Five Democrats vying to represent District 1 in the New York State Senate faced off Monday night in a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island, and the North Fork. The incumbent, Kenneth P. LaValle, a Republican, announced his retirement in January after 44 years in office. The debate was broadcast live on the YouTube channel of SEA-TV, Southampton’s pubic access channel. Cathy Peacock of Amagansett was the moderator.
The candidates, who agreed on most issues, were Laura A. Ahearn of Port Jefferson, an attorney and executive director of the Crime Victims Center; Valerie M. Cartright of Port Jefferson Station, a Brookhaven Town councilwoman; Skyler Johnson of Mount Sinai, a political science student at Suffolk Community College; Tommy-John Schiavoni of North Haven, a Southampton Town councilman, and Nora Higgins of Ridge, a nurse who is the regional coordinator of the Public Employees Federation.
Lacking an incumbent as a target, the candidates were able to concentrate on issues, among them how to keep young people on Long Island, the New York Health Act, police reforms, education, climate change, campaign finance reform, and no-excuse absentee voting.
All agreed that affordable housing is critical to Long Island’s future. “Our children and senior citizens can’t afford to live here,” said Ms. Ahearn. “The lack of affordable housing also impacts social services, as teachers, police, firefighters, medical staff, and retail workers can’t afford to buy a home and start their families.”
Mr. Johnson, at 19 the youngest candidate, declared that education was too expensive. “People cannot afford college and get saddled with student loan debt. It’s not that we don’t have enough jobs, it’s that the jobs don’t pay enough. We need to start eliminating tax breaks for huge corporations that are going to come here anyway, and put that tax money toward creating a living wage for people.”
Ms. Higgins called for support for a pied-a-terre tax and a millionaire’s tax to provide money that can be invested in ways that enable young people to stay on Long Island. Ms. Cartright also stressed the need for such taxes on the wealthy to replace property taxes as a source of funding for education.
All five candidates supported school district consolidation and the need to eliminate the financial discrepancies among districts. “All 38 school districts in Senate District 1 should get an equal amount of money and resources from the local as well as the state government,” said Mr. Schiavoni, citing differences in access to technology across districts.
While there was agreement on the need for universal affordable health care, support for the New York Health Act was not unanimous. Mr. Schiavoni believes some form of socialized medicine is in our future, but said, “The insurance industry is more than nine percent of New York’s economy. I would not vote yes at this time. I believe the Affordable Care Act works.”
Ms. Higgins, Mr. Johnson, and Ms. Cartright support the proposed state act and would be willing to co-sponsor it. Ms. Ahearn said the problem must be addressed at the federal level. She noted that “there are people who have negotiated their insurance benefits as part of their compensation and you can’t take that away from them,” adding her concern that people might come to New York from other states with less beneficial programs.
Mr. Johnson disagreed, pointing out that the act would only benefit New York residents. “And if people want to move here, that’s fine, because we’re losing population. You can’t say health care is a human right and not vote for this bill.” Ms. Ahearn replied that there is no residence requirement in the New York Health Act.
The candidates all expressed support for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s package of police reforms, including the repeal of the state's 50-A law, which maintains the confidentiality of the personnel records of police officers, firefighters, and correction officers. “We’re talking about centuries of oppression,” said Ms. Cartright. “We need to eliminate the police culture, which ostracizes officers who speak out about transgressions.”
Mr. Schiavoni favors national training for police so that officers from different states are operating under the same guidelines. Two of Ms. Higgins’s family members have been Suffolk County police officers. “I’ve heard stories throughout the years about people who have literally gotten away with murder. We need to have transparency on every level.”
While everyone agreed campaign finance reform is necessary, Mr. Johnson was particularly adamant. He said his campaign was “completely grassroots funded” and stressed that he would not accept money from the insurance lobby, police unions, or the fossil fuel industry. Ms. Cartright, who agreed there was too much money in politics, refuses contributions from developers, with whom she has to work as a councilwoman in Brookhaven.
Mr. Schiavoni suggested, tongue mostly in cheek, that, like athletes, politicians should have corporate logos on their suits so constituents could know whose money was behind them. Ms. Ahearn said contributions from corporations or individuals would in no way influence any decision that would affect her constituency.
Not surprisingly, there were no climate-change deniers among the candidates. Mr. Schiavoni noted that with the increasing severity of storms here, the state should take an active role in upgrading infrastructure. All supported the development of solar and wind energy. Ms. Ahearn affirmed her support of a carbon tax and suggested the government work with environmentalists to determine the shape such a tax should take.
All five candidates agreed that no-excuse absentee voting should become the norm. “But that’s not enough,” said Mr. Johnson. “Every person who is eligible to vote in New York should be automatically registered and be able to vote by mail.” Mr. Schiavoni noted that many states have mail-in elections “and they work just fine. I would even sign on to sponsor the legislation.”
Ms. Cartright supported both same-day registration and automatic registration. Ms. Ahearn agreed, adding, “The Republicans will do absolutely anything to suppress our voting.” Ms. Higgins suggested that everyone should get a ballot “from the get-go” rather than having to first submit an application for a ballot, which was the procedure this year.
Ms. Ahearn cited her career as a lawyer, social worker, and advocate for crime victims. “Our district needs a leader who can help us heal, rebuild our economy, and reunite us after four years of Trump’s divisive reign . . . I’m a fighter with proven results.”
Ms. Cartright, in addition to being a councilwoman, is a civil rights attorney “who has spent 15 years fighting for the rights of others.” A first-generation American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti, “I understand firsthand the struggles of discrimination and racism.”
Growing up on Long Island, Ms. Higgins was one of six children. “We learned how to share, to do without.” She attended nursing school at 18 and has worked at Stony Brook University Hospital since she was 21, primarily in obstetrics and gynecology. She is also a union activist.
“In my campaign I’ve made one thing clear,” said Mr. Johnson. “I’m going to run with policy. I’m not going to let you guess what I’m going to do. . . . If you go to my website you’ll see we have 14 policies listed that detail what I plan to do in Albany.”
In addition to his position on the Southampton Town Board, Mr. Schiavoni was a high school teacher for 32 years, a fire commissioner, and a member of village, zoning, and school boards. “It’s important we have that kind of experience representing us in Albany,” he said.