FIVE DEMOCRATS VYING FOR LOCAL CONGRESSIONAL SEAT DEBATE AT GREAT NECK FORUM; FAVORITE SON WINS STRAW POLL BY A LANDSLIDE
May 20, 2016 -- With few notable policy differences emerging between four and the discussion becoming contentious between two, the five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to be the party’s candidate in the race for the 3rd Congressional District seat being vacated by Representative Steve Israel faced off last Tuesday in a debate sponsored by the Great Neck Democratic Club.
All five running are attorneys, and include Town of North Hempstead Councilwoman Anna Kaplan, former North Hempstead Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman, Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern, former Nassau County Executive and Mayor of Glen Cove Tom Suozzi, and one candidate from outside the political establishment - Jonathan Clarke, a resident of Jericho.
Larry Levy, a former Senior Editorial Writer for Newsday moderated the debate.
With few opportunities to significantly differentiate themselves with regard to policy positions, the candidates sought to distinguish themselves in other ways - political experience; who had received endorsements from whom; and who had the best political skills and philosophy to best represent New York’s 3rd Congressional District.
Mr. Clarke, who said he is the only candidate supporting Bernie Sanders in the Presidential election, explained that he had thrown his hat into the ring because he believes that Democratic voters need to have at least one progressive voice in the race to fill Representative Israel’s seat.
His personal story, he said, has helped shape his political philosophy. Originally from Freeport, Mr. Clarke dropped out of high school to help support himself and his single father, a disabled veteran, who had been living off disability payments alone. Eventually, after earning a GED, he went onto Nassau Community College and then to Hunter College. Following a stint as a Wall Street market analyst, he earned his law degree and currently has a small private practice that is "devoted to fighting for families and small businesses."
“Ethics,” he said, “is the most important thing in government and law.”
Ms. Kaplan, first elected to the North Hempstead Town Council in 2011, also emphasized her life experiences in shaping her political outlook. A refugee from Iran, who fled the country after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, she said that she is “running to be your voice.” Repeatedly, throughout the forum, she emphasized her connection to her constituents and to the local community, saying that government must be responsive to the people it serves. As a councilwoman, she said she had worked to “build bridges” between communities, and that skill would help her to be an effective Congresswoman.
Mr. Stern highlighted the endorsement he received from Congressman Israel, and said that he was the best candidate to carry on his legacy. During his decade as a Suffolk County legislator he said that he was worked hard for middle class families, veterans, seniors and protecting the environment. As a Congressman he said that women’s issues, in particular reproductive rights, family leave, and equal pay for equal work, would be priorities.
“Our next member of Congress, Mr. Stern said, has to be strong to stand up Tea Party extremists who would shut down the government.”
“Politics in America is in bad shape,” began Mr. Suozzi in his opening remarks. “People are sick of politics and sick of politicians.” Nonetheless, he said he still believes in politics to help improve people’s lives.
“The one thing that distinguishes me from the other candidates,” Mr. Suozzi continued, “is that I have a proven record throughout my career of taking on very tough fights against very powerful interests to get things done.” He cited as an example the “Fix Albany” initiative that he spearheaded in 2006.
Mr. Suozzi returned to that theme a few times over the course of the evening.
“To change the status quo, you need three things,” he said later. “First you need an answer - what do you want to change it to; second you need the guts to take on the status quo because they’re going to try to squash you like a bug; and third you actually need the ability to win the fight. I’m the one candidate in this race who has a proven record of standing up to interests no matter what the costs are to me personally.”
Mr. Kaiman touted his experience as the Supervisor of the fifth largest town in the United States and as Chairman of NIFA (Nassau Interim Finance Authority). “I have spent many years in government working in complicated, complex areas. . . . I understand how government works and what the needs are.”
“Government is an extension of the people. We as Democrats believe there is some role that we can play to make government work and to make our communities and country better, we need to stand up for what is right," Mr. Kaiman explained. "I have done that at every level of government. I think I have something to offer. I’ve been preparing for this run for a long time. I believe I’m the person that can best serve this district at this time.”
Mr. Kaiman later noted that he had been endorsed by former Congressman Gary Ackerman who had represented Great Neck, then a part of the 5th Congressional district, before redistricting in 2012.
When the moderator prefaced a question saying that Congressman Israel had voted with the Republican majority more than any other Democrat in the House, Mr. Kaiman said, “I won’t be the Democratic Congressman who votes with the Republicans more than any other."
The most significant policy differences to emerge during the hour and a half were between Mr. Clarke his four opponents, and concerned the Iran nuclear deal and campaign finance reform.
Mr. Clarke was the only candidate to express support for the agreement that President Obama signed with Iran last spring.
