At the League of Women Voters debate in Hampton Bays last Thursday Republican newcomer Lee Zeldin characterized his candidacy as being “all about the issues.” He said there was “nothing personal” in his race against Democratic incumbent Tim Bishop, who has represented the first U.S. Congressional district for the last six years.
The 28-year-old Army veteran described himself as an independent Republican with Conservative values and, in turn, called Bishop a “liberal Democrat.” The actual debate, which was the only chance for East End residents to hear the candidates in person prior to the November 4 election, did little to contradict Zeldin’s observation. Bishop touched on numerous Democratic talking points such as demanding troop withdrawals from Iraq and a more intense focus on Afghanistan. Zeldin held true to his self-characterization when he raved about the recent success of the surge and proclaimed the evils of Congressional earmarks.
But the most heated exchange in the debate occurred in response to a question about the war and seemed to contradict Zeldin’s claim that there was “nothing personal” between himself and Bishop. Given the fact that Zeldin’s yard signs read, “Vote For a Vet,” it was no surprise that the former paratrooper raised his voice when criticizing Bishop’s past votes not to fund troops in Iraq.
Zeldin brought up his own recent experience in Iraq and said “fortunately” there isn’t a “majority of Tim Bishops in congress” and the troops “got their funding” in the end.
“If you’re given a weapon and you get overseas, you better not find out your congressman back home voted not to put ammunition in that weapon,” said Zeldin.
Bishop countered by saying he wasn’t going to take Zeldin’s “bait” and refused to be painted as “un-American.” He responded to Zeldin’s challenge of his voting record by pointing out that he voted for funding so long as the bill included “a responsible withdrawal schedule for the troops.” He said the two times he voted against funding the troops was because “what the president wanted and was getting was a blank check.” Bishop also brought up a former colleague of Zeldin’s, from his time in the 82nd Airborne, Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania and said Murphy voted “the exact same way” that he had.
But for Zeldin that fact did not come as a surprise. He alluded to Bishop’s record of voting in step with his party 99 percent of the time and claimed he is one of the “least independent members in American politics.”
“My opponent is a liberal Democrat. He is proud of his voting record. I am very critical of it,” said Zeldin. “All he has to do is say ‘no’ to [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi on anything.”
Bishop, who is running for his fourth term on Capitol Hill, did not fire back. Instead he said he was, indeed, proud of his record. He described this district as being “varied, complex, in many ways unique and very special.”
“I believe over the six years I’ve served, I’ve accumulated the knowledge, experience and relationships to be the person that can best represent this district in Washington,” said Bishop.
The candidates also fielded questions about education and No Child Left Behind, Social Security and healthcare, immigration and the current economic climate.
Both agreed that the primary problem with No Child Left Behind was unfunded mandates. Bishop said the goals of the program were admirable, but that it had been under-funded to the tune of $55 million since it was passed. He said the most “compelling” way to improve the law would be a move away from high stakes testing and to find appropriate ways of assessing special needs students and ESL (English as a Second Language) students. He said the government should be working with struggling schools instead of putting them in situations where they are punished for underperforming.
“We need to provide extra help and services so [struggling school districts] can lift themselves up,” said the Congressman.
Zeldin pointed to funding by saying it was unfair to put a financial burden on the states and have that passed down to the schools. He also mentioned maintaining small class sizes to ensure better instruction.
As for social security, Zeldin voiced support for eventual privatization of the program, common amongst Republicans. He alluded to his own age, and said by 2042 the program would be bankrupt. He said he supports a “controversial” reform that would have people under 40 years of age making their own decision as to how to invest.
Bishop argued that any transition to privatization, or allowing people to choose how to invest in their security, doesn’t work and would cost roughly two trillion dollars.
“We should not be privatizing, we should be reforming,” said the Congressman.
He pointed out that in 1983 Congress came together in a bi-partisan manner to create a program with a 60 year shelf life and that it was time for Congress to do it again in order to create a new structure to last another 60 years.
In discussing the recently passed bailout bill, or rescue package, Zeldin said he was against it from day one. He called it a “bad idea” and said he was “fairly confident it is not working and won’t work.” Bishop on the other hand voted in favor of the bailout and said he had a reasonable degree of confidence that the rescue package would have a beneficial impact.” He said the market needed confidence and liquidity and that the bill was specifically designed to do both. He continued by saying it would work best if coupled with a second economic stimulus that included significant investment in infrastructure.
In response to a question on whether Americans are entitled to healthcare, Zeldin said he did not believe they were. Instead he said, “[America] is the best country in the world and we do need everything we can [to provide affordable healthcare.]”
Bishop called the question an easy one and said, “We are the richest country in world. We must move to universal coverage – the current system is a failed system.”
Bishop brought up former Massachusetts governor and former Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney and the program he put in place in his home state, one that mandates universal coverage through a coalition of employer based coverage, private coverage and government based coverage, as an acceptable model.
Answering a question on immigration, both candidates said it was one of the most critical and crucial issues on the East End. Zeldin said, “Our immigration policy is flawed. Everyone can agree on that. Congress is not doing their job.”
Zeldin then wondered if the country would be better off if everyone in Congress were to be “fired.”
Bishop pointed out his support for the bi-partisan, comprehensive reform that Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy drafted and his own sponsorship of the house version of the bill.