Last week’s Suffolk County executive debate at Central Islip High School was billed as historic. And it was.
The debate between Angie Carpenter, the county treasurer, and Steve Bellone, the Babylon town supervisor, was the first in the heart of a mostly minority community between candidates seeking the county’s top elected post.
“It’s hard to believe it’s never happened before,” said Assemb. Philip Ramos (D-Brentwood), Long Island’s sole Latino representative in the State Assembly, as he stood in the lobby with residents who would go on to fill almost two-thirds of the 1,000-seat capacity auditorium.
The debate was longer than the season’s other debates. And it looked different, with Carpenter and Bellone sharing the stage with debate moderators and 13 questioners, most of them local residents.
The debate went well beyond the usual political discussion of Suffolk’s tight budget and high property taxes to issues—including gangs, immigrant farmworker visas and building local businesses—that resonate among many minorities and immigrants, the fastest growing populations on Long Island.
“Some of the issues we talked about have never been talked about publicly before,” Mohammad Irfan, a Pakistani-American, said after the debate.
“As a Muslim, it was important to hear what the candidates had to say about anti-Muslim acts,” Irfan said. “As an American, I want to see how well they pick up so many apples and carry them around in one basket.”
Bellone and Carpenter, in separate interviews, said they jumped at the chance to debate at the high school.
“I was glad to see so many young people out there,” Carpenter said. “That was important to me.”
“It was an amazing turnout,” Bellone said. “I hope we’ve started something here.”
Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said Carpenter and Bellone showed character and foresight by debating in the community.
“Character because they went into a community where issues, like public safety, have piled up,” Levy said. “Foresight because both candidates recognize that the residents they govern increasingly are immigrants and people of color.”
“This is the new reality,” said Michael Dawidziak, a political consultant who handles mostly Republican candidates. “And this debate could become historic with a capital H—if, down the line, the community becomes an essential stop for debates in future campaigns.”
The debate also successfully pulled together a collection of residents and organizations that, separately, have different goals. Among the groups: Service Employees International Union 1199, Haitian Americans United for Change, the Long Island Farm Bureau, Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth, the Long Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, NAACP, the Long Island Immigrant Alliance and the Pakistani American Association.
“Hopefully, the debate signals the beginning of something better for Long Island,” said William Cunningham, who, during a wildly unsuccessful primary run against then-Assemb. Steve Levy in 2003, was jeered and taunted with obscenities when he suggested opening a hiring hall as a way to help ease tensions between residents and Latino day laborers.
“Things are better now than they were then,” Cunningham said, “but with so many different people coming from so many different places, we’ve still got a ways to go.”