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Sen. Ken LaValle

From left, Skyler Johnson, Laura Ahearn, Valerie Cartright, Tommy John Schiavoni are running for the Democratic nod for the state Senate District 1 seat. Campaign photos

With a June 23 date for the New York State primary fast approaching, TBR News Media hosted an online debate to hear directly from those Democrats running for the District 1 State Senate seat. 

The position has been held for the past 40 years by Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). At the beginning of the year, LaValle announced this year would be his last in the Senate.

Yet even before the venerable senator made his announcement, Democratic contenders were lining up for the seat. By late January, five Dems were in the race. Meanwhile, the Republicans have already settled on their front-runner, state Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk). 

Candidates 19-year-old activist Skyler Johnson, Southampton Town Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni, founder of Parents for Megan’s Law Laura Ahearn and Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) all responded to TBR’s requests for a debate. Nora Higgins, a Ridge resident and the regional coordinator of the Public Employees Federation, did not respond to multiple requests for her availability in the debate.

With the number of cases of COVID-19 in New York dropping, and with the reopening process happening, how would you like to see Long Island continue to reopen, while still putting in safeguards to prevent a resurgence?

Many candidates called the fact the state allowed big-box stores to stay open was unfair while small businesses were forced to close and lose out on several months of business. 

Cartright said she and her fellow members of the town board have decried the state’s unequal practices of forcing small businesses to remain closed for months while stores like Walmart or Target stayed open. She touted the town’s small business reopening task force made up of local business leaders to look at this issue.

“As we move forward [in reopening], we find gaps, we find things that are not necessarily equitable,” Cartright said. “We have been on calls for the past four months each day talking about how we can best service our constituency — we cannot stop that process now.”

Johnson said the virus spread because of people not being able to call in sick for work or leave their jobs, especially if they might lose health insurance. He called for the passage of the New York Health Act, which would allow universal health coverage for residents.

“We need more places where business owners can reach out to, to keep themselves, their employees and their customers safe,” he said.

Ahearn said the state needs to ensure it’s not limiting small businesses, and called for further tax incentives beyond the federal stimulus money given to small shops to ensure they can continue. 

“Small businesses are really struggling out there,” Ahearn said. “If Walmart is open, and people are buying tchotchke, why couldn’t they go to local stores and buy that tchotchke?”

Schiavoni, a former teacher for almost 30 years, also said New York needs to “unify” the health care systems, including hospitals and walk-in clinics, and said New York State will need to lobby the federal government for additional financial relief for local municipalities. With 34 school districts in Senate District 1, many could very well lose close to 20 percent of state aid, which means cuts that could be “absolutely staggering.”

“Which means we’re cutting jobs when we really shouldn’t,” he said.

With the ongoing protests, and with bills recently passed in the state Legislature with most already signed by the governor, what is your opinion of protester calls for reform, and what more should state and local governments do to bridge the divide of race relations on Long Island?

Johnson said he helped organize two separate protests, one in Port Jefferson Station and another in Stony Brook, which he said he was “very proud of.” 

He called for more police reform than the bills passed in the Legislature. As a proponent of what is called “defunding the police,” he said it is more about taking money given to departments and investing it into communities. He also called for demilitarizing departments, citing Los Angeles police just recently having been forced to get rid of their grenade launchers.

“We need to be passing reforms on every level to reform police departments,” Johnson said. “We need to pass reforms that combat if a black and a white man are arrested, the black man will likely receive a harsher sentence.”

Schiavoni said that Suffolk has “great police officers who need to be lauded,” and those people need to be leaders to get rid of racist elements in the ranks.

“Those officers that shouldn’t be in the ranks, let’s face it, they kill people,” Schiavoni said. 

He said the state needs to alter the way police are trained and led, and also enfranchise the people of the community to help police their own communities. 

Cartright said the killing of George Floyd was just the inciting incident that “helped open the eyes of people to what’s been happening to black and brown people for centuries.”

When looking at the bills that passed the state Legislature, she cited that many of the bills had been on the docket for years “with no traction.” Before she became a councilwoman, she had been working as one of those looking to “push the needle” toward reform.

Cartright added that it’s on the state and people to make sure local governments are not circumventing this newly passed legislation, and that this is “just the beginning.”

Ahearn said as the person who runs Suffolk’s Crime Victims Center, she deals with local police on a day-to-day basis and sees the “overwhelming majority of our law enforcement officers are great cops,” including public safety and police, but the state “needs to weed out the bad ones, because they are literally killing people in our community.” 

She said she supports the ongoing protests that will eventually lead to the end of structural racism not only in police but in health care, housing and much more.

She said the terminology of “defunding” police is wrong, but the state should restructure to allow for de-escalation training and community outreach.

Many young graduates may be looking at a job market similar to those graduating in 2008. What have we learned since then, and how do we make Long Island more affordable to help both young and old consider staying?

Ahearn said she is a strong proponent of transit-based housing, especially citing the county’s work on the Ronkonkoma Hub project, adding that a general need to make investments in infrastructure to help generate funds as both local governments and states have been severely impacted by the pandemic.

“Our young people, our millennials just can’t afford to live here because they don’t have the good, high-paying jobs that are going to give them the income they need,” Ahearn said. 

Cartright said it will take the revitalization of communities to create “additional options for housing.” She said it’s difficult to convince people to step past the initial NIMBYism thought to consider affordable housing options in their communities. She cited her work with the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville hub study for an example of looking at transit-based development, and how it will require sewers before revitalization occurs.

The state, she said, should shift the system that allows young people to buy homes, especially since student loan debt is taken into account when applying for a mortgage, and add more incentives to incorporate affordable components in new developments.

Schiavoni cited his work with Southampton Town creating affordable housing complexes. He said it will require new rezoning laws to allow for mixed-use structures. 

He also mentioned the five East End towns’ Community Preservation Fund, which creates a transfer of some money sales of new homes over $400,000 toward a pool of affordable housing funds.

“These are the kind of innovative ideas we need to employ to keep our people here,” he said. 

Johnson said that, as someone who just recently graduated from Suffolk County Community College, very few young people who when they graduate say they will buy a house and remain on Long Island, but instead say they will leave. 

“I’ve spoken to people in the district who have not only been here for years, but families have been for years, who are saying they need to leave Long Island as soon as possible,” he said.

He said his plan includes taking vacant or derelict homes that go through the demolition process in towns and instead remake and use them to house people. He said he would create a lottery system for these homes, where those would be responsible for certain costs based on their income.

Sen. LaValle has been a proponent of the electrification of the Long Island Rail Road. Where do you stand on electrification and how would you go forward with a plan for a study?

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 Ahearn. 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.”