by Jinsoo Henry Oh
As 2018 begins, the midterm election year cycle kicks off in full swing in Congressional District 1, which includes Brookhaven, most of Smithtown and the entirety of the five East End townships.
Six Democrats are vying to take on incumbent Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin in a June 26 primary.
Progressive East End Reformers, known as PEER, has been holding forums with two of these candidates at a time, on alternating Tuesdays beginning Jan. 9 in the Bridgehampton National Bank Headquarters Community Room.
Candidates Vivian Viloria Fisher and David Pechefsky spoke on Jan. 9. Ms. Viloria Fisher, a former Suffolk County Legislator, represented the 5th District for 13 years, and Mr. Pechefsky is a long-time staffer for the New York City Council.
The second forum on Tuesday, Jan. 23 at 6:30 p.m. will host Suffolk County Legislator Kate Browning, from the 3rd District, and Elaine DiMasi, a longtime Brookhaven Lab physicist. The third and final forum will be held Tuesday, Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m., with Brendon Henry from Center Moriches and Perry Gershon, who has worked in the commercial real estate finance industry for 25 years.
PEER and its parent organization, the New York Progressive Action Network (NYPAN), advocate for “social, racial, environmental, and economic justice for all.” Included in their mission is a support for a $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All, a single-payer health care system.
At the forums, candidates were asked questions by moderator Kathryn Szoka, as well as the public, on their qualifications, positions on issues, and how they plan to achieve their goals should any of them be elected to the House of Representatives in November.
Our coverage of the Jan. 9 forum is below. Our coverage of the Jan. 23 and Feb. 13 forums will be available online shortly after they occur, and will appear in our March print edition.
Vivian Viloria Fisher, a former member of the Suffolk County Legislature, said her parents stood up to the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in her native country, the Dominican Republic, and eventually moved to the United States to seek a better life. She says she was able to fulfill her American Dream because she had access to education. She is a graduate of Hunter College and says her experience as an immigrant from a dictatorship helps her have an appreciation for the institutions in America that protect against tyranny. Ms. Viloria Fisher expressed strong discontent in Lee Zeldin’s performance, stating that the current representative has no empathy for the poor or the vulnerable. She also cited disregard for the arts, science, and curiosity for learning as existential threat to the nations.
A native of Patchogue, David Pechefsky also lists CUNY Hunter as his undergraduate alma mater, and holds an MA in International Development from American University in Washington, DC. He has spent many years in New York City government, where he helped the city build thousands of units of affordable housing for seniors and working people.
Pieces of legislation he has worked on in the past include protecting children against lead poisoning, green buildings, helping secure millions of dollars for youth, housing, and senior programs. He has also worked internationally, serving as an advisor and providing training and technical assistance to governments in Liberia and Somalia, among other places. He cites his experience working in difficult and dangerous environment as an asset. He says he knows how to get things done in government.
He tells a story of family hardship – losing his father at 14 years old. Mr. Pechefsky says “no one should have to work 70 hours a week just to get by.” He says Medicaid saved his family, as his mother fell victim to Parkinson’s Disease at age 61. Mr. Pechefsky tells a personal story regarding immigration as well. His wife and family are immigrants from Uganda, who were able to better themselves in America as pediatricians. He says he is angered by people like Lee Zeldin, whom he says uses immigration as a tool to divide.
Both candidates are in favor of Medicare for All. PEER’s moderator, Kathryn Szoka, asked what they thought the challenges would be in implementing such a policy.
Ms Viloria Fisher cited the first hurdle being the “political challenge.”
“So you want to socialize medicine?” is a response she hears often when going door to door. It’s a perception she says she is ready to confront. Ms. Viloria Fisher’s strategy is to point to what has been successful already: Medicare in its current forum. She acknowledges that there will be a great battle in Congress, but says her prior experience standing up for unpopular and politically risky measures in the Suffolk County Legislature would make her a prime candidate to fight for the people who need access to health care. Asked if she would support a stopgap “Medicare at 50” policy, she replied that we need full-on Medicare for all.
