Maertz, Fleming debate before primary to challenge LaValle

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Jennifer Maertz (left) and Bridget Fleming are squaring off in a Democratic primary for the opportunity to oppose Senator Ken LaValle.

Over the years, the list of Democratic opponents against longtime incumbent state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) reads like a “Who’s Who” of candidates nobody remembers.

Some of them were on the ballot, but went the entire campaign without making much noise on the campaign front.

This year, there’s a Sept. 13 primary between two Democratic candidates who are seeking to take on the 36-year incumbent.

Jennifer Maertz, 36, an attorney from Rocky Point, lost against Mr. LaValle two years ago as a last-minute replacement for Regina Calcaterra, who was knocked off the ballot on a residency issue.

Now Ms. Maertz will square off against Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, 52, of Sag Harbor. Ms. Fleming was elected to fill the remaining year of a vacated council term in 2010 and then was elected to a full four-year term in 2011. Prior to that, she was an assistant district attorney in New York City, where she prosecuted sex crimes and headed a unit that prosecuted fraud in public programs.

The two squared off in a forum sponsored Wednesday night by the Southampton League of Women Voters in the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton.

Both candidates took their shots at the incumbent, who was not present.

“The incumbent senator has been in office for 36 years,” Ms. Fleming said of Mr. LaValle, 73. “He’s become over these many years a part of the culture in Albany, more responsive to special interests than to the immediate needs of the people in the first district. He has overseen steady tuition hikes and failed to protect our economy while moving to raise his own salary.”

“We send more tax dollars upstate than we get in return,” Ms. Maertz said. “And upstate, the opposite is true. And this has been going on a very long time and our state senator has done nothing about it and has not changed this. Do you want to know why? Because the Republican party has its power base in upstate New York and he has to go along with the party.”

The two candidates agreed on a number of the issues raised by audience questions in Wednesday’s forum, such as the need to fully repeal the MTA payroll tax, support for same-sex marriage, and support for a Shinnecock casino, but not on the East End.

One area they differed was on campaign funding. While both supported public financing of campaigns, Ms. Fleming said one of the reasons to vote for her and not Ms. Maertz was that she has raised far more money and would have a better chance in November against Mr. LaValle because of that.

According to the most recent campaign disclosure forms on file, Ms. Fleming’s campaign had raised $44,020 at the end of August and had $56,802 left, while Ms. Maertz hadn’t raised anything in the most recent filing period and had a total of $3,206 remaining.

“It’s one of the reasons I think you should chose me on Sept. 13,” Ms. Fleming said. “In order to be viable, you’ve got to be able to raise money. It’s such a shame, but our opponent, Ken LaValle, has gotten $76,000 from Albany PACs (Political Action Committees). These are the business council for the industry PAC that write checks to (Senate Majority Leader Dean) Skelos, a check to (State Senator John) Flanagan, a check to LaValle. They come out for the incumbents because that’s the way things operate.

“And that’s got to change. We don’t have a level playing field and we turn into to a government where we have incumbents who are in office for decades and who have lost touch with their constituents.”

Mr. LaValle’s latest campaign disclosure forms show he had raised $198,591 in the most recent filing period and had $252,590 remaining in his campaign war chest.

“I agree with you on public financing of campaigns but I disagree that funding should be the number one reason you should be choosing a candidate,” Ms. Maertz responded. “If that were true, then neither one of us should be here because neither one of us is going to outspend Ken LaValle this year. I believe the voters of this district are more sophisticated than that. I believe that with today’s technology you can get the word out about these elections online and by old fashioned door-to-door campaigning and talking to voters. Voters are not going to be looking at how much money you have in the bank, they’re going to be looking at your viewpoints on the issues, your dedication to serving, and your follow through with your commitments, and your interest in serving the people.”

Another slight disagreement came during a discussion on same-sex marriage. Both candidates said they supported same sex marriage, and both were critical of Mr. LaValle’s vote against the issue, in which he said the people of the district were “not ready” for it.

Ms. Maertz said polls showed the people of the district overwhelmingly supported same-sex marriage. But she added, “while legislatures must answer to their constituents, when it comes to civil rights issues, I don’t care what the constituents say. It’s a matter of civil rights. You cannot impose segregation, for instance, because you feel the polls are in favor of it.”

Ms. Fleming responded, “Having served as an elected official now and having been reelected for a second term, I do care what the constituents say. I support marriage equality unquestionably, but I do care what constituents say. Sometimes you have to adjust and be sure that you’re serving the community you’re serving.”

Ms. Maertz said that on civil rights issues, “I don’t care if 70 percent of the people were against it,” she’d still vote in favor.

On the issue of the state’s 2 percent tax cap, both candidates felt changes were needed.

Ms. Maertz feels there should be more exemptions to give schools and governments more leeway, and Ms. Fleming said Southampton Town had to eliminate some needed services to comply with the cap. Both candidates felt there should be more relief from state and federal mandates, if there’s going to be a tax cap.

The date of the primary, Sept. 13, falls on a Thursday.

tgannon@timesreview.com