Patrick O’Connor, the Republican challenging Independence Party incumbent Fred Thiele for the First District New York State Assembly seat, has an uphill battle against one of the East End’s most popular politicians. That didn’t stop him from staking his challenge at a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters on October 25 in Hampton Bays.
“It is my belief that my opponent has fallen out of touch with the voters,” O’Connor, a software engineer, said. “They feel under-represented, neglected. Some feel they have been thrown under the bus.” In his opening statement, he cited the fishing industry, the high cost of living, and the opioid crisis as some of the areas where Thiele had failed his constituents, although he was short on specifics.
“I don’t go to Albany to win debating points but to get things done,” said Thiele, who is seeking his 13th term. “We’ve gotten results in the First Assembly District.” He cited the creation of the Community Preservation Fund, which has raised more than $1 billion for land preservation, efforts to improve commuter train service on the East End, and his ability to work on both sides of the aisle on many issues.
One of those issues is affordable housing, he said. “We aren’t going to be able to build our way out of the problem,” Thiele said, suggesting instead that the twopercent tax for the CPF be increased to 2.5 percent, with the extra revenue going toward affordable housing.
“We have to reassess the tax structure out here” as the first step before looking at ways to ease financing restrictions, said O’Connor. “I don’t think we want a repeat of the bubble we had a few years ago. We have to be careful.”
Both candidates expressed misgivings about Deepwater Wind’s proposed South Fork Wind Farm. “In the more generic sense, I support the need for alternative energy. I think we should be doing everything we can to promote solar, geothermal, and wind power,” said Thiele. “Climate change is real and we have to deal with it.”
He said he had supported Deepwater’s application when it was first presented to East Hampton Town, but the recent sale of Deepwater to Ørsted, a Danish company, made him less likely to lend his support. “I’d rather have an American company, a local company, rather than having to deal with a company from another country,” he added.
O’Connor said that Thiele’s early support for the wind farm was one of the reasons “a lot of fishermen feel they were thrown under the bus” by the incumbent. He questioned whether the wind farm would be cost-effective or environmentally sound.
“We are asking the fishermen to give up a lot on something that may not work perfectly,” he said. “I’m for smart, clean energy, but this doesn’t seem to be a smart idea. It was supposed to be an American company for American jobs and now that is out of the question too.”
Both candidates criticized the Long Island Power Authority, which is still working off the debt from the Shoreham nuclear plant. Thiele said he opposed a measure to reform LIPA in 2013 because it reduced oversight, with O’Connor saying, “an independent body to oversee that seems to be a prudent choice.”
Both candidates also said they are pro-choice, with Thiele saying he supported the Reproductive Health Act. “Because of the recent appointment to the Supreme Court, I believe Roe v. Wade is in jeopardy,” Thiele said. O’Connor said he was “a pro-choice Republican” and would support the legislation if elected.
Thiele said he would support issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, arguing that it would help make the roads safer if all drivers were required to be licensed. He said his position had evolved with the success of a similar program in Connecticut. O’Connor said he was opposed, tying driving licenses to illegal voting. “The DMV and voter registration are linked together,” he said. “That would be a slippery slope in terms of voter fraud going forward.”
“That’s a red herring. That’s a fear tactic,” responded Thiele. “Nobody said anything about letting immigrants vote. That’s just trying to scare people.”
The candidates said they supported medical marijuana but had concerns about legalizing the drug for recreational use. Both also said public officials convicted of corruption should lose their pensions, and both supported reform of the state’s voting laws to allow early voting and making it easier to cast absentee ballots. Similarly, both said the state needs to beef up its ethics code to create independent ethics commissions for all branches of government. “People have been convicted through the criminal justice system, but that can’t be the first line of defense,” said Thiele.
O’Connor said he believed term limits would help reform Albany. “If I was lucky to enough to get elected and reelected, I’d think eight years for any legislator would be enough,” he said. “If I wasn’t term limited, I would term limit myself to eight years or less. We need new blood in Albany.”
“When it comes to term limits, I trust the voters,” said Thiele.