By Claire Walla
On Monday, State Assemblyman Fred Thiele faced off against Richard Blumenthal, his Republican opponent, in a debate at the Rogers Memorial Library hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons. Blumenthal came out swinging early in the evening, attacking Thiele on an issue he’s been focused on since he entered the race.
“We need legislation that would prohibit elected officials from double-dipping,” he said referring to the fact that Thiele, a private attorney who represents the Village of Sag Harbor, is receiving public funds both as an elected official and as a lawyer for the village.
In response, Thiele sought to set the record straight. He is not on the village payroll as an attorney, he said, but as an independent contractor. Besides, Thiele continued, Blumenthal received a six-figure salary and is now receiving a pension from the state as a retired employee of a public school district, and now he’s seeking public office.
“Which double dipping doesn’t he support?” Thiele questioned.
As the debate continued, the candidates remained at odds on most issues.
When state regents exams were brought up, Blumenthal stood by his claim that the state should re-initiate the general diploma for students who may not feel competent enough to take the Regents exams.
“Ten to 15 percent [of high school students in the state of New York] are classified as disabled,” Blumenthal said of students who must take special education courses in order to pass their regents exams.
But Assemblyman Thiele had a different view.
“No matter how you slice it, [Blumenthal] is talking about lowering standards,” he said. “We have to compete in a global economy.”
And as for school funding, Blumenthal said he was opposed to changing the school-aid model from relying on property tax to income tax because, as he put it, “we are now suffering from New York City-itus,” meaning the city gets most of the attention at the state level.
However, Thiele clarified the moderator’s question, stating that a proposed plan to fund schools through income taxes would only be implemented at the local level — the issue of the state wouldn’t enter into the equation. Then, he added that he is “vehemently opposed” to this plan. The first district, he said, relies on money from second-homeowners; if the school funding model switched to an income-tax base, “the local people could end up paying more” than they are now with their property taxes.
In terms of alternative and nuclear energy sources, Thiele said he was opposed to nuclear energy, but supports the effort to explore and develop alternative energy sources. Promoting solar and wind energy, he said, is good for energy conservation and it’s good for creating more jobs in the area.
While Blumenthal said he supports alternative energy sources, like solar panels, “which incidentally I have on my roof,” he added, Blumenthal stated “it’s not enough to power the 21st century.”
Similarly, in regard to land conservation, Blumenthal said the government needs to do more. There has “probably” not been enough oversight of the Community Preservation Funds program, Blumenthal said; “not enough [land] has been preserved.”
Thiele, who was instrumental in creating the CPF, countered Blumenthal, saying the program funds are not drying up, even though September’s total is less than it had been in previous months. The program was recently audited, he added, and results show that all towns except East Hampton, which tried to use the CPF to cover-up a massive deficit, are using their CPF funds to preserve unprotected land.
On another issue paramount to Thiele’s political history, the candidates talked about Stony Brook Southampton. Blumenthal said the problem came down to “micromanagement.” That “there was a huge [state] investment made, but I don’t think there had been due diligence about what was going to work,” he said. He added that nothing should be decided as to the future of the campus until project proposals are studied and a viable solution is figured out.
Assemblyman Thiele spoke about the need to get the campus back up and running, adding that there are several options for expanding campus services — building upon the marine sciences programs, adding to the arts and creative writing track, partnering with Southampton Hospital and even starting a “semester at sea” program — but a residential component is necessary.
He refuted the claim that the school was micromanaged and instead, he said, Stony Brook University did not give the campus the support it needed to succeed.
“[The Southampton campus] needs to be a separate college of the State University [system], not an appendage of Stony Brook,” Thiele added.
Lastly, while Thiele and Blumenthal agreed in opposition to gaming on the East End, they were fundamentally divided on the issue of abortion.
“I am opposed to tax payer funds for abortion,” Blumenthal said. “Many people are opposed to abortion and their tax dollars should not go toward that.”
“You mean, do I support Medicaid funding for a woman’s right to choose?” Thiele asked, correcting the initial question. He answered in the affirmative. “[The decision to have an abortion or not] should not depend on the economic status of that woman.”