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Tense debate among Democrats vying to face Republican Lee Zeldin

Tensions flared among Democrats vying to take on GOP incumbent Lee Zeldin in the 1st Congressional District during a debate Thursday night in Setauket.

Each of the five candidates in the June 26 Democratic primary made their cases before a packed Three Village Democratic Club.

Candidate Vivian Viloria-Fisher, a former Suffolk legislator, said she would not back fellow candidate Kate Browning, also a former Suffolk legislator, if she wins the primary. Viloria-Fisher cited a mailer containing the Planned Parenthood logo sent by Browning that said she was the only candidate who passed progressive legislation.

“I’m telling you I could support three of the candidates,” Viloria-Fisher said.

As some in the audience hissed and said, “no!” Viloria-Fisher said: “I’m sorry, if you’re willing to accept someone who lies to you about another candidate, that’s your choice. But we have too much fake news and too much lying going on.”

Browning said after the hearing she’s proud of her record in the legislature, and stood by the mailer, which said she funded community health centers “like Planned Parenthood.”

Earlier in the debate, David Pechefsky of Port Jefferson said fellow candidate Perry Gershon of East Hampton would face attacks in the general election. Zeldin, Pechefsky said, would label Gershon as “an out-of-touch rich guy whose career has been in banking.”

Gershon — who wryly said “thank you for the attack” — added that he was proud of his career in commercial real estate.

“I have no regrets. I’m proud of what I’ve done,” Gershon said. “It’s the American way. You go out and you make money. You do it in a good way and you don’t hurt people. . . . I’ve moved the economy. I’ve gotten people working.”

He said his experience in the private sector would help convince moderate Republicans and independent voters to choose him over Zeldin.

Internal polls show that the race is between himself and Browning, Gershon said.

“The rest of the candidates aren’t close,” he said.

Candidate Elaine DiMasi of Islip, a former Brookhaven National Lab physicist, said she would be a problem solver in the House.

“I’m your scientist running for Congress,” she said.

DiMasi said she had the most detailed plan to bring in manufacturing jobs by targeting the renewable energy sector and expanding and strengthening trade and vocational schools.

“My opponent is an unsolved problem,” she said of Zeldin. “With a talented workforce, we can create good jobs here.”

In the race to be most electable, Browning touted her blue collar roots as a former bus driver, plus endorsements from labor and other elected officials. In her former legislative district, which covers Zeldin’s hometown of Shirley, Browning won six terms with “no less than 57 percent,” she said.

Pechefsky said he could bring out young voters who traditionally don’t vote in midterm congressional elections by following the example of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and being an unapologetic progressive.

Viloria-Fisher said she had her own record of progressive legislation, including battles with former County Executive Steve Levy over immigration.

“You beat Lee Zeldin by being a true Democrat, by being a true progressive,” she said.

Gershon said he could unite progressives, attract Democrats and raise the money necessary to win the campaign.

Browning compared the current situation of immigrant children being separated from their parents at the southern United States border to when she was 10 and growing up in Northern Ireland. She said the government came into her home and separated her from her parents. To underscore the direction she said the United States is heading, Browning added that she later visited the Dachau concentration camp.

“Is that what this country’s become?” Browning asked. “It’s an absolute disgrace.”

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