As of press time Sept. 25, just four debates are on the calendar, all in late October, for residents of the First Congressional District to hear from the candidates vying for a seat in the House of Representatives.
The Peconic River Sportsman’s Club annual Meet the Candidate Night, originally scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 15, was canceled by the host.
Democratic candidate Perry Gershon was missing his debate partner, Congressman Lee Zeldin when he gave an overview of his position on the issues to members of the Hampton Bays Civic Association at their Sept. 24 candidate town hall.
“Unfortunately, Lee Zeldin declined to come,” said debate co-moderator Janice Landis as she opened up the town hall meeting.
A man in a red shirt in the back of the room loudly countered “he could not come. He’s having a vote in Congress.”
The House of Representatives was in session for just three minutes that day, and did not take action on any issues.
“The Congressman hosted Mobile Office Hours with constituents this evening in Medford, which had been scheduled for months,” said Mr. Zeldin’s campaign Communications Director Chris Boyle later that evening, adding that Mr. Zeldin has agreed to take part in an Oct. 29 debate in Hampton Bays sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons.
He added after we provided him with a photograph that the man in the red shirt did not work for Mr. Zeldin’s campaign.
“This is the first time in decades that the civic association has hosted a debate without both candidates,” said Ms. Landis, before turning the floor over to Mr. Gershon.
Mr. Gershon, who worked in real estate finance in New York City, said he was inspired to run for office when he woke up devastated the day after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016.
He said he was all the more devastated because he knew a great deal about the president from his own work in New York real estate.
“The whole community knew Donald Trump was essentially a snake oil salesman,” he said. “I decided, rather than throw things at the television for four years, it would make more sense to step up and do something about it.”
“I was at an event for [New York Senator] Kirsten Gillibrand, and someone said ‘what can we do?’ and she said ‘go run for office.’ That resonated for me,” he said.
Mr. Gershon said his top issues are supporting universal health care, promoting gun control and improving infrastructure in the First Congressional District. He also wants to promote bipartisan immigration reform.
“Health care’s the most important one,” he said. “Donald Trump and Lee Zeldin’s Trumpcare was about taking away coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. How many people in this room have a pre-existing condition?”
About half of the hands in the room went up.
“That matters to people,” said Mr. Gershon. “When Zeldin voted to take away coverage, he was hurting his constituency…. That isn’t what our representatives are supposed to be doing. Since he voted, he didn’t have a single town hall. He’s afraid to face us, just like he’s afraid to face off against me here tonight and at other forums.”
“That’s a lie,” said the man in the red shirt.
“If you’re gonna talk out, we’re going to ask you to leave,” said one of the debate organizers. “You’re more than welcome to put your question on a card, but I don’t want any shouting out from anyone, pro or con.”
Mr. Gershon described school shootings as “a travesty.”
“We don’t feel safe when we drop our kids off anymore. We need to change that to just common-sense regulation, and we cannot have Lee Zeldin’s concealed carry reciprocity, to bring concealed weapons across state lines and to not be subject to New York laws. That is not policy that anyone in this district stands for. Why does Lee Zeldin want it? Because he takes more money from the gun lobby than anybody else in the New York State delegation and than anybody else in the House of Representatives other than Paul Ryan. He is a puppet of corporate America. I am running to be different. I have not taken any corporate PAC money, and I’m not going to. Because that makes us subservient to corporate America, and that’s not what we’re supposed to be. We need to restore faith in our elected officials.”
“Infrastructure investment is how we repair Suffolk County and grow jobs here again,” he added. “We make ourselves more competitive when we fix the highways, when we fix the transportation, the LIRR, and when we install cell phone service so people don’t have dropped calls wherever they go in this district. Businesses can’t compete in this prime environment.”
Debate organizers read questions for Mr. Gershon from index cards collected from audience members.
The first question was on how universal health care would be funded.
“Health care is a right. It’s not a privilege. People should not have to go broke paying for it,” said Mr. Gershon. “There are different ways to do it. We need to restore coverage for pre-existing conditions, for starters.”
Mr. Gershon said that Candidate Trump had a great idea to allow Medicare to renegotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies.
“It sounded great on the campaign trail, but nothing happened. He didn’t do it. Once elected, he sided with big pharma,” he said.
“We do ultimately need a Medicare for All-type system. That’s the only way to truly get health care to people,” he said. “How are we going to pay for it? Overall, it’s going to be cheaper for everybody. If we can get everybody covered, they will seek preventative health care before they end up in the ER. Peoples’ ER visits are what drive up health care costs. We don’t turn people away in this country. If you’re very sick and you go into the ER, you’re treated whether you can pay for it or not, and the government ends up footing the bill for the uninsured people. The way we fix that is get everybody insurance, get them seen earlier, and it will be a lot cheaper to give them overall health care. That has got to be the future.”
Mr. Gershon added that Medicare for All would be a boon for small businesses, who are at a competitive disadvantage in the health insurance marketplace now because they can’t offer the health insurance prices that larger employers can bargain with the insurance companies for.
Mr. Gershon was then asked if the electoral college should be reformed. He said he believes it should be reformed, but that he couldn’t deliver on promising that change “because we could never get it through this country. It’s not realistic.”
Mr. Gershon was then asked if felons should be allowed to vote. If they’ve done their time and been reformed, he said they should be allowed to vote.
“It’s part of the way America works,” he said.
