Primary Race: Pechefsky Says Dems Need ‘a Unifier’

This is part of a series of profiles of candidates running for the Democratic nomination in the First Congressional District.
David Pechefsky is one of six candidates for the Democratic Party nomination.

“I really have that strong understanding of how federal policy comes down and intersects with local policy — what happens on the ground,” David Pechefsky said of his tenure as the New York City Council’s assistant director for housing and economic development. 

Mr. Pechefsky, who lives in Port Jefferson, is one of six candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination to challenge Representative Lee Zeldin in the Nov. 6 midterm election. He moved to Patchogue from Manhattan at age 4, and was the valedictorian of Patchogue-Medford High School’s class of 1986, later earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Hunter College and a master’s degree in international development at American University in Washington, D.C.

In New York, he also worked for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Mayor’s Office of Appointments, worked to protect children from lead poisoning, promoted sustainable “green” buildings, and in 2009 made a bid for City Council, running on the Green Party ticket. “The system needed to be challenged,” he said of his Green Party affiliation. “I wanted to be free to be critical of the system, to not be worried about endorsements,” he said. “It was very liberating to do that. It was also instructive about how entrenched the system is.” 

Though he has largely focused on housing policy, Mr. Pechefsky also touts his foreign policy credentials, which he says set him apart from his rivals seeking the Democratic nomination. He served as a consultant for the National Democratic Institute from 2010 to 2013, working to build democratic institutions in Liberia, Somalia, Iraq, and Sierra Leone. 

He is on leave at present from his position as senior adviser at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit organization that trains college students to be “democracy coaches,” providing civic education for middle and high school students so they can be informed and active participants in democracy. 

Speaking two days after several March for Our Lives events, in which hundreds of thousands of people demanded legislative action on guns, Mr. Pechefsky pointed to that issue as one that leaves Mr. Zeldin vulnerable. The congressman was a co-sponsor of the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, which would require all states to recognize any other state’s concealed-carry permit, and has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association’s Political Victory Fund. “He’s been wrong on so many issues — the gun issue, clearly,” Mr. Pechefsky said. Whether it is Mr. Zeldin’s statement that Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a senior adviser, could be a great senator, which Mr. Pechefsky called “ludicrous,” or what he called Mr. Zeldin’s grandstanding on anti-gang legislation, which “feeds into the racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric” of President Trump, “it’s hard to say what he’s done right.” 

“We know that youth that are not engaged are susceptible to join these gangs” and participate in other antisocial behavior, he said. “Has there been any effort to get more funding? It seems he’s not doing any of that. . . . As far as I can see, as far as anyone in the district I talk to can see, it doesn’t seem he is active in trying to deliver for the district.” 

“His public persona is a Trump apologist,” Mr. Pechefsky said of Mr. Zeldin. “The fact that he’s chosen to be a mouthpiece for the Trump administration — how is that providing good representation to the district?” he asked, referring also to the congressman’s December 2017 fund-raiser attended by Steve Bannon, a divisive figure who worked for the Trump campaign and administration. “It seems he’s thrown in his hat with the Freedom Caucus,” a group within the House Republican Conference that is considered the most conservative. 

“He’s well out of the mainstream of where the district is,” Mr. Pechefsky said of Mr. Zeldin. “But also, when you look at the needs of the district, where is the leadership? The district is facing a housing crisis. He hasn’t done anything to address that. . . . For working people on the East End, there’s no work-force housing.” 

Though President Trump won the First Congressional District by nine percentage points over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, Mr. Pechefsky said that the more densely populated western portion of the district is not as conservative as residents on the South Fork may perceive it to be. “On the East End,” he said, “there’s a perception that somehow Brookhaven is solid Trump territory. It’s not.” Brookhaven “is much more heterogeneous, there’s a lot more diversity in political views than people might think. Patchogue is very diverse politically, very diverse ethnically, much more than when I was growing up.”

If the Democratic nominee “is a unifier and has a strong message that galvanizes all Democrats and young people that may not identify as strongly as 

Democrats . . . talking about a better future, a vision of government as a force for good, and is honest about the struggle people are facing,” that person will win, he said. “There’s a demand, a cry for honesty, for accountability. If we go that route, we’ll win.” And, he said, “When I’m the nominee, I will beat Lee Zeldin.”

The Democratic nominee, he said, will be “someone who captures the new activism. Someone that people feel is really speaking with conviction about issues that matter to Democratic primary voters.” But Mr. Zeldin’s position on guns, he predicted, “will be what galvanizes people.” 

In Congress, Mr. Pechefsky envisions himself as part of a coalition working on big-picture issues including economic inequality, Medicare for all (“the only solution to having a better, fairer, more cost-effective health care system,” he said at a Jan. 13 forum at Southampton College), redirecting investment toward “human and physical infrastructure,” and addressing climate change. At a March 9 forum for Democratic candidates at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett, Mr. Pechefsky challenged a foreign policy he said is “based on militarism.” This, he said on Monday, is also “fiscally irresponsible because of the vast amounts of money given for defense.” 

With respect to the First District, “I would like to work on affordable housing. We’re not talking low-income housing — that’s a subset of that — we’re talking about middle-income housing that the market is not producing.” Also, “working on the clean-water infrastructure — sewers, septic systems, protecting waterways. I’d be a founding member of a ‘sewer infrastructure caucus.’ ” The district’s public transportation system also needs improvement, he said. 

“This is a moment where we have to be bold,” Mr. Pechefsky said. “Look at all the pressure on people. There’s no relief in sight. Where do you turn for relief from housing costs and medical bills that are too high, wages that are too low? What is [Mr. Zeldin] doing about the housing crisis, to improve health care? He passed an egregious bill that was going to strip people of health care,” he said, referring to Mr. Zeldin’s 2017 vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. 

Mr. Trump, he said, “is conducting himself in such an offensive manner: demeaning political opponents, using racist language. He’s doing real harm.

 . . . In terms of our civic fabric, it’s classic distraction: Exploit divisions — ethnic division, racial tensions — for your own ends. The damage he’s doing to relationships with other countries, as well — his comments about African nations are deeply offensive.” Mr. Pechefsky’s in-laws are immigrants from Uganda. 

Asked if he would support a movement to impeach the president should Democrats win a majority in the House, Mr. Pechefsky was circumspect. “I don’t think it’s on the table quite yet. I’m going to reserve judgment on that. I want to see evidence” from the special counsel overseeing the probe into Russian meddling and possible ties to the Trump campaign. “But there are so many things that look bad.” 

The Democratic Party primary is on June 26. Mr. Pechefsky is one of six candidates seeking the nomination.