Suffolk County Executive Candidates Forum: Despite noticeable disagreements, it was a civil debate

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Candidates for Suffolk County Executive, incumbent County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and challenger James O’Connor (R) came face-to-face Tuesday evening at the Brentwood Public Library, during the forum “Growing a Diverse Long Island,” hosted by Long Island Wins, Long Island Civic Engagement Table, and the Spanish language publication, Noticia.

Both candidates had a chance to explain their points of view answering questions to community members on issues like the economy, public safety, social policy and other topics affecting the immigrant community and the diverse population of Suffolk County.

Different from the anti-immigrant and discriminatory rhetoric, seen in the national political sphere during the current campaign season, last night’s debate distinguished itself for the respect and diplomacy both candidates showed between each other and to those asking the questions.

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The candidates answered questions from community members on various topics.

However, the County’s fiscal instability and the immigration issue concerning County-policing policies were the main topics in which the candidates disagreed.

O’Connor said the County Executive is very polished, respectful and “makes a very good appearance” but he never talks about the critical fiscal stress Suffolk County faces.

“I’m focusing on the current mess that the County faces and he is focusing about the future and I don’t think you can’t even get to the future unless you fix the mess that you have,” O’Connor said. “He is ignoring the problems that the County has, there are real problems and he is trying to distract people talking about the future.”

But Bellone said that his administration inherited that crisis, and progress has been made.

“Like many counties across the State and across the country, the County faces financial stresses but when we came to office we inherited the worst fiscal crisis in the County’s history and since that time we have made incredible progress,” Bellone said. “There is more to be done but where we came from and where we are now are two different places.”

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The candidates also differ in reference to the NYS Senate bill S6032, which prohibits local enforcement agencies to limit collaboration with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, ICE, by defunding those jurisdictions that are known for being immigrant friendly.

Read: “Senator Croci’s bill will take resources away from police and from the community.”

Under current PEP (Priority Enforcement Program) policies ICE requests local law enforcement to prioritize the detention of criminals, not all undocumented immigrants. Experts, consulted by Long Island Wins in previous interviews, agree that it is unconstitutional to detain somebody without a warrant for a period longer than the prescribed detention time, regardless of his or her immigration status.

But O’Connor does not seem to understand the difference between an undocumented person who just committed a minor violation and those undocumented people who are real criminals and a threat to our community.

Without clarifying that difference, O’Connor said in an interview to Long Island Wins: “The Bill talks about those people who are being held in Suffolk County jail, they should be held and at the end of their sentences ICE should be notified and those people should be deported.”

Then we asked, “Even if they are not criminals, just for the fact of being undocumented?” and he responded, “No! As I understand the definition of sanctuary cities, are those that do not cooperate with ICE.”

Worse, he related undocumented people with the gang problem.

“I think we have a gang problem . . . and one of the ways we can address the gang problem, I would say, is if all criminals are arrested in Suffolk County and are deported,” O’Connor said.

Read: “Proposed legislation jeopardizes relationship between immigrants and local law enforcement.”

On the other hand, Bellone reminded members of the audience his initial goal four years ago, to change Suffolk’s perception as a place to discriminate and attack immigrants.

“When I came to office Suffolk County had been getting a reputation at a national level of intolerance. That was something I was determined to change, and in four years we completely turned that around,” Bellone said.  “We were working to change that perception of Suffolk County, to make sure that people do understand that Suffolk County is a place with wonderful people of big hearts and it is a place that celebrates is diversity and its strength.”

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The forum was hosted by Long Island Wins, Long Island Civic Engagement Table, the Spanish-publication Noticia, in collaboration with other organizations and community members.

Although the candidates differ in almost every topic in this encounter, they both agreed “it was a great debate.”

O’Connor said: “I thought I had the opportunity to point out the distinctions between myself and the County Executive and then people can do it in a way that is not toxic and I hope that folks in the audience got that. We are not going to always say the same thing . . . I hope people got the distinction.”

County Executive Bellone said that it was a civil discourse, with tremendous questions that were asked and with a good conversation about where they [Suffolk County] need to go in the future to protect all our communities in this County.

“It was a civil debate, it is just something we need more, we don’t need to be yelling at one another, we need to be talking to another and having a discourse that helps us to move forward and solve our problems . . . I think tonight you saw a real discussion . . . I think that says a lot about the organizations that came together to make this event possible,” said Bellone.


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