Pictured above: The League of Women Voters’ Zoom debate: top row (l-r): League Moderator Cathy Peacock and timekeeper Barbara McClancy; middle row (l-r): Nora Higgins, Skyler Johnson & Laura Ahearn; bottom row (l-r): Tommy John Schiavoni and Valerie Cartright.

For the first time in decades, there’s a competitive race on for the New York State Senate seat to be vacated this year by Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, who announced in January he will be stepping down after 43 years holding the office.

North Fork State Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo, an attorney from New Suffolk, is the Republican candidate for Mr. LaValle’s seat.

There will be a five-way primary June 23 to determine the Democratic nominee to run against Mr. Palumbo.

Attorney and crime victims advocate Laura Ahearn is in the running, along with Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright; Stony Brook University Hospital Registered Nurse and union representative Nora Higgins; 19-year-old Skyler Johnson, who helped found Students Act for Change and Southampton Town Councilman and retired social studies teacher Tommy John Schiavoni.

The League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island & the North Fork held a Zoom debate between the five Democratic candidates June 8, which can also be viewed on Sea-TV’s YouTube channel and below:

The candidates represent a broad and diverse range of experience and governing philosophy.

Ms. Cartright, who serves as the only Democrat on the Brookhaven Town Board, is the daughter of Haitian immigrants who was raised in Queens, and has worked as a civil rights lawyer for 15 years and as a professor at St. Joseph’s college. She is also the mother of a three-year-old.

Ms. Higgins, the youngest of six, shared her story of poverty and physical and sexual abuse, becoming a single mother who worked three jobs to raise her family, and who said the empathy that led her to a career in nursing is something much needed in government.

Ms. Ahearn, the founder and Executive Director of the Crime Victims Center, touted her experience drafting legislation and fundraising for her non-profit, building it from her kitchen table to an organization that now has 30 employees.

Mr. Johnson, who is just 19 years old and hopes to use his youthful perspective to his advantage in this race, is running on a progressive agenda including Medicare for All, relieving the burden of student debt and freeing government from lobbyist influence.

Mr. Schiavoni, a recently retired government and social studies teacher in the Center Moriches School District, has served in Sag Harbor on the school board, village zoning board and as a fire commissioner, and has also been active in lobbying on behalf of teachers in Albany.

On the issue of the New York Health Act, a Medicare for All style state-run health plan that has passed the State Assembly but not the Senate, Mr. Johnson said said it would be his “top priority from day one.”

Mr. Johnson said five percent of New Yorkers are currently uninsured, about one million people, many of them in minority communities.

“No one should ever die because they cannot afford health care,” he said.

Mr. Schiavoni said he believes that, with the state facing a huge budget deficit because of the coronavirus pandemic, “the New York Health Act is not ready.” He added that the insurance industry makes up nine percent of the state’s economy.

“I believe we, as a people, will get there,” he said.

Ms. Higgins, the nurse, said she would vote for the New York Health Act.

“I want to see everyone covered completely,” she said. “People have to understand that we are all the same on the inside and we have to do everything we can to make sure everyone is taken care of and no one is left behind.”

Ms. Ahearn said she believes the federal government should adress health insurance.

“I supported Obamacare and the public option, as do our congressional candidates,” she said. “The New York Health Act has been lingering for years, and it’s not likely to pass. An obstacle we have is folks have negotiated their insurance benefits as part of their compensation package. You can’t just take that away from them.”

Ms. Cartright said she was lucky to have health insurance when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32, but other people aren’t so lucky.

“Many of us agree the federal government is failing us, and as a state, when the federal government fails us we must step in,” she said. “It is our responsibility to take care of our citizens. I wholeheartedly support and will cosponsor and advocate for passage of the New York Health Act. It’s not enough to say it is a fundamental or absolute right and not say you will vote for the New York Health Act. It can’t wait any longer.”

On whether the state’s recently enacted police reforms, including banning chokeholds, having the state attorney general step in as a special prosecutor in cases involving the police and allowing public access to police disciplinary records went too far or were not enough, none of the candidates said they went to far, but quite a few said they were not enough.

Mr. Johnson said the state needs to mandate that police body cameras are turned on at all times, and that he would “take on the prison industrial complex,” advocate for juror sensitivity training and ban the use of tear gas on civilians.

Ms. Ahearn said that, in her work at the Crime Victims Center, many of her clients “have been helped so much by law enforcement.” But she did say she was in favor of greater transparency for police disciplinary records, and said that law enforcement should not be shielded from civil claims.

