New York State Senator Ken LaValle, the incumbent Republican with 42 years of experience in the statehouse, is being challenged for the second time by Democrat Greg Fischer, a business consultant, in the November 6 election.
The two candidates squared off in a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons in Hampton Bays on October 25, with Fischer issuing a warning of a grim future for the state unless drastic steps are taken to reform government, rein in wasteful spending, and modernize the economy.
“We have to go back to looking at senators and assemblypeople as statewide actors and not just pandering to their local constituencies to get elected,” he said, “but really becoming strategists and planners and showing some skill at developing and being responsible for the entire state.”
LaValle, who will also appear on the Conservative, Independence, and Reform Party lines, cited his efforts to control taxes, protect the environment, and provide assistance for first-time homebuyers.
At times, LaValle expressed frustration with Fischer’s wide-ranging criticism. At one point, the challenger, noting that LaValle is chairman of the senate’s committee on higher education, accused LaValle of not doing enough to control local school taxes.
The senator countered that the committee Fischer was referring to deals with post-secondary education and had nothing to do with local school boards. “My head is spinning,” LaValle said. “You are like a one-man band. I think you need to focus — I don’t want to sound like your parent but you need to focus on one piece and try to effectuate change.”
LaValle cited his effort to help bring about a merger of the Tuckahoe and Southampton school districts, an effort that was ultimately rejected by voters. “We can push districts to consolidate until the cows come home,” he said. “The ultimate choice belongs to the taxpayers of the district.”
Fischer argued that LaValle had not done enough to promote economic growth. “We really need a turnaround,” he said, noting that about one million people had left the state in the past eight years, most from upstate areas, where economic growth is stagnant. That exodus is putting pressure on downstate areas such as Long Island to pick up the slack and subsidize the rest of the state, Fischer said.
Trouble is on the horizon, he added, pointing out that Nassau County is facing a budget crisis and Suffolk County is not far behind. He warned the state would be next and raised the specter of lawmakers raiding employee pensions to make up for shortfalls in revenue.
“Mr. Fischer makes irresponsible statements,” LaValle countered, arguing that Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has done an excellent job managing the state’s pension funds. “People can sleep well, being assured that all proper methodologies are in place,” he said.
“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” Fischer countered.
The candidates were closer on some issues, including Deepwater Wind’s proposed South Fork Wind Farm, which was enthusiastically greeted when initially unveiled but has since attracted a growing legion of critics.
“The longer I look at it, the more I question it,” said LaValle, emphasizing that he was upset that Deepwater was recently sold to Ørsted, a major Danish wind-power company. “Certainly, I’m not thrilled about the discussion about having a foreign entity running that.” The senator added he was concerned about the impacts the proposed wind farm will have on fishermen and migrating birds. “I think they have a ways to go and have to answer a lot of questions,” LaValle concluded. “I support renewable energy, so we have to try to work out some of these issues.”
“The problem with this project is it is a complete nonstarter,” said Fischer, who said he opposed a foreign company controlling American energy reserves. He added that he also opposed the wind farm because it is a “big energy” project that will prevent real progress being made in gaining control of the Long Island Power Authority. Fischer said he preferred a decentralized electric generation system and urged people “to get off the grid as soon as possible.”
LaValle said he did not support expanding the state’s reproductive health laws, while Fischer argued the protections of Roe v. Wade should be codified to protect a woman’s right to have an abortion. LaValle said he opposed a single-payer healthcare system, saying there were better, more localized ways to improve, while Fischer was a strong proponent, saying the United States doesn’t have health care but “sick care.”
While LaValle said he had misgivings about allowing undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses, Fischer said it would be one more way to reduce the reach of the underground economy by requiring people to apply for a license. Plus, he said, the change would promote safety on the roads.
The candidates saw eye to eye on several issues: public officials who are convicted of corruption should not be eligible for pensions; the legalization of marijuana is fine for medicinal purposes, but not for recreational use; and restrictions on absentee ballots should be eased.