Editorial

Shelter Island Reporter endorsements for Election 2020

Nancy Goroff for Congress; Joe Biden for president

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our lives since the first confirmed case in Suffolk County was reported in early March. We’ve seen more than 2,000 county residents perish from the virus, dozens of whom lived on the East End. We’ve seen businesses struggle to stay afloat, demand at local food banks skyrocket, schools forced to adapt to remote learning and soaring rates of unemployment.

It’s a national crisis on a scale unmatched by anything our country has faced in decades.

And our federal government has failed in its response at a time when we desperately needed coordinated, smart and sincere leadership. More than eight months since the pandemic first hit the U.S., cases continue to surge at record levels all across the country, hitting its highest number this week.

Change is needed. Editors of The New England Journal of Medicine, in an unprecedented editorial, wrote that our nation’s leaders have “taken a crisis and turned it into a tragedy.”

“When it comes to the response to the largest public health crisis of our time, our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent,” the Oct. 8 editorial said.

The ineffective response to the pandemic is the top reason we’ve tied our federal endorsements together, choosing Democrats Nancy Goroff to represent the 1st Congressional District and Joe Biden for president.

When Ms. Goroff announced her bid for Congress in July 2019 — her first run for political office — she cited her experience as a scientist to help combat climate change and make health care affordable. Little did we know at the time how her expertise would align perfectly to help combat a national crisis. Ms. Goroff, who brings 23 years of experience teaching at Stony Brook University where she had been chair of the chemistry department, rightly said during a recent debate that it’s “infuriating” how the wealthiest country in the world has “suffered the most deaths [and] the most cases.”

She added: “We are further behind every other developed country in the world. And we know that it’s because of an irresponsible president and his reckless and incompetent response to this pandemic.”

That response was to largely punt responsibility to individual states, creating a haphazard set of 50 different plans. In an online debate Monday evening, Ms. Goroff’s opponent, incumbent Lee Zeldin, said he would give the federal response a B grade and pointed to his accomplishments early on such as securing needed personal protective equipment for Suffolk County at a time when supplies were exhausted.

He said he approached the response as “Long Islanders first” and not in a partisan way. To look back now on decisions and statements made at the pandemic’s onset goes both ways, he said. That’s true. But we’re now almost in November and there are still head-scratching decisions and statements being made, starting with those coming from the president.

We know for a fact that the best way to mitigate risk of spreading the virus is to wear face coverings and practice social distancing. Yet the president continues to be dismissive about them, even after the virus spread in the White House.

Given a chance Monday night to specifically address face coverings, Mr. Zeldin still danced around it. It shouldn’t be that hard for the congressman to reiterate a message to his constituents on the importance of wearing face coverings. At the same time, President Trump continues to downplay increases in COVID-19 cases by saying it’s all tied to testing.

Mr. Zeldin frequently pitches himself as a bipartisan lawmaker who’s willing to work across the aisle to get the job done. And he deserves credit for working alongside the Democratic governor and county executive during the pandemic.

But we can’t get past his tribal devotion to the president. The political website FiveThirtyEight calculated a career score of 88.9% for how often Mr. Zeldin votes in line with the president’s position. The congressman’s Twitter feed, which has considerable reach, is a nonstop flood of nonsense. He’s criticized Ms. Goroff during the campaign for misstating facts, yet he never has anything to say about the president’s deluge of lying. At a recent Wisconsin rally, the president made 131 false or inaccurate statements in 90 minutes, the New York Times reported. That’s par for the course.

On Oct. 16, Mr. Zeldin used Twitter to call for the Department of Justice and FBI to open a criminal investigation into “the Biden Family’s global pay to play operation” — a last ditch attempt to stir up a scandal that Trump and Republicans have been trying to manufacture for over a year.

Yet when it came to the president’s impeachment, Mr. Zeldin insisted it was a “sham.”

On health care, Mr. Zeldin said he supports coverage for preexisting conditions, but he’s always backed the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. There’s still no clear Republican health care plan or concept introduced of how preexisting conditions can be covered if the ACA is overturned in the Supreme Court.

It’s unfortunate that Mr. Zeldin has gravitated so far to the right as he represents a largely moderate district with many diverse communities. We made this point in 2018 and it’s only gotten worse. The congressman undoubtedly works hard at his job and he’s not an official who reverts to sending a representative to local events. He shows up, at least when he knows the crowd will suit him.

But the stakes are too high to give him a pass. His campaign has centered largely on pinning his opponent as a radical, mad scientist. But we see Ms. Goroff as thoughtful and intelligent and willing to approach issues with a level-headed viewpoint.

She’s willing to look at criminal justice reform without fear-mongering about looters and rioters taking over the suburbs. She’s willing to address climate change, perhaps our most pressing issue after the pandemic.

We live now in a deeply divided country and need Mr. Biden to restore credibility and unity to confront the many issues ahead.

