The field of candidates for this month’s Democratic Congressional Primary is crowded but congenial, with five candidates all pledging party unity if they fail to win Democrats’ votes on June 26.
With just one month left until decision day, the candidates took part in a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons at Hampton Bays High School May 24.
Candidates include former Suffolk County Legislators Kate Browning and Vivian Viloria-Fisher; Elaine DiMasi, a longtime physicist at Brookhaven National Laboratory; real estate financier Perry Gershon and David Pechefsky, a Patchogue native who has worked in New York City government and in international programs in support of democracy.
What the candidates share is a focus on beating two-term incumbent Congressman Lee Zeldin in November, a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump.
Ms. Browning, a former school bus driver who said she drove Mr. Zeldin’s bus when he was in school, lives just two miles from the incumbent congressman.
“He’s absent from the district,” said Ms. Browning when asked what compelled her to run for Congress, adding that Mr. Zeldin supports a concealed carry reciprocity bill, allowing gun owners with concealed carry permits in other states to carry guns in New York, a measure to which many law enforcement groups are opposed.
“A lot of veterans are really disappointed in him. He’s not representing their values,” said Ms. Browning of the incumbent, who served with the Army 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq. Ms. Browning has two sons who are stationed at the Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton. “He’s so anti-labor… He’s so far to the right that he’s forgotten who he’s supposed to be representing.”
Ms. Viloria-Fisher said she decided to run after visiting Mr. Zeldin’s office after the 2016 election and learning of his position on repealing the Affordable Care Act.
“I thought that a government that’s now ready to leave 30 million people without health care was going in the wrong direction,” she said.
Mr. Pechefsky cited his progressive values as the backbone of his campaign.
“I’ve always been for social justice and the underdog,” he said. “In 1979, CEOs made 30 percent of what average workers make. They now make 300 percent. We need to fight back.”
“We’re fighting wars in seven countries,” he added. “If you’re under 20, we’ve been at war almost your entire life. Lee Zeldin represents a lot of what is the worst in our politics.”
Ms. DiMasi, who has built her campaign on her belief in the scientific method and evidence-based, practical solutions to problems, said “the biggest unsolved problem” facing the First Congressional District is Mr. Zeldin.
“People believe in my integrity,” said Mr. Gershon, who said he was galvanized to run for office after Donald Trump was elected president, adding that he knew Mr. Trump from his work in real estate finance, where, he said, the president was number one on a list of people in the country not to lend money to.
“When he won, I said I have to find a way to fight back,” he said. “The Democrats must win this election to put a check on the president. I’m going to stand for democratic progressive causes, but I’m going to find a way to work with the other party. If we don’t do that, this country is doomed.”
The debate was moderated by Judy Samuelson of the League of Women Voters and Press News Group Features Editor Brendan O’Reilly.
Mr. O’Reilly asked the candidates flat out if they would support Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi if she were to seek to become Speaker of the House again.
“I have a lot of respect for Pelosi, but it’s time for new leadership,” said Mr. Pechefsky. “I want to see leadership in the Democratic Party that moves the party in a direction that places a greater emphasis on the needs of average people, working Americans.”
Mr. Pechefsky then asked Ms. Browning if she planned to support Congressman Joseph Crowley of Queens for Speaker, since Mr. Crowley’s Political Action Committee has given money to Ms. Browning’s campaign. He added that Mr. Crowley had voted in support of the Iraq war, and he believes anyone who supported that war should spend the rest of their life digging latrines.
Ms. Browning countered that many members of Congress are supporting her campaign, including Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer, who may also be interested in becoming Speaker.
“It doesn’t matter whether they give me money or not,” said Ms. Browning, who added that we don’t yet know who might ultimately want to be Speaker if the Democrats take the House of Representatives in November. “I’m a very independent person. I do what’s right for the district and what’s right for the country.”
Mr. Gershon said Ms. Pelosi “is doing a tremendous job of rallying candidates throughout the country…. If we take the majority back, I think Nancy Pelosi deserves another chance at being Speaker. If she wants it, I’m gonna vote for her. If not, I hope some younger people step up.”
Ms. Viloria-Fisher said she was impressed by Ms. Pelosi’s no vote on the Iraq war, but it “would be premature” for her to chose a potential Speaker to support now.
“I know what it is to be a professional woman, and how many times it sometimes took to get a point through to other people in the room from that position,” said Ms. DiMasi. “When I look at strong female leaders, I look through that lens, but if a hard decision needs to be made, I need to stand with younger voters.”
All the candidates said they support improving on the Affordable Care Act, though their methods varied. Mr. Pechefsky said he would work to build a coalition around a single-payer health care system, like the Medicare for All bill currently under consideration in Albany. Mr. Gershon also said he believes Medicare for All “is a better system than we have now” that “is going to allow small businesses to thrive.”
Ms. Browning said that “creating a health care plan for the country is not something that is going to happen overnight,” adding that it’s unlikely the current president would sign such a bill even if it got through Congress.
Ms. Viloria-Fisher, who attended the 2008 Democratic National Convention as a delegate for former President Barack Obama, said that, even back then, Blue Dog Democrats prevented single payer health care from becoming a part of the party’s platform.
Ms. DiMasi said she believes the Affordable Care Act should be replaced because it was easyfor Congress to sabotage financially. She said she supports HR 676, a Medicare for All bill that would provide funding for states to phase in the new health care system.
Ms. Samuelson asked the candidates what they would do to combat fear-mongering over immigrants and if they believe in an easier path to citizenship.
Two of the candidates are immigrants themselves — Ms. Browning is from Ireland and Ms. Viloria-Fisher was born in the Dominican Republic, while Mr. Pechefsky’s wife is from Uganda.
Ms. Viloria-Fisher said she had fought back against former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy’s anti-immigrant measures, and had received death threats and had a billboard truck proclaiming “Deport Vivian Fisher” parked in front of her house during the height of the tension.
She said she still believes in the comprehensive immigration reform plan that passed the U.S. Senate in 2013, which was never released for a House vote under former Republican Speaker John Boehner.
“We need to have a path to citizenship, and temporary work visa programs for our farmers,” she said.
Mr. Pechefsky responded to the fear-mongering aspect of the question, saying it’s important that the public debate doesn’t descend into a narrative of immigration as a problem.
“Open societies are dynamic societies, culturally and economically,” he said. “We need to try to find common ground.”
Ms. Browning said that she’s “standing up here living the dream” of immigration to America, pointing out that the valedictorian and salutatorian of William Floyd High School, where Mr. Zeldin graduated, are both immigrants this year.
“There are many law-abiding immigrants here,” she said. “We need to work to help them.”
Ms. DiMasi said that she has spent her life working with scientists from around the world at BNL.
“We need an immigration system that keeps families together, ensures skills coming into country and diversity, and makes a way for us to be compassionate when there are disasters and refugee situations,” she said.
Mr. Gershon said he believes in comprehensive immigration reform, and in taking care of immigrants who have Temporary Protected Status because they come from countries where the United States has recognized a dangerous conflict or disaster.
When asked what they would do if they did not win the Democratic primary, Ms. DiMasi and Mr. Gershon said they would support the winner, while Mr. Pechefsky and Ms. Viloria-Fisher said they would continue with the non-profit advocacy work they had been engaged in before the campaign.
“Thank you, Perry,” said Ms. Browning. “If I win, I will accept your help. I will give you my help, in the Third Legislative District, any of the candidates. …It is important that they get out and vote for the Democratic candidate.”
The primary election will be held on Tuesday, June 26.