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Democratic

Rich Shaffer at his office in North Babylon. File Photo by Alex Petroski

In the lexicon of tarot, cards used by soothsayers for divination, there are many cards used to describe a person’s lot in life. 

If Rich Schaffer, the Suffolk County Democratic Committee chairman, could be represented by any card, it would be the chariot. Schaffer is at the head of the race, with the Democrats taking majority positions in the New York State Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, but he’s holding onto the reins of two horses, the moderate and far-left elements of his party, and he said his task is to keep both heading in the same direction.

“My job’s been described as the therapist in chief,” said Schaffer, who is also Town of Babylon supervisor. “I’m always either talking somebody off the ledge or helping them through an issue.”

“My job’s been described as the therapist in chief.”

— Rich Schaffer

In last year’s elections, the Democratic Party won big both in New York state and nationally, securing the state Senate as well as the Assembly, and gaining a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was a change of pace for the party, which was beleaguered after its loss during the 2016 elections that saw Donald Trump (R) sent to the White House.

In Suffolk County, many GOP members retained their seats despite hard campaigns from the Dems. Longtime Republican representatives such as state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) kept their seats in Albany, while U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) won out at 51.5 percent against his Democratic challenger Perry Gershon. Still, Schaffer said they have made strides in the county, pointing to the election of state Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood) who won out over her GOP rival Dean Murray by 2,996 votes.

Schaffer added that he thinks the next time District 1 is up for grabs, it could swing blue.

Suffolk County “has been blue in the past,” the Democratic committee chairman said. 

Specifically, he points to the 35-day government shutdown that was put on hold for three weeks Jan. 25. Schaffer laid the blame for the shutdown at the president’s feet and said his Republican supporters in Congress would take the brunt of the blame.

“What they are doing to people’s livelihoods and their survival is unconscionable,” he said. “A political debate has now turned into almost scorched earth, where people’s lives are at stake.”

On the state level Schaffer said there are, all in all, six Democratic members elected to the state Senate who will represent Long Island, including new members Martinez and James Gaughran (D-Northport). 

This is important to the party commissioner, as in other years when the Democrats had majorities in both state houses, his experience was many of those focused on New York City rather than Long Island’s more suburban elements.

The differences between those two subsets of Democrats is something Schaffer said he’s particularly aware of. Nationally, much has been said about the rise of much more left-leaning Democrats, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx). She has been open about progressive ideas such as universal health care, establishing tuition-free colleges and trade schools, and creating a marginal tax system as high as 70 percent, which would mostly affect those in the wealthiest tax brackets. A bill for single-payer health care is currently being circulated in the state Assembly.

“You can’t have Cortez running in East Northport.”

— Rich Schaffer

Schaffer said he was not against policies such as universal health care, but he wanted the discussion to be had up in Albany about how the state was planning to pay for that program. 

Schaffer also questioned the viability of a Cortez-like candidate in Suffolk County. 

“I mean it’s easy for [Cortez] to speak like she does with the district she comes from, when your main election battle is the primary,” Schaffer said. “When you’re running Suffolk County North Shore and your district is not as friendly registration wise, this gets to if you elect Democrats who support basic Democratic ideas.”

Overall, Schaffer was adamant the best way to win Democratic seats in Suffolk County was to form coalitions, work off core democratic principles and promise to work toward local issues.

“You can’t have Cortez running in East Northport,” he said. “Some people will argue with me that ‘Yes, you can,’ but it has not been my experience out here. That’s not to say we can’t have things on the progressive agenda, but they have to be spoken about in a way that’s going to get you 50 percent plus one.”

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Kara Hahn photo by Desirée Keegan

By Elana Glowatz

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn said she wants a third term in office to continue working on protecting public health, while Republican challenger Donna Cumella said she wants to focus on Suffolk County’s finances.

Donna Cumella photo by Desirée Keegan
Donna Cumella photo by Desirée Keegan

Hahn (D-Setauket) has spent much of her two terms in the 5th Legislative District on environmental and public safety issues, crafting a bill that put Narcan, an antidote for opioid overdoses, into the hands of first responders and another that set the gears into motion to ban tiny plastic pellets called microbeads that pollute our water supply, among others. But in a recent debate at the Times Beacon Record Newspapers office, Cumella said while that work is important, the county’s fiscal state is a more pressing issue.

The challenger, a Port Jefferson Station resident, said county officials, in crafting budgets, habitually overstate county revenues and understate expenses, creating a serious deficit.

“Projections far exceeded what the reality was,” she said, referring specifically to county estimates on sales tax revenue.

She said borrowing is “out of control” and called for a smaller government.

But Hahn fought the idea that the county is spiraling.

“Our debt burden is manageable,” she said, adding that Suffolk tends to pay off its debt quickly and legislators always look for ways to decrease borrowing. About the size of government, she noted that the county has been reduced by about 1,200 positions in the last few years.

Kara Hahn photo by Desirée Keegan
Kara Hahn photo by Desirée Keegan

The incumbent also said that a certain amount of debt is unavoidable, because “you can’t pay cash for everything.”

Cumella and Hahn agreed that neighborhood revitalization is important. The Republican emphasized that the county could get help from state and federal grants to push along the projects. The Democrat stressed that the county needs to grow its number of high-paying jobs and said she has an idea to boost the economy by training workers for technology-based positions at Suffolk County Community College.

There were not many other similarities between the two women. One of the ways the candidates stood apart was on their methods for improving the county’s cash flow. Cumella said the county should be sharing more services with other municipalities, specifically local towns, and Hahn said she has been holding meetings on finding new revenue streams, such as penalizing polluters like those who use certain fertilizers on their lawns.

The legislator is looking for another term because she is “deeply committed to making a difference” and there is still work to be done. She has been working on initiatives to raise awareness of chemicals used in dry cleaning, affecting water quality and public health; to make it easier for people to safely get rid of leftover prescription medication; and to change the way the county addresses domestic violence and its victims.

Cumella, on the other hand, spoke against partisanship in the Legislature and said getting the county’s finances in order will help keep young people on Long Island.

“We need to keep our families together,” she said.