Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin and Democratic challenger Perry Gershon sparred Tuesday night in their final debate, attacking each other heatedly in closing arguments over threats and hate language that surfaced during the campaign.
The two were cordial through most of the debate and said they would be on their best behavior. But by the end of the forum, the tone became testy.
Gershon, a commercial real estate lender from East Hampton, raised the issue of his signs being vandalized with the words “baby killer” spray painted on it. He challenged Zeldin, of Shirley, to condemn it.
Zeldin did, but then said Gershon never condemned an anti-President Donald Trump supporter who was arrested in July after trying to run over a Zeldin supporter in Nesconset. Zeldin then read from social media posts from critics who called him a Nazi sympathizer and said they hoped he "choked" on his dinner.
“Do not remember my opponent condemning,” Zeldin said.
“I do condemn whoever did that,” he said.
Zeldin responded, “It’s good you have to shame someone to do the right thing."
Brookhaven League of Women Voters president Nancy Marr, who moderated the debate, interrupted Zeldin’s closing. “I don’t think that’s an appropriate closing statement,” she said .
Zeldin said, “I call a spade a spade,” he said.
Before the closing, the two differed on policies, but kept temperatures lower than the debate in Hampton Bays on Monday night.
Gershon said the proposed order by President Donald Trump to eliminate birthright citizenship for those born in the United States under the 14th Amendment, was an attempt to “deflect from the tragedy of what’s going on in America.” He pointed to recent suspected pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats and supporters and the killing of 11 Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh on Saturday.
“This election is about two visions of society. Who you want to vote for is up to you,” Gershon said. He said after the debate he supports retaining the 14th Amendment .
Zeldin countered that the alleged synagogue gunman Robert Bowers had anti-Trump views because the president was so close to Israel and daughter Ivanka had converted to Judaism when she married.
Both Gershon and Zeldin are Jewish.
Zeldin said he did not believe Trump's birthright proposal could be done by executive order, but said people “took advantage” of that provision of the U.S. Constitution.
He said he supported the intent of Trump’s order and that a “well-crafted” legislative solution would be supported. “If something is drafted correctly, I could be supportive of it.”
On Social Security and Medicare, Zeldin said changes would be needed to keep the benefits there for future generations.
“We’re going to have to work together on how Social Security and Medicare will be here decades from now,” Zeldin said. He said, though it was important that the changes “would not have any adverse impact on those retired or close to retirement.”
Gershon said, “There is no crisis coming up. That’s a myth.” He said the wealthy need to “pay their fair share to make sure our kids have the same Social Security and Medicare benefits that we do.”
The two started the debate by offering olive branches in their fifth face-to-face meeting.
“I promise to be on my best behavior, my daughter’s in the front row,” Zeldin said. “I thank my opponent for getting in the race.”
Gershon said, “The bottom line, I’ve been talking for 17 months about issues and solutions… I’ve stayed away from attacks or insults.”