David Pechefsky acknowledges that there will be some dislocation in the industry, and some workers will require retraining. Still, he believes Medicare for All it is the only solution where costs are not runaway and the current system has perverse incentives and is incredibly inefficient. He notes that 20 percent of current costs are currently spent on advertising and that other stop gap measures won’t work.
“Do you support a clean DACA bill with no strings attached?” asked Ms. Szoka. “How would you uphold immigrants’ human rights while addressing the fears and concerns from some people in our community about immigration?
Mr. Pechefsky says he absolutely supports a clean DACA bill. He would like to find a way for people who live here, work here, and have homes here to stay here. The question he poses is how to have a successful future society, building social cohesion and cultural and economic dynamism.
He would like to hold community planning workshops and forums where neighbors can get together and build a shared vision for the future. He says question about immigration must be reframed around the root of the problem: economic and political failures, both in other countries and in America.
Ms. Viloria Fisher says she was the only legislator who signed up for the “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” program, where she walked alongside an undocumented immigrant to the Department of Social Services and applied for food stamps with her. She says doing this helped her understand the discrimination people go through on a daily basis.
She also said she works with the Latina advocacy group Sepa Mujer, which provides pro bono legal assistance for women who had to appear in court.
Sepa Mujer approached the Suffolk County Legislature asking that restrictions on monthly, “throwaway” cell phones not be put in place, arguing that such a measure would deny immigrants a basic way of life. She said she helped to defeat the motion, which she believed would have caused a great deal of hardship in immigrant communities. She added that she was also the only legislator who provided a grant to Sepa Mujer until Monica Martinez was elected.
“What should the federal government do to combat climate change?” asked Ms. Szoka. “How should the federal government support local governments to protect the environment? How would you bring green jobs to Long Island?”
Ms. Viloria Fisher said she is a firm believer in using sustainable, alternative energy sources. She is enthusiastic about what is happening on the East End with wind energy and also places importance on building resilient infrastructure so that local governments are better able to handle the effects of climate change, such as the massive flooding that occurred in Houston, Texas.
She said she was on the legislature when it adopted the first county-wide measure in the country that mandated all new buildings be built to LEED certification standards. While the greatest opposition came from unions who said it would take longer to obtain contracts, she says her meetings with them helped ease fears, because LEED will likely become the standard of the future. She says today, green building has become a best practice in the industry and there’s now a successful green construction apprenticeship program in Suffolk County.
Ms. Viloria Fisher said she also wants to support institutions like Brookhaven National Laboratory, Stony Brook University, and the business incubator at Stony Brook, which cultivate new ideas to bring green jobs to Long Island.
“I see great companies come out of the incubator at Stony Brook, but they don’t seem to go to the next step enough. I think they need more support,” said Ms. Viloria Fisher.
“Life on this planet and all our children and grandchildren are dependent on us taking action,” said Mr. Pechefsky of climate change.
He believes there must definitely be a move to get off fossil fuels. He says the cleanest policy prescription in this case is a carbon tax on polluting industries. He notes that India, China, and Germany are way ahead in terms of wind and solar energy and that the federal government must increase its investments in these technologies.
Mr. Pechefsky notes the lack of sewer infrastructure in large parts of Long Island poses a huge problem to our aquifers and bays. Cesspools leaking into these bodies of water are a problem that he says will probably take federal money to fix.
“What are your ideas for addressing income inequality, and in particular your thoughts on what the minimum wage should be, changes to tax policy, and strengthening labor rights?” asked Ms. Szoka.
Mr. Pechefsky says all the issues listed are important tools to address income inequality. Fighting back against “right to work” laws is also a priority for Mr. Pechefsky, as he says they are essentially anti-union laws. He is in favor of a $15 minimum wage, and says that tax policy has gone in the “opposite direction.” He notes that in the 1960s, a CEO made about 20 times the average worker’s salary and today makes about 300 times an average worker’s pay.
