This year’s race for the New York State Senate’s First District pits a first-term Republican incumbent and former prosecutor from New Suffolk on the North Fork, against a 22-year-old Mount Sinai resident who works with families attempting to rebuild their lives after incarceration. 

This office was held for 44 years by former State Senator Ken LaValle, who retired in 2020 and asked incumbent Anthony Palumbo, then the North Fork’s State Assemblyman, to run for his seat. 

Mr. Palumbo, who has a law practice on the North Fork, said he’s married, with two children and he’s running on his record sponsoring the Community Housing Fund and advocating for state aid for North Fork schools.

His opponent, Skyler Johnson, who works for the non-profit New Hour LI, first ran for this seat in a five-way primary for the Democratic nomination in 2020. 

“Reproductive rights are on the line. The environment is on the line. We need to fight to make sure we’re keeping Long Island safe and affordable,” said Mr. Johnson. “There’s so much at stake. We need a leader who is aware of the issues, on the right side of history and will be there for the district.”

The debate, aired on Southampton’s Sea-TV.

When asked by moderator Cathy Peacock whether the candidates support New York State’s position on reproductive rights, Mr. Palumbo said he voted for the state’s equal rights amendment, which added several classes of protection against discrimination, including sexual orientation, gender identity and pregnancy.

“You voted against the Reproductive Health Act,” said Mr. Johnson of Mr. Palumbo’s position on the 2019 state law that codified Roe vs. Wade in New York. “You voted with 75 percent of the positions of the Long Island Coalition for Life. We are going to protect reproductive rights in the State of New York. You said you do not support exceptions for the life of the mother — that’s putting so many people at risk.”

“For 47 of the 50 years prior to 2019, the (State) Senate was in Republican hands and abortion was legal,” said Mr. Palumbo. “It was legal in New York prior to Roe vs. Wade. It was legal during Roe vs. Wade and it’s legal now. I have a 15 year old daughter. That’s very offensive.”

“I’m glad you believe having a daughter gives you the position to have authority on women’s health,” said Mr. Johnson, pointing out a recent Riverhead Local article in which Mr. Palumbo was quoted saying he did not support exceptions to abortion bans for the life of the mother.

 He added that the State Legislature as a whole has not been in Republican hands fo the past 50 years, and “we have had legislatures that have protected New Yorkers from extremists. We need people who are pro-choice.”

When asked whether a the New York Commission on Ethics in Government created by Governor Kathy Hochul this spring has enough teeth, Mr. Johnson said he believed Mr. Palumbo had made some dubious ethical decisions, including representing residents who rent their property as AirBNBs against local government looking to crack down on short-term rentals, and sending mailings using his state government office right up to the deadline to do so before campaign season.

“That’s an awfully bold accusation from a 21-year-old who doesn’t own a home,” said Mr. Palumbo, adding that he has an 11th grader, a daughter in college and a wife to support.

“I do, unfortunately, have to continue to work a little bit at my wife’s law firm.”

“This is a full-time job that I work very hard at,” he added. “I work evenings and weekends… This is the game. When you don’t have real policies to debate, you go against me personally, bit it’s ok, I have a thick skin.”

“It’s unfortunate to me that you think people who don’t own homes on Long Island don’t know what it’s like to live here,” said Mr. Johnson. “You make $110,000 as your base pay. Let’s not pretend you’re taking a stipend (as a state legislature) and going to your full-time job. You are not treating this like a full-time job. You have chosen to serve in a full-time position to maximize your profits while ignoring your constituents.”

“To disparage renters in your district is despicable,” he added. “I’m so sorry to every renter who has to hear that coming from your senator.”

On New York’s gun laws, Mr. Palumbo said that “94 percent of gun crimes are committed with illegal guns,” and added that he’s voted for mental health background checks, and the “fact that we’re not prosecuting people clearly has emboldened bad guys. I have all law enforcement behind me because it’s in my blood. I’ve been in that business. The best way to prevent gun violence is to prosecute gun violence.”

Mr. Johnson said he’s been endorsed by the gun control group Moms Demand Action, and that Mr. Palumbo had voted against banning domestic abusers from buying firearms.

“That’s very concerning to me, that you think someone who has attacked their spouse should be allowed to have a gun,” said Mr. Johnson, adding that his own grandfather had been a rifle instructor for the NYPD, and “gun owners support these measures because they know this is how we keep our streets safe.”

Mr. Palumbo said he’d worked all his life for victims of violence, but that New York laws wouldn’t prevent people from buying guns in neighboring states, like the recent mass shooter in Buffalo, NY.

When asked how to support people who are dealing with the rising cost of living on the East End, Mr. Palumbo urged voters to support the Community Housing Fund referendum on this November’s ballot, and said the state government needs to reduce taxes.

Mr. Johnson said he wants to see reform of Industrial Development Agencies, which give tax credits to “giant corporations that are coming here anyway.”

“My opponent doesn’t want to believe the ultra-wealthy should be taxed. I want to make sure the wealthy are paying their fair share,” he added.

“The problem is, and Covid has shone, that we lose that (tax) revenue because these folks are moving out,” said Mr. Palumbo. “I agree with our former governor, who said he would cook them spaghetti if they come back from Connecticut.”

Mr. Johnson said he was glad Mr. Palumbo agreed with Andrew Cuomo on something, but he’s seen no sign billionaires are leaving the East End.

“Why haven’t they left already?” he said. “Because they don’t want to. If they stayed through Covid, I’m sure they’re going to stay.”

He added that he wants to make sure the state funds programs that will “allow everyone to live on Long Island.”

Mr. Palumbo said in closing that he’s always focused on what’s best for his district, including voting for the Equal Rights Amendment. 

“That sort of bill is controversial in some circles, but I vote for what is best for my district,” he said. “Affordable housing was resisted by some of my colleagues.”

“When the pandemic was at its height, I was helping seniors to schedule vaccines, working with non-profits to do everything I can to help Long Island families have what they need to survive,” said Mr. Johnson. “This election is between pro-choice and pro-life, between renters and people who think renters shouldn’t have a say, between those who are going to work for their constituents and those who are not going to be there.”

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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