By Amy Patton
The economy, immigration and the fate of Medicare were all topics tackled in Hampton Bays Monday during a debate between New York’s first Congressional District incumbent congressman, Democrat Tim Bishop, and his conservative second-time Republican challenger Randy Altschuler.
The event was sponsored by the Hampton Bays Civic Association and was held at Hampton Bays High School with an audience of about 200 in attendance.
In 2010, Altschuler and Bishop faced each off in one of the closest Congressional races in the country. Bishop ultimately retained his seat after absentee ballots put him up by just close to 600 votes.
It is expected the 2012 race for the First Congressional District will be as close, if not closer.
While debate moderators encouraged members of the press to pose questions to the two candidates, perhaps the most provocative moment of the evening came when high school senior Jennifer Linares took the microphone and asked why “attack” advertising seems to be at the core of both campaigns.
“As students we are taught not to bully,” said Linares, to wild applause from the audience. “If adults wish us to treat each other with dignity and respect, why are both of you running negative ads and sending out negative fliers?”
Linares wondered why the candidates wouldn’t instead concentrate on their “own achievements and accomplishments.”
“That is an excellent question,” said Bishop, who has served the First Congressional District since 2002. “And I would be the first to say that the state of our politics has deteriorated in the 10 years I’ve been in office. I think it’s deplorable.”
“Unfortunately it’s something we all find ourselves dragged into,” he admitted.
Bishop blamed political action committees (PACs) and a heavily partisan environment for the pressure he has been under to publicly attack his opponent.
“In an ideal world we wouldn’t be running these ads,” Bishop said. “But it’s not just our campaigns that are doing it. It’s happening all over the country.”
Altschuler agreed, saying that he’s “shocked” at the ads and said as a former businessman, “the last thing you would do is criticize your competitor.”
“I was surprised and disappointed when I entered politics several years ago and found out that’s just the way things were,” said Altschuler.
“It’s been a struggle,” he added.
In spite of objections over negative advertising, however, Altschuler has continually questioned Bishop’s ethics in Congress and Bishop’s campaign has continued to attack his opponent as an “outsourcer” of American jobs.
Both men said they hoped for a more peaceable way of running for political office in the future such as focusing on issues rather than relying on media attacks.
One of the hot-button debate issues Monday night was immigration, an issue front and center at the event.
Bishop maintained his position supporting reform that would allow law-abiding undocumented immigrants the chance to become legalized citizens under very specific conditions — such as paying back taxes, certain fines, learning English and obtaining a “green card” after a decade or more of living in the United States.
“I’m not for blanket amnesty,” the Congressman insisted.
Altschuler disagreed, stating that Bishop has gone on the record in support of allowing some immigrants the right to government benefits or even allowing undocumented workers the right to tuition for education.
“That’s misinformation,” countered Bishop.
Bishop did say he was supportive of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals allowance, which will allow some immigrants brought to the United States as children the right to qualify for the right not to be deported as well as the right to legally work in this country. The current proposal is a small portion of the Dream Act, an Obama proposal that would ultimately create a path to citizenship for some children brought to the United States illegally as young children.
“It’s not amnesty because a child isn’t capable of committing a crime,” said Bishop. “The term amnesty indicates that the person has committed some type of offense.”
Bishop said he does support a path to “earned legalization.”
The economy and national debt also took center stage during the debate as well as concerns about the solvency of government funds for Medicare and Social Security.
“We absolutely must protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security,” said Altschuler. “Their preservation is critical and it’s a promise that we’ve made to seniors and it’s a promise that we’ve made to disadvantaged folks.”
Altschuler charged that, “there is only one of us here who has voted to cut funds for Medicare. And that’s Congressman Bishop.”
“First of all, let me say I’m the only one who’s voted because I’m the only one here who’s a member of Congress,” replied Bishop.
“I have yet to see how my opponent has come up with any solution about the solvency of the Social Security fund,” he added.
Altschuler took several opportunities during the hour-long debate to plug his signature “10-point jobs plan,” a proposal, he said, that will “provide entrepreneurs the tools they need to ‘dream big’ and take risks so they can start new businesses and create new jobs right here on Long Island.”
In closing, Bishop said he plans to continue to “close the gap” of bi-partisanship in Washington in order to get things done for his district.
“I’ve spent the past 10 years of my life in Congress. In spite of what you’ve heard from Randy Altschuler, I don’t think that every problem that has occurred in the past decade in this country should be laid at my feet,” he said, to laughs from those in attendance. “We have to find ways to find common ground.”
“The only way we can start to change the mess in Washington is by changing our Congressman,” said Altschuler.
The next debate between Altschuler, who hails from St. James and Bishop, a lifelong Southampton resident, will take place Thursday at 7 p.m. in Riverhead’s at the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall for a Times/Review sponsored event. On October 15 at 7 p.m., the candidates will meet for a Press News Group sponsored debate at the Bridgehampton School and the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons will host its debate on October 25 at Westhampton High School, also at 7 p.m.