Mr. Gershon was then asked what he would do to “correct the growing number of illegal immigrants in Hampton Bays.”
“The immigration system as it stands right now is horribly, horribly broken,” he said. “We had the gang of eight in the Senate, when George Bush was president, put together a bipartisan immigration bill. There was a lot of good there, and the key word was bipartisan. Unfortunately, the House of Representatives, which was under Republican control at the time, would not pass it. George Bush, who supported it, never got the opportunity to sign it into law, but that’s the right model.”
He added that he supports allowing a path to citizenship for Dreamers, “people who came into this country as children, did nothing wrong, who are serving our society, many in the military, who are holding jobs. They were promised a path to citizenship. We can’t take that away.”
He called the administration’s failed policy of separating children from their families at the border “atrocious. That’s not what America is all about, and we need to fix that fast… We haven’t reunited all the children with their parents and we haven’t done that yet.”
He added that he believes the money U.S. taxpayers are spending to keep children detained is also atrocious.
He was then asked if he supports giving health care to people here illegally.
Mr. Gershon said that, to some extent, “everybody, whether they’re here legally or illegally, has health care, because if they end up in the emergency room, we don’t do a citizenship test when we treat people. We may treat them and then ICE will deport them. I don’t know. They’re a cost to our society.”
He was then asked if he would fight to bring back former President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Mr. Gershon said “there isn’t anyone in this room that doesn’t think it’s a good thing” that the deal placed a moratorium on Iran developing nuclear weapons.
“It had a sunset provision, so it didn’t go on forever, but at least we had an agreement that Iran would not build nuclear weapons. I think that makes the world a better place,” he added.
Mr. Gershon said one problem with the deal was that Iran was given back many of its assets when the deal first went into effect.
“That was already done, so when Trump took us out of the nuclear deal, he didn’t get those assets back,” he said. “The worst parts of the deal are already done. What we had left was a ban on Iran building nuclear weapons, and Trump essentially said ‘that can go away.’”
Mr. Gershon said he’s skeptical of Mr. Trump’s plan to put sanctions on other countries that do business with Iran.
“If everybody pulls out of the Iran deal, and Iran starts building nuclear weapons, that’s a bad thing,” he said. “I’d like to see us get back into it before more things break down.”
He was then asked if corporate use of the federal tax cut to buy back stocks was a good policy.
“Among the worst parts of the tax plan was that the money came out of the treasury, which could have been used for lots of good services, and went pretty much exclusively to corporate stock buy-backs,” he said. “What did that do? It raised stock prices, so if you’re in the stock market, you got a benefit from the tax cut. But it didn’t grow jobs here on Long Island. It didn’t grow wages here on Long Island…. It went specifically to promoting stock prices, and that’s not a good thing for America.”
He said he would undo the tax cuts if elected to Congress, using the money to promote research, hoping some of that money could go to Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory, creating jobs in the green energy economy here, including union jobs manufacturing offshore wind turbines.
“That’s a plan for the future, but it only works when the government has money for it,” he said.
Mr. Gershon was then asked whether he had contradicted himself in two videos regarding whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement should work with local law enforcement.
Mr. Gershon said one of the videos was cut by Mr. Zeldin’s campaign to change the meaning of his statements.
“ICE should be working with local law enforcement. That’s what I said all along,” he said. “ICE should not be terrorizing citizens…. going to cars, knocking on doors and taking action without involving local law enforcement. That’s not right.”
“I am absolutely in favor of ICE as an immigration force, but they can’t be terrorizing our citizens in our communities,” he said, adding that it’s critical “for immigrants to be comfortable with law enforcement.”
“When immigrants go into hiding, they don’t report crime,” he added. “That helps MS-13. The worst thing we can do if we’re afraid of gangs in this country and we want to deter gang violence is to force immigrants into hiding and have them afraid of local law enforcement.”
Mr. Gershon added that he believes the best way to combat gangs like MS-13 is to reform U.S. immigration laws.
“I’m not a proponent of the border wall. I don’t think it’s going to help. I think it will be very expensive to build. Mexico’s not going to pay for it like Donald Trump said they would when he ran for office and I don’t think it will increase border security. We need to put more money into human enforcement.”
He was then asked if he believes SUNY Stony Brook should follow New York University’s lead and make medical school free.
“It’s a great idea to make medical school free, but somebody’s gotta pay for it,” he said. “NYU had an endowment that was able to fund free medical school. We don’t have that, to my knowledge, now at SUNY. It’s not practical to just say ‘we’re going to make it free.’ We’ve gotta find some way to pay for it.
The final question, read by debate organizers with a chuckle, was “what can we do to help you defeat Lee Zeldin?”
Mr. Gershon said his campaign has benefited from “tremendous grassroots energy.”
“People are energized. Turnout in the federal primary in June was up 76 percent from where it was two years ago, and the statewide primaries in September were up 50 percent from June,” he said. “People seem inclined to go out and vote.”
“The Republican side needs that as well,” he added. “If you support Lee Zeldin, go out and knock on doors for Lee Zeldin. If you believe in what I stand for, go sign up in our office in Southampton and go knock on doors for us.”
Debates between the two congressional candidates on the schedule as of press time were as follows: Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. with The League of Women Voters of Smithtown at a location yet to be determined; on Oct. 24 at noon with News 12 at a location to be determined; a Facebook Live digital debate with the Press News Group on Oct. 25 at 2 p.m. and on Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. at Hampton Bays High School with the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons.