Heated Debate as Hard-Fought Race Nears End

Zeldin and Gershon face off before packed house
Perry Gershon, left, and Representative Lee Zeldin, right, met at the Hampton Bays High School on Monday for one of their only face-to-face debates of the campaign. Christopher Walsh

Two days removed from the latest mass shooting and with a fresh backdrop of domestic terrorism directed at Democratic leaders who are frequent targets of President Trump’s rhetoric, gun policy and other national issues dominated Monday’s debate between Representative Lee Zeldin and his challenger, Perry Gershon. 

The event, held at Hampton Bays High School and hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, was one of the only public face-to-face debates between the candidates seeking to serve New York’s First Congressional District.

Mr. Gershon, the Democratic candidate who polls suggest is trailing the Republican incumbent, repeatedly accused Mr. Zeldin of “performance art” and distraction, and many in the standing-room audience agreed with him, sometimes erupting in jeers at Mr. Zeldin’s remarks. The tension in the auditorium reflected the national mood: Saturday’s shooting of 18 at a Pittsburgh synagogue, 11 of them fatally; last week’s racially-motivated double homicide in Kentucky, and the dozen-plus bombs mailed by a Republican supporter of President Trump to Democrats, CNN, and Democratic donors cast a pall over a lively and sometimes heated discussion. 

A questioner noted that the mayor of Pittsburgh had responded to the president’s suggestion, in the wake of the slaughter, that armed guards be present at houses of worship by saying that “the approach that we need to be looking at is how we take the guns — which is the common denominator of every mass shooting in America — out of the hands of those that are looking to express hatred through murder.” Mr. Zeldin, a strong supporter of the president, said that he agreed, and that criminals, terrorists, and the mentally ill should not have firearms, but pivoted to “tackling the hate that caused it,” remarks on religious freedom, and the need for unity in the country. 

“The question was on guns specifically,” Mr. Gershon said, adding that he was equally disturbed by both the mass shooting and the bombs sent to “perceived opponents of the President of the United States.” Both acts, he said, were “an out-product of the poisoned rhetoric that’s filling our country,” and called Mr. Trump its “major proponent.” “He wants to blame the press as the enemy of the state, but he doesn’t take responsibility himself for his own words,” he said. 

Mr. Gershon referred to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, criticizing the president’s equating of white supremacists and those demonstrating against the former group’s “ultra-disgusting display of racism and hatred.” The president’s words, he said, “give license to lunatics who may have deep-seated anti-Semitic rage but keep it quiet to come out and show their passion. If we allow people like that, because of the tone in the country, to come out and show their emotions, they’re going to do it.”

The Pittsburgh shooter had posted anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim as well as anti-Semitic invective and conspiracy theories on a social media network. He was also critical of HIAS, which was founded as a Jewish immigrant aid group but now focuses on refugee resettlement for non-Jews. HIAS had recently issued a statement urging the federal government to respect the right to seek asylum by migrants in a caravan walking toward the United States from Central America. Mr. Trump has repeatedly cited the caravan as a threat to the country. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” the shooter wrote on the social media site Gab. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” 

Mr. Zeldin rejected Mr. Gershon’s statement. “For so much of that answer to be focused on putting blame on the president of the United States for what happened in Pittsburgh, I think, is pretty outrageous,” he said, to scattered jeers. In fact, he said, the shooter “carried out the act because he thought the president of the United States was being too friendly toward Jews.” Both Mr. Zeldin and Mr. Gershon are Jewish. 

“What’s outrageous,” Mr. Gershon said, “is the way you love to twist my words.” Mr. Trump was not responsible for the shooter’s anti-Semitism, he said, but “the atmosphere that Donald Trump has created in this country that suggests that certain bad acts can be tolerated, encouraging violence at rallies, creates an atmosphere where the lunatics come out and do their thing.” The president is “enabling anti-Semitism in America by not taking responsibility for his own words, and not condemning hate and violence the way he should be. It’s not the media that’s responsible for what’s happened, it’s the rhetoric in this country, and it’s got to stop.” 

The tension reached a crescendo when state and national gun policies were soon revisited. Mr. Gershon, who said he supports the Second Amendment, also said that the ban on assault weapons should be reinstated, and he criticized the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would require all states to recognize concealed carry permits by other states and allow permit holders to carry a concealed weapon in any state. Mr. Zeldin is a co-sponsor of the legislation, which passed in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate. 

Mr. Zeldin said that he introduced the Protect America Act, which he called “a very clear-cut, common-sense way to ensure that any known or suspected terrorist is not able to purchase a firearm.” But the burden of proof, he said, “should be on the government to show that there is evidence that an individual is a suspected terrorist. I do believe there should be due process for that purchaser to have notice to a hearing, right to counsel at a hearing.” Existing laws should be better enforced, he added, but “as soon as there is a shooting, that you automatically go blame your member of Congress as if they pulled the trigger, it’s not helping.” 

Mr. Gershon blasted congressional inaction in the face of regular mass shootings in schools and other public places. Mr. Zeldin responded by citing a message Mr. Gershon posted on his campaign’s Facebook page on Monday. Referring to the shooting in Pittsburgh, Mr. Gershon wrote, in part, “If you want to say I am politicizing a tragedy, I most certainly am! If one does not speak up for change, it never occurs.” 

“You want to know why nothing happens?” Mr. Zeldin said angrily. “I give you credit for it: You didn’t just politicize it, you actually said, ‘I am politicizing this tragedy.’ You haven’t even buried the people yet in Pittsburgh, and you are. . . .” The rest of his statement was obscured by a loud and sustained chorus of boos, along with scattered applause. 

The candidates also clashed on health care. Mr. Gershon said that the Affordable Care Act, the legislation popularly known as Obamacare and which Republicans have repeatedly sought to repeal, must stand so that people with pre-existing conditions cannot be denied insurance. “The ultimate goal must be universal health care,” he said. “I support a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system,” he said, but added that implementation of such a system is not imminent.

Mr. Zeldin, who voted in favor of the American Health Care Act of 2017, dubbed Trumpcare, said that he is not in favor of Medicare for all. The American Health Care Act “specifically states that an insurer cannot deny coverage for someone with pre-existing conditions, including all sorts of other coverage and protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions,” he said. “We put it right into the text of the bill to make sure that we were covering people with pre-existing conditions.”

While that may be so, Mr. Gershon said, “it didn’t specify cost, which meant an insurer could charge extra for people with pre-existing conditions. . . . It gave states the ability to really let pre-existing condition coverage go away.” 

An amendment to the AHCA legislation would permit insurers to set premiums based on an individual’s current and past health status and make predictions about future medical care. The American Medical Association cited that amendment in an April 2017 letter to House leadership urging Congress to oppose the act, predicting that coverage could be rendered unaffordable for people with pre-existing conditions and that millions of Americans could lose their coverage. 

The candidates also quarreled about Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. While both expressed support for the programs’ long-term existence, Mr. Zeldin seemed to equivocate. “For our seniors [and] those who are close to retirement, we have to 100-percent completely preserve and protect that commitment,” he said, but pointedly added that “at some point . . . our country needs to have a conversation” about how to ensure the programs’ survival for younger generations. “You can’t go out and scare someone who’s a 95-year-old right now,” he said, “making them think that we’re trying to change Social Security or Medicare as we know it and they’re going to lose a benefit that they desperately need.” 

“I wish you’d tell that to Mitch McConnell,” Mr. Gershon replied, referring to the Senate majority leader, who last month said that cutting programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is the only way to lower the nearly $1 trillion federal budget deficit projected for the 2019 fiscal year, a figure that has ballooned in the wake of the Republican-led tax overhaul of 2017. 

Each candidate turned a question about nitrogen overload in the district’s waterways and the proposed installation of a tidal floodgate on Dune Road in Quogue into an attack on his opponent. “Why are you are voting to support coal over renewables?” Mr. Gershon demanded of Mr. Zeldin. “Why are you voting to reduce our air quality standard? Why aren’t you standing up in opposition when the Trump administration wants to relax all of our clean air standards? Our fuel emission standards? Why aren’t you on top of these issues, which really have the long-term impact on us and our environment? And why are you happy when Trump pulled out of the Paris [Climate] Accord and made us a world pariah?”

Mr. Zeldin had a question of his own. “Why is it that your financial disclosure has an investment between $250,000 and $500,000 in offshore oil?” he asked. Mr. Gershon had lied when asked about it, he charged, referring to a Sept. 4 event at which Mr. Gershon was asked if he had investments in offshore drilling. “Why not tell the voter what the truth is?” he demanded. 

The argument continued through a question about whether or not businesses in Montauk’s downtown should retreat from rising sea level, as envisioned in the hamlet study being conducted for the Town of East Hampton (both candidates said businesses should not be required to relocate). Mr. Zeldin said, “The answer isn’t telling everyone who lives in the First Congressional District that they need to move away from the coast. This is our district, this is our home.” The Fire Island to Montauk Point reformulation project will soon be implemented to help protect the coastline, he said. 

Mr. Gershon, anxious to revisit Mr. Zeldin’s accusation, denied that he is invested in offshore oil drilling. “That was what I was asked in Mastic Beach,” he said. “I answered that I don’t, and I don’t.” The investment is in a Louisiana port that transfers oil from offshore tankers to a refinery, he said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with offshore oil drilling, and you know that, but again, you like to deflect.” 

The candidates also discussed, with fewer disagreements, the opioid epidemic, air and drinking water quality, the Trump administration’s plan to narrowly define gender, protection of the nation’s borders, and term limits. 

Election Day is Tuesday. The deadline for absentee ballots to be postmarked is Monday.