A seven-year Republican incumbent is being challenged for the District 8 Assembly seat by a young Democrat and first-time candidate.
State Assemblyman Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Smithtown), a past financial services representative and Town of Smithtown councilman, is facing off against Democrat Dylan Rice, a recent graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, member of the SUNY Student Assembly and Smithtown Democrats.
Fitzpatrick, who has lived in the district all his life and went through the Hauppauge school district, said as we are living in “unprecedented times” with the pandemic causing a whole range of issues, he is running again to work across the aisle to get the economy up and running again and prepare for the post-COVID era.
“I know what I bring to the table is a number of years of experience, both in Albany and locally,” the assemblyman said. “I understand very, very well, what the pressures are not only on families — my own family, my daughter, my son, their families — but on our town and on our state, and there will be a lot of work to be done.”
Rice, who also went to Hauppauge, said he first got interested in state politics with his work with the SUNY Student Assembly and thought about pursuing a career in public service in the town he’s lived in his entire life.
He announced his campaign just before COVID hit, and said the pandemic has only exacerbated issues with class disparity.
“New York state’s economy is not working for working people in the middle class, the tax system is unjust, unfairly biased to the ultrawealthy in the state,” he said. “I’m willing to fight for these issues in Albany, and to really push New York forward rather than hold us back as to where we are right now.”
Fitzpatrick said he has largely supported the initial response to the pandemic by both the state and federal government.
“It’s very easy to be a Monday morning quarterback,” he said. “Are there things we know today that we didn’t know then? If we knew then, would we do some things differently? Absolutely. But I think the response has been good at the federal and state level.”
He said now the pandemic has died down, the state Legislature should look to take back the emergency powers granted to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and that New York should look to get all businesses back on track and students back in school five days a week.
He said that big box stores like Walmart were allowed to be open, while a jeweler who sells some of the same product was kept closed was unfair.
“The lockdowns are having a devastating effect on families, our seniors, especially nursing home residents, but it is not healthy,” the assemblyman said. “To keep people cooped up, and especially children. They are falling behind academically, especially children and underserved communities.”
Rice agreed with Fitzpatrick that the state’s initial response had been positive, but disagreed with his assessment of the federal response, calling it “laughable, and it led to generally the entire nation being hit to an extent that it didn’t need to be.”
He said there were times when the state was lenient when it needed to be stricter and with recent incidents such as the so-called superspreader event at the Miller Place Inn, there needs to be careful thought put into reopening.
“New York State really has an obligation to both increase its response to it by assisting businesses that were forced to shut down and mandate, and also making sure that PPE and other resources available to New York residents across the board,” he said.
The young Democrat added the state should be taxing the ultrawealthy at a higher rate, such as taxes on secondary luxury homes, in order to facilitate buoying the lagging state economy.
“They’re rushing kids to get back to the school, because our economy is not working for working families,” he said. “There’s no way to really be able to operate unless ‘my kids are at school, and I’m working.’ So it’s really highlighting these issues that exist.”
The Gyrodyne project has become very controversial within the last few months, with people on one side saying it’s going to improve the local infrastructure and revitalize St. James downtown, while the other side worries about the impact on local waterways.
Rice said the state needs to do its due diligence regarding the project, referencing issues like the Grumman plume in Nassau County and the pollution of aquifers under the ground.
He said the state also needs to look at all future infrastructure projects in terms of climate change, saying if they don’t, “it’s going to bankrupt us.”
“Projects like Gyrodyne and sewage treatment are necessary, but we have to make sure we do it in a smart way that’s environmentally conscious, and doesn’t put both the health of citizens at risk,” the young Democrat said. “New York State does have an obligation to take a pretty strong hand in this and go in and say, ‘This is a big project, this is a chance to really impact the environment. What are you doing to make sure this is safe in regards to placement?’”
Fitzpatrick said the fact that there is the ongoing issue of antiquated septic systems leaching nitrogen and other chemicals into the groundwater, the plant has concerned residents of both Smithtown and Brookhaven.
