Two familiar Republican congressional hopefuls hope to grab the attention of the East End over the next few weeks, as they duke it out in a primary race for the Republican nomination to run against incumbent Congressman Tim Bishop this November.
Third District State Senator Lee Zeldin, who ran against Mr. Bishop in 2008, has the backing of establishment Republicans, while George Demos, a former prosecutor at the Securities and Exchange Commission, is making his third attempt at an upset in a Republican primary for the seat.
The primary will be held June 24.
The two squared off in their first debate on Friday at Long Island News Radio headquarters at L.I. MacArthur Airport moderated by commentator Jay Oliver, who focused on issues ranging from health care reform to education to gun control and foreign policy.
The two candidates were on the attack throughout the debate, with Mr. Demos making use of many questions to hammer Mr. Zeldin for voting for the state budget, which included funding for the Obamacare-mandated health care exchanges, while Mr. Zeldin countered that Mr. Demos’s campaign was financed by California liberals with ties to Nancy Pelosi (who also happen to be relatives of Mr. Demos).
Both talking points have become hallmarks of both men’s campaigns.
Mr. Demos, a Holbrook resident and the grandson of Greek immigrants whose first child was born last year, said he believes the country is headed into a “European model of socialism” under President Barack Obama.
“When you hold your baby son, you realize you’re holding the future of America,” he said. “We must have a congressman who will go to Washington and fight for freedom and opportunities for all.”
Mr. Zeldin, a Shirley resident and attorney who served as a paratrooper in the Iraq war and is now a major in the Army Reserves, cast himself as a man of the people, whose twin daughters who both attend the William Floyd public school district.
“My opponent doesn’t own a home here and he hasn’t earned a dollar in four years,” he said. “He’s lying about my record on Obamacare and taxes.”
“He is desperate,” he said.
Both candidates said they were opposed to both a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and to raising the federal minimum wage.
Both said they didn’t support New York State’s SAFE gun control act or the Common Core education standards, but while Mr. Zeldin said he opposed both programs in Albany, Mr. Demos frequently pointed out that Mr. Zeldin’s votes in favor of state budgets that funded reforms he didn’t necessarily endorse.
Mr. Demos said he would support a state law that didn’t let teachers go on strike, but Mr. Zeldin said he couldn’t support such a law.
“Public workers who strike should be held accountable,” said Mr. Demos, who added that his mother was a public school teacher. “We can’t have a few bad apples hold the rest of us hostage.”
Mr. Zeldin frequently wondered aloud if Mr. Demos was running for his State Senate seat instead of for Congress.
“It sounds like he’s running for the state assembly or something,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Albany.”
When asked who should be held accountable for substandard Veterans Administration care, Mr. Zeldin pledged to support better care for veterans when they return from combat, and said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki should resign.
“People are giving him bad advice. They need to leave as well,” he adde.
He added that he’d worked in Albany to help veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Mr. Demos said he though not only Gen. Shinseki should have been fired, but Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should have been fired as well.
“Theres a vacuum of leadership in Washington. It starts at the top,” he said. “If you want to hold people accountable, you have to replace a whole lot of people at top of the VA.”
Mr. Demos added that he believes once Obamacare becomes established, the quality of health care across the country would be as bad as it is at the Veterans Administration.
“He finished talking about our veterans in four and a half seconds,” said Mr. Zeldin. “That really speaks volumes.”
The two were also split over whether to extend emergency unemployment benefits.
Mr. Demos said the answer to unemployment is to create jobs, and added that he thought the Obama administration had done a terrible job of helping the country recover from the 2008 economic meltdown.
“I thought the question was about unemployment insurance,” said Mr. Zeldin. “People need to pay their bills so they don’t foreclose on their loans. Some people need a helping hand and unemployment is one way we can give them a start.”
On what to do about Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Demos blamed the Russian leader’s goal of annexing his neighbors on “this president’s horrific foreign policy,” while Mr. Zeldin suggested an expansion of energy production in the United States through hydraulic fracturing in New York and cutting the red tape on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to help reduce the country’s reliance on foreign resources.
Russia is not a one of the most crucial suppliers of oil or gas to the United States.
Mr. Demos has made his opposition to Obamacare a central tenet of his campaign, prompting Mr. Zeldin to ask his opponent what he would say to the 16 million Americans who now have health coverage if he attempts to take their coverage away when elected to Congress.
Mr. Demos said President Obama “cooked the books” on the number of people enrolled in the health care exchanges.
“Millions and millions of Americans lost their insurance and were forced into plans,” he said, adding that Stony Brook University Medical Center recently announced they were not taking Obamacare plans.
Stony Brook has in fact been attempting to work with many of the new plans on the health care exchange.
Mr. Zeldin reminded his opponent that Governor Andrew Cuomo created New York’s health exchange through an executive order without asking permission from the state legislature.
“But you didn’t have to fund it,” said Mr. Demos.
Both candidates said they believed Mr. Bishop had done a terrible job bringing Superstorm Sandy beach nourishment dollars to the First Congressional District, though federal projects in Fire Island and Montauk have been faced with many setbacks that have as much to do with local infighting over the best way to protect the shoreline as they do with acts of Congress.
“This congressman has produced nothing,” said Mr. Zeldin “I think we have bureaucrats down in Washington who care more about piping plover than the people of the South Fork of Long Island. The Montauk Point project is smaller and smaller and all we get are excuses.”
Mr. Zeldin added that he wasn’t sure if Mr. Demos had even heard of the Fire Island to Montauk Point Reformulation Study before the debate.
“Tim Bishop has got to go,” said Mr. Demos. “I absolutely believe we have to protect the shoreline. We have waste, fraud, abuse and funding that doesn’t get where it needs go go.”
Mr. Demos, who claimed he won the debate and later refused to attend another debate scheduled for Tuesday night in Southampton, posted a full video of Friday’s debate on YouTube here.