Spurred by President Donald Trump’s election and a surge in progressive activism, five Democratic candidates are facing off in Tuesday’s party primary in the 1st Congressional District for the right to take on Rep. Lee Zeldin.
The election pits veteran former Suffolk County legislators Kate Browning and Vivian Viloria-Fisher against three newcomers to Suffolk politics: businessman Perry Gershon, former Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist Elaine DiMasi and former New York City Council member David Pechefsky.
The candidates have similar stances on policy issues.
They criticize Zeldin’s support for repealing the Affordable Care Act and oppose the Republican tax law that capped state and local property tax deductions as well as Zeldin’s cosponsorship of a bill to expand the rights of gun owners to carry guns in New York.
But each candidate says he or she represents the party’s best path to victory in November against Zeldin (R-Shirley), who beat Democrat Anna Throne Holst by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent in 2016.
The district, which covers slivers of Smithtown and Islip, all of Brookhaven, Riverhead, Southold, East Hampton and Shelter Island towns, historically has bounced between Democratic and Republican control. The district voted twice for former president Barack Obama and was represented by Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop for 12 years before Zeldin defeated him in 2014. Trump won the district by 12 percentage points in 2016.
Suffolk Democratic Chairman Richard Schaffer, who is neutral in the primary, said he believes Trump remains popular in the district. But, he added, “I don’t think the election against Lee is based on Donald Trump. It’s based on Lee’s extreme right-wing position on issues,” including abortion and gun control.
Zeldin said in a statement: “While those many Democrats try to out-liberal each other to the extreme left, my focus remains on delivering more victories for hardworking Long Islanders by growing our local economy, protecting our security and improving our quality of life.”
Browning, 58, of Shirley, touted her blue-collar background — she recalled she was Zeldin’s bus driver when he was in elementary school — and her 12 years of experience representing a county legislative district that includes Zeldin’s hometown. She won each of her six elections in the district, which has more registered Republicans than Democrats, with at least 57 percent of the vote.
“Voters have to decide on who the best person is to beat Lee Zeldin,” she said. “I have the ability to appeal to blue-collar voters.”
She said she would stand up to Trump on issues such as his administration’s policy of separating children from parents at the southern border, but wouldn’t oppose him on everything.
“I’m not going to run against Donald Trump. I’m going to run against Lee Zeldin,” Browning said.
Gershon has said he could inspire more enthusiasm among Democratic voters because of his willingness to criticize Trump. He also criticized Browning for declining to back a single-payer national health insurance system, such as Medicare for All.
Browning said her position is based on her experience growing up in Northern Ireland, where she said her sister almost died waiting for a medical procedure under the nationalized health care system.
Gershon, 56, an East Hampton businessman, said he can unite the Democratic base after the primary while appealing to moderate Republicans and independents attracted by his private sector experience. “I can energize progressives and drive turnout, and capture crossover voters,” he said.
Gershon said he can raise the money necessary to compete with Zeldin, who has $1.5 million in cash on hand, according to the latest Federal Elections Commission filings.
Gershon has raised $2.1 million this election cycle, including $432,000 he contributed to his campaign and $900,000 he loaned the campaign.
Browning has raised $494,000; Viloria-Fisher has raised $257,000; Pechefsky, $276,000; and DiMasi, $99,000, FEC filings show.
Gershon said he entered the race after switching his voter registration from Manhattan to the family’s second home in East Hampton last year, because of Trump’s election.
“I see Trump as an existential threat to the country. I see a need for good people to step up and run for office,” Gershon said.
Viloria-Fisher, 70, of Setauket, cited her experience as a teacher and her 13-year record as a county legislator in arguing she has the deepest roots in the community. She was term-limited as a legislator at the end of 2011.
She told voters she stood up to former County Executive Steve Levy when he took a hard line on immigrants who are in the country illegally. She said that experience shows she is willing to take on Trump.
Viloria-Fisher also noted that of the five primary candidates, she is the only one who could have voted in the 2016 Democratic primary in the 1st District. Gershon was registered in Manhattan, Pechefsky was living in Brooklyn; Browning was registered with the Working Families Party and DiMasi was not affiliated with any party.
“I’ve been a person who has been a part of the fabric of the area,” Viloria-Fisher said. “I’m seeing a field where I don’t believe people who are running have enough comprehensive knowledge of legislation to make a difference. Some opponents don’t have knowledge of the district to fairly represent us.”
Pechefsky, 50, of Port Jefferson, said the way to beat Zeldin is to run a committed, progressive campaign and attract more young people and minorities to vote in the fall midterm elections.
“We need to reach people who don’t typically come out in the midterm,” Pechefsky said.
Pechefsky, who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, said the Democratic nominee in the 1st District should take bold positions, such as supporting a Medicare for All-style health care plan that would help workers. He also said Democrats shouldn’t support a hawkish military foreign policy.
“Any Democrat that goes along and votes for massive giveouts to Pentagon contractors — which is a big part of the Pentagon budget — they lack legitimacy,” Pechefsky said.
Pechefsky moved to Port Jefferson to run in the district in February.
DiMasi, 49, a former Brookhaven National Laboratory physicist who lives in Ronkonkoma, touted her plan to create clean-energy jobs in the district by expanding vocational schools and tapping into local research institutions.
She said she won’t have to move from the left to the center after the primary in order to compete in the general election.
“I’m the only candidate in the race with a plan for the needs in the district,” DiMasi said. “I’m not talking about who’s the most righteous Democrat.”
Long Island residents have the research and technical abilities to fill high-tech jobs, but area governments don’t properly connect them to small-scale manufacturing and prototyping, she said. The district could become a manufacturing hub for offshore wind turbines if local trade schools were created or expanded.
“We’re qualified for clean energy jobs and we need them to protect the environment,” DiMasi said.
Education/career: Browning, who grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is a former school bus driver and local union leader. She received a bachelor’s degree in labor studies from the former National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., in 2002. Browning served for 12 years as a Suffolk County legislator, where she chaired the public safety committee. She was term-limited last year.
Family: Married with three children
Education/career: DiMasi was born and raised in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pa. She has a bachelor’s degree from Penn State University and a doctorate from the University of Michigan. She worked for 21 years as a physicist and project manager at Brookhaven National Laboratory until she left to campaign for Congress full time nearly a year ago.
Hometown: East Hampton
Education/career: Gershon, who grew up in New York City, was a commercial real estate lender from 1993 to 2017. Most recently he ran his own private equity firm, LoanCore Capital. He graduated from Yale University in 1984 with a degree in molecular biochemistry and biophysics, and earned an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley in 1993.
Family: Married with two sons.
Hometown: Port Jefferson
Education/career: Pechefsky, who grew up in Patchogue, is a graduate of Hunter College, where he majored in political science. He has a master’s degree in international development from American University in Washington, D.C. He was a staff member for a decade for the New York City Council. Pechefsky has worked as a consultant in Liberia helping establish a congressional budget office, and also helped Somalia strengthen its parliament. He is on leave as senior adviser with Generation Citizen, a nonprofit that trains college students to become democracy coaches.
Family: Married with two daughters.
Education/career: Viloria-Fisher, whose family moved from the Dominican Republic to New York when she was 3 months old, taught for 32 years in the Middle Country and Three Village school districts. Viloria-Fisher served 13 years as a Suffolk County legislator until she was term-limited in 2011. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in English from Hunter College, a master’s in liberal studies from Stony Brook University and a professional certificate in educational administration from LIU Post.
Family: Married with five children.