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Shelter Island Reporter - Congressional Race Focused On Economy

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Shelter Island Reporter - Congressional Race Focused On Economy

Republican Lee Zeldin, a 28-year-old Iraq War veteran from Shirley, is challenging Democrat Tim Bishop, a 57-year-old three-time incumbent from Southampton for Congress.

The two candidates met with editors of the Reporter, the Suffolk Times, the Riverhead News-Review and the North Shore Sun last Friday and answered questions, sometimes engaging each other, on the economic bailout plan and other issues. Excerpts of their comments and answers follow.

Background and motivations

Mr. Zeldin, a former government prosecutor and military magistrate who served in the 82nd Airborne, introduced his military service first. He is currently serving as a captain in the Army Reserves. He returned from a deployment in Iraq in 2007, and worked as counsel for the Port Authority in New York City prior to launching his congressional campaign.

When asked about his political experience, he lightheartedly cited serving on his 5th grade student council as his only elected office and described more serious work as a legislative aide in Senator Ken LaValle's office. Mr. Zeldin said that while at the "bottom of the food chain," he thought "politics are not for me." But after serving in Iraq he determined he could "survive" in politics without compromising his principles.

He decided to run for Congress because there he can address "a lot of the issues I'm most passionate about regarding the economy, supporting our troops, taxes, immigration — these are issues that congressmen have to tackle. I strongly believe we need a fresh start in Congress. I think if we fired all of them we wouldn't be that much worse off."

In 2002, Mr. Bishop left his position as provost of Southampton College, where he worked for 29 years, to win his first term as First District Congressman. "I'm a pretty transparent guy" and a native to the East End, he said, by way of introduction to the editorial board.

"I believe we are at a crucial juncture in the history of our country." After a "destructive eight years," we now have the "opportunity to dig out from this enormous hole. I want to be part of the process." The possibility of Democratic control of the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House "is both a challenge and an opportunity," an opportunity to "begin setting this country back on the right path."

On the economic bailout package

Mr. Zeldin said, "Part of the debate I agreed with. Raising the FDIC limit from $100,000 to $250,00 boosts consumer confidence in the banks, for example. What I support is providing insurance to the rest of the mortgage-backed securities. In return, the banks that enter a federal program to get that insurance should be restructuring mortgages," to more accurately represent actual home values. He also supports "refinancing credit card arrangements to lower interest rates" and "giving people an opportunity to get themselves out of a hole rather than everyone in this room digging out your neighbor," he said. He added that more "mark-to-market reforms" are needed. "Regarding execs and their golden parachutes ... I'm a bigger believer in yellow jumpsuits for them." He described the bailout as "the white collar crime of white collar crime."

"Over the past 40 years, every time the capital gains tax rates have been raised, receipts go down" and fewer people invest in Wall Street. "Every time the capital gains tax is lowered, receipts go up" and there is an infusion of cash into Wall Street, he said.

Mr. Bishop described the economic crisis in terms of "three distinct but inter-related problems." First, "Dramatic turmoil in the financial markets and tightening in the credit markets." Second, "an alarming loss of jobs" since January 1, 2008. And third, "An alarmingly high foreclosure rate."

The bailout attempts to address the markets and the foreclosure crisis, and Democrats in Congress have crafted a plan to address jobs, he said.

"The bailout package is not perfect. No reasonable person would argue that it is ... I voted for it — I was angry about it but I considered it an essential effort on the part of the government to do two things: restore confidence to the financial markets and to provide liquidity ... We are, as of today [Friday, October 24] 15 business days into a massive effort on the part of the federal government to provide those two elements. I understand people's skepticism about why it hasn't started to have an impact but I would suggest it has started to have some impact."

"Secondly we need to keep people in their homes." The bailout package allows the Secretary of the Treasury to restructure mortgages "in any way necessary to see to it that people can make their monthly payment."

"The last piece that we need to address is an economic stimulus package ... We need to put people back to work" by investment in infrastructure projects. Congress passed a $1.1 billion stimulus package but it was blocked by Republicans in the Senate, he said, but now has growing support.

"What I hear Lee espousing basically is a supply-side argument that says ‘cut taxes and get out of the way.' Frankly, I think that's sort of a faith-based economic policy ... What we're doing, a very activist, interventionist strategy on a temporary basis is, frankly, the obligation of government and there is broad agreement on that across the ideological spectrum."