“I would have voted for it.” he said. “Making an enemy of Iran is a bad idea.” He noted that significant demographic changes were taking place in that country and noted the contradiction in how the United States chooses its friends and enemies in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, one of the United States' closest allies in the region, he said, is one of the most oppressive countries in world.
“I would have come out against it,” said Ms. Kaplan referring the nuclear deal. “This is a regime that is not to be trusted and should not be given legitimacy.” She noted that four American detainees were not a part of the agreement.
She did, however, say that “we have a deal and must move forward.” If Iran does not adhere to it, she continued, then the sanctions must be put back in place.
“I oppose the Iran deal,” asserted Mr. Stern. “There are several problems with how it was structured.”
“We need to stand by our friends and allies,” he continued. “There should be no daylight between the U.S. and Israel.”
Mr. Suozzi said that he would have voted “no” because the deal “is not tough enough.”
He added that the United States needs to re-think its policies in the region. The U.S. had for many decades funded autocrats in the region, he explained. But now that this country is becoming less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, it "needs to reset that entire region."
"There are two ways of looking at foreign policy - you can do what is the morally right thing to do or you can do what is in the country's national interest," Mr. Suozzi said a few minutes later. "If you try to do the morally right thing in all the places of the world where there are problems, we would be involved in every single country on a regular basis. We have to do what is in this country's interest on a regular basis. Right now, our national interest is to be with our friends and stand by them in difficult situations. It's got to be our policy that when they are our allies, we are going to stand with them no matter what.”
Mr. Kaiman also said he “would have opposed the deal as it is” but if the alternative is war, then the deal is preferable to that outcome. He expressed concern that with some of the sanctions against Iran lifted, the country would be reaping billions of dollars that could be used to support terrorism.
Mr. Clarke and his opponents also disagreed to a degree over steps that should be taken to reform the campaign finance system.
Given the opportunity to ask another candidate a question, Mr. Clarke asked Mr. Suozzi if he would take the “People’s Pledge” which he himself has taken, to promise to forgo third party money that is spent by Super PACs, with the contributors to those organizations often unknown, that has proliferated since the Supreme Court’s 2009 Citizen’s United decision.
“I’m not going to tie my hands behind my back,” replied Mr. Suozzi, but said he does support campaign finance reform and would "continue to fight against powerful interests."
“Raising money is hard,” said Mr. Kaiman, but that under the current system “rules are rules” and that as long as Citizens United established certain rules, he would play by them. However, he said he did support campaign finance reform and a Constitutional Amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s decision.
“The district is so big,” said Ms. Kaplan addressing the question, “it does require a lot of money. It’s unfortunate that it has to be this way.”
Mr. Clarke responded that it was “unfortunate” that none of the other candidates were willing to forego the third party money. “I’m the only candidate who is going to take this issue seriously,” he said.
BRINGING HOME THE BACON AND WORKING ACROSS THE AISLE
Mr. Levy asked the candidates how they would would tap federal funding sources to address issues and problems locally, and a few minutes later if there were any issues “other than Israel or first responders,” on which each candidate would be able to work across the aisle with Republicans.
Both Mr. Suozzi and Mr. Kaiman emphasized their experience working with different levels of government as chief executives and both highlighted specific examples of their success in bringing in federal dollars during their time in office to address local issues.
Mr. Suozzi said that it is important to understand what federal grant programs exist, so as to be able to target them as a source of funding for local issues.
Mr. Kaiman said that it is important to demonstrate how the district will use the funds when seeking Federal assistance, as Washington is unlikely to allocate them without a clear plan in place.
As for working across the aisle, Mr. Kaiman replied that he thought he could work with Congressman Peter King (R-Seaford) who represents the neighboring 2nd Congressional District to bring federal money into the region.
Mr. Suozzi said he thought he could work with Republicans to reduce the Corporate income tax rate to “bring overseas money back to America and invest it in infrastructure which would help create solid, middle class jobs.”
In response to the first question, Mr. Stern said that more resources for infrastructure were needed as federal support in that area “has gone to zero.” He said that he has the experience to bring in federal dollars to the district.
“It’s about finding out what the needs of the community are,” said Ms. Kaplan. She said that she has the experience of working with different community groups to find out what those needs are.”
Mr. Clarke agreed with Mr. Stern that there is a lack of funds for infrastructure and added that the federal tax structure needed to be changed so that Federal Government could direct more money towards that end. In addition to the wealthy not paying their fair share, he said that New York is a net donor state and as result was not getting what it deserves in federal resources. That, he said, needed to be addressed, and additionally that the tax code should take into account the disparity in the cost of living of different regions of the country.
As for working across the aisle, Mr. Clarke said that he believed both parties were on board with “working to overturn Citizens United.” Most Americans he continued “do not support our horrible campaign finance system.”
