Candidates for the East End’s First Congressional District slugged it out at the Concerned Citizens of Montauk’s 46th annual Meet the Candidates Forum Sunday afternoon.
During the hour-long forum, Democratic challenger Anna Throne-Holst, the former Southampton Town Supervisor, hammered incumbent Republican Lee Zeldin on his support for Presidential candidate Donald Trump, while Mr. Zeldin attempted to steer the conversation toward his work on issues within this district.
Ms. Throne-Holst arrived to the forum 10 minutes late (she’d spent the morning at church with the congregation of Riverhead’s First Baptist Church), after debate organizers had already let Mr. Zeldin read his opening statement and respond to two questions.
As Ms. Throne-Holst walked in, Mr. Zeldin was answering a question on whether climate change was real or caused by human activity by listing a series of energy efficiency programs he’d backed as a state senator and during his two years on Capitol Hill.
“I’ve been very outspoken,” said Mr. Zeldin. “On Long Island, we have to upgrade the manner in which we’re delivering energy to homes.”
Ms. Throne-Holst said climate change is a huge issue.
“According to every scientist, it is very real. It is a threat in terms of quality of life, a threat to our economy and a threat to our national security,” she said. “It is the biggest global challenge to face and one that we need to take absolutely seriously. Mitigation dollars have to be put in place having to deal with the effects of climate change.”
Mitigation of the effects of climate change is a real concern for Montauk, connected to the mainland by the narrow, low-lying highway along the Napeague stretch. Much of Montauk’s downtown development sits along the Atlantic Ocean in a bowl between the hills where East Hampton’s forefathers kept their animals for summer pasture, and is a prime candidate for inundation as sea levels rise.
Montauk bears the brunt of Long Island’s hurricanes, as well, and its coastline is prone to some of the most dramatic storm-related erosion issues on Long Island.
Many of the audience-generated questions focused on Montauk’s vulnerability to the sea that surrounds the hamlet, and also to the recent controversial Army Corps of Engineers sandbag project designed to protect the downtown oceanfront, and the Army Corps’ plans for Montauk’s future.
When asked how Montauk should respond to rising sea level and erosion in years to come, Mr. Zeldin said that he is working now to ensure the federal government bears the cost of damage to the sandbag project caused by the waves from Tropical Storm Hermine over Labor Day Weekend.
Going forward, he said “what you want to do is what I want to do.”
Mr. Zeldin said plans to work with the town and the Army Corps for a bigger, sand-only project downtown as part of the final Fire Island to Montauk Point project guidelines, which were released in draft form this past summer.
He added that other communities threatened by the ocean in New York and New Jersey have pursued a “buyout option,” in which the state purchased land from vulnerable property owners using federal recovery money provided after Superstorm Sandy.
“Raising properties — I’ve supported that in other areas,” he added. “If the local community gets together and asks for it, I will absolutely help you.”
Ms. Throne-Holst said that local leaders had known for years that the sandbag project was not the best solution.
“Local control and local expertise knew full well that coastal hardening is not the way to go. The project will start to encroach on itself,” she said. “This is a project local control didn’t want done….. Our representative, in my opinion, fell down on the job. There’s science behind this. We knew about it. We implored the Army Corps of Engineers to do the right thing, and Mr. Zeldin fell down on the job.”
“That’s pretty remarkable spin on it,” said Mr. Zeldin, who pivoted the conversation to the upcoming project. “We have emphatically insisted with the Army Corps that more sand be added.”
On the subject of comprehensive immigration reform, Ms. Throne-Holst said that it “has to be at the top of the agenda of the next administration. The fact that it is on the bottom is inexcusable.”
Mr. Zeldin said Congress is “holding hostage the 670 ways that everyone agrees because of the most controversial components” of the proposal.
He added that he has seen bipartisan for support increased border security, increased internal enforcement and visas for high-tech workers and seasonal workers.
“The fact of the matter is that Mr. Zeldin is a part of the majority, and anyone in his party, including him, can bring something forward and have a very good chance of getting it passed,” said Ms. Throne-Holst. “He supports Mr. Trumps’ building a wall. There aren’t enough dollar bills for the Treasury to print to be able to afford this idea.”
Mr. Zeldin said the problem lies in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to pass a bill, and that he is in favor of the Senate using the reconciliation process to allow bills to pass by a simple majority.
Comprehensive immigration reform passed the Senate in 2013, but then-House Speaker John Boehner wouldn’t put it up for a vote in the House.
Ms. Throne-Holst has spent much of her campaign slamming Mr. Zeldin’s record on gun control, and one of the audience questions aimed at Mr. Zeldin seemed right out of her campaign literature, asking for his view on background checks, the stymied ‘no fly, no buy’ Congressional amendment, limiting access to assault rifles and smart guns.
“I don’t know a single member of Congress who is in favor of letting terrorists purchase firearms,” said Mr. Zeldin. “We need to protect the due process rights of Americans, and we have to do everything in our power to make sure the mentally ill, criminals and terrorists don’t have access to any kind of gun.”
