Will it be a red wave or a blue wave that hits the East End of Long Island on Election Day 2018? Voters in the First Congressional District of New York will help make that decision when they choose between two-term incumbent Republican Lee Zeldin and Democratic challenger Perry Gershon on November 6. The Independent interviewed both candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday, September 7.
If Gershon is to win, he will have to reverse some daunting numbers from the 2016 election. Zeldin won the district that year by more than 50,000 votes, beating Democrat Anna Throne-Holst 58.2 to 41.8 percent. He outperformed President Donald Trump, percentage-wise, in the district: Trump won 54 percent of the votes.
While Trump’s name will not be on the ballot, he came up during the conversation with Gershon, who mentioned the president’s name 11 times, while Zeldin, who supports and is supported by President Trump, did not mention his name once. Zeldin’s interview was truncated because of his need to cast a vote on the floor of the House, but he responded to additional questions via email.
Health care is one issue that divides the candidates. Zeldin had voted to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, also known as Obamacare or ADA, and replace it with the American Health Care Act of 2017, also known as AHCA or Trumpcare. That act carried the day in the House, only to fall, essentially, one vote short in the Senate, when the late John McCain gave his now famous thumbs-down “no” vote to the measure.
Last December, a provision to strike down a component of Obamacare that mandated all Americans, with a few exceptions, have some form of health insurance, was passed into law. The measure was wrapped up in the tax bill that Zeldin voted against, but that passed the House and Senate and was eventually signed by the president into law. Repealing the mandate was likely not the primary concern Zeldin had with the bill. Rather, it was a clause that capped federal property tax deductions for residents in states like New York to $10,000.
“I just have too many constituents who are going to see their taxes go up or not see the benefit of the tax relief,” Zeldin explained to “The Hill” at the time. Zeldin was not alone in this view of the tax bill. He was joined by 11 other Republican Representatives, all from the states of New York, New Jersey, and California.
Gershon also had a negative view of that bill. “The tax cuts, which were supposed to be a middle-class tax cut, were anything but that. It was ‘Screw you, New York,’” he said.
Bipartisan Solution To Health Care?
On the subject of health care, Zeldin pointed to several bills, which, he said, are bipartisan in nature. “‘The 21st Century Cures Act’ was passed and signed into law last Congress,” he said. “I was a co-sponsor of that.” The act streamlines the process by which pharmaceutical companies bring new drugs to the market. The bill also set aside $1 billion in grants for states over a two-year period to fight the opioid epidemic.
Better pooling policies for small and mid-sized companies is something Zeldin says would provide “better options. There is a lot of bipartisan support for that.” Allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines is also a measure that should be passed, he said. “There needs to be additional flexibility in Medicaid for states, in order to manage them as effectively as possible.” In addition, he said, “I am supportive of medical legal reforms.” Malpractice insurance can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for some obstetrics and gynecology doctors in Suffolk County, he said.
Zeldin believes that, in the end, the solution to the health care problem will be found in a bipartisan manner. “There are a lot of aspects of this debate that really should have broad bipartisan support. Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, moderates, and liberals,” Zeldin said.
Gershon agrees on the need for bipartisanship, but would not have voted to repeal Obamacare. “We came a long way under President Obama,” he said. “The ACA was passed, a law that requires insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions, and not penalize how pricing is set, and that’s an important step forward. When the Trumpcare bill came before the Congress, I think people realized how important that protection of pre-existing conditions was.”
“When Zeldin voted to repeal the ACA and replace it with Trumpcare, it was highly unpopular in the district,” Gershon said. “He has not been willing to face the voters and explain his vote on Trumpcare.”
“Donald Trump, the candidate, campaigned to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices with big pharma. Donald Trump the president didn’t do that,” Gershon continued. “That’s a major problem. That was one good program that Trump campaigned for.”
Ultimately, Gershon believes the country will move to a Medicare for all program. “Too many people who don’t get preventative health care get very sick, and come into the emergency room, and then the government is forced to pay for them,” he said. He pointed to a study commissioned by the conservative Koch brothers on the true costs of Medicare for all. That study showed that, while the program’s cost would be $32 trillion, it actually would result in $2 trillion savings to the taxpayer over a 10-year period, Gershon said.
“You shift the burden from employers to the general tax base,” Gershon said. “For people who are more able to pay their share, to pay it, and for people who are less able to pay, to pay less.”
He pointed to the Social Security system as an example. Currently, withholding for Social Security ends when income tops $128,400. Obviously, he said, “People do not like to go on record as being for a tax increase. However, if you phrased the question, would you rather cut Social Security benefits or raise the cap on the Social Security tax, it seems to me the answer is obvious.”
