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Sen. Ken LaValle

Ken LaValle officially announced he would not be running for reelection Jan 10. Photo by Kyle Barr

State. Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), 80, has been a fixture in New York’s 1st District for more than four decades. At an event held for him at the Village Center in Port Jefferson Jan. 10, the crowd of gathered officials and friends said goodbye to the elder statesman the only way they knew how — in a standing ovation that lasted well over a minute.

Sen. Ken LaValle joined with his wife and daughter Jan. 10 in announcing he would not be seeking reelection. Photo by Kyle Barr

“The best part of the job is the people, those who come into your office looking for help,” the 44-year statesman said in a speech that saw him choked up at several points. “What a thing — to be able to
help people.”

The news broke Wednesday, Jan. 8, that LaValle would not be seeking reelection.

A common refrain of “1st District first,” was shared continuously throughout the Friday gathering, joined by a real “who’s who” of public officials on the East End, including reps from town, county and state, as well as local community and party leaders.

Jesse Garcia, the Suffolk County Republican chairman, said LaValle represented his district so well he will be a hard man to replace. Garcia knew of the senator from the age of 14, he said, and had knocked on doors for the senator along with his father.

“Nobody can really fill LaValle’s shoes,” he said.

Some begged the senator, half-jokingly, to reconsider.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said the senior senate member had been one of the hardest workers for his district. LaValle was at the forefront of preserving over 100,000 acres of land in the Pine Barrens, and Englebright has worked with the senator on many projects since then. At that time, Democratic Assembly member Tom DiNapoli, who is now state comptroller, worked with LaValle in establishing the Pine Barrens Protection Act back in 1993.

“Most of his work has been achieved,” DiNapoli said. “Your example we will all continue to point to, which was beyond partisanship.”

Englebright stressed his colleague’s term is not yet over, and he hopes he can work with LaValle on preserving several hundred acres of woodland currently surrounding the defunct Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, land, he said, that is so pristine and ancient it “has never been touched by a steel plow.”

For his past and present role in preservation, the senior assemblyman said it went beyond a partnership.

“I would use the word ‘indispensable,’ but it’s not adequate,” Englebright said.

When speaking on his legacy, local officials mainly pointed to two things: His support of the environment and preservation efforts, and his support of schools, including growing the SUNY system and particularly noting Stony Brook University has been built up over the past several decades under his watch and support. His name adorns the sports stadium.

State Sen. John Flanagan and Ken LaValle Jan. 10. Photo by Kyle Barr

Englebright shared the sentiment that LaValle’s support went down to the most unsuspected, including the building of the Suffolk County Volunteer Firefighters Burn Center. Other members of the SBU community said they were both congratulatory and sad that the senior senator was set to retire within a year.

“He has been a tireless champion for Stony Brook University and a staunch advocate for higher education support,” said SBU Interim President Michael Bernstein in a statement. “Stony Brook has advanced significantly thanks to his leadership and deep commitment to our students, our patients and our region.”

Port Jefferson Village mayor, Margot Garant, said LaValle has been in office since she was young, and was a consistent aid to Port Jeff. She added that it was with LaValle’s eventual support that the Village Center, which was built under then-mayor and Garant’s mother, Jeanne Garant. The center was also where the senator hosted his official retirement announcement.

“He listened to everyone,” she said. “He shows that things get accomplished with time.”

Other local legislators knew him for his general support of their districts. Brookhaven Town supervisor, Ed Romaine (R), said the senator had gone out of his way to bridge divides and work for the people of the district. He said he hopes the next person to secure the district will “be one who will advocates for the people of [state Senate District 1].”   

“It’s not the barbs or criticism, it’s not the tweets, it’s reaching out to both parties to get things done,” he said.

Laura Aheran. Photo from campaign

Laura Ahearn, longtime crime victims advocate, is ready to take on a new challenge, running for state senate. For 43 years the state District 1 seat has been held by Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), but she said it’s time for change. 

“Many members of the community are grateful for his [LaValle’s] service as I am, but it is time now for a new voice and an advocate like me to fight furiously for our community,” Ahearn said. 

For 25 years, the attorney said she has worked to keep the community safe from sexual predators. Ahearn also founded the Crime Victims Center “from a room in her home” and over the years established it into a nonprofit organization that has worked with local, state and federal law enforcement. 

“There are some serious flaws in the criminal justice reform that took place Jan. 1 that makes our communities very vulnerable.”

— Laura Ahearn

The center’s educational programs have been shown in numerous school districts, along with local colleges and universities throughout Suffolk County. 

“I want to take my advocacy experiences, my legal skills and use it to help our community, children and families up in Albany,” the executive director said. “I know my experience over the past 20 plus years positions me to take on other issues as well.”

Some issues Ahearn hopes to tackle is the recent bail reform issues and MS-13’s infiltration into Long Island schools. 

“There are some serious flaws in the criminal justice reform that took place Jan. 1 that makes our communities very vulnerable,” she said. “Bail reform was absolutely needed, because people who couldn’t afford cash bail were incarcerated, that’s not fair. But we haven’t looked at what the implications are for the community and for victims.”

Ahearn said the recent reform needs to be amended to add some discretion for judges who may need to hold certain offenders who may be eligible for automatic release. In addition, she said law enforcement and probation officers need to be given more resources to further monitor offenders of violent crimes. 

On the MS-13 front, Ahearn stressed we need to make sure we are giving schools the resources and funding they need to ramp up their security to protect students.  

Cost of living and keeping young professionals in Suffolk County have been vexing issues for elected officials. Ahearn knows this firsthand. 

“I have two grown children and they can’t afford to live on Long Island — high taxes are driving our kids out off the island,” she said. “We have to ensure that they have fair wages, educational opportunities, safe work environments and affordable housing.” 

The Port Jefferson resident said in terms of job opportunities she thought Amazon would’ve been a great opportunity for the county and if elected will strive to continue to bring businesses into the district. 

Other issues on the challenger’s radar are the ongoing opioid epidemic, curbing nitrogen pollution in local waterways, marine/wildlife conservation, phone scams targeting the elderly, tick-borne illness, among others. 

Ahearn, who graduated from Dowling College, Stony Brook University and Touro Law School, recently had a campaign kick-off event Dec. 10 and said she is looking forward to meeting and learning from movers and shakers in the area. The senate district stretches from eastern end of Suffolk County to the eastern end of Town of Brookhaven.  

“As time moves forward, I’m going to learn a lot from the advocates in the community — I’m not an expert on some issues and I want to learn from those advocates who are those experts. They have to educate me, so I can represent them,” she said. 

The attorney said the position requires one to work with everyone, something she has done for two decades, helping develop, implement and manage crime prevention programs and assist in drafting a number of state, local and federal laws. 

“I really love what I’ve been doing,” she said. “Voters have a decision to make and I have a demonstrated history of fighting for our community and if that’s what they want — someone who will fight furiously for them — then they should vote for me.”

Patrick Young advocates for the Green Light NY bill to pass in the state legislature at the June 7 rally in Hauppauge. Photo by David Luces

Immigrant rights groups, religious leaders, labor union groups and residents rallied in Hauppauge June 7 to advocate for a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. 

People at the June 7 rally held signs supporting Green Light NY bill. Photo by David Luces

Proponents of the bill argue that it would improve public safety and the economy. The bill would require undocumented immigrants to take a driver’s license exam and be able to buy car insurance.  

“We are disappointed that the six Democratic senators have not come out in favor of Green Light yet,” said Patrick Young, program director of the Hempstead-based Central American Refugee Center. 

Jay Jacobs, the Nassau County Democratic chairman, recently said he called the six senators who represent Long Island to warn them about the potential political backlash of supporting the bill, according to an article in Gothamist.  

“Jay Jacobs advised them not to support the bill,” Young said. “There may be opposition to the bill, but the people who voted for [the senators] did oppose Green Light.”

According to Young, many of the senators campaigned in support of the bill but now have changed their stance. One of those he said in particular was New York State Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood). 

“She said she would support it, now she’s saying she’s not supporting it,” he said. “We need her to come back on board.” 

After the rally, volunteers began calling the six Long Island state senators in hopes of getting them to reconsider their stance on the bill. 

“We told them if you don’t vote for it for political reasons, we will start this campaign back up again in January,” he said. “This is not going away.”

Republicans in the state legislature have shared opposition to the Green Light NY bill, with many arguing that allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses would leave county clerks and employees at local Departments of Motor Vehicles unable to truly verify authenticity.  

“We must put the brakes on this unfair proposal which ignores the overwhelming opposition of our citizens to grant this privilege to illegal immigrants,” said New York State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) in a release. “We must red light the Green Light bill that simply opens up our system to fraud and places a burden on county clerks and DMV employees to verify the authenticity of foreign documents as proof of identification,” 

New York State Sen. Ken LaValle had similar sentiments. 

Patrick Young advocates for the Green Light NY bill to pass in the state legislature at the June 7 rally in Hauppauge. Photo by David Luces

“I was a member of a New York State Senate Task Force on Immigration and I have studied this issue at great length,” he said in a release. “I remain steadfast in my position that granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants is not good public policy, presents a clear threat to public safety and sends a wrong message to the law-abiding people I represent,”

Ivan Larios, of the New York Immigration Coalition, said there are misconceptions with this bill, one being that it will somehow allow undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship. 

“The bill will allow them to purchase a vehicle and get insurance,” he said. “And do everything by the books.”

Larios said in some cases many individuals decide to drive without a license and take the risk of being pulled over, though if they were to get into an accident it would leave them in a tough situation. 

“This is very important for families because it allows them to take their kids to school, go to work, do everyday stuff, said Larios. “And they would have to go through the same process [of getting a license] just like you and me have to go through.”

The bill has passed through the state assembly but is facing some opposition by Democrats, even in a Democrat-controlled state senate. The measure is expected to be voted on in the upcoming weeks. 

Young said every other Democratic in the state is supporting the bill and they have 25 co-sponsors as well as another six senators that would vote for the bill 

“Though none of them are from Long Island and that is horrific,” he said.

Mount Sinai Harbor. File photo by Desirée Keegan

Councilwoman Jane Bonner is getting by with a little help from a friend.

Bonner (C-Rocky Point) has aided the Town of Brookhaven to begin a long overdue jetty reconstruction project in Mount Sinai Harbor. She, along with Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) and others on the town board, helped secure $5.6 million in town funding to go toward rebuilding the east and west jetties at the mouth of the harbor. The project will increase boater safety making navigation easier and could allow dredging that will bring back the winter shell-fishing season.

The issue has been a top priority for Bonner since 2010, when her office commissioned a study along with the Army Corps of Engineers to assess the need for improvements to the jetties, she said during a press conference Sept. 19 at Mount Sinai Yacht Club.

At the time, rocks had collapsed, submerging the seaward ends of the jetties at high tide, and the elevation of the jetty stones above the water at high tide was less than four feet in some places. Bonner and Romaine saw a more pressing need to address the problem after Hurricane Irene, Superstorm Sandy and other storms caused further damage, though they weren’t able to secure enough funding to complete the project until this year.

Councilwoman Jane Bonner thanks state Sen. Ken LaValle for helping to secure $3 million in funding to rebuild jetties in Mount Sinai Harbor. Photo by Desirée Keegan
Councilwoman Jane Bonner thanks state Sen. Ken LaValle for helping to secure $3 million in funding to rebuild jetties in Mount Sinai Harbor. Photo by Desirée Keegan

Bonner reached out to state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) to see if his department could kick in some additional funds to help the town reach the $10 million budget needed to complete the project.

Initially, LaValle offered Bonner $1 million.

“I was not shy, I was not embarrassed to tell him it wasn’t good enough and that we needed more money,” she said. “He actually called me at home to let me know. His first words were, ‘How’s $3 million, is that enough?’ And I said, ‘It’ll have to do Senator,’ so thank you from the bottom of my heart.’”

LaValle helped secure an extra $2 million with the help of senate majority leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport).

“From day one I’ve always had as my mantra that local control was very, very important,” LaValle said. “It is nothing but a pleasure working with Supervisor Romaine and [Councilwoman Bonner], who is always looking out for her council district, and always says, ‘Senator, I could use your help.’ It’s working with the localities to identify the problems, and make it a priority. That’s how we started with $1 million and ended up with $3 million to get this done.”

Reconstructing the jetties, according to Bonner, is critical for thousands of residents who utilize Mount Sinai Harbor for recreational and commercial reasons.

“This peninsula is not just a yacht club — we have working boatyards, we have recreational fisherman, we have fishermen and women that derive their income from this harbor,” Bonner said standing on the porch of the club. “This is truly a hub — it’s a working harbor and we are very fortunate and very blessed to be surrounded by so many people that will benefit from this project being done.”

John Howell, commodore for the Mount Sinai Yacht Club, said he has witnessed how dangerous the waters have been first hand.

“This is truly a hub — it’s a working harbor and we are very fortunate and very blessed to be surrounded by so many people that will benefit from this project being done.”

—Jane Bonner

He said he’s boated through Hell Gate, a narrow tidal straight in the East River that has the reputation of being unsafe, and said even that doesn’t compare to his harbor.

“I’ve been through Hell Gate many times through many conditions, and I can attest that our little entrance here is worse than Hell Gate,” he said.

The undertaking will help improve boater safety, as there is a large sand bar that extends deep through the middle of the channel that boats get stuck on, but according to Romaine, as part of replacing the jetties, Suffolk County has agreed to also do interface dredging at the mouth of the harbor once the jetty has been rebuilt and stabilized. As a result, winter shell fishing could resume. The harbor was closed for shell fishing for the first time last winter.

The Town of Brookhaven is hoping for added assistance from the neighboring Village of Port Jefferson, which will directly benefit from the project.

According to Romaine, the east jetty is collapsing and creating an erosion problem at Port Jefferson Village Beach. Brookhaven Town is the only municipality in charge of a jetty. The Army Corps of Engineers maintains all other jetties on Long Island but the Mount Sinai Harbor’s. While the town has always budgeted the $5.6 million, it could never get the rest of the funding needed, so now with LaValle’s contribution, Bonner said she hopes Port Jefferson Village will “step up to the plate with the difference” because the area would “benefit greatly from these two jetties.”

Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant did not respond to requests for comment.

Ralph Davenport, from Ralph’s Fishing Station & Marina in Mount Sinai, said he is excited to hear the harbor will be a safer place for recreational and commercial boaters.

“If you were a person who didn’t know this harbor and were looking for a safe place to come in, odds are that you would crash on the way in,” he said. “Big boats used to be able to come in and out of this harbor years ago, with no problem at all, and now it’s a hazard. It used to be the easiest harbor on the North Shore to navigate in, and now it’s one of the worst. So hopefully next year’s time we’ll dig the sandbar out of the way enough where the people can navigate safely again.”