Election season got off to a spirited start Monday night as candidates for the New York State Assembly’s second district took to the podium for a debate sponsored by SoutholdLOCAL and RiverheadLOCAL at the Riverhead Polish Hall.
Incumbent Anthony Palumbo (R,C – New Suffolk) faced off with challenger Thomas Schiliro (D, I – Manorville), a newcomer who took the Independence line earlier this month.
The pair answered questions posed by publisher Denise Civiletti on an array of topics ranging from the controversial Common Core, the Moreland Commission scandal, spurring job creation on the East End and politics in Albany.
Palumbo, an attorney, defeated Democrat John McManmon of Aquebogue last November in a special election to fill the N.Y. State Assembly seat vacated by fellow Republican Dan Losquadro after Losquadro’s election in March to the post of Brookhaven Town highway superintendent.
“It’s about taxes, folks, period,” he said when describing why he’d opted to run, adding that as a father, he’s striving to find ways to keep young people on Long Island.
Schiliro lives on a horse farm in Manorville and works as a Suffolk County Parks police sergeant; he is a former teacher and owner of Saddle Rock Stables in Brookhaven.
The hot-button issue of the night, one that sparked the most heated response, revolved around the Women’s Equality Act. Palumbo, who has said he agreed with nine of the 10 points of the act, with the 10th being abortion rights, was asked to explain his opposition and “no” vote, along with the Assembly minority, to the measure.
Palumbo blasted Schiliro for a series of television advertisements that are currently running, which he said are paid for for Sheldon Silver, speaker for the New York State Assembly.
The incumbent began by saying six Democrats also voted “no” to the “poorly drafted” bill and said he voted against the measure for a “multitude of reasons.” For example, he said, the bill extends abortion rights into the third trimester, and expands upon who can perform the procedure. “Probably the most offensive part,” he said, “was that the criminal aspects to abortion are all repealed.”
Palumbo said the other nine bills he co-sponsored, which supported a woman’s right to equal pay, fought back against human sex trafficking, as well as sexual harassment in the workplace, never came before the Assembly because the “Speaker controls what bills hit the floor. They chose to play politics … and that’s offensive to me,” he said. His opponent, Palumbo said, “is distorting my position with ads.”
Schiliro fired back that Palumbo had voted against the bill. “If you say you’re for it and you vote against it, you can’t be for it. I take issue with that,” Schiliro said. The controversial 10th point, he said, was simply codifying into law the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision making abortion legal in the United States.
“This is an issue that has to be decided between a woman and her a doctor and it’s absolutely disgusting that we’re dealing with this on a political level,” he said. “This is the second decade of the 21st century. The 1970s are calling and saying, ‘Didn’t you do that already?’ We need to pass the entire 10 points of the Women’s Equality Act.”
Schiliro, who said he’d invited students from the Eastport-South Manor School District to the debate, said he felt his background in education would bring experience to the table when addressing issues such as the Common Core.
When asked if he’d support rescinding the New York State Education’s commitment to the Common Core, Schiliro said the Common Core was “probably the most controversial issue in this race.” Having written curriculum and been assigned to committees on academic excellence, Schiliro said he did not support the Common Core curriculum. “Let’s not debate this in the political arena,” he said. “Let’s turn this debate over to educators, parents, the PTA.” Education, he said is the “number one expenditure” in the state budget.
On the issue of whether federal funding should be returned, in the event that support of the Common Core curriculum is withdrawn, Schiliro said the issue of federal funding has been “sort of like holding a gun to your head and saying, ‘This has to be done.’ I don’t believe we should be held hostage.”
Instead, Schiliro suggested $4.2 billion in funding recently won in a lawsuit against the Bank of America should be used to help lower property taxes, widen the tax base, and fund state programs.
Palumbo said he’d fought to change the Common Core. “We raised heck on the floor,” he said, adding that forums were held across the state. “The governor chose not to listen…so we continued to yell and scream.”
Palumbo said he did not support the Common Core. “Implementation was a mess,” he said. “It was Obamacare for schools.”
The Assembly minority’s “Apple Plan” calls for a Blue Ribbon Commission comprised of educators and parents to be included in any decisions moving forward. “We should let the teachers and people in trenches” take the lead, he said.
“This is about our kids not being terrorized by test taking, and hating school. (Common Core) was an absolute disaster.”
Palumbo said since taking office in January, he’s increased state aid to his district by 8 percent. “Not only is educating our children our first priority morally, it’s constitutionally mandated,” he said.
The candidates also answered questions on maintaining the area’s open space and bucolic farmland.
Schiliro said he believes a farmland preservation program need to be an integral part of the second assembly district and suggested land use zones could be used, some for solar and business purposes, but others designated for farmland and wineries. New York State could offer incentives such as the Start-Up NY program to the East End.
He also countered that while Palumbo said the $4.2 billion in funding was a “stopgap” it wouldn’t be, “if used correctly” as a business incentive to expand the tax base and maintain farmland preservation.
“That sounds like another unfunded mandate,” Palumbo said, stating that he was against state land use zones. “Less government is more when it comes to residents using their property.”
