More than 150 people crowded into the Southampton Town Community Center in Hampton Bays Thursday night to hear Congressman Tim Bishop and Republican challenger Randy Altschuler face-off in the first public debate on the South Fork between the two candidates vying for a seat in the United States House of Representatives.
Altschuler declined to attend the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons debate that same evening, citing scheduling conflicts, but eventually committed to the civic association’s debate, although time between the candidates was limited to 25 minutes.
That proved long enough for the debate to become heated, however, particularly when Congressman Bishop turned over the remainder of his closing time to Altschuler, demanding details on how he would cut spending and simultaneously balance a budget with a $1.3 trillion deficit without raising taxes.
“How much out of the military, how much out of Social Security, how much out of Medicare, how much out of Medicaid, how much out of cancer research, how much out of student aid, how much out of benefits?” asked Mr. Bishop. “Bland statements that we need to cut spending that are not accompanied by very specific suggestions as to what we are going to do are meaningless.”
“I think we all know the congressman has no real interest in what spending cuts I would propose,” replied Altschuler, prompting some members of the crowd to boo and others to shout out that they hoped to hear his plans. “What Congressman Bishop will do is put that in his campaign, which has not been on his record, but has been about maligning me.”
Altschuler went on to say that Bishop voted against the 2003 tax cuts, and that his solution to the country’s woes was “bigger government.” He added that the stimulus plan Bishop supported cost the district $3 billion, with the district only getting back $290 million.
While both candidates spent a majority of the debate defending themselves and their professional records, they were also able to touch on specific issues, sometimes finding common ground.
In his opening, Altschuler noted he comes from a “modest background,” the son of a single mother who worked hard to ensure her son’s prosperity.
A graduate of Princeton University, the 39-year-old received his MBA from Harvard Business School before making millions in the private sector.
One of his businesses, Office Tiger, noted Altschuler, has been the subject of scrutiny through the Bishop campaign, which has highlighted the company’s practice of outsourcing jobs to Asia in campaign commercials and advertisements.
Altschuler said the company, which provides clerical services for large corporations, boasted 250 employees in New York and 500 across the country, with additional employees in Europe and Asia as well.
Altschuler sold Office Tiger in 2006 and started Cloud Blue, the electronics recycling company he currently owns.
After living in New Jersey for several years, jumping into politics was a decision Altschuler made three years ago, just as he moved to Long Island from New York City, and became concerned with government spending, he said.
Mr. Bishop, a lifelong resident of Southampton, whose family first settled in the town in the 1600s, said these difficult times will require tough decisions by members of Congress.
“I voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a source of some consternation to a great number of people who are here,” Mr. Bishop said, adding that not one member of Congress voted for the bill in an effort to help banks. Rather, he said, the bill ultimately protected the worldwide economy.
“I am convinced if we had not passed the Troubled Asset Relief Program, our economy would have tumbled into the second great depression and it would not have been a depression contained to the United States — it would have been a global depression,” said Bishop.
Bishop said he made that vote to protect middle class voters on Long Island, noting that when Lehman Brothers failed, the construction industry on the East End and its overall economy was threatened.
When it comes to cutting government spending, Altschuler said his priority was sending “as few dollars to Washington as possible.”
“We have to go into Washington and look across the board,” he said. “We have to look at earmarks that are given out. A lot of them are airdropped into spending bills that have nothing to do with it.”
He also said that looking at spending within each federal agency, which has seen growth in its ranks while private sector jobs have diminished, should also be a priority.
Bishop countered that the government overspends by $1.3 trillion, and Altschuler has not provided any specifics on how he plans to achieve deficit reduction.
“Cutting out waste, fraud and abuse, cutting out bureaucracy and earmarks is not going to get it done, folks,” he said. “Earmarks are $20 billion a year. By the way, not all earmarks are bad. The Shinnecock Inlet is open as a navigable waterway right now because of an earmark I got, and I didn’t airdrop it in a bill. I did it in the cold light of day.”
Securing millions in financing through the stimulus bill and through earmarks has enabled the inlet to remain open, he said.
“I am proud of it, and I know the commercial fishing industry is very pleased I got it done,” said Bishop.
Bishop also said that “pay as you go,” legislation, which requires Congress to identify where they will acquire funds for any new spending, was now law and a key towards reducing the deficit, along with spending reductions.
He added that kind of budget discipline was used in the 1990s, but was abandoned under the Bush administration.
“The last budget President Clinton left for President Bush was $230 million in surplus,” said Bishop, adding the last budget President Bush left for President Obama was a $1.3 trillion deficit.
“He turned a $5.4 trillion surplus into a $9 trillion deficit,” said Bishop. “That is a $14 trillion swing, and those are the facts.”
“The congressman has twice said we cannot get through this solely through spending reduction,” said Altschuler. “Let me be clear, I interpret that as we need to raise taxes and we absolutely, positively cannot raise taxes.”
“We have an expense problem, not a revenue problem,” he continued, noting the “pay as you go” law was suspended with the passage of a $790 million stimulus bill.
“In all fairness, the deficit has grown under the Obama administration as well,” said Altschuler. “The unemployment numbers were not supposed to rise over eight percent, as we were promised with that stimulus bill. Today it is 9.6 percent … we have to start tightening our belts.”
Bishop supports abolishing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, calling it an “insulting policy” that is “depriving us of real talent in the military.”
Altschuler said he would take his cue on that stance from military leaders, and if they supported the abolition of the law, so would he.
In separate interviews, both candidates also weighed in on the Peconic Estuary, education and how government can help small businesses.
Bishop noted the Peconic Estuary is one of over two dozen estuaries of national significance eligible for funding and one of the first that was earmarked for federal funding.
He promised to ensure that the national estuary program continues to receive funding, and has recently filed legislation to increase the amount of monies those estuaries would be awarded.
“We have an obligation to prioritize our efforts,” said Altschuler. “It is critical to insure that the essential components of our environment are supported, particularly since our environment is a key component of our economic engine on the East End of Long Island.”
As for how Congress can help small businesses, which make up the majority of businesses on the East End, Altschuler advocated for tax cuts.
“We need to extend the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that are due to expire at the end of the year and we need to reduce overall taxes that small businesses and individuals pay,” he said, adding that eliminating government red tape faced by businesses should also be a priority.
“The perfect example is ObamaCare,” he said referring to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, health care reform passed under the Obama administration. “Its costs and the paperwork it will generate will decimate the business community and that is why I will lead the fight to repeal it when elected to Congress.”
As a congressman, Bishop noted he has voted for eight separate tax breaks for small businesses over the course of the last 18 months that are now law, as well as supported incentives like a payroll tax holiday for small businesses who hire someone wbho has been unemployed for over six months.
He has also supported legislation that lowers the tax burden for local businesses by allowing them to write off investments in a shorter period of time, which will hopefully allow businesses the ability to expand.
“The other thing is a $30 billion lending fund, approved in September, that will be administered by community banks to provide funding specifically to small businesses,” said Bishop.
The health care law, he added, provides tax credits up to 30 percent if an employer provides coverage, which he notes is not an obligation for businesses with less than 50 employees. It also allows small businesses to enter into small business insurance exchanges, he added, which gives them the same buying power as larger companies.
“I think we are doing a lot,” said Bishop.