He says the repeal of the estate tax is primarily helping the very wealthy, not small businesses and farmers that politicians say it is helping. He would like to see the estate tax reinstated and expanded.
He also the vast majority of people earn their income in America, but policy currently favors a small minority that make their fortunes through investments.
Mr. Pechefsky also would like to look more closely at a universal basic income (UBI). He notes that in Alaska, every resident receives a check from the state that comes from oil revenues and that the state has one of the smallest measures of income inequality.
Creating good paying jobs, providing health care, and housing are all tools Mr. Pechefsky believes will help close the gap on income.
Ms. Viloria Fisher believes that everyone should be able to earn a living wage. She sees the “gig economy” as one of the problems that has arisen as people are hired as consultants. Companies are no longer willing to carry the “cafeteria of perks, such as healthcare,” she says. She sees universal healthcare as a tool to also fight income inequality.
Ms. Viloria Fisher views the new federal tax reform legislation as an insult to the American people, giving the top one percent incentives and giving the working class less and less. She would like to see more tax credits available and has held workshops to help people apply for the Earned Income Tax Credit.
“What would you do in Congress to help people with housing here on Long Island?” asked Ms. Szoka.
Ms. Viloria Fisher served as a member of the workforce housing commission in Suffolk County, and says as someone who had lived in a housing project, “warehousing” poor people all in one place is not a good solution and that NIMBYism in Suffolk County exacerbates this problem. She cautions that sometimes the incentives for affordable housing are to the developers and the builders, and not the public in need.
“We can’t be afraid of affordable housing,” says Mr. Pechefsky, who cited his background as assistant director for housing and economic development in the New York City Council as preparation for helping to deal with this issue should he be elected to Congress.
He says that, while there are many different models for affordable housing, at some point cities and towns simply can’t do things alone. Mr. Pechefsky notes that the money to work on such projects simply doesn’t exist at the local level and that federal investment and subsidies are needed to be effective. He says both tax credits and direct investments are tools that can be used, and that there must also be cooperation at the local level because if the zoning does not exist for needed projects, nothing can get done. He believes in a planning process where the community comes together to discuss ideas.
“Let me loose there, because I’ll get stuff done,” he says of housing policy.
“Given our diverse district, our large district – from Montauk to Smithtown, of which Brookhaven is about 64 percent, what is your plan to beat Lee Zeldin?” asked Ms. Szoka.
“This election is more about turnout than it is about persuasion,” said Mr. Pechefsky.
He noted that while the district is closely divided, if the Democratic coalition turns out, “we will win this election.” He also believes in a strong, clear, progressive message to ensure victory in the upcoming election. He believes Lee Zeldin is vulnerable and the tide is turning, noting recent Democratic victories in places like Alabama, Virginia, and Nassau County.
Mr. Pechefsky said he aims to reach out to all elements of the district and the Democratic coalition – African-Americans, Latinos, the LGBTQ community, and unions.
He says it’s all about “a great ground game” – knocking on doors and getting every Democrat out to vote.
Ms. Viloria Fisher stressed the importance of cross-party endorsements, but also of having a campaign structure in place where surrogates for the candidate can reach out in different districts and continue a chain of communication. She noted the Democratic turnout in November 2016 was “miserable” and she plans to avoid a repeat situation.
She also stressed that “we are not Zeldin Light.” Her message is that she is a progressive Democrat who will stand up for immigrants, the working class, unions, and workers ,and stand by a proactive stance on climate change, science, the arts, education, and the American Dream.
When asked whether she believes the large number of candidates running for office would be beneficial or detrimental to party unity, Ms. Viloria Fisher said the process helps each candidate continue to grow and be stronger.
Mr. Pechefsky said he believes that, despite the large number of candidates running for the same office, the vetting process remains essential and respectful, and makes for a stronger candidate in the end.