The Democratic candidates looking to unseat New York State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle met in Southampton on Aug. 18 in one of their final debates before the primary next Thursday.
Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming and Jennifer Maertz, an attorney who is making her second bid for State Senate, pleaded their cases at the Rogers Memorial Library during a forum organized by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons and recorded for Sea TV.
The two agreed on many points. Both said children in the community deserve to inherit a healthy environment, good schools, and a strong job market, and both said that Albany has failed the First District, but at least one difference in approach was apparent.
Asked about how they would have voted on the Marriage Equality Act, each said she supported it. Ms. Maertz called it a civil rights issue and said that “with regard to moral and civil issues” she would always vote her conscience first and foremost. “If 70 percent of this district was against a civil issue,” and she believed it was right, “I would still vote for it,” she said. She said she wished she had been elected when she ran two years ago so that she could have “cast that historic vote.”
“I support marriage equality, but I do care what constituents say,” Ms. Fleming said. She added that Mr. LaValle seemed to think constituents were not ready for same-sex marriage when he voted against it, but “he was dead wrong” about the “critical and essential right.”
Ms. Fleming said she had lost one of her sisters, who was a lesbian, in a car accident, and that her sister’s girlfriend of many years was not allowed into the hospital room because she was not a relative. “There is no question that people should choose who they want to live their lives with,” she said. “LaValle dismissed this issue,” she said, and “we’re on the wrong side of history.” Still, she said, “I can’t say that I don’t care what constituents say.”
Ms. Fleming, who worked as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan for 10 years, was first elected to the Southampton Town Board in a special election in 2010 and won re-election last year. Ms. Maertz, a trial attorney who lives in Rocky Point, has a master’s in business administration.
With the Republican National Convention at its midpoint in Tampa, Fla., Ms. Fleming joked during the debate that she knew the audience would “much rather be home on your couch watching Paul Ryan,” the vice presidential candidate, but also said that in the national elections there are serious issues at stake for women, such as “intimate, personal decisions” and equal pay for equal work. New York State has yet to have a female senator from Suffolk County, she said, adding that she “can fight for the needs of everyone in our community.”
Asked how they would ensure that women in need had access to reproductive health care if a Romney-Ryan budgbudget eliminated federal funding for Planned Parenthood, both women spoke strongly in support of the organization.
“We can’t elect them,” Ms. Maertz said. “Women will die if Planned Parenthood is not properly funded. Only a portion of what they do is abortion services,” she explained. “We have gone back hundreds of years,” she said, adding, “I will do whatever I can to fully fund necessary health care. For every dollar we spend,” she said, “we get four in return” from reduced pregnancies and other services that prevent expenses later, she said.
“As a former sex crimes prosecutor,” Ms. Fleming said she was appalled by Republican Senator Todd Akin’s recent “grossly inaccurate comments about ‘legitimate rape’ and pregnancy terms.” She said she had called on Mr. LaValle to issue a statement that denounced him, but he refused. Women should have “the right to make an intimate, difficult decision without consulting a politician,” she said. Women’s health has been ignored by the Republican majority in the senate, she added.
A question from the audience about electric rates and the Long Island Power Authority gave Ms. Fleming the opportunity to talk about how rates impact industry. LIPA and National Grid’s dominance of the market is “one of the reasons I am running,” she said. The monopoly results in astronomical rates compared to anywhere else in the state, she said, and the high electric bills keep innovative industries from operating here. It is “crucial we re-power power plants so we invite industry to Long Island.”
Ms. Maertz said she is also passionate about the issue, and that she wrote an op-ed in Newsday on the subject. She agreed that “they have been working the system to keep them a monopoly on Long Island” and said competition, including sustainable resources such as solar technology, is necessary. She also believes that small businesses must be supported with tax credits, such as those offered in the state’s Excelsior Jobs Program, which supports biotechnology and manufacturing jobs.
Ms. Fleming accused Senator LaValle of being more concerned with special interests than his constituents, and said that he “failed to protect our economy while voting to increase his own salary.”
Ms. Maertz said she has had to work three jobs at a time, and that she and her husband “struggle to live here every day.” Citing high foreclosure rates, high tuition, and the low number of jobs available, she said, “We are not getting our fair share,” and “our youth are suffering.”
Ms. Fleming said it is important to do “everything we can to get people back to work,” and that includes innovative projects. In terms of job training, she pointed to a project of her own, a farmers market in Flanders that is run by teenagers. They are learning valuable skills like how to run a market as well as how to eat good food. She said that Mr. LaValle brought in $7 million in grants to the district, but hundreds of millions of dollars are available. “We must fight for what we deserve” from Albany, she said. “We are not an A.T.M.”
Asked their thoughts on whether the 2-percent tax levy cap should be continued and its effect on schools and municipalities, Ms. Maertz said that if it continues, teachers need more leeway. “We need to control the rise in taxes,” she said, “but need to make sure we get our share of funding.” She said that upstate New York gets more than it gives, and she would like to “bring back our share of tax” and “reduce mandates on the schools.”
Speaking to the tax cap’s effect on municipalities, Ms. Fleming said, “Our budget is bone on bone. I was in there slugging away at staffing issues.” She said that the Southampton youth bureau was written out of the budget, and that she took it on and fought to restore it.
The candidates also touched on the Shinnecock Nation’s desire for a casino. Ms. Maertz said she was thrilled when the Shinnecocks won federal recognition, but if a casino is to be built, “We have to make sure it is in the right place,” she said. She sees its potential to create jobs. “I would work with them in finding a suitable location that works for everyone,” she said.
Ms. Fleming agreed that federal recognition was long overdue for “the ancient and dignified people that deserve” the ability to improve their infrastructure and obtain mortgages, for example. As for a casino, she said, “there are places that welcome that level of economic development. If it brings jobs, that’s great,” she said, “but not in our district.”
In closing statements, Ms. Maertz expressed confidence in her ability to achieve budget and ethics reforms, while Ms. Fleming said she “is in a better position to break into this boys club and beat a 36-year incumbent.”
The primary, traditionally scheduled for a Tuesday, will be held instead next Thursday so it does not coincide with memorials for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Only registered Democrats can cast their ballots in the State Senate primary. Voting is at the regular polling places.