Ms. Cartright shared her passionate support for the police reforms already enacted, and added that she wants to see a requirement that police body cameras stay on. She added that jury instruction also perpetuates the cultural idea that police officers are above the law.

“Yes, this goes beyond George Floyd. We’re talking about centuries of institutional racism,” she said. “We need to eliminate police culture… I’ve represented officers who spoke out against other officers. If we don’t change police culture, it doesn’t matter if only one percent of them aren’t doing the right thing and have hate in their hearts.”

Ms. Higgins said that two of her siblings have put in full careers as police officers and said that she’s heard horror stories of officers “who literally got away with murder.”

“There should not be a different set of rules,” she said. “We need to be fair, honest and transparent across the board.”

Mr. Schiavoni said he applauds the state’s changes and is in favor of the attorney general acting as a special prosecutor, but does “not support opening up the entire record of all government employees.”

“We need the police. We need people to protect and serve,” he said. “When they have the proper training, I support them.”

On fixing generations of disparities in education between wealthy and poor districts, many of the candidates said they were in favor of school consolidation and changing the way schools are funded in New York.

Ms. Cartright pointed to numerous taxes on the wealthy that could be used to fund education for districts that don’t receive as much money from property taxes.

“You should not be educated based on your zip code, and you should not have to litigate to get money,” she said.

Ms. Higgins pointed out that the Covid-19 school shutdown was very difficult for parents who were working and for those who have kids with special needs, though she applauded schools for providing meals for students this spring.

Mr. Johnson said property taxes are the wrong way to fund school districts, and the history of using property taxes to fund schools dates to the era of “redlining” to keep minority communities poor. He said he is in favor of school district consolidation, and of using tax money raised by marijuana legalization to feed students.

Ms. Ahearn said she believes funding for schools should be equalized, pointing out that many students didn’t have laptops or internet access to do their schoolwork during the Covid-19 shutdown.

Mr. Schiavoni said he is in favor of school consolidation, and of equalizing school funding across districts. He said online learning is far inferior to in-person interactions, and he has worked on shared services agreements between school districts to save money.

The candidates all said they would be supportive of a carbon tax to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s important that we strategize, bring together environmental experts and push something like this,” said Ms. Cartright.

Ms. Ahearn said she’s concerned that climate change will take a back burner to dealing with more immediate crises. She said she’s supportive of the tax, and is concerned that there has only been one scoping meeting to address New York’s Climate Protect Act, which was enacted in 2019.

Ms. Higgins said that “Covid-19 took a pinkie toe off our carbon footprint,” and added that she hopes changes forced by the coronavirus like telecommuting will encourage people to travel less.

Mr. Johnson said a carbon tax “does not go far enough” and said climate change is not an issue for our grandchildren but “we’re paying for it right now.”

He said he believes the state should make its entire bus fleet carbon neutral by 2031 and he hopes emergency funds made available by declaring clean air and water a human right be put to use to fight climate change.

Mr. Schiavoni said New York will need to play an active role in replacing its infrastructure with projects that are more resilient in the face of climate change. He also said he supports offshore wind off the coast of Long Island.

“It is absolutely critical that we turn this ship around,” he said of the climate.

The primary will be held June 23. 

New York State is mailing absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters to enable them to vote by mail if they do not want to risk going to the polls during the global pandemic.

To vote by absentee ballot, voters need to select “temporary illness” as the reason for their absentee vote, and either deliver it in person to the Suffolk County Board of Elections no later than the day before the election or mail the application back to the Suffolk County Board of Elections at P.O. Box 700, Yaphank, NY 11980.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order June 7 allowing voters’ absentee ballots to be postmarked as late as June 23, the date of the primary.

The absentee ballot application allows voters to request a ballot for the Nov. 3 general election at the same time.

In person voting will still be held on June 23.

Editor’s Note, June 17: Due to the pandemic, there will be far fewer polling places for in-person voting in the primary on Tuesday, June 23.You should be receiving a letter from the Suffolk County Board of Elections about where to vote.However, you can also go to voterlookup.elections.ny.gov and plug in your information, and it will tell you where to vote.

Early voting will also take place from Saturday, June 13 through Sunday, June 21. Voters can vote in any of the 13 early voting locations in Suffolk County, where a ballot will be printed for them based on their home voting district. 

The early voting locations on the East End include the Southold Senior Center at 750 Pacific Street in Mattituck, Stony Brook Southampton College at 70 Tuckahoe Road in Southampton,  the Riverhead Senior Center at 60 Shade Tree Lane in Aquebogue and Windmill Village at 219 Accabonac Road in East Hampton. Hours of voting vary; check here for details. 

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 editor@eastendbeacon.com

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