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Rep. Lee Zeldin, Perry Gershon spar in contentious News 12 debate

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), right, and Democratic challenger

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), right, and Democratic challenger Perry Gershon debate Wednesday in Woodbury. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Democratic opponent Perry Gershon accused each other of lying about their records in a contentious debate Wednesday, less than two weeks before the Nov. 6 election.

During the News 12 Long Island debate, Zeldin attacked Gershon for registering to vote at his East Hampton home last year, after voting in Manhattan for years.

“My opponent is as much of a Long Islander as Elizabeth Warren is a Cherokee Indian,” Zeldin said, referring to the Massachusetts senator’s contested lineage.

“The truth is I’ve lived on Long Island for 20 years; I’ve been a taxpayer to Long Island for over 20 years now,” Gershon responded.

Gershon said Zeldin has resorted to name-calling and personal attacks to distract from his positions.

"Do you want a person who’s honest with you — who’s focused on issues and not sitting here calling his opponent a liar throughout a 30-minute debate?" Gershon asked. "I’ve tried to talk straight with voters from Day One."

Zeldin said he's delivered on tangible projects issues for the district, such as bridges and highways. "My opponent is asking for your support by lies," Zeldin said.

Wednesday's debate was the first between the two well-funded candidates, although they have been trading volleys through mailers and TV ads for months in the 1st Congressional District race.

The district, which covers eastern Suffolk County and parts of Islip and Smithtown, historically has been a swing district.

Gershon, a businessman, criticized Zeldin for his votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and for failing to stand up to President Donald Trump on environmental issues.

"Lee voted to take away coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. That’s a criticial error and he has not faced the voters since then," Gershon said.

Zeldin said Gershon was using “scare tactics.” The measure to repeal and replace the ACA contained protections for those with pre-existing conditions and seniors, Zeldin said. Also, New York State has had those protections in place since the 1990s, Zeldin said.

Gershon raised a campaign pledge Zeldin made in 2008, in his first unsuccessful run for Congress, in which Zeldin promised to break ground on a Mastic sewer project four years after taking office or he wouldn't seek re-election.

Zeldin, who is seeking a third term, responded that he has helped secure hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for a sewer district in the Mastic and Shirley area and for the Ronkonkoma Hub project.

Zeldin said he worked with Trump to fight the MS-13 gang and on foreign policy issues such as moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, although he opposed Trump's federal tax overhaul.

"It's a way to deliver a voice from the 1st Congressional District to the White House," said Zeldin. "Where I disagree, I have no problem speaking up against him as well."

Gershon said, "I’m not here to run against the president directly. I haven’t been talking [anti-Trump] rhetoric through the campaign."

But Gershon said, "We need a check on the president’s agenda, not a rubber stamp."

He also argued, "We need an immigration policy that is fair and that works. We can’t have open borders. We need borders that are closed, and borders that are enforcable."

Gershon called for a path to citizenship for "Dreamers" who were brought to the United States illegally as children.

Zeldin said he'd "strengthen border security, interior enforcement, and support ICE," and he blamed Democrats for obstructing compromise on the immigration issue.

The News 12 debate is scheduled to air from 8:30 to 9 p.m. on Monday. The debate is available to view in its entirety online at News12.com. It also can be watched on Optimum Channel 612 or the News 12 app on Altice ONE, and on Roku, Apple TV or Fire TV.

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