Debate season started off with with a full house on Sunday, as hundreds filled the First Baptist Church of Riverhead for the first faceoff this election cycle between incumbent Congressman Tim Bishop and his second-time challenger, Randy Altschuler.
Cynthia Liggon, an assistant pastor of the church, began the debate — hosted by the Long Island Organizing Network, a coalition of faith-based, community and labor organizations — with prayer, asking that words be seasoned "with grace and thoughfulness as we seek a common good for all humanity."
Moderated by journalist Joye Brown, candidates answered questions that had been determined before the event on topics ranging from immigration and health care to the national economy. From the outset, the dialogue was, for the most part, civilized, with no mention of outsourcing or ethics, questions that have sparked heated exchange in political ads placed by the candidates.
The debate began with a question about Suffolk County farmers and fishermen. Since, often, those jobs are held by immigrants, candidates were asked how constituents could expect them to vote on immigration policy, and what impact it would have on small business owners.
Also, both were asked about President Obama's new deferred action program, which grants deportation relief to and enables them to be legally able to work.
"Farmers and fishermen are a key part of the economy on Long Island," Altschuler said, adding that he spoke with both groups while creating his 10-point job plan.
"Immigration is a critical issue," Altschuler said. "We need to fix immigration policy." He said what's needed is a comprehensive policy that defends U.S. borders. He added that while he is compassionate to young people brought to the country as children, he supports a policy that "doesn't reward folks that are here illegally."
"Tim Bishop and I have two different positions," Altschuler said. "He supports blanket amnesty."
Altschuler believes Bishop supports giving benefits and tuition to undocumented workers, something he said he can't support when others "have played by the rules."
Bishop responded to what he said was Altschuler's "misinformation;" he said that he has never supported giving driver's licenses and tuition to undocumented immigants.
"What I do support is comprehensive immigration reform," he said, adding that a path to earned legalization is a stance he's supported for 10 years.
The path to earned legalization, he said, would mean undocumented immigrants would have to pay fines, pay back taxes, learn English and civics and get a green card after 10 to 12 years.
"It's not amnesty," Bishop said. He added that the new deferred action program allow young people to "rise out of the shadows" and not be subject to deportation. "If that was amnesty, you would have to presume they've committed a crime. A 2-year-old is not capable of committing a crime."
But, Bishop added, comprehensive immigration reform is critical: "Over 60 percent of farm workers on Long Island are undocumented. That speaks to a broken system."
"With all due respect, it's been 10 years and we still don't have a comprehensive immigration policy," Altschuler said. "If we elect him, nothing's going to change."
Bishop countered that the "one and only" reason why comprehensive reform has not been passed is the intransigence of the Republican party and the "insistence in calling anything that changes the status quo amnesty." The congressman added he has tried to "work across the aisle" and a bipartisan approach is needed. "We have to find common ground."
Another question centered on health care, and whether or not candidates were in favor of repealing Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and if they supported a privatized voucher system.
Bishop, who voted for the Affordable Care Act, said he believes it to be "a very important step on the path to the kind of reform we need in this country for a system that simply isn't working and isn't affordable. The status quo is unsustainable."
Altschuler's position to repeal the act, Bishop said, will hurt seniors and college-aged kids who are now able to stay on their parents' policies, as well as those with pre-existing conditions who would otherwise be shut out of a health insurance policy. Bishop said. Those who found themselves faced with voucher system, he continued, could only "hope" the plan covered their medication.
Instead, Bishop she he supports a plan that solidified Medicare and keeps the program intact for individuals who have been paying into the system for over 35 years.
The current health care system, said Altschuler, whose wife is a doctor, is broken, with "sky high" premiums and a "bloated program" that does not fix the problems. Physicians who have to pay $175,000 a year in malpractice are leaving Long Island, he said, because they cannot afford to practice. Altschuler blasted Bishop for supporting $700 billion in cuts to Medicare. "The only way we are going to solve the problem is to fix it," Altschuler said.
Bishop said Altschuler's comments were laced with "so many distortions," he wasn't sure where to start. He quoted President Bill Clinton who, discussing Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, said "it takes some brass" to criticize something they, themselves, support. Ryan's proposed budget "goes one step further and increases the $700 billion to $900 billion."
Altschuler said it has been three years since Congress passed a budget. Ryan's plan, he said, "is the only plan. Right now, there are no alternatives." Of the Affordable Care Act, he said, "A 2,000-page bill filled with new taxes isn't going to solve problems."
A plan put forth by the Democrats was voted down, Bishop said; he added that any family earning less than $200,000 — 98 percent of the American public — would not have to bear tax increases by the Affordable Care Act.