Additionally, he said that the two parties could also find common ground on helping small businesses. “The Democrats should be the party representing small businesses,” he said. “Republicans have somehow convinced small businesses that they have the same interests as multi-national corporations.”
“The tax code,” Mr. Clarke explained, “is a big hurdle to people just starting a business.”
Ms. Kaplan said that she thought she could work with Republicans on “making things affordable for citizens;” “working to make sure our residents are safe;” and, “finding ways to create jobs.”
“Those are the things,” she said, “that make no difference to Republicans or Democrats.”
Mr. Stern said that helping veterans and ending homelessness among veterans was one area, and devoting federal resources towards finding a cure for Alzheimer’s was a second. He continued that he could work with Long Island Congressional Republicans in making the region the “Capital of the world for research, development and finding a cure” for the disease.
SUOZZI FENDS OFF STERN'S OFFENSIVE
Polite and courteous throughout most of the evening, the conversation turned markedly less so toward the end when each candidate was given the opportunity to ask a question of any one of his or her opponents.
Mr. Suozzi used the format as an opportunity to address questions that had been raised by Mr. Stern about his commitment to protecting a woman's right to choose.
"Are you aware of the endorsement I had received from NARAL (National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League) in 2013?" Mr. Suozzi asked Mr. Stern. He continued that he had also received a 100% Pro-choice rating from Planned Parenthood.
Mr. Stern replied that he had not seen the endorsement, but noted that Mr. Suozzi had received support from Donald Trump in a past race taking $11,000 in campaign contributions from the real estate mogul and reality T.V. show personality, "and to this day had not explained why he did not give it back." Mr. Trump, he continued, "is running a campaign against every core Democratic value we hold dear."
"We are still waiting for an explanation as to why you have not given back the $11,000,"
he said to Mr. Suozzi.
“I think Steve Stern's Trump attack on me where I got a campaign contribution seven years ago, as did Kathleen Rice, as did Chuck Schumer, as did Hillary Clinton, as did numerous other candidates," Mr. Suozzi replied, "is why people are sick of politicians - because they will try and distract people with issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with the problems in this country - trying to score petty political points.” The response prompted applause from the audience.
As for Mr. Suozzi’s initial question, Mr. Kaiman replied that he had not seen NARAL’s endorsement.
Mr. Clarke said that he was a strong advocate for women and that his Campaign Manager, elections attorney, and Treasurer are women.
“I’m the only candidate who is a woman,” responded Ms. Kaplan
During his opportunity to to ask one of his opponents a question, Mr. Stern directed his towards Mr. Suozzi.
“Who is going to best represent the district on core Democratic values and win the general election?” he asked Mr. Suozzi, “You have disappointed North Shore Democrats on a consistent basis and much of that has to do with your record of raising taxes, taking big raises during very challenging times. How can you possibly think you are going to be the best Democratic candidate to not only win the primary, but also what is going to be a very difficult general election in the fall.”
“He said I disappointed Democrats? I was the first Democratic Executive with a Democratic legislature since 1917,” Mr. Suozzi responded, again prompting applause from the audience.
“It’s true - I did raise taxes, but at least I’m being honest about it.” said Mr. Suozzi. “You're going to say you never raised general fund taxes?"
Getting no response from Mr. Stern, he answered his own question. "You did raise property taxes - by 23%.”
“You have a habit of trying to play with things - on the choice issue, on the raising taxes issue and I can go on with other things.” Mr. Suozzi continued. “It’s really what makes people sick about politicians. So - I will do everything I can if I’m the Democratic candidate to represent the people of the North Shore and do everything I can to win this race for the Democrats.”
Mr. Kaiman used the exchanges between Mr. Suozzi and Mr. Stern to present himself as above the fray and as a unifier - for which he received the biggest applause of the evening.
“We’re all running as Democrats and one of us will win,” he said. “We have to be careful about how we criticize each and to not take things out of context.”
“I believe the others,” he continued referring to his four opponents, “have done a great job. We have to band together.”
Answering Mr. Stern’s initial question about who would best represent core Democratic values, Ms. Kaplan responded, “I will leave it to you, the voters, to decide who will best represent you.”
“If you like the way government has been run in Nassau and Suffolk counties,” replied Mr. Clark in response to Mr. Stern’s question, “you have your candidates. If you need someone who is going to take a stand, I’m your candidate.”
FAVORITE SON WINS STRAW POLL IN A LANDSLIDE
Following the debate, members of the Great Neck Democratic Club were given the opportunity to vote in a straw poll.
Mr. Kaiman, a Great Neck resident, won overwhelmingly with 49 votes. Mr. Suozzi came in second with six; Ms. Kaplan, also a Great Neck resident, and Mr. Clarke each received three votes; Mr. Stern garnered one.
The primary election will be held on June 28th.
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