Congressman Tim Bishop addresses the Concerned Citizens of Montauk on Sunday, as his challenger, Lee Zeldin, listens. Michael Heller photo.
By Stephen J. Kotz
In what has become an almost daily occurrence in this year’s campaign, the two candidates for Congress in the 1st District, incumbent Democrat Tim Bishop and Republican challenger Lee Zeldin, offered up sharply differing views in a debate last Thursday, October 16.
Mr. Bishop touted his track record of providing excellent constituent service and his ability to bring the federal government “to the table to solve individual problems,” calling it “life-altering work.” He said he was recently told he had “a laser-like focus on my constituents. I took that as very high praise because that is exactly what I have done.”
Mr. Zeldin, who repeatedly attacked the size of government, wasteful spending as well as the domestic and foreign policies of President Barack Obama and said he supported term limits, said Mr. Bishop was part of the problem. “If you elected enough people like my opponent,” he said, “Nancy Pelosi would be the Speaker of the House.”
With the spread of the Ebola virus into the United States a top news story in recent weeks, both candidates said they agreed on at least one thing: that President Obama has not done enough.
“I think the president is making a mistake in not putting into place a travel ban to west Africa,” where the virus is spreading unchecked, said Mr. Bishop. He said he would support reconvening Congress before its scheduled November 12 session to deal with the problem.
Mr. Zeldin described the president’s handling of the health crisis as “terrible” and said it was time to “have maximum security procedures at our airports.”
Last week’s debate, one of some 75 joint appearances by the candidates scheduled between Labor Day and Election Day, was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons and held at Westhampton Beach High School. The pair also faced off at a candidates’ forum sponsored by the Concerned Citizens of Montauk on Sunday.
Both candidates spent a considerable amount of time complaining about the negative tone the campaign has taken, with political action committees on both sides filling mailboxes with literature and radio and television with ads targeting the opponent.
Mr. Zeldin said “Nancy Pelosi’s super PAC is spending seven figures targeting us, trying to scare women” into believing that if he were elected women would wind up paying more for health care coverage and lose the right to have abortions. Other campaign literature wrongly suggested he would require taxpayers to foot the bill for corporate polluters, Mr. Zeldin complained.
“You can repeat a lie over and over and over again and eventually people will be believe it,” he said.
That brought a chuckle from Mr. Bishop. “It’s pretty cheeky on the part of my opponent to talk about our end, given the scurrilous nature of the ads his side is running against us,” he said.
The incumbent Congressman said Supreme Court rulings opening campaigns to unlimited corporate and special interest financing were “fundamentally imperiling our democracy. We are now in the realm where elections are bought and sold as opposed to won or lost,” he said.
Mr. Zeldin complained that a Bishop ad campaign was trying to scare senior citizens into believing he wanted to cut Social Security payments. “I would never vote for any piece of legislation that would take one dime away from anyone who is a senior or close to retirement,” Mr. Zeldin said.
But Mr. Bishop said Mr. Zeldin has in the past supported the idea of allowing those 40 and younger to put their Social Security withholding into personal investment accounts. “That’s privatization, folks,” he said. And the result would be dramatic shortfall in funding for the Social Security trust fund, which would require a reduction in benefits paid to current retirees.
“We either tell seniors we were only kidding or we borrow,” said Mr. Bishop, adding, “My opponent obviously does not understand how the trust fund works.”
The $17.8 billion national debt is growing beyond control, according to Mr. Zeldin, who said both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations had spent too much money. “We need to pick a number…. $18 trillion? $20 trillion? $22 trillion? When is enough in regards to our nation’s debt,” he said.
“The easiest thing in the world is to say cut spending,” responded Mr. Bishop. “The hardest thing in the world is to actually do it.”
To illustrate his point, he said 48 cents of every federal dollar is earmarked for retirees, 18 cents for defense and 9 cents for interest on the national debt. That leaves only 25 cents of every federal dollar eligible for cuts, he said, adding that he was not going to be the one to cut Social Security payments, veterans’ healthcare or federal law enforcement.”
Mr. Zeldin said that more needs to be done to reduce welfare fraud and provide private sector jobs to entice people to leave the unemployment rolls.
“The incumbent is not giving you a single thing that is going to make this bloated federal government operate more efficiently,” Mr Zeldin said.
“What the incumbent Congressman has done was vote for a piece of legislation that capped the growth of domestic spending and saved $2 trillion,” Mr. Bishop shot back.
The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, was also a topic of contention, with Mr. Zeldin saying there were portions of the sweeping healthcare legislation that should be preserved, such as allowing children to remain on their parents’ policies until the age of 26 and the requirement that prevents insurers from refusing coverage to those with preexisting conditions. But most of the program needs to be scrapped because it has resulted in higher premiums, fewer choices for consumers and other problems,” he said.
“There should be a productive dialog between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives” to fix the healthcare system, he said.
“I suppose that conversation should begin with repeal rather than fixing,” said Mr. Bishop, pointing out that “there is no commitment on the part of the majority party to fix it,” noting that the House has voted more than 50 times, along party lines, to repeal the legislation. He described it as “a work in progress” that needs to be improved. “There are many good things that we should keep and build on and elements that we should fix,” he said.
On immigration, Mr. Zeldin said the first order of business was to tighten border security. “When you a leak, the first thing you do is shut off the faucet,” he said. “You don’t grab a mop.”
Mr. Bishop said that the Republican-controlled House has refused to recognize the need to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants who are already here. A bipartisan Senate bill offered increased border security as well as a path to citizenship, he said, but the House would not act on it. “Is it perfect?” he said. “No. But it is a way that is dealing with a problem that has no easy solutions.”
Mr. Zeldin also criticized President Obama’s leadership against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, saying the president’s strategy would never be successful in defeating the militants. For his part, Mr. Bishop cited the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff who told a Senate committee there was no easy way to militarily defeat ISIS. Mr. Bishop said he would not support a return of American troops to Iraq.
The candidates parted along predictable party lines on a number of other issues, with Mr. Bishop supporting an increase in the minimum wage, a woman’s right to have an abortion, and same sex marriage, while Mr. Zeldin said a minimum wage hike would backfire, that he was pro-life and that he believed marriage should be considered between a man and a woman.
Mr., Bishop said he would work for federal money to help solve some of the growing problems with Long Island’s groundwater, while Mr. Zeldin said he thought such solutions were better left at the state and local level.
Although it is a state initiative, Mr. Zeldin said he opposed Common Core, which he said was setting school children up to fail, while Mr. Bishop said he supported higher educational standards and recognized that the “rollout of Common Core was the only thing that could make the rollout of Obamacare look good.”