He concluded, "I think we're on the right track. It's going to take a long time to dig out from under it. But I think we would be careening towards catastrophe if we were simply to cut the capital gains tax and then sit back and hope that it works."

Mr. Zeldin rebutted, "I never suggested that Congress should get out of the way. I'm saying that Congress should put away the checkbook. There needs to be more regulation. There should be more accountability [applied] to the executives of these poorly performing companies" not more bounced checks.

"This is the perfect example of everything that's wrong with Congress ... All they're doing is blaming each other but we're not getting anything done except to dig a deeper and deeper hole."

Mr. Zeldin reiterated that banks and markets can be reformed through regulation and that mortgages and credit card debts could be restructured without an infusion of taxpayer capital.

"Hey, I'm running against Bush, McCain, Bishop, Obama, Pelosi, Reed — that's OK with me. I'm not all by myself. The first bill failed and then the second bill barely passed and the only reason why it passed was because they bought votes through earmarks."

On job creation

Mr. Bishop asked Mr. Zeldin if cutting capital gains taxes would put people back to work?

Mr. Zeldin said he'd like to see the East End develop new jobs in alternative energy. "Grumman is never going to be as strong as it once was on the East End of Long Island. ... We have incentives already on the table but if we could create some more federal incentives to help the transition, say to convert to solar heating, which is a large up front cost ... We could be the future of green energy and create a lot of jobs that would be lost."

Mr. Bishop said that more is needed. "We are coming off eight years of atrocious job creation ... We need to create 150,000 jobs a month just to stay even with the growth in the eligible work force. So we have an enormous jobs deficit that has been exacerbated by a downturn in the economy. Two weeks ago we had 465,000 people file unemployment claims for the first time. Do you see a government role in fostering job creation?"

Mr. Zeldin replied that he supports providing federal incentives. "You can't just create more jobs by writing checks that we can't cash."

On Iraq and spending

"What would I do to cut spending quickly?" Mr. Bishop asked. "First thing I'd do is get the hell out of Iraq. We're spending $10 billion per month ... every dime borrowed." He supports "a phased responsible redeployment of troops out of Iraq, that's what the Iraqi government wants us to do."

Mr. Zeldin commented, "I'm all for us getting out of Iraq. Since December of '07, we've been reducing the amount of troops in Iraq" and that should continue. "There's a $79 billion oil surplus. I'd love to hand the [Iraqi] Prime Minister a $79 billion bill."

The candidates challenged each other's positions on congressional earmarks but both agreed that voters are more upset about Iraq than they are about earmarks.

On health care

Mr. Zeldin said that "the idea of affordable health care is righteous." He would target waste and abuse in Medicare, take on pharmaceutical lobbyists to bring down prescription drug costs and push for tort reform to reduce medical malpractice rates. "I don't endorse either of the McCain or Obama plans" but he does support the use of untaxed health savings accounts.

He also said, "There are hundreds of billions of dollars in fraud, waste and abuse in the federal government" including Medicare and Medicaid fraud and improper payments.

According to Mr. Bishop, "There's no question that the key to our financial future is bending the curve that dictates the growth in expenditures for Medicare and Medicaid. ... Any one who's serious about reducing expenditures has to be focused on that piece."

He added, "We spend less of our health care dollar in the actual delivery of patient care than any other industrialized country in the world. We have a system right now that is starving those who deliver the care, that is to say the doctors and the hospitals, and enriching those who ration the care, that is to say the insurance companies."

He wants to pursue the model Mitt Romney put in place in Massachusetts — "an amalgam of employer provided coverage, government provided coverage and privately purchased coverage. I believe that that is the way to go but I believe we should mandate universal coverage."

On immigration

Mr. Zeldin described the current federal immigration policy as "flawed." He is opposed to hiring halls and the McCain-Kennedy bill, which he referred to as an "amnesty plan," and proposes an 18 percent tax on any income wired out of the country by immigrant workers.

Mr. Bishop supports the four-part plan in McCain-Kennedy: "stricter border enforcement, cracking down on employers, a reasonable guest worker program and a path to earn legalization." That path would require a clean criminal record, working on a temporary permit for 10 years or more, paying all back taxes and a fine, and learning English and civics. "I don't see how any reasonable person can call that amnesty, " he said.

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