At a rally in Ronkonkoma this month, Mr. Zeldin told the crowd that he never pictured himself as someone who would say the next election is the most important of our lifetime. “You can’t say that every November,” he told the crowd. “But this November’s election is the most important election of our lifetime.”

That we can agree on. We endorse Ms. Goroff for Congress and Mr. Biden for president.

Laura Ahearn for State Senate

In recent years, the race for the 1st state Senate District was a foregone conclusion. Longtime state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) rarely faced a strong campaign from Democrats and his proven record of fighting for our area on vital issues, such as education and the environment, made him an easy endorsement.

Now, as Mr. LaValle enters retirement from the state Senate after 22 consecutive victories and as its longest-serving member, voters are presented with two strong candidates.

Current Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) has served in the Assembly since 2013. Democrat Laura Ahearn of Port Jefferson, who founded the Crime Victims Center, has the background and expertise worthy of the state Senate position.

The prospect of a state senator with roots on the East End such as Mr. Palumbo is certainly enticing. The 1st Senate District covers a wide area, including both forks and stretching west into Brookhaven Town. To have a senator who understands unique issues facing the East End and Shelter Island representing the district in Albany would be a nice boost.

But that alone wasn’t enough to earn our endorsement.

Ms. Ahearn is an independent fighter who has spent her career working on social justice issues and standing up for the rights of crime victims and the less fortunate. As criminal justice reform took center stage in both national and local elections this year, Ms. Ahearn will bring a voice to Albany that understands how to approach meaningful change in policy.

She’s worked with law enforcement through the Crime Victims Center and has experience on the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. She understands law enforcement; her husband is a retired Suffolk County police officer.

Mr. Palumbo made criminal justice a key part of his campaign, arguing that he would fight to repeal changes to the bail system. But Mr. Palumbo was already in the Assembly when those laws were passed and he provided no clear alternative other than returning to the status quo. Some of the criminal justice changes such as bail reform came before the national uproar sparked by the death of George Floyd. As a nation, people are demanding more reforms, not to revert to the way things used to be. In the minority party, Mr. Palumbo won’t be able to make any effective changes on that issue.

Ms. Ahearn criticized her opponent on environmental issues and voting rights, both of which are valid concerns. She criticized her opponent’s 67% grade in the 2019 State Environmental Scorecard published by the New York League of Conservation Voters.

And Mr. Palumbo voted against the expanded early voting, citing it as an unfunded mandate. As we’ve seen this week with massive lines at polling places all across Suffolk County, voters are eager for the opportunity to vote early. The fact that it took New York this long to implement early voting is an embarrassment. Mr. Palumbo should have found a way to support it sooner.

It’s a concern to see Mr. Palumbo drifting more toward the right and the Trumpism that has smothered the Republican Party. A wacky press conference in April equating the COVID-19 crisis with terrorism made no sense then and even less now.

He pushed last month for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow catering halls to expand to at least 50% capacity, which could potentially allow for gatherings of more than 100 people depending on the size of a venue. It’s a reckless position considering what we’ve learned about superspreader events.

As the landscape shifts on the federal level, particularly with a conservative majority in the Supreme Court, the rights of individual states may become more important than ever in upcoming years. We need elected officials in our state government who will stand up to protect the rights of all, including minorities and women.

We endorse Ms. Ahearn.

Re-elect Fred Thiele

Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) deserves another term to represent Shelter Island in the New York State Assembly.

Challenging Mr. Thiele is Heather Collins, who is a member of the Conservative and Republican parties.

A seasoned legislator with many accomplishments to his credit,  one of Mr. Thiele’s shining achievements is the legislation that brought about the Community Preservation Fund, which has saved thousands of East End acres from development.

Recognizing the clean water crisis in his district, he also legislated that 20% of the preservation funds can go to local clean water initiatives. Mr. Thiele has been a great friend and advocate for Shelter Island and deserves to be re-elected to the Assembly.

Town Justice

The only local race this year is for Town Justice, with incumbent Judge Helen Rosenblum running on the Republican line challenged by attorney Stan Birnbaum, a Democrat.

Both candidates are exceptional people and students of the law; either one will make a fine Town Justice for the next four years.

Propositions

There are two propositions on the ballot for Island voters to consider this year. One would extend the term of office for Suffolk County Legislators from two years to four. The other proposition, if passed by the voters of Suffolk County, would take money from a clean water program, the Sewer Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund (SASRF), and use those funds for whatever the county executive and legislature wants for operating expenses.

We endorse passing the first proposition. It’s true that a county legislator who is corrupt or incompetent can be quickly voted out under the current term of office. But it’s also true that a two-year term is too short for an official to see initiatives written, debated and shepherded though the process of becoming the law. It also means that legislators can often be in constant campaign mode, rather than doing the job they were elected to do.

As for the position on taking money from the SASRF and using it for operating expenses, we say “no.” It’s time to get serious about the most pressing environmental concern Long Island faces, clean drinking water, and not to raid a fund that helps ensure a green future for Long Island.