Discussing the environment, Altschuler said his electronics recycling company is environmentally conscious. He said waterways are important on the East End and dredging in the Mattituck Inlet a critical issue.
"The environment is the economy is the First Congressional District," Bishop said, pointing out three important pieces of legistation he took the lead on to benefit local estuaries, the Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay and discussing his lead sponsorship on a wastewater infrastructure bill that would bring federal dollars to local communities to deal with runoff and waste. Bishop added all four inlets have been dredged on the East End during his tenure.
Sewers, Altschuler countered, are needed. "Where have they been?" Southold Town, he added, "is on the verge of suing the government" over Mattituck dredging.
Bishop said although his colleagues voted for zero funding for such projects, he voted against them and in support of dredging and other local issues.
When asked what budget both candidates supported moving forward, Bishop said, of Ryan's proposed plan, "If it were ever to take on the force of law it would impose enormous pain."
Ryan's proposed budget, he said, eliminates Medicare in favor of a voucher program, cut food stamps by $8 billion and college Pell grants for students by $105 billion, and could leave many who work in schools and colleges around Long Island jobless, as less students could afford to attend. "Everything we do in this country has to be about jobs," Bishop said.
The congressman said he supported the Democrative alternative, "a balanced approach."
Altschuler, meanwhile, responded: "What kind of budget do I support? I support a budget." He noted that Congress hasn't passed a budget in two years, and homeowners have to pass personal budgets every year. If elected, he said. "The first thing I will do is make sure nobody gets paid in Congress until we get a budget."
A mounting $16 trillion national deficit needs to be tackled, Altschuler added. "This debt is a real problem," he said, pointing out that the second largest country the United States is indebted to is China, a "very dangerous situation." At some point, Altschuler said, the government won't be able to print money to pay debt. "That's the irresponsible legacy we are leaving our children and grandchildren."
Anyone who states that they can reduce the deficit with no new revenue, Bishop said, is "delusional."
Altschuler said he is not delusional and said while the current financial situation is shared by Republicans and Democrats, he has been working in the private sector trying to grow the economy while Bishop has been in office. "We need people to change our course," he said.
Repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which says no state is required to recognize a same-sex marriage from another state, was also discussed: Altschuler said while he supports the concept of marriage meaning a union between one man and one woman, he believes it is a decision that should be made at the state level.
Bishop. in a heartfelt moment, said his daughter is gay. "I couldn't possibly love her more, or want her to have every right and every protection," he said, adding that he co-sponsored the legislation to repeal the act. In the house of God, Bishop said emotionally, "I believe my daughter and her wife are both children of God. They are acting on who God made them to be. We should be a country that is sufficiently loving and tolerant."
Other questions involved voter fraud suppression and making it mandatory to show identification before voting. Altschuler said identification is used everywhere and is not too much to ask. Bishop said voter fraud is a widely held misconception and the requirement of identification would most hurt the poor and elderly, who could not afford to obtain valid ID. Alschuler said the goal would be to offer programs to provide identification.
Bishop, however, thinks the initiative is politically motivated, with most of the poor and seniors who could not afford ID being Democrats, and said voting is an intrinsic right. "This is outrageous," he said. "People died in this country for the right to vote."
Campaign finances were also discussed; Altschuler believes term limits should be imposed. "Congress is like the roach motel," he said." They check in and never check out."
Bishop said the current state of campaign finances "imperils our democracy and makes races up for sale."
Altschuler said Bishop has received donations from political action groups; Bishop countered that those donations are highly regulated, unlike private investors who can write a $30 million check. Bishop supported the Disclose Act, which would have required supporters giving donations more than $10,000 to be disclosed.
During closing statements, Bishop pointed to more than 15,000 personal instances when he has helped constituents in Riverhead and across the East End, such as when he worked to bring the federal government to the table to garner funding for flood-ravaged Horton Avenue residents. Political service, he said, should mean "bringing people to the table as a force for good."
Altschuler pointed to his children and to having grown up with a struggling single mom as motivation for his race. Unemployment and property taxes across the East End are rising, he said, with Social Security and Medicare in "dire straits" and a $16 trillion deficit that means every American owes $50,000.
Altschuler pointed to the Riverhead McDonald's employee working extra shifts to try and save her family home and to small business owners on the North Fork trying to set up show. "The only way we are going to make a change is by changing our congressman," Altschuler said.
Bishop said he has approached his time in office with "honesty, integrity, and seriousness. It's what you deserve. I hope with your good grace I will continue to have that opportunity."