In their first debate of the 2014 election season, U.S. Representative Tim Bishop and State Senator Lee Zeldin exchanged barbed attacks and fleshed out their differing opinions on almost every major policy issue, from gay marriage to term limits, on Monday night.
During the debate held in the Hampton Bays High School auditorium, the two politicians, who are looking to represent New York’s 1st Congressional District in Washington, D.C., riffed on topics submitted by audience members, brushing on both national talking points as well as local issues. The debate was sponsored by the Hampton Bays Civic Association.
Mr. Zeldin, a Republican from Shirley, accused Mr. Bishop of being unable to produce results during his 12 years in Washington, pointing to the ever-stagnant effort to get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to raise and repair Dune Road. He also criticized the incumbent for supporting President Barack Obama’s administration and the agenda of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, scoring points and loud cheers from much of the audience—which was in his corner from the beginning—by challenging Mr. Bishop’s views on the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and immigration.
“We don’t need someone representing us like this in San Francisco,” Mr. Zeldin said. “We need someone representing us like this is the East End of Long Island.”
Mr. Bishop, meanwhile, defended his track record in Congress as one that reflects his own ideology rather than one that strictly adheres to the Democratic Party platform. The Southampton Town resident drew groans and a few a boos from the audience when he described Obamacare as a “work in progress,” as well as laughs when he expressed his support for term limits. He battled off hecklers throughout the night.
The incumbent criticized his challenger for arguing against policies, such as the Affordable Care Act and the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate last year, without firmly backing an alternative. “What I’m very clear on is what you don’t support,” Mr. Bishop said. “I have no idea what you do support, so please share with us what that is.”
The candidates discussed the proposed privatization of Social Security, a topic most likely brought on by an attack ad that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been running this month that focuses on a statement Mr. Zeldin made to Newsday during his first campaign against Mr. Bishop in 2008. Mr. Zeldin, who lost that bid, said he would support privatizing some Social Security contributions from people under 40. The video features a retired teacher from Blue Point named Walter who talks about how detrimental a move like that would be for retirees such as himself.
Mr. Zeldin vehemently denies that he ever made such a claim, adding that he in no way supports privatizing Social Security. He went on to challenge Mr. Bishop to denounce the ad and request that the Democratic party pull it.
“If my opponent really wanted to have an honest debate on facts, he’d make a statement right now to this audience, with the cameras rolling, calling on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to take down that ad of that senior in Blue Point,” Mr. Zeldin said. “Because what he’s saying is untrue and it’s shameful that you’re letting this go on.”
Declining to accept Mr. Zeldin’s challenge, Mr. Bishop instead returned fire, daring Mr. Zeldin to renounce an advertisement being run by the National Republican Congressional Committee that highlights a report that surfaced in 2012 of Mr. Bishop helping a constituent obtain a permit for a private fireworks display, which purportedly resulted in the constituent and his wife later donating $10,000 to Mr. Bishop’s reelection campaign. The incident is still under review by the Office of Congressional Ethics and a ruling has not yet been issued.
“If you want to talk about shameful ads that campaign committees are running, take a look at the one that’s running on your behalf,” Mr. Bishop said, careful not to disclose the content of the spot. “And then why don’t you look into that camera and renounce that, which I doubt you’ll do, because that’s the only bullet you’ve got.”
Mr. Zeldin made no such statement. Mr. Bishop went on to say he’s glad his opponent has changed his stance on Social Security.
After receiving a question about their views toward same-sex marriage at the federal level from an audience member identified as “Brad from Northampton,” Mr. Bishop said he fully supports gay marriage while Mr. Zeldin said he believes that marriage should be defined as a union between a man and a woman.
In 2011, Mr. Zeldin was one of 29 members of the New York State Senate who voted against the Marriage Equality Enactment bill. The law still passed the Senate by a vote of 33 to 29 and was ultimately signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, officially legalizing same-sex marriages in the state. Mr. Zeldin described that as the most emotional debate he has been a part during his four-year tenure in Albany.
During his response, Mr. Zeldin said he did not run for office to get involved in the gay marriage debate, but rather to address issues related to taxes, licensing and veterans affairs.
“I enjoyed being as open-minded as possible but unfortunately … for the advocates, I had to vote no,” he said.
Mr. Bishop, on the other hand, touted his record of voting to repeal legislation restricting benefits on same sex couples and preventing the recognition of same sex marriages across state lines. His daughter, Molly Bishop, is in a same-sex marriage.
“We ought to be a nation that is sufficiently loving and sufficiently tolerant,” he said. “That we cannot just allow but embrace two people who make a commitment to one another and want to share that commitment with the world and wanna codify that commitment. I’m a full supporter and an enthusiastic supporter.”
In line with a slogan, “Term Limit Tim,” that the Zeldin campaign has used in recent weeks, one audience member asked how the two felt about term limits. Mr. Bishop, unsurprisingly, does not support restricting the number of terms one can serve in Congress, but said the way he sees it, he is term limited, pointing to the fact that he must seek reelection every two years.
“It’s a very good system in terms of holding us accountable,” he said. “I will say this, and I know there are people in this audience that will disagree—I’m a better member of Congress now than when I was first elected. I know more, I know how to get things done better, I’ve grown in seniority and that seniority matters. I’ve developed relationships with the agencies and the departments and the people that I need to have them with to serve my constituents.”
Mr. Zeldin said he is in support of term limits at all levels to prevent ideas from getting stagnant, although he did not specify his desired parameters. He said he did not intend to have a long career in Albany, nor does he intend to have one in Washington if elected in November; he simply wants to affect what change he can and then move on.
Mr. Bishop then questioned what Mr. Zeldin thought of his colleague in Albany, State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle. A Republican, Mr. LaValle has served in New York State’s 1st Senatorial district since 1977.
“Should I tell Ken LaValle that 40 years is too much, or do you want to tell him?” Mr. Bishop joked. “OK, I’ll tell him.”
“I love Ken LaValle, he’s a good guy,” Mr. Zeldin returned. “Leave Ken LaValle out of this.”
“Have a consistent argument,” Mr. Bishop quipped.