Candidates in the running for the New York State Senate District 5 seat came together on Wednesday, Oct. 7 to discuss their policies in a forum style debate. This forum was hosted by the League of Women Voters Of Port Washington and Manhasset via Zoom.
Candidates discussed a range of topics from the restarting the economy to Long Island groundwater contamination in an hour and a half long forum moderated by LWV representative, Michelle Lamberty. Those vying for the District 5 seat this November are incumbent Senator Jim Gaughran, a democrat, Huntington Town Supervisor Edmund Smyth, a republican, and Barbara Wagner of the green party. Wagner was unable to attend the forum.
The night began with three minutes for opening statements in which each candidate shared a rough outline of their plans for the upcoming term.
Gaughran spoke of his achievements in office, including the passing of a bill for a permanent property tax cap at two percent for the state. He also included a number of reforms passed in the Senate, including voting reforms for early voting and no excuse absentee ballots, gun reforms like the red-flag law which states a gun will be taken away from somebody who does not have the mental capacity to have it based on a judge after due process, and a law he wrote that allows for public water districts to sue polluters.
Smyth’s bid for office runs on campaign promises of repealing the “disastrous” bail reform law, safely reopening the economy and promoting businesses as well as attracting new industries to Long Island, and making public school budgets a top priority. Smyth also wants to set term limits for politicians at all levels of public office.
Each candidate was given one minute to respond to questions submitted by District 5 constituents. The first question concerned the most urgent issues facing the district now and each candidate’s plan to address them.
According to Gaughran, the most urgent issue is how to avoid budget cuts to schools, local governments and hospitals. “When adopting the budget for this year, we chose to adopt an optimistic budget based on the representations that we heard from Washington [D.C.] that there would be assistance for our state and local governments for our lost revenues,” Gaughran said.
New York’s sales and income tax are dramatically dropping according to Gaughran. There is a need to avoid cuts, fill budget holes where they can and to move forward with the economy. Gaughran said unless Joe Biden is elected president, they may have a difficult time, as President Trump made it clear that New York is a “blue state” and he doesn’t want to help.
“All we’re asking for is just a little return on all the money we as New Yorkers have sent down,” he said. “We need to get this aid from Washington.”
The most urgent issue according to Smyth is the safe reopening of the economy from quarantine restrictions. “We have to get back to business,” he said. “Our economy drives the tax revenue in Albany. It’s wishful thinking to wait on Washington D.C. for anything.”
Smyth would take a more proactive approach to budgeting by prioritizing the needs of the district based on money they can reliably count on coming into Albany’s coffers. “It’s going to require us to make difficult decisions,” he said.
There are multiple items in the budget that Smyth would revisit and get rid of, including tax breaks for Hollywood producers and public funding for political campaigns which he said is “nothing but welfare for politicians.”
Gaughran said the vast majority of the state budget goes into aid for public schools and for medical costs, medicaid, funding for hospitals and nursing homes. According to Gaughran there is no campaign finance money in the budget now and that it is something for the future.
In terms of tax breaks for the film industry, Gaughran argued that the tactic is to keep producers here so they don’t go to other states. “We generate so much more tax revenue and jobs as a result of it,” he said.
Gaughran’s priority for the budget is focused on public school funding for k-12 as well as community colleges and state universities. “That is where I would like to cut the very least because I believe our kids are our future,” he said.
Online sports betting is something Gaughran would like to bring to the table, as he believes it would instantly create a lot of new revenue.
From budgeting, the discussion moved to the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned and the candidate’s positions on the NY Reproductive Health Act codification.
Gaughran supported and voted for the codification and said he was “glad he did” in light of President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court. He said Barrett has made it very clear that she would vote to repeal Roe v. Wade.
“We are one vote away from every woman in this country losing their very basic reproductive health rights,” he said. If re-elected, Gaughran will make sure that codification is not repealed.
Smyth does not support the codification. He believes the act should have remained at 24 weeks of pregnancy and should not have been expanded to the moment of birth. He also would have required a medical doctor to perform an abortion and not just a healthcare professional.
“It’s far too extreme. It was a settled issue at 24 weeks and should have remained there,” he said.
On the topic of the economy, each candidate shared their idea of best practices to jumpstart the economy after Covid.
