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Democratic rivals spar over who can beat Rep. Peter King

Democratic congressional candidates DuWayne Gregory and Liuba Grechen

Democratic congressional candidates DuWayne Gregory and Liuba Grechen Shirley, seen here on Thursday, debated Monday night at Levittown Hall in Hicksville. Credit: Composite: James Escher

Democratic congressional hopefuls DuWayne Gregory and Liuba Grechen Shirley sparred Monday night in a debate at Levittown Hall over whose experience would best position them to unseat Republican Rep. Peter King in November.

Grechen Shirley said Gregory’s showing in a 2016 race against King, when Gregory lost by 24 points to the longtime 2nd District incumbent, plus her fundraising ability had put her in position to harness Democrats energized against President Donald Trump and other Republicans.

She called herself the “first serious challenger to Peter King in the last 12 years.”

Gregory, the Suffolk legislature’s presiding officer and a Copiague resident, touted his 10 years on the legislature, including work on bills to ban powdered caffeine, publicly finance county campaigns and initiate a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.

“Some of the things that people talk about doing with progressive legislation I have a record of doing. It’s not theoretical. It’s practical,” said Gregory, a U.S. Army veteran. “Service and commitment to my country is not something new. It’s not some new toy.”

Gregory argued that 2016 was a much different year, when Democrats from Hillary Clinton on down underperformed.

Grechen Shirley, an Amityville consultant who founded a progressive group after Trump’s election, said her experience working with businesses and nonprofits, as well as campaign fundraising that doubled Gregory’s in the latest reporting period, shows she can defeat King.

Grechen Shirley issued her most direct attack on Gregory on Monday night when asked a question about public corruption.

She criticized Gregory for saying last year that former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota did not need to immediately resign after his indictment on federal charges. Spota was indicted in October on federal charges that he was involved in a cover-up of ex-Suffolk Police Chief James Burke’s 2012 assault of a suspect. Spota has pleaded not guilty.

Grechen Shirley also attacked “party leaders in Suffolk County” for making deals that reduce the number of competitive elections.

“It’s not just a Republican problem. We have a Democratic problem as well with corruption,” Grechen Shirley said. “We have party leaders in Suffolk County that are taking away . . . the ability of voters to choose candidates because they’re making certain deals.”

Gregory said some calls for Spota to step down were driven by politics.

“Your indictment does not mean you’re convicted,” he said. “To say a sitting district attorney should step down from office because he was indicted, the individuals that were calling for the indictment have their own personal political reasons . . . and I didn’t want to play into that.”

Earlier in the debate, the candidates struggled to show how their policy platforms differed.

Grechen Shirley said universal health care is her top issue, followed by taxes and the environment.

Gregory said his top issues were education, universal health care and passing “common-sense gun safety.”

Asked to identify where they differed on policy, the candidates acknowledged their platforms were similar.

At one point, Grechen Shirley turned to Gregory and asked, “What do we differ on?” She then turned toward the audience of about 100 people. “We agree on a lot,” she said.

Both candidates promised that whoever loses will help the other against King in the fall.

“I think we all agree,” Gregory said. “Peter King needs to go. Congress is failing us with a lack of leadership.”

Grechen Shirley said despite King’s 25 years in Congress, he had failed to preserve the state and local tax deduction in the federal tax bill passed by Republicans and signed into law.

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