Federal, state candidates debate at League of Women Voters event

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Republican Dan DeBono speaks during the League of Women Voters debate in Manhasset. (Photo by Luke Torrance)

Heated words were exchanged between candidates for Congress and the state Senate on Thursday as they argued over the myriad challenges facing the North Shore — high taxes, immigration, protection of abortion rights — at a debate in Manhasset.

The debate was hosted by the League of Women Voters and was held at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock. U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) and his Republican challenger, Dan DeBono, spoke first, followed by state Sen. Elaine Phillips (R-Flower Hill) and her Democratic opponent, Town Councilwoman Anna Kaplan. Last to speak were state Assemblyman Tony D’Urso (D-Port Washington) and his Republican challenger, Byron Divins.

Suozzi introduced himself as a man who can get things done in partisan Washington, citing his improvements to the Northport VA and helping to clean up Long Island Sound and a plume of contaminated groundwater in Bethpage. DeBono wasn’t impressed.

“He has accomplished very little of an impact on anyone’s life except his own,” DeBono said of Suozzi.

As they had at an earlier debate, Suozzi and DeBono agreed that the economy was not benefiting the middle class and low-income workers. Both said they were against the Republican tax bill that capped deductions on state and local taxes.

On gun control, both said that improving access to mental health care was crucial, although DeBono said this should be covered by insurance companies while Suozzi advocated for stricter gun laws.

“The answer to guns is not more guns,” Suozzi said.

Questions could be submitted by card to the candidates, and several in attendance had questions about high taxes on Long Island. Suozzi said the issue is “not simplistic,” adding that the Island has too many small village governments and not enough revenue. DeBono said Suozzi had “caved to special interests” throughout his time as Nassau County executive and in Congress, which led to an increase in taxes — something Suozzi disputed.

“We need someone who will say, enough is enough, we’re not going to have one more tax until we see some growth,” DeBono said.

One major area of disagreement was immigration. DeBono, whose wife is an immigrant, said that legal immigration was undermining the labor force in the United States and that illegal immigration should be stopped by “a fence, a gate, a wall” at the border. As for immigrants who have been in the country illegally, he said perhaps some who have been in the country for seven years could have a permanent green card, but could not become a citizen unless they redid the whole process.

Suozzi also called for more security at the border, which could include a wall, but that would have to come in exchange for a path to citizenship for DACA recipients — young immigrants who have been in the country illegally for most of their lives but have a high school diploma and a clean record.

On health care, DeBono called for Obamacare to be completely repealed. Suozzi said Obamacare should be maintained and improved, adding that while “repeal and replace” Republicans had repealed parts of the law, they had not replaced them with new coverage.

At one point, Suozzi issued DeBono a warning: the last two politicians to beat him — Eliot Spitzer for governor and Ed Mangano for county executive — were both brought down by scandal.

“You can run, but don’t beat me,” Suozzi said, which drew a laugh from the room.

The back and forth was just as intense in the debate between Kaplan and Phillips. Phillips touted her record in Albany for fighting taxes and bringing funding to the North Shore. Kaplan insisted that her time with the Town of North Hempstead had attuned her to the concerns of local residents.

The first local issue was protecting groundwater aquifers, the source of drinking water on Long Island. Both said they were willing to make a bicounty compact on protecting the water, although Kaplan slammed Phillips for letting a bill banning water-soluble fertilizer — which pollutes the groundwater — die in the Senate.

On whether they would legalize marijuana, Kaplan said she needed to see more studies, while Phillips said she had spoken to drug addicts and that the state should “tread carefully” on the issue.

Both supported Roe v. Wade and said women had the right to terminate a pregnancy, although Phillips said she would not support late-term abortions.

Kaplan received a few specific questions on her time with North Hempstead. One of them asked her how Gerard Terry — the North Hempstead Democratic chairman who went to jail for tax evasion — was employed by the town for so long.

“He was hired long before I became a council member, way before I even thought about running for the council,” Kaplan said. “He didn’t ask me about anything.”

Phillips was pushed on her lack of support for the Child Victims Act, which would give victims of child sexual abuse more time to bring charges.

“This Child Victims Act only protects 10 to 15 percent of the victims out there,” she said, saying that the Child Victims Fund, which she supports, would provide compensation to more victims and get rid of the criminal statute of limitations.

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