“I think it would be best to leave it to the individual businesses,” Smyth said. Every industry is going to have its own set of concerns and rules that apply for their business. A restaurant would have a different reopening plan from an electrical contractor. Smyth said each industry should follow the basics of wearing masks in public places, wearing gloves and using hand sanitizers, but each individual industry must come up with their own set of parameters on how to reopen their businesses.
Smyth would also give individual consumers the right to make decisions for themselves of whether to go out or not. By extension, he would give individuals the right to decide if it was safe or not for them to gather for religious services.
Gaughran has been working with businesses across Long Island and throughout the district to help them navigate the rules of reopening. He wants a quick, but more importantly safe reopening of businesses. “We don’t want a regression. We don’t want to go back to where we were in April and May,” he said.
A major issue, Gaughran said, is with empty storefronts and the closure of many mom and pop businesses that lead to loss of jobs, revenue and property taxes. Gaughran wants to take the state’s economic development money and redefine it. He wants to move away from the regional competition practice and instead use the money to directly stimulate businesses to create jobs and hire local people.
A major issue on Long Island has to do with groundwater contamination at the Northrop Grumman facility in Bethpage and how that is being handled.
Smyth believes there could always be more funding and research put into it. He believes the situation is being handled properly, but more can always be done. “Whatever goes into the ground, we wind up drinking it years later,” he said.
Gaughran reiterated the law that allows water districts to sue polluters and shared that the state is still fighting the federal government and Northrop Grumman to pay back the pollution they caused. “We couldn’t just sit back and wait for them to do it while the plume continued to spread and threaten other areas,” he said. “I believe we are going to see billions of dollars being recouped.”
In 2019, the NY legislature voted to end religious exemptions for immunizations. Gaughran voted for the law because he believed it is important to keep our children safe. In the near future, Gaughran hopes to see a successful, well tested vaccination for Covid, and said that will eventually have to be integrated into schools as well. “As long as its safe, that’s how we eradicate diseases,” he said.
Smyth believes that religious exemptions should be a personal choice, saying they are a very small, but credible group of people with strong beliefs and that should be respected. “It’s a small amount of people, it’s not going to create a huge difference. It’s not like it’s going to cause an outbreak anywhere,” he said.
All of Smyth’s children are vaccinated and he said he agrees with the science of it, but he disliked the way the government handled the decision which put students out of schools almost immediately.
In terms of police funding, both candidates shared that they did not want to make cuts. The state level only controls the budget of the NYS police department.
Gaughran said it would be a mistake at the local level, as many county departments would have to lay off some of the most recently hired officers which are the ones that deal with communities of color. “I think it’s really important to have community policing,” he said.
Smyth would not cut funding in any way and said he supports a “well-funded, well-trained and well-educated” police force. “I fully support police in their funding and training,” he said.
When asked if each candidate was proud to be running on the ballot with their party’s chosen presidential candidate, there were mixed responses. Smyth, running on the republican party, said he would let Donald Trump be himself and that his focus is running for New York State Senate. “I’m proud to be a republican and I don’t apologize for it,” he said.
Gaughran is proud to be voting for Joe Biden. He condemned President Trump for stating a national policy to “divide us.” “It’s an absolute total disgrace and it’s gonna take us a lot of time to get out of this,” he said. At least with Biden, Gaughran believes New York will get their stimulus, so there is practicality in voting for him.
To close the forum, each candidate expressed why voters should choose them on election day.
Gaughran spoke of his ability to listen and talk to everyone and his strong belief in bipartisanship. “We have to discard our political hats once we are elected into office,” he said.
The most important thing Gaughran plans to do in 2021 is find a way to rebuild the state’s economy.
Smyth shared that working across the aisle has never been a problem for him. His wife is a democrat and they are capable of having civil discussions on politics with the ability to agree to disagree, or disagree without being disagreeable.
“I’m not someone who subscribes to the idea of don’t talk politics at the dinner table,” he said. “If you can have a rational discussion and not get too worked up about it, you should do it.” This mindset is something he hopes more Americans can implement in their everyday interactions.
Smyth looks forward to representing District 5 and said he will be a strong voice in Albany. “I’ll bring a common sense voice to Albany and will work with anyone at the table to make some reasonable ideas,” he said.
The League of Women Voters will host their next forum for NYS Senate District 7 on October 20 at 7 p.m. via livestream, and a forum for the NYS Assembly District 16 following that at 8:30 p.m. at my.lwv.org/new-york/port-washington-manhasset.