Four years ago, 11 undecided voters from Long Island were thrust into the national spotlight, after they were called upon to pose questions to President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at a town-hall style presidential debate at Hofstra University.
They were parodied in a Saturday Night Live skit poking fun at the Long Island-centric debate, bombarded with cable news interview requests, and recognized by strangers.
As Hofstra University prepares to host its third consecutive presidential debate on Sept. 26, many of the last debate’s participants say they’re again torn about their choices: Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
Nina Gonzalez, Albertson — Democrat
“I’m just so disgusted by both of them,” said Gonzalez. “I just don’t like Hillary Clinton, and what can I say about Trump that hasn’t already been said? I’m just very concerned about what’s going to happen to our country.”
At the 2012 debate, Gonzalez, 61, a clinical social worker, asked Obama what his administration had done or planned to do “to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.”
The mother of two college students was concerned about the availability of assault weapons after 12 people were shot to death and 70 others injured in a shooting rampage at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in July 2012.
Obama told Gonzalez he shared her “belief that weapons that were designed for soldiers in war theaters don’t belong in our streets,” and would continue pressing for an assault weapons ban.
As a registered Democrat, Gonzalez had voted for Obama in 2008, but was undecided about his re-election bid, intrigued by Romney’s pledges to generate higher-paying jobs.
Gonzalez said she wound up voting for Obama again, but remains frustrated by the partisan gridlock in Congress and failed efforts to pass gun-control reforms proposed by the Obama administration in the wake of other mass shootings, including the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, a month after the 2012 election.
“Obama really tried to do something,” Gonzalez said. “It upsets me each mass shooting that there is no movement on this issue.”
After the debate she met former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and worked with his “Every Town for Gun Safety” initiative to write op-ed pieces calling for gun-control reform.
Gonzalez said while she is leaning toward Clinton, she finds herself “hoping for a miracle” that will make her feel more comfortable about her major-party choices.
Kerry Ladka, Long Beach — independent
Ladka was one of 80 Long Island registered voters selected by the Gallup polling firm to participate in the debate, and ultimately one of the 11 called upon by debate moderator Candy Crowley the night of the October debate.
Each of the participants was told to prepare three questions, but Ladka, 65, only came ready with one that he wrote with the help of his former co-workers.
Before a national audience of 65 million television viewers, Ladka gave a plug to “a brain trust of my friends at Global Telecom Supply in Mineola,” and asked Obama whether extra security had been denied to the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. The 2012 attacks, which left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, took place two months before the debate.
Obama said he would investigate what occurred “regardless of where the facts lead us” and defended Clinton, his then-secretary of state, saying she “has done an extraordinary job.”
Ladka said Clinton was “asleep at the wheel” when it came to ensuring the safety of the diplomatic envoy in Benghazi, but he’s not entirely sold on Trump’s candidacy, either.
He likes the real estate mogul’s views on trade and the economy, but not “what he says about Muslims or Mexicans.”
Ladka was considering voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson, until the candidate flubbed an interview, responding “what is Aleppo?” when asked about the embattled Syrian city.
“I’m having the same problem everyone else is having,” Ladka said about his indecision. “Can’t we get one person in the country who has an idea of what they’re doing, and is sane?”
Actor Tom Hanks portrayed Ladka in a Saturday Night Live skit following the debate, which the finance salesman calls one of the highlights of his life.
“More people know me from the SNL skit than from the debate,” Ladka said. “Honestly, I think I’m prouder of having Tom Hanks play me for 30 seconds than anything else that has ever happened.”
Jeremy Epstein, Valley Stream — Democrat
Epstein, of Valley Stream, was a 20-year-old junior at Adelphi University preparing to vote in his first presidential election, when he kicked off the debate with the first question.
Epstein, now 24, was concerned about his job prospects in a post-recession economy, and asked Romney “what can you say to reassure me, but most importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?”
Romney replied: “I’m going to make sure you get a job.”
Epstein, who transferred schools and graduated from Hofstra University with a journalism degree, found work — he juggles multiple communications gigs, including hosting an online sports radio show.
Epstein, who voted for Obama, said he’ll likely vote for Clinton, but he’s not enthusiastic about his choice.
“There are a lot of trust issues with Hillary, but there’s no other legitimate third-party candidate,” Epstein said.
Mary Follano, Oceanside — independent
Follano said she’ll likely vote for Johnson, the Libertarian presidential candidate.
Follano, 58, a respiratory therapist, said as a born-again Christian her faith plays an important role in her decision, and neither Clinton who has come under scrutiny for using a private email server for her job as secretary of state, nor Trump, who “uses foul language” has won her over.
“It’s quite a choice that the American people have,” Follano said. “That’s why I’m leaning more toward Johnson.”
At the 2012 debate, Follano asked Romney about his tax plan, and whether he planned on eliminating certain deductions, such as the child tax credit. Though she tried to memorize her question, she stumbled a bit and reached for her note card to remember the final part of it.
“You’re doing great,” Obama shouted from the stage to put her at ease.
The index card grab was spoofed in the Saturday Night Live skit, as comedian Kate McKinnon fumbled with papers in her hand, including a reminder to buy “pizza bagels” and directions from “Islip Avenue to the Southern State Parkway.”
“They got it wrong,” Follano said. “I smiled after asking my question.”
Phillip Tricola, Valley Stream — Republican
As a small-business owner, Tricola, 56, of Valley Stream said he plans on voting for Trump because the real-estate developer will “make it easier to run a business.”
“We’re being choked, everyone is struggling,” said Tricola, owner of Gentlemen’s Quarters, an adult entertainment club in Baldwin. “I hope he’ll make it a little easier to run a business, because he supports less regulation, less taxes.”
Tricola said while some may say that Trump “is a little rough around the edges . . . I think his ego is going to be his greatest strength. He’s not going to want to lose.”
Tricola said he tries to “keep an open mind” before deciding on a candidate. That’s why he told Gallup pollsters he was undecided in 2012. He voted for Romney, but said it was nice to meet President Obama after the debate.
“I respect the seat,” Tricola said. “If a good Democrat came along, I would vote for them. I would vote for the man, not the party. I take in all the facts, I try to keep my feelings out of it.”
At the debate, he asked Obama about his plans to reduce gas prices. The president said while the country had increased natural gas production, it needed to focus on developing “environmentally sound” and efficient energy sources to reduce future demand for gas.
Tricola said Obama “danced around” the question.
“They’re politicians, they’re smooth,” Tricola said of Obama and Romney.