Mr. Zeldin said he is skeptical of the idea of “gun-free zones,” and said he’s not in favor of banning some guns because they have pistol grips and “look scarier.” He also said there are massive flaws in the prosecution of background check cases.
“The skating and slip-sliding around this issue is almost comical to me,” said Ms. Throne-Holst. “Lee Zeldin leads the way, 28 times opposing the legislation on the no fly, no buy list. We are in a crisis situation today. The bill that Mr. Zeldin has put forward is happily supported by the NRA, but is not supported by law enforcement around the country.”
Mr. Zeldin asked the audience to look at Ms. Throne-Holst’s ad and look up all the bills that are listed.
“All 25 votes listed have absolutely nothing to do with guns,” he said, adding that one of the bills was the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act that he’d supported to combat opioid abuse.
“This is the height of political disingenuousness,” said Ms. Throne-Holst. “He’s counting on the fact that most Americans don’t understand what a procedural vote is like in Congress. Twenty-eight times, members of Congress asked for that procedural vote. Yes, the bills that preceded them were not related to gun violence.”
“The opioid bill was important, but not important enough to bring forward appropriations for it, so it remains unfunded,” she added.
Another question from the audience asked Ms. Throne-Holst why she supports Hillary Clinton for president, in light of the presidential candidate’s use of an unauthorized email server, her husband’s sex scandals, her policy decisions regarding refugees from the Middle East and her “abuse of women.”
Ms. Throne-Holst pivoted to the recent sexual assault allegations and incriminating statements made by Donald Trump that were caught on a live mic.
“I’m a mother of four athletes, and they have spent more time in locker rooms than Mr. Trump,” she said. “They are offended that he called this locker room talk. They have never heard locker room banter like that.”
“No man I know is ok with this,” she added, and then questioned why “Mr. Zeldin’s moral compass is so off that he will troll for votes” among people who support Donald Trump.
“As a father and a husband, he doesn’t stand up against that. That to me is a real issue and it goes way beyond anything else,” she said.
The audience responded with a healthy round of applause, but Mr. Zeldin responded with anger.
“There’s no question that you can ask me that would get me to pivot and attack my opponent as far as her as a mother or her as a spouse,” he said, adding that Ms. Throne-Holst had been asked a substantive question and “instead of answering that you’re going to attack me as a husband and a father — that’s disgusting. I would never in a million years. It’s disgusting.”
Mr. Zeldin’s remarks were also met by a big round of applause.
Ms. Throne-Holst said she’d be happy to answer the original question.
“As elected officials, I believe we are held to the highest of standards. That means we can hold our heads up high and say ‘these are things we believe in. This is behavior that is what our constituents, our kids our neighbors and friends and family should also believe are right,'” she said. “There is morality in this. Yes, I think she made a mistake with her email server. I would like to know that our vetting of refugees is airtight. But does that rise to the level of condoning sexually molesting women? No, it doesn’t.”
There was also a great deal of space between the candidates on whether voter identification should be required at the polls.
“You need ID to purchase alcohol or get on an airplane. What is more important than voting?” said Mr. Zeldin. “I see people bragging about the way there are so many flaws in the process being taken advantage of in New York City.”
Mr. Zeldin said he’s faced opposition when he’s worked to scrub voter rolls of people who are no longer alive.
“We disagree on that particular issue. I understand my opponent’s position,” he said.
“It’s important to you that there are licenses for buying alcohol, etcetera, but not for buying guns,” said Ms. Throne-Holst. “The court system has reviewed voter ID laws. They inordinately affect poor, minority and women voters in America. Instances of voter fraud are minimal and have little to do with voter ID.”
In his closing statements, Mr. Zeldin said his opponent boasts about how well she gets along with people, but “of the people who worked with her, no one endorsed her campaign” in her primary against David Calone this spring.
“Two of her fellow board members actively endorsed her opponent,” he said, adding that he believed Ms. Throne-Holst spent the debate “immediately pivoting to attacking” himself.
He then discussed his work on local issues, including dredging projects in Montauk and protecting the East Hampton Town Board from the Federal Aviation Administration when the town decided to set new rules at its airport.
“I told East Hampton Town I have your back,” he said, adding that if he wins the election, “on Nov. 9, I can focus entirely on just solving the challenges before you.”
Ms. Throne-Holst said the differences between herself and Mr. Zeldin are “about as stark as they come.”
She said that she has “fought the fight for eight years in local government.”
“You can vote for the guy who has consistently voted to defund the EPA,” she said. “You can vote for the guy who wants to tie Social Security to the stock market or who wants to provide a voucher program for medicare, who wants nothing to do with immigration reform and has voted against the DREAM Act. Or you can vote for someone who believes in working together. The Affordable Care Act can be fixed, and there is a route to fixing it. He says replace and repeal, but has no replacement. You can vote for someone who cares about gun safety and a women’s right to choose.”