Third Congressional District constituents got to hear from the five Democratic candidates vying for Congressman Steve Israel’s seat during a spirited debate hosted by the Great Neck Democratic Club on May 17.
The debate was held at the Great Neck House on Arrandale Avenue, and the venue was packed to the rafters with local residents looking to get to know the candidates and individual policies in order to make an informed choice come the June 28 primaries.
But for those expecting the type of no-holds-barred type of contest they’ve grown used to with the current ongoing presidential race, the debate—with its civil, almost friendly feel—was a breath of fresh air, but regardless of the pleasantries, make no mistake—each of the candidates were indeed there to claim the Democratic nomination for themselves.
Great Neck Democratic Club President Steven Markowitz welcomed the five candidates for Israel’s Congressional seat—attorney Jonathan Clarke, former Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman, North Hempstead Councilwoman Anna Kaplan, Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern and former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi.
“We’re extraordinarily fortunate that we have some outstanding Democratic candidates, and I’m sure whoever emerges as the ultimate Democratic nominee will go on to victory in November,” he said. “Tonight is an opportunity to hear from the candidates and you will have the opportunity to pose your own questions.”
The debate was moderated by Larry Levy, former chief political columnist at Newsday and the cohost of the PBS political commentary show Face-Off. A major topic covered by Levy concerned a hot-button topic on both a local and national level—health care, in particular the candidates’ opinion of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and how they each individually would approach health care reform if given the chance. All five candidates had a positive view on the system, although most of them felt it could be improved.
“I’ve heard good stories and challenging stories about Obamacare, but the vital elements are working and there have been great successes,” Stern said. “But there are changes that need to be made, certainly when it comes to the cost of prescription drugs.”
Suozzi noted that the Affordable Care Act served an important need for millions of uninsured Americans, but that there are still issues that need addressing in the near future.
“I agree that Obamacare was an improvement and that it expanded coverage,” he said. “But there are provisions that need to be re-negotiated to bring power back to the doctors and the patients so we can deliver quality health care and not just make insurance companies more money.”
The other candidates expressed similar sentiments regarding health care reform in the United States; that it has made great strides in recent years, but it still has a long way to go to address the needs of every citizen.
Another question posed by Levy centered on how the candidates, as a Democratic minority, would tap into federal financial sources to address local problems within their Congressional district. Kaiman said that anyone in government at the local level understands that federal dollars are sorely needed.
“I brought in $70 million over the course of time while I was North Hempstead Town Supervisor,” he said. “I would go to Washington with a team of community leaders, and the key for getting money from Washington is to make sure that they understand that their money is going to be utilized properly.”
Kaplan said that as North Hempstead councilwoman, she has a grassroots viewpoint of how greatly local residents in her town need federal money just to be able to afford to live there.
“I’ve been told by a lot of seniors that it’s becoming very cost-prohibitive for them to stay in the town,” she said. “I worked with a developer to develop a plan to build 72 units of affordable senior housing in Manhasset…it’s trying to find out what the needs are of the community and work on those needs.”
Suozzi praised incumbent Israel and his ability to get federal funding, and cited his own eight years of experience as Nassau County Executive and how he brought in government money for economic development and infrastructure improvements. Stern said that getting federal funding—which is at an all-time low—to create the infrastructure needed to provide jobs and affordable housing is vital to revitalizing Long Island.
Other issues covered at the debate included possible areas of common ground with Republicans, as well as a series of questions the candidates posed to each other. During this segment, Clarke—who touted himself as the only candidate addressing the recent political corruption in Albany—spoke about his views on campaign reform. “At our last debate, I talked about the People’s Pledge, which is a deal between people running for office that they’re not going to take third-party money,” he said. “Smaller candidates who can’t raise the money can’t compete with the larger candidates, and this is not competition. I reached out to everyone about signing a Peoples Pledge, but I haven’t heard back from anybody.”
Suozzi, who has called for campaign reform himself, responded in the negative when Clarke directly asked him about participating in the Peoples Pledge.
“I’ve been talking about this for 30 years, since I was in law school…this is such an airy topic that is so hard to change,” he said. “Campaign reform needs to happen, but I don’t think the answer is for me to sign a pledge. But I will fight against powerful interests that keep these laws the way they are, as I have done my entire career.”
Following the debate, the Great Neck Democratic Club held a straw poll of its paid members, which showed Kaiman in the lead with this group.