Zeldin disagreed, pointing to the same study. “Paying for this would require a massive tax increase as the government assumes complete control over all health care decisions. You could double both individual and corporate income taxes and it still wouldn’t be enough to pay for it,” said Zeldin.
Immigration, ICE, And The Wall
Regarding the wall on the Mexican border that Trump campaigned on and still stumps for, Zeldin said, “In the Huachuca Mountains, we have a 9000-foot-high wall. It doesn’t make sense to put a 30-foot wall on top of the Huachuca Mountains in Arizona. It doesn’t make sense to put a wall right in the middle of the Rio Grande. There are other parts of our border where there already is a physical structure that’s working.”
He continued, “There are other parts of our border that have vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. And I really wish that our conversation with each other, whether it is in Washington or across the country would be pursuing common ground in regards to those vulnerabilities, as opposed to getting into this ‘Build a wall’ as opposed to ‘Don’t build a wall’ debate.”
Zeldin added, “It’s not just about people who cross our border, but I am also very concerned with illegal substances that cross our border as well, and that does not get enough focus.”
To Gershon, the answer is not a wall, but more immigration police. “The wall is a fictional concept that was started by candidate Donald Trump under the assumption that Mexico would pay for it. Well, Mexico is not paying for it,” Gershon said. “What you need is to pay enough people in the immigration police to patrol the border. We need to support our immigration forces, the people who are there to enforce our laws. We need to give them the tools to enforce border security.”
However, he continued, “It has to be done as part of comprehensive immigration reform and it has to be bipartisan. I can’t stress that enough. You can’t have an immigration system that is not agreed to by some bipartisan consensus, because, otherwise, it is subject to change every time an administration changes. That is not healthy for the country.”
Some Democratic candidates have called for the abolition of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Should ICE be eliminated? Gershon was asked. “Absolutely not,” he responded.
“I strongly support ICE,” agreed Zeldin, who said he sees ICE as instrumental in the battle against gangs like MS-13 infiltrating the country, and in the war against drug and human traffickers.
While Gershon is supportive of ICE, he believes that changes need to be made. He is disturbed by the use of administrative warrants or detainers, warrants issued by the agency that have never been reviewed by a judge. They “should go to a judge, show their case that they have probable cause, and then they get their warrant,” he said.
What the country needs, he said, is “a comprehensive plan that addresses the needs of the people of this country, that will provide seasonal workers for people on Long Island . . . We need to address all of it, including border security, and we need an immigration force like ICE, but it can’t be a terrorizing force of the population.”
The Senate confirmation hearing last week of Brett Kavanaugh for the open seat on the Supreme Court, during which a 2003 email written by the nominee to the nation’s highest court brought into question whether or not the 1973 landmark decision Roe v Wade, which found most state anti-abortion laws unconstitutional, was settled law. “I am not sure that all legal scholars refer to Roe as the settled law of the land at the Supreme Court level since Court can always overrule its precedent, and three current Justices on the Court would do so,” Kavanaugh wrote at the time.
Both men were asked what they thought Congress should do if, in fact, Roe v. Wade was reversed.
“We are talking about a hypothetical event that will likely not happen in my lifetime or my kids’ lifetime,” Zeldin said. If Roe v. Wade was overturned, “Our nation would be having a policy debate as to what that law should look like . . . It would be a robust debate, and crafting of policy with Republicans and Democrats working together in both the House and the Senate. I would have to see what that legislation would look like,” Zeldin said. “There is a way to craft that bill that I would be passionately opposed to, and there is a way to craft that bill that I would be passionately in support of. I would really have to see what that bill would look like to give you an honest answer.”
At the same time, Zeldin said, the practice of partial birth abortions performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy has many opponents who are normally supporters of a woman’s right to choose. Since President Trump took office, there has been one vote in the House to criminalize the practice at the federal level. Zeldin supported that bill, which has since stalled in the Senate.
The only other law involving abortion to have come through the House in the current term is a bill passed by the chamber on February 16, 2017 that allows states and local municipalities to withhold federal funds from clinics that perform abortions. Zeldin voted in favor of the bill, which passed the House then deadlocked in the Senate with a 50-50 vote. Vice President Michael Pence then broke that deadlock, and the law passed, 51-50, giving states the right to withhold federal funds from clinics.
“Were that to happen,” Gershon said of a court reversal of Roe v. Wade, “and I hope to God it doesn’t happen, I would hope that Congress would pass a clear law that brought the provisions that were present under Roe v. Wade back into the law.”
