms. Hahn said that, while the “ACA, no question, has helped millions of Americans get insured, we can’t settle for less than universal coverage…. As far as Medicare for All, I’m open to any solution that gets us closer to universal coverage.”
Ms. Hahn added that her family is living the reality of public health care as they care for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s Disease, and her father, who has dementia.

“We need to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and expand access to senior health care programs and mental health services,” she said. “It’s just of critical importance.”

Ms. Gordon said that what she’s heard regarding health care reminds her of a military aphorism regarding recent wars that “we haven’t been here for 12 years. We’ve been here one year, 12 times.”

“The bottom line is we want every American to have affordable, accessible health care,” she said. “We have the Affordable Care Act. Let’s get it where it needs to be. Let’s work on what we have and make that better.”

On changes to the tax code and initiatives for working families, Ms. Gordon said she’d put money into career and technical education programs, investing in manufacturing on the Route 110 corridor.

“We could have our own medical supply chain right here on Long Island, create a pipeline and keep our kids here,” she said.

Ms. Hahn agreed, adding that there’s a high demand for solar installers and wind turbine technicians on Long Island. 

“This is an extraordinary opportunity to meet that demand,” she said. “There’s significant room for growth here, and we should be doubling and tripling down. I want to make sure we get every penny we’re entitled to from the infrastructure bill.

Ms. Fleming agreed as well, adding that she wants to make sure that labor unions are a part of that future.

All three women said they would do more to support parents, touting proposals including extending the child tax credit and providing support for child care providers.

While the First Congressional District has long been a swing district, the new district lines drawn on a partisan basis by the Democratic New York State Legislature now favor Democrats. But all of the candidates said they didn’t think they should take the possibility of winning the seat for granted.

“What we saw in this last election (2021) was frightening. It was as if people were going into the voting booth to register a complaint against Democrats,” said Ms. Fleming, adding that Southampton Town voters, who have in recent years favored Democrats, voted in several Republicans last year.

“We lost some really good people, across the county and in Nassau,” she said.
“I think it’s important that we recognize how urgent and critical and cataclysmic it is to win this seat,” said Ms. Hahn. “The future of our nation depends on it. There is too much at stake. People are living through all sorts of tough times right now. They want someone who knows what they’re going through. This is a ruthless environment. It won’t be a slam dunk.”

“We can’t take it for granted. We need to win this seat,” said Ms. Gordon. “This is a very diverse district, and the first thing that might come to your mind is I am black. But this district has a large concentration of veterans, immigrants, social and hospital workers, union workers. I have walked in those shoes. I understand the struggles that those people face. I’m looking for a representative who can represent me, who actually understands the struggles they’ve been through. I’m battle tested. I’ve been through a congressional race. I know how to complete the mission and get the job done.” 

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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