Palumbo said farmers are small businessmen and the goal should be to create a “business-friendly environment.” New York, he said, is ranked “number 50, dead last in the country, for a business-friendly environment.”
He added that the MTA tax is a deterrent for business owners looking to start up new ventures.
“It’s a New York City versus Long Island battle because they control the funds and we have to fight for the death against the speaker and his people,” Palumbo said. “We need someone who can understand the dynamics and can jump up and speak when they come up with unfunded mandates.”
Since taking office, Palumbo said he has created a bill to eliminate unfunded mandates and also passed a measure to elimnate first-time Southold Town home buyers from the two percent real estate transfer tax. “We represent property owners, not tenants. That’s the big dynamic that plays between that group and us,” Palumbo said.
Schiliro added that state land-use zones would be created in conjunction with towns. “The state’s not going to send someone down from Albany to tell you what to do with your town,” he said. “If we can make investments in the local economy…and in the local community, everyone will benefit.”
The candidates were asked about what the state’s role would be in developing Enterprise Park at Calverton.
Palumbo said again that “getting rid of the MTA tax is huge” because EPCAL is laying fallow and is a prime spot for business development. “But who in their right mind would come out, who would open a business with 25 or more people on Long Island with the cost of living and taxes so high? It’s tough to transport goods off of Long Island — and you have to pay the MTA tax. I have a small law firm and paying that MTA tax is a profit killer.” He said the tax was “offensive” and the goal is “to get rid of it completely.”
Schiliro said business incentives were critical, and a possible Start-Up Long Island, mirroring the New York program, could help; solar farms were another possibility, he said.
“Less government is more,” Palumbo said again. “The concern I have with Start-Up NY is that it’s a quick fix.”
When discussing the controversial deer cull in Southold Town, Schiliro said he favored a tri-pronged approach including immunization, such as one under consideration in Southampton, while Palumbo pointed to successes during his tenure including a relaxation of the state-imposed setbacks, from 150 to 500 feet, for archers. He’s also co-sponsored a bill with New York State Assemblyman Fred Thiele that would expand the hunting season from December to March and include weekends, Palumbo said.
Palumbo was asked about his campaign platform as a reformer who would clean up Albany, what’s he’s done, and whether he considered the ethics reforms adopted by the legislature adequate.
Palumbo said said only Gov. Cuomo could create a commission to examine public corruption and then “get investigated by the FBI.”
He said he’d co-sponsored a bill to take pensions from politicians who’ve been convicted and said recent scandals involving elected officials who’ve been indicted for corruption are “awful. . . When you’re in a position of power you should be held to a higher standard. If you commit a crime in office you should lose your pension.”
The rampant corruption, he said, made him feel “disenfranchised,” and was the reason he ran for office last year, Paulumbo. “I wanted to get involved because we were a laughingstock in this country.”
He added that he took a pay cut to run for office and many in office are “beholden to the machine.” Personally, Palumbo said, he believes in voting from his conscience. “I am not someone who has to have this position or I won’t have a job. I can go back to my job as an attorney. It’s important to have that independence.”
When asked if the adopted reforms had done enough, and whether he supported Cuomo’s disbanding the Moreland Commission, Schiliro agreed “if you commit a crime, you should be punished to the full extent of the law.” The reason voter participation is down is because the public trust has been shattered due to corruption in office, he said; honesty and integrity are key. “Those that want to run for nefarious reasons, those are the ones i want to see punished,” he said.
Palumbo said he hopes the Moreland Commission is investigated by “someone with a real hammer.”
Schiliro said he’d like to see the commission restructured in a more bipartisan fashion.
Discussing the partisan polarization in Albany, Palumbo, reflecting on what he’s accomplished so far, said despite being in the minority, he’s posed the tax relief bill for Southold. “It’s about property ownership and taxes and that’s where we need to be.”
Schiliro said he’d rather be a member of the majority than the minority “any day of the year” and his goal was to focus on the job 365 days a year if elected. He believed in working with a suburban caucus to talk to the majority in New York City and upstate, saying, ‘This is what we need as a bloc’ Whether it be property taxes or education reform, there’s going to be more clout in a suburban caucus. Politics doesn’t have to be dirty work. It can be the art of compromise.”
“We do have a Long Island caucus. it’s called the Republican Party,” Palumbo countered. “My record speaks for itself. I fought like heck for this district.”
He added that’s he’s seen his opponent take Republican positions, and that he has “to answer to the speaker, the man who’s financing his campaign.”
Schiliro said the candidates disagreed on a wide array of issues, and voters have “a real choice..a clear choice.”
“You don’t need to be beholden to the machine,” Palumbo said. “You need someone to fight back because it’s the right thing to do, not because they need a job or because they want to be part of the beauty contest that is politics and get their face on TV. It’s almost a moral decision at this point. We are public servants. We had a wonderful year, better than the last 15, and it’s only going to get better.”
Schiliro, who won a coin toss, spoke last, and said he has always believed government can be a source of good to those struggling, including seniors, single mothers, and those in uniform. “We need to give them a livable wage… This is our government, this is what we put forth. I believe our hopes and dreams are pitted in what our quality of life is.”
Election Day is November 4.