The Future Of Energy
“We need to move away from fossil fuel technology and onto renewable clean technology,” Gershon said. “We need to do that as a country to help address such things as climate change, but also for Long Island.” Gershon sees great potential for Long Island, and the First Congressional District, in renewable energy, not just for power production, but for well-paying jobs.
“I look at the potential of off-shore wind as a technology that can really make an impact, both in terms of reducing costs for us, which is good for business, overall, and good for people, but also in providing better jobs,” he said. “If we work on building windmills, you’ve got immediate benefits from it, but you have the real potential of manufacturing the wind turbines on Long Island in New York. We have the deep-water ports that would make this possible right now. Wind turbines for off-shore are imported from Europe. If there is going to be any substantial use of them domestically, someone on the east coast is going to become the producer, and it might as well be Suffolk County. I think clean energy is a real future for us.”
He was asked, in particular, about the controversial Deepwater project. “The major objections that I see that are valid for Deepwater is the lack of transparency. We don’t know enough of the arrangement between Deepwater and LIPA, and we should know more,” he said, adding “there was much more transparency when Deepwater worked with Rhode Island on the Block Island wind farm.
Zeldin agreed about the need for clean energy. “Developing clean and green energy is critical to reduced emissions, improved air quality, and lower energy bills for Long Islanders,” he said.
“I helped secure $5.3 billion in funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds cutting-edge energy research at Brookhaven National Lab and Stony Brook University, and I also helped secure a $2.3 million grant for alternative energy research earlier this year, not just to reduce our electric bills, but also to lead to advanced treatments for cancer and other diseases,” Zeldin said. “We must also upgrade our energy infrastructure. We have outdated power plants that are inefficient economically and environmentally and we cannot afford to fall any further behind the curve.”
The candidates also weighed in on mass transit. Gershon again turned to the difference, as he sees it, between candidate Trump and President Trump. “Candidate Trump proposed a national infrastructure investment that would have been a massive project, along the lines of the Interstate project that was done under Eisenhower, with a huge boom to the economy. President Trump hasn’t done that. It has been lip service, but no program,” he said. “We absolutely need a national infrastructure program.”
Such a program, Gershon said, could modernize Suffolk County mass transit. While improvements to the Long Island Rail Road would be welcomed, the LIRR is laid out in an east-west configuration. What Suffolk County needs, he said, is a complementary north-south configured mass transit program.
Besides transportation, cell phone towers are needed, according to Gershon. “The ability to communicate when you drive around Suffolk County is horrendous,” he said. “It is a major impediment to people who want to do business here, because in the 21st Century, communication is a critical component of business.”
Zeldin touted several of his actions in Congress when it comes to infrastructure. “My Safe Bridges Act, which was passed and signed into law, makes over 80 functionally obsolete and structurally deficient bridges and overpasses across the First Congressional District once again eligible for federal funding,” he said. He pointed to funds secured from FEMA to repair the historic Old Ponquogue Trestle Bridge in Southampton that was damaged during Super Storm Sandy and Hurricane Irene and $15.25 million for an emergency dredging of Moriches Inlet and the Long Island Intracoastal Waterway.
Zeldin complained about the state of the LIRR. “The MTA takes billions in federal funding every year and it disappears. Overcrowding on the Montauk Cannonball Express has triggered a federal DOT investigation into unsafe conditions. We’re constantly fighting for more rail funding for Long Island and have already secured hundreds of millions to improve LIRR overcrowding, including the East Side Access project and Moynihan Station,” he said.
Gershon touched on one other topic: the Mueller investigation of President Trump’s campaign, and allegations of collusion with the Russians.
“Right now, we have Robert Mueller in an investigation of Russian interference of the 2016 election,” Gershon said. Mueller, he added, is “one of the country’s most bipartisanly respected. Let it run its course. Let it reach its conclusion. Don’t interfere with it. Don’t try to shut it down, which is what Lee Zeldin is trying to do. That is not healthy for America,” he said. “If it finds Trump did nothing wrong, then there is nothing to investigate. If it finds a need for further investigation, then, and only then, let’s investigate it.”
Zeldin had a different take: “The special counsel was created with a particular scope that was related to Russian interference with the 2016 election. I believe that Russians meddled and will try to meddle again. We must protect our elections from any foreign interference. Unfortunately, it is also clear that this particular special counsel investigation is now operating well beyond its originally crafted scope and purpose and could literally never end at this point. That aspect is a problem.”