“We all share a concern about keeping [Stony Brook] harbor as clean as possible,” he said.
The property owners are currently proposing they can do ‘as of right’ under the zoning code, the assemblyman said, and it still has to finish the SEQRA process.
Fitzpatrick said there is work already looking at another site in Smithtown south of the Gyrodyne project that would not only handle the Lake Avenue area but downtown Smithtown as well. That potential site depends on proceeds from the Environmental Bond Act which was postponed because of COVID.
“Gyrodyne is private property and they have private property rights,” he said. “If they no longer produce drone helicopters, they are looking to liquidate their entire portfolio, distribute it to the shareholders and go out of business. And what they are proposing is not an overuse of the property. … We remain hopeful that maybe we can find funding to be able to [look into that southern Smithtown parcel].”
Kings Park Renovation Plans
Another project for Smithtown that has long been on the docket is the Nissequogue River State Park, Kings Park, renovation plans, part of which were derailed even before the pandemic.
Fitzpatrick said the main issue was that there are close to 200 properties around New York that the state parks department handles with only a $310 million capital budget, which doesn’t give much room for new upgrades. The state, he said, preserved the northern part of the property as the Nissequogue River State Park, with an additional 3 acres preserved for every acre developed.
Now, he said the main issue remains the old mental hospital buildings that young people are constantly found breaking into. There is some movement on the state Department of Environmental Conservation putting a marine lab in that location, so there is some investment.
“It’s a safety issue,” he said. “The park police and the Suffolk police are putting a lot of time up there to try and keep people out of there. We’ve appropriated money to remove some of the buildings, but obviously more needs to be done. Unfortunately, the money isn’t there. And it’s not high enough on the priority list for the parks department.”
Rice agreed that it’s a shame there has not been much movement on the project and called the situation “a joke” for how long the state and local governments have talked about remediating the property. He said there is a real need to preserve land for recreation and environmental protection, and agreed putting the DEC building there would be a great benefit.
“There’s very useful land here, we shouldn’t just throw it away for no reason,” Rice said. “I think utilizing the space, considering the state owns it, in a way that both doesn’t have a detrimental effect on the community and benefits the state as a whole is the best way to go.”
Rice, who said multiple members of his family have worked law enforcement from NYPD to a Nassau County corrections officer, said it’s a shame the issue of police has become politicized. He argued for common-sense reforms, such as increased training for police officers and a more rigorous implicit bias program.
“It’s extremely important duty, that to take on that type of civil responsibility is huge,” he said. “And to have the lives of people and your community in your hands to an extent needs to be something that is earned, not just kind of taken for granted.”
In terms of recently passed crime bills, Rice said such legislation like the repeal of section 50-a, which allows people to see complaints lodged against police officers and public servants who “are able to be held accountable to make sure that the taxpayers are getting the answers that they need.”
Fitzpatrick said he supported the ban on chokeholds passed in the wake of large-scale protests against police violence. The assemblyman, who said he also comes from a family of police officers and state troopers, said the problem with 50-a is that it allows for unsubstantiated charges to become public.
“And the reality is that it’s not partisan, but there are people in the Legislature who are hostile to the police,” he said. “And that is a fact. And it’s indisputable.”
Speaking of that, he said there is general agreement on the Republican side that there is need for reform of some sort. The problem with getting rid of bad cops is partially due to the “the grip that the unions have on the Legislature, both parties.”
On bail reform, Rice said the idea is sound, in that it makes it so people who cannot afford to pay bail are not locked up in jail even though they have not been convicted of a crime. That said, “we have to make sure that folks that are a risk to their society are not able to be released into their society, we need to be safe with it.” He pointed to New Jersey and how they implemented bail reform, and said New York should base further action off that state.
Fitzpatrick agreed that if New York had taken up New Jersey’s methods of slowly introducing the bill and allowing for more judge discretion, it would have ended out much better.
“New Jersey took their time, they did it over two years, and the judges were part of the process,” the Republican said. “The police and the judiciary were totally excluded from the process in New York.