Belonging to the same party, Democrats Bridget Fleming and found much they could agree on as they debated in Southampton on Wednesday night, but where they disagreed was on who would make a better New York State senator — and who is better suited to challenge longtime incumbent Kenneth P. LaValle, R-Port Jefferson, in the general election.
The debate — hosted by the League of Woman Voters of the Hamptons at — comes in advance of a primary election, in which only registered Democrats may vote, on Sept. 13.
Susan Wilson, of the League, moderated, and Bill Sutton, the managing editor of , and Carol Mellor, a past president of the League, posed questions.
Fleming, of Noyac, is a Southampton Town councilwoman and a matrimonial and family law attorney, who formerly worked as a prosecutor in Manhattan.
Meartz, of Rocky Point, is a litigation attorney who has served on local civic and youth council boards. She ran against LaValle two years ago as well.
Campaign Finance, Electability
The candidates agreed that they favor public financing of elections; however, they disagreed on whether the amount of money a candidate can fundraise is an indicator of who will win.
Fleming said she does not like fundraising, but is better at it than Maertz.
According to Fleming's campaign staff, she has raised $77,000 to Maertz's $6,000.
"In order to be viable, you have to be able to be able to raise money," she said, though she noted that she voted in favor of a Southampton Town Board resolution to urge Congress to pass an amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that allows unlimited spending on elections.
But Maertz rebutted that if fundraising predetermines who will win an election, then they should both give up now. "There is no way either one of us is going to outraise Ken LaValle last year."
"We elect people to office because they're going to be good senators," she said.
Maertz lost to LaValle by a 2-1 ratio in 2010, but she pointed out Wednesday night that she was a late entry into the race — having stepped in to replace now-Deputy County Executive Regina Calcaterra, who was kicked off the ballot due to a challenge over residency issues. She also noted that 2010 was a midterm election, and a difficult year for Democratic candidates.
Maertz said that, despite an uphill battle, of LaValle's 17 races for re-election she was among the top-four challengers. And if she wins the primary, she will also be the first person to challenge LaValle at the polls twice. With more time to campaign, and many more Democrats coming out in 2012 to vote in the presidential election, Maertz predicted that she could be victorious this time.
Same-Sex Marriage; Constituents' Wishes
When the question of whether they would have voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage last year — unlike LaValle, who joined the entire Long Island delegation in voting against it — the candidates once again found common ground.
"The only thing I regret is that I wasn't elected that year to be able to cast the historic vote," Maertz said. She also noted that she is endorsed by the GLBT Democrats of Long Island.
Fleming cited a personal example, of when her sister was in an accident that ultimately turned out to be fatal, and her partner was initially denied the right to visit her in the hospital.
However, the conversation spun into a back-and-forth on when it is appropriate to follow the wishes of the majority of constituents.
"When it comes to civil rights, it doesn't matter what the constituents think," Maertz said. Regardless of what the polls say, she said she would have voted in favor of equal treatment.
Fleming seized on the comment. "I do care what the constituents say," she said. "Sometimes you have to adjust, and make sure you are serving your constituency."
Maertz tossed up a red card, allowing her a rebuttal. "I strongly disagree on that ..." she said. "You vote for what is right. You treat every one of your constituents as equals."
Fleming retorted, "You have to take into account, at some level, what the constituents say. They're the ones that put you in office."
MTA Payroll Tax
Both candidates agreed that they would like to see the state-imposed MTA payroll tax . While the tax was recently by a state judge, that could be reversed on appeal.
An audience member submitted a question asking how the candidates would ensure the East End could recoup the money already paid to the MTA by businesses and municipalities.
Fleming noted that as a Southampton Town councilwoman, she joined in voting to sue the state to block the tax, arguing that it is a specialized local tax that either needs local approval or a two-thirds vote of the state Legislature. She said it is unclear at this point if money paid to the MTA so far will be returned, including half a million dollars that Southampton Town Hall paid out to the MTA.
"They owe us $500,000, as far as I'm concerned," Fleming said.
Maertz and Fleming shared the sentiment that they were thrilled the , which is based in Southampton, as a Native American tribe in 2010.
The new recognition enables the tribe to open a gaming facility, but Maertz and Fleming agreed that they do not want to see a Shinnecock casino open on the East End of Long Island.
"I would certainly work with the Shinnecock Nation to find a suitable location," Maertz said.
Fleming said that the Shinnecocks are focusing their efforts on areas outside of the First Senate District. "It's long deserved, and I would congratulate them on that, but not here," she said.
Making New York Friendly for Business
Fleming said that power costs deter businesses from moving to New York, and said when contracts come up in 2013, the state needs to negotiate to lower costs.
"Our electricity rates on Long Island are astronomically higher than anywhere else in the United States," Fleming said, with the exception of Hawaii.
Maertz agreed that energy costs are too high, and lauded a . "They work the system to ensure a monopoly," she said.
She also pitched tax incentives for companies that create jobs, and urged biotech and manufacturing jobs on Long Island.
Fleming said 5,700 jobs have been lost on Long Island since 2010, when the Republicans took control of the State Senate. She said that as a councilwoman she has done her part to ensure youth are job trained for the future, including a Farmers Market in Flanders operated by teenagers, and sustainability building training through the United Way.
Meartz said she is in favor of performance-based budgeting, but said that teacher evaluations must be a fair reflection of the performance. For instance, she said that a teacher with a class that has many students that are not native speakers of English should not be judged the same as a teacher with a class with full English literacy.
Fleming said the state must fix the school aide formula, to ensure that Long Island is not subsiding Upstate districts.
Wednesday's primary debate was on Fleming's home turf, but on Thursday the candidates will debate at 7:30 p.